Robert Mueller-Stahl: Writing on Ruptures – Mosse’s German Jews Beyond Judaism

Reading Mosse’s German Jews beyond Judaism as an Introduction to German Jewish Intellectuals of the Weimar Republic – and beyond

German Jews beyond JudaismLeaving a small, overflowing exhibition on the past and present of film and photography in Berlin-Wilmersdorf, in July 1932, Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) was enthralled. The curators of the permanente Film- und Photo-Schau, he noted, had managed to present the historical and contemporary visual culture in both surprising and sensible ways. While the oldest exhibits had been organized in a clear, unmistakable scheme to reflect technological advancements and aesthetic developments of the preceding decades, the exhibition shifted into mere chaos in its depiction of contemporary materials. Photographs, pamphlets, and posters were overlapping and interwoven, with no recognizable pattern or message. It was precisely the confusion of the present-day arrangements that Kracauer found to be both fascinating and fitting. “These pictures,” he wrote in a review that was published in the Frankfurter Zeitung, on July 12, 1932,

“would suffocate in the bright, grand rooms of a museum not only because of their origin and their meaning but they would also be out of place in such surroundings because they have not yet become fully historical. Their place is on yesterday’s border where things can only be improvised.”[1]

“Diese Bilder müßten nicht allein ihrer Herkunft wegen in hellen, vornehmen Museumssälen ersticken, sondern wären auch darum in einer solchen Umgebung schlecht untergebracht, weil sie noch nicht völlig historisch geworden sind. Ihr Ort ist an der Grenze zum Gestern, an der nur improvisiert werden kann.”[2]

In his commentary, Kracauer understood the exhibition’s striking disorder as an accurate reflection of an utterly disruptive, and puzzling, time – marked by the ongoing Great Depression, a steadily rising unemployment rate, Chancellor Heinrich Brüning’s (1885-1970) uncompromising policies of deflation radically eroding social welfare programs, a thriving Nazi movement, and yet, a sense of historical open-endedness that seemed to persist in (if not define) even as critical a time as the late Weimar Republic.

Some sixteen years later, in the aftermath of World War II, Kracauer, to be sure, would reject this notion of Weimar indeterminacy in his famous exile study From Caligari to Hitler. There, he would argue instead that the Republic, as represented in, and shaped by, its cinematographic productions, had been doomed to fall to Nazism from the very start. Still, in 1931, he seemed less certain about Weimar’s fate. Instead, the ever-wandering reporter, sociologist, film critic, and flâneur meticulously portrayed the Weimar Republic through many sites, always eager to capture the significance and uncertainty of an insurgent time, often through its unlikeliest places – its movie theaters, bars, backyards, open streets, homeless shelters, or unemployment offices.

Through his diverse writings, Kracauer emerged as one of the prime commentators of the first German Republic. What’s more, in the post-war period, he became closely associated with what Steven Aschheim called a “remarkable generation of intellectuals,”[3] including Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), Anna Seghers (1900-1983), Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), or Martin Buber (1878-1965). All of them were German-Jewish, and all of them produced some of the most original, reflective, and intriguing writings of the Weimar Republic.

It was George L. Mosse, however, who in his 1985 study German Jews beyond Judaism first attempted to conceptualize the phenomenon of German-Jewish intellectualism in the early 20th century. He traced its origins back to what he called a “cultural emancipation,” that is, the economic and cultural advancement of German Jews in post-Enlightenment Germany. Mosse linked the concept to the emergence of an ideal of Bildung; a term that, while almost impossible to translate, “combines the meaning carried by the English word ‘education’ with notions of character formation and moral education.”[4] Far beyond the basic acquisition of knowledge at school, it implied a sense of self-cultivation, which would lead to the individual’s – and ultimately the nation’s – cultural and moral progress. The promise of Bildung, Mosse argued, proved immensely powerful within the German Bürgertum and especially among the advancing German-Jewish middle classes. Here, it was perceived as a bridge that potentially all (middle-class) people, Jews and gentiles alike, could cross in search of social advancement, integration, and equality.

