The following talk was given at Memorial Library on Thursday, 4 August 2022. For an overview of the afternoon read Libby Theune’s “Summer Scholars Share Insights on Interwar European Politics.”
The call for applications for 2023 Mosse-Friends Fellowships is now open.
I am delighted to present my new research here at Memorial Library in Madison. First, I want to thank Skye Doney for organizing this event, and then thank you all for being here today. As you can read from my title, I am going to talk to you about the notion of Nationalhumanismus, which is a German word that might be translated into English as National Humanism. It is a neologism that some Zionist thinkers — including Hans Kohn (1891-1971), Felix Weltsch (1884-1964), and Max Brod (1884-1968) — used in their writings at the beginning of the 1930s in order to concentrate “on the creative rather than destructive elements of nationalism.” With the exception of George L. Mosse and more recently Scott Spector (University of Michigan), this topic represents a historical matter that historians have not yet sufficiently dealt with. It is no coincidence that in 1997 Mosse claimed that “scholarship has the task of discovering and evaluating such efforts” related to these Zionist attempts to strike a balance between humanistic aspirations and political commitment. This is exactly what I plan to do with my new research project. I have to premise this by noting that I am still in the beginning stages and have just published my first book, Sognando Sion, based off of my previous PhD dissertation, and so have only been working on this new topic since this past winter.
In any case, I think the best way to open a presentation is starting with its structure. I would like to confine my talk to three points:
- First, I will explain what the meaning of the notion of National Humanism is according to the writings of two prominent Zionist intellectuals, Hans Kohn and Felix Weltsch.
- Then, I will focus on Mosse’s writings and the meaning of such a notion according to his understanding. I will limit myself in this talk to two particular aspects: how Mosse discovered this notion and what role it played in his writings.
- Finally, I will outline what the goals of my project are. Basically, my research aims to compare some of the recurring elements of empires (like territory, religion, belonging, and citizenship) and analyze to what extent Zionism did share these attributes, and what the legacy of the imperial structure in the interwar period was. Therefore, instead of focusing on the typical legacy of Bildung, which was quite relevant to Mosse and his recovery of National Humanism, I will deal with the Habsburg imperial legacy in the new Czechoslovak Republic, for which I will explain the reasoning.
Regarding the meaning of Nationalhumanismus, I’ll begin by introducing the first two appearances of this term within Zionist printed sources. The idea of striking a balance between humanistic aspirations and political commitment was already featured in several publications by Max Brod, Hans Kohn, and Felix Weltsch starting in the 1920s. However, we have to wait until the early 1930s before finding the term itself along with a more structured theorization.
As far as I know at the moment, this term is first mentioned in the book written by historian Hans Kohn, entitled L’humanisme juif and printed in Paris in 1931. According to George L. Mosse, Kohn’s book constituted “one of the few attempts to trace” the genealogy of National Humanism. In the quote below, you can read what the first explanation of such a notion was. Hans Kohn translated it from German into French without deciding which of the two terms to prioritize. Indeed, he used both of them as nouns, nationalism and humanism. He also added that only such a nationally-based humanism would realize the meaning of Judaism, thus demonstrating a certain Buberian influence which, after all, was quite common among all these Jewish thinkers.
We then find another occurrence a couple of years later in 1934, namely in Felix Weltsch’s final piece, entitled Thesen von Nationalhumanismus (Theses of National Humanism) and published in Max Brod’s Rassentheorie und Judentum (Racial Theory and Judaism). According to Weltsch, “the people can never be placed above humanity.” This was one of the main differences between National Humanism and all other egoistic nationalisms. Indeed, “the love for mankind is the limit of the love for one’s own nation.” Weltsch meant that it is precisely this love for humanity that must take precedence and constitute the good limit, the necessary barrier to any nationalistic degeneration. He then concluded by arguing that this was “the moral task” lying within “the concept of national humanism.”
I would now like to offer only a couple of words on George L. Mosse, first because I have to recognize my debt to Mosse’s work. In fact, I discovered this topic thanks to his papers, especially those devoted to the formation of a civic religion in relation to the rise of Zionism and the establishment of Israel in 1948. Second, since I will take a different route than Mosse, it is appropriate and useful to first explain what Mosse wrote about this subject. As I have already mentioned, I want to confine my talk to two questions: how did Mosse discover this rather particular, little-known notion of National Humanism? and what function did it play in his writings? Why did such a notion pique Mosse’s interest?
