It was a book I had always wanted to read. I just didn’t know that it existed.
A few weeks ago, I happened to be playing violin in a reading of Felix Mendelssohn’s C-minor Piano Trio.
After the playing, a discussion arose about the well-known renunciation of Judiasm, and the adoption of Christianity by Mendelssohn’s family (initiated by Felix’s father Abraham).
I ventured that the Mendelssohn family converted, as simply a means of social advancement. The cellist, knowledgeable on this subject, told us that the situation was really more complicated. For instance, many German Jews came to regard the traditional form of their religion as old-fashioned. The great “takeaway” I got from our discussion, was the cellist’s recommendation of the 2003 book by the Israeli writer Amos Elon: The Pity of It All: A Portrait of Jews in Germany 1743-1933.
Although I had never heard of this book, I have a very personal connection with its subject. My parents, both Jewish, were in Germany during the 1920’s and early 1930’s. They managed to emigrate to Switzerland (and some years later, to New York) to escape the Nazis. My father’s relatives in Poland, however, did not fare as well; many of them were lost in the Holocaust.
The Pity of It All starts arrestingly:
IN the fall of 1743, a fourteen-year-old boy entered Berlin at the Rosenthaler Tor, the only gate in the city wall through which Jews (and cattle) were allowed to pass.
This Jewish boy was Moses Mendelssohn (grandfather of Felix Mendelssohn).
Moses Mendelssohn, a philosopher, became celebrated as the “German Socrates”. Though remaining a Jew, he advocated a form of Judaism which he felt was in harmony with the ideas of the Enlightenment circulating at that time. German should be the secular language of Jews, not Yiddish. “One could be both a practicing Jew and an enlightened German.” Through his good friend Lessing — the famous writer and philosopher — Moses Mendelssohn became known to the public. German Jews took the first steps toward becoming integrated into German society.
From this book of many characters and events, I can only give a few highlights. Let’s now turn to Heinrich Heine (1797-1856).
Heine converted from Judaism to Lutheranism in 1825, characteristically taking “Christian” as his new first name. His radical political views were not appreciated by the German authoritiies, and he spent the last 25 years of his life as an expatriate in Paris. He is today best known for his early lyric poetry, set to music by Schubert and Schumann. From what I saw of his ironic voice in The Pity of It All, I am now curious to read some of his writing.
Along with being one of Germany’s great writers, Heine evidently had the gift of prophesy. Here, from 1834 — long before Germany’s unification — is his eerily accurate prediction about the twentieth century:
A drama will be enacted in Germany compared to which the French Revolution will seem like a harmless idyll. Christianity restrained the martial ardor of the Germans for a time but it did not destroy it; once the restraining talisman is shattered, savagery will rise again,… the mad fury of the berserk, of which Nordic poets sing and speak. … The old stony gods will rise from the rubble and rub the thousand-year-old dust from their eyes. Thor with the giant hammer will come forth and smash the gothic domes.
The German thunder … rolls slowly at first but it will come. And when you hear it roar, as it has never roared before in the history of the world, know that the German thunder has reached its target.
The progress toward Jewish assimilation into German society (with many Jews converting to Christianity) was thrown awry by World War I (1914-18). Even before this war, “real power in Germany was centered not in the Reichstag but in the occult triangle of monarch, army, and bureaucracy”, rendering true democracy impossible. But with Germany’s losing the war, things degenerated. In a terrible irony, Jews — some of whom were the most fervent patriots — became scapegoats for the war loss.
Between the world wars, the sun did come out for a few years with the Weimar Republic (1919-33). My father (Stefan Frenkel) was a violin soloist in Germany during this period. He was friends with Kurt Weill, of Threepenny Opera fame. He played the German premiere of Weill’s Violin Concerto, and performed many other contemporary works as well. Berlin at this time was arguably the cultural capital of the world. Jews seemed to be more a part of German life than ever before. But things were on shaky ground.
[After World War I,] Ludendorff, Hindenburg, and other high-ranking officers wished above all to save the army. At their urging, the republican government accepted the terms of a humiliating armistice. The republicans should have compelled the generals to assume responsibility for this step; instead, they readily took it upon themselves — with disastrous political consequences later on.
There was a fateful loophole in the Weimar constitution, allowing for the possibility of rule by decree. (Hitler was able to take advantage of this when he came to power.)
Other factors contributed to a “perfect storm” in Germany, that led to the Weimar Republic’s collapse. There was hyperinflation.
The worldwide Depression of the 1930’s led to mass unemployment. The harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles called for huge reparation payments. Germany felt totally humiliated by the peace terms.
But. Even though conditions were so dire in the Germany of the early 1930’s, was it historically inevitable that Hitler should gain power? The Pity of It All argues that the Nazi takeover was not a foregone conclusion:
Alongside the Germany of anti-Semitism there was a Germany of enlightened liberalism, humane concern, civilized rule of law, good government, social security, and thriving social democracy. Even Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 was not the result of electoral success (the Nazis’ share of the vote had seriously declined in the fall of 1932). Rather, Hitler’s triumph was the product of backstage machinations by conservative politicians and industrialists who overcame the hesitations of a senile president by convincing him (and themselves) that they were “hiring” Hitler to restore order and curb the trade unions. Installing Hitler as chancellor was not the only alternative at the time.
Instead of Hitler, what else might have happened?
Given the ineptitude and mediocrity of the Social Democratic leaders, the most obvious alternative to Hitler might have been a military regime, such as existed in several other European countries at that time. A military regime would certainly have been dictatorial, and it might have led to a war with Poland, Czechoslovakia, and perhaps France. But, as Henry Ashby Turner suggests, there would have been no Holocaust.
If one takes Elon’s view, one could argue that if there had been one or two strong personalities opposing the naming of Hitler as Chancellor in 1933, the history of Jews in Germany — and elsewhere in Europe — might have turned out completely differently. Perhaps the millions who were murdered in the Holocaust would have remained alive.