Mosse, ever the engaged, trenchant scholar, stated that bourgeois German Jews would soon become the main caretakers of German highbrow culture. After all, he noted, they were the primary collectors of the volumes of Goethe, Schiller, or Humboldt, the frequent visitors to the great German orchestras and music festivals, and, most importantly, placed the greatest value on their children’s classical education. Surely, Mosse’s claim today seems somewhat exaggerated. Yet, he was right to conclude that the promise of Bildung in the nineteenth century remained a hollow one, especially for an advancing German-Jewish bourgeoisie that continued to encounter prejudice. For example, the prestigious career of a Staatsdiener (civil servant) remained closed to Jews, regardless of acquired degrees, doctorates, and decorations.

In the Weimar Republic, however, the picture had changed. Despite expanding antisemitic resentments, the young republic opened many doors to a previously excluded German-Jewish elite. Be it in the theater, museums, movie sets, industries, universities, galleries, literary salons and cafés, journals and newspapers, even, albeit to a much lesser extent, in the Reichstag: the “outsider,” as Peter Gay famously argued in his 1968 essay on Weimar culture, had become an “insider.”[5]

But despite the newly acquired access to a vibrant cultural and political scene, many German-Jewish intellectuals were once more confronted with a specific kind of marginality. As Mosse observed, just when the promise of Bildung had been seemingly fulfilled for the German-Jewish bourgeoisie, nationalism severed the German-Jewish symbiosis, leaving them once more on the fringes of society, albeit on a different bank. The German-Jewish intellectuals, he went on to argue, nevertheless clung to the ideals of Bildung, cherishing culture over politics and engaging in a “republic of letters,”[6] a densely connected community of educated, or rather gebildete writers, scholars, artists, philosophers, and journalists. Here, they would develop what Mosse called a fundamental “Left-Wing identity,”[7] carried, once more, by the belief that from the rich cultural heritage of Germany a rational and humane notion of socialism could be distilled.

To be sure, when speaking of German-Jewish intellectuals, Mosse referred to a rather narrow group of skeptical, querying cultural critics – many of whom would later on be associated with Weimar’s astonishing cultural legacy. Thus, he did not discuss the many forms of German-Jewish cultural engagement beyond leftist critical commentary – e.g. as (less marginalized, yet also less remembered) participants in an ever more volatile mass culture.

Hans Sahl (1902-1993) was one of the writers who fits well within Mosse’s framework of tragic Weimar intellectuals. While not mentioned specifically in German Jews beyond Judaism, the German-Jewish theater and film critic was surely part of the leftist cultural avant-garde that intrigued Mosse. In his autobiography, Memoirs of a Moralist (Memoiren eines Moralisten), Sahl, too, noticed a peculiar sense of isolation among his peers. Remembering what he perceived almost as two co-existing, though strictly separated cultural economies – one high-brow, left-leaning, and internationalist, the other low-brow, conservative, and nationalist – he noted that “deep down on the dregs of the republic” (“tief unten auf dem Bodensatz der Republik”), a

“state of mind had emerged, of which we knew nothing, and which we did not want to acknowledge, even though it reached the German people through hundreds of thousands of copies, and was consumed by them.”

“eine Geistes- und Gemütsverfassung angesammelt hatte, von der wir nichts wussten, die wir nicht zur Kenntnis nehmen wollten, obwohl sie in Hunderttausenden von Exemplaren das deutsche Volk erreichte, und von ihm konsumiert wurde.”[8]

Sahl here appears to confirm Mosse’s thesis of a German-Jewish cultural elite that, in the face of growing nationalism, became increasingly marginalized and isolated while desperately holding on to the ideals of liberal and rational Bildung. Even those, Mosse went on, who, like Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) or Emil Ludwig (1881-1948), were eager to perpetuate the German-Jewish dialogue through their writings, eventually failed as the humanistic message underlying their best-selling biographical works were never adopted, if even understood, by their nationalist audience.[9]