While for the first question I currently have only speculations, for the second Mosse himself offered an explanation in the introduction to his book Masses and Man (1980), pictured below next to the photo of Robert Weltsch.
First, I should explain why I have included a picture of Robert Weltsch and what role he plays within my reconstruction. In 1977, George L. Mosse gave the Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture, entitled “The Jews and the German War Experience 1914-1918.” Mosse dedicated this lecture to Robert Weltsch, the cousin of Felix, and at the end of his talk he mentioned Weltsch himself, noting that the “mixture between German idealism and the Enlightenment also influenced Zionists like Robert Weltsch who wanted to give nationalism a human face.” As far as I know at the moment, this is the first occurrence of the issue within Mosse’s writings. And it is no coincidence that Mosse referred to such a question in relation to Robert Weltsch. Indeed, I think it is likely that Mosse discovered the notion of National Humanism precisely thanks to his contacts with the Leo Baeck Institute in London and in particular with Robert Weltsch, who was the editor of the Leo Baeck Year Book at that time. Mosse and Weltsch knew each other and used to chat about matters relating to Jewish history during their meetings. Moreover, starting in 1965 on, Weltsch was actively working to recruit younger scholars for the journal. One of them was Mosse, as reflected in Weltsch’s letter from 10 March 1965. I must thank Professor David Sorkin for making me aware of the relationship between Mosse and Weltsch, as at first it was difficult for me to find the right track to follow. Anyway, since this is research in progress, I trust I’ll find more materials on their relationship in the future.
The other point I mentioned concerns George L. Mosse’s reasons for being interested in the topic of National Humanism. Why did such a notion pique his interest? Mosse offers a very impressive explanation in the introduction of his book Masses and Man, shown above. Here Mosse noted the example of nationalism that Zionist leaders like Martin Buber and Robert Weltsch supported. It was a kind of nationalism, he wrote, that “supported human dignity instead of a blind submission to the collectivity.” Even if such an ideal did not prevail, according to Mosse that “does not make it any less relevant.” Indeed, he added, “as nationalism refuses to go away, as every minority continues to search for its national identity, the task of giving nationalism a human face becomes all the more pressing.” In my opinion, perhaps the most interesting aspect that such a statement raises concerns these five words: “nationalism refuses to go away.” This seems relevant especially if we consider when it was written, namely in 1980, a period in which scholarship began to look at the nation as “a transitory stage on the way to a larger cosmopolitan unit called world society.” In the same period, only to give an example, the German-Jewish philosopher Jacob Taubes (1923-1987) wrote that Marx and Engels’ prophecy of the end of the nation-state was being realized — even if a century late. If we only think of what is happening in Ukraine today, we can understand how real Mosse’s concerns at the time were, despite being, in a certain way, against the spirit of his times.
Mosse’s use of National Humanism is quite militant, as he urges giving a human face to nationalism in order to prevent history from repeating itself (he clearly referred to the totalitarian degeneration of National Socialism). My approach to this topic is probably more analytical and philological since I am interested in reconstructing the origin of this notion. If Mosse’s proximity to German Jewish émigré intellectuals at the Leo Baeck Institute might have led him to rediscover this topic, in order to understand the origins of National Humanism, I instead argue that we should focus on the Habsburg imperial legacy in the new Czechoslovak Republic. Indeed, I presume that the multiethnic context of the Habsburg Empire contributed to the formulation of alternative theories of Zionism which refused the overlap between territory, belonging, and citizenship. Zionist intellectuals like Brod, Weltsch, and Kohn continued to develop such theories after the First War World. In fact, the notion of National Humanism undermines the strict classical opposition between empire and nation-state, proving that memories of empire helped these Jewish intellectuals shape their nationalism in an alternative way. For these reasons, we should take into consideration the new political context of the Czechoslovak Republic. For example, it is crucial to analyze what role president Tomáš Masaryk (1850-1937) played, and what his relationships with Jewish communities and Zionist groups were.
Starting from this perspective, the main questions in my research are the following:
- What were the reasons that led these Jewish thinkers to join Zionism? and what did Zionism mean for them?
- What influence did the previous multi-ethnic framework of the Habsburg Empire have in the creation of such a notion? and
- How did these Jewish intellectuals attempt to adapt the previous model of imperial citizenship to reshape their belonging and their nationality in the age of nation-state building?
As for the meaning of Zionism for these Jewish thinkers, I would like to quote a statement by Max Brod which was published in the Zionist newspaper Selbstwehr in 1918. Brod argued that Zionism was for him “the intensification and activation of the Jewish