Here, however, Mosse’s argument is somewhat misleading. If German-Jewish intellectuals, as he argued, lost touch with late Weimar realities, holding on to the undoubtedly laudable, yet increasingly obsolete promises of Bildung when gentile society jettisoned them in favor of nationalist ideology – how, then, are we to understand the fascination writers like Benjamin, Bloch, or Kracauer have aroused since 1945? Had their stories been tales of tragic non-simultaneity, why would their ideas have been so attractive to students from the 1960s onwards – indeed, as Mosse himself closely observed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “supplying an inspiration their own American tradition somehow failed to provide?”[10]

Again, the case of Hans Sahl is telling. Recognizing the jeopardies of intellectual isolation, Sahl set out to inform his fellow readers about the state of popular literature by reviewing some fifty best-selling nationalist German novels. The articles formed a series called “classics of the lending library” (Klassiker der Leihbibliothek), which was published in the Tage-Buch, a left-wing weekly founded by Stefan Großmann (1875-1935), an Austrian-Jewish intellectual, who lived in Berlin through most of the 1920s. Großmann, a passionate journalist and editor, had encouraged Sahl to follow up on popular literature as he well understood – and in some way also supported – the demands of his time. On the necessities of keeping up with the changing sound and appearance of the era, he commented in his own memoirs, Ich war begeistert (“I was enthralled”):

“A democratic time requires bald letters. Where all is shouting, the light in the streets, the orators in the parliaments, the speaker in the apartments, the newspaper must not remain silent.”

“[E]in demokratisches Zeitalter kommt ohne fette Lettern nicht aus. Wo alles schreit, das Licht auf den Straßen, die Redner in den Parlamenten, der Lautsprecher in den Wohnungen, da kann die Zeitung allein nicht leise bleiben.”[11]

Notwithstanding all efforts to break out of a perceived shell of intellectual uniformity and isolation, Sahl and Großmann, in some way, still remained within the framework of Mosse’s argument on German Jews. The Tage-Buch, after all, was a journalistic outlet for a left-wing educated class, rich in high-cultural references and driven by an unmistakably social democratic agenda.

At the same time, however, they also indicate what Steven Aschheim, in a critical reading of Mosse, called “post-Bildung conceptual frameworks.”[12] Instead of solely clinging to an abandoned heritage of German high culture at the expanse of neglecting the present, German-Jewish intellectuals, Aschheim argued, themselves turned away from an ideal of Bildung that proved sterile in a radically changing world. As such, Sahl – a tireless advocate of the cinema as a new, disruptive, yet irrevocable and promising media – and many of his fellow German-Jewish intellectuals were very much in accordance with their time. They sought “novel – and usually radical – answers to the problems of a fundamentally transformed European civilization,” in short: “the drive to think everything anew.”[13] Thus many German-Jewish intellectuals fundamentally questioned the principles of liberalism and its notion of a slow-paced, yet steady progress towards humanism, rather than pondering utopian alternatives for a truly inclusive, egalitarian society. Some of these intellectuals ended up returning to the refuge of liberalism, but others rejected it, often in favor of Marxism or Zionism.[14]

In 1931, Walter Benjamin used the unsettling and lucid analogy of a castaway to capture the disintegration of formerly prevailing beliefs. Writing to Gerschom Scholem (1897-1982), he reluctantly defended his temporary alignment with Marxism by referring to himself as

“[s]omeone who has been shipwrecked, who carries on while drifting on the wreckage, by climbing to the peak of the mast that is already crumbling. But he has a chance of sending out an SOS from up there.”[15]

“[e]in Schiffbrüchiger, der auf einem Wrack treibt, gefährdet sich noch mehr, indem er auf die Spitze des Mastbaums klettert, der schon zermürbt ist. Aber er hat die Chance, von dort zu seiner Rettung ein Signal zu geben.”[16]

Returning to Kracauer’s opening remarks on the Film- and Photo-Schau, the underlying resemblances are remarkable. To Kracauer, the exhibition’s curators had achieved no less than to spatially represent the discontinuity of history in the current moment. Benjamin likewise portrayed the present as a time of rupture and disjointedness, in which he finds himself lost at sea, devoid of past assurances and, all the while, in a restless search for a new haven. It is the understanding of history as filled with uncertainties and tears in the fabric of time – all of which demanded attentiveness, not avoidance – that is reflected in some of the most intriguing writings of German-Jewish intellectuals of the Weimar Republic. And, one may add, it is precisely this kind of understanding continues to attract scholars to Weimar intellectuals.

In his own memoir, Confronting History, Mosse called German Jews beyond Judaism his “most personal book.” It was, he went on, “almost a confession of faith,”[17] as the unequivocal idealism of, and engagement for, liberalism and Bildung he found in German-Jewish intellectualism was so deeply related to his own commitment to a liberal education. His attempt to connect, and conceptualize, a German-Jewish identity of the Weimar period has itself become a classic. What German Jews beyond Judaism could not explain, however, is why the thought of its protagonists, which Mosse believed to have been muted by 1933, continues to resonate with post-war generations.

[1] Siegfried Kracauer, “On Yesterday’s Border: On the Berlin Film and Photo Exhibition,” in The Past’s Threshold: Essay on Photography, ed. Philippe Despoix and Maria Zinfert, transl. Conor Joyce (Zurich-Berlin: Diaphanes, 2014), 47-54, here 48.

[2] Siegfried Kracauer, Straßen in Berlin und anderswo (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2013), 237. The original review appeared as „An der Grenze des Gestern: Zur Berliner Film- und Photo-Schau, in Frankfurter Zeitung, July 12, 1932.

[3] Steven Aschheim,“German Jews beyond Bildung and Liberalism: The Radical Jewish Revival in the Weimar Republic,” in Aschheim, Culture and Catastrophe: German and Jewish Confrontations with National Socialism and Other Crises (Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996), 33.

[4] George L. Mosse, German Jews beyond Judaism (Bloomington-Cincinnati: Indiana University Press/Hebrew Union College Press, 1985), 3.

[5] Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001 [1968]).

[6] Mosse, German Jews beyond Judaism, 49.

[7] Ibid., 55-71.

[8] Hans Sahl, Memoiren eines Moralisten (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1995), 118-19.

[9] Mosse, German Jews beyond Judaism, 21-41.

[10] Mosse, German Jews beyond Judaism, ix.

[11] Stefan Großmann, Ich war begeistert: Eine Lebensgeschichte (Königstein/Ts.: Scriptor, 1979), 218.

[12] Steven Aschheim, “German Jews beyond Bildung and Liberalism,” 34.

[13] Ibid., 35.

[14] See Steven Aschheim, “Icons Beyond Their Borders: The German-Jewish Intellectual Legacy at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century” in Aschheim, At the Edges of Liberalism: Junctions of European, German, and Jewish History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 7-20, here 17-20.

[15] Walter Benjamin, letter to Gerschom Scholem, 04/17/1931, in The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940, ed. Gerschom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, transl. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 378.

[16] Walter Benjamin, Brief an Gerschom Scholem, Berlin, 17.04.1931, in Gesammelte Briefe, vol. IV, ed. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1998), 26.

[17] George L. Mosse, Confronting History: A Memoir (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), 184.

Robert Mueller-StahlRobert Mueller-Stahl is a master’s student in Modern European History at the University of Göttingen, Germany. For the academic year 2017-18, he is a Fulbright Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current research focuses on the diverse body cultures of the Weimar Republic. In particular, he explores the contested meanings athletic bodies could hold in the interwar context of cultural de- and re-mobilization.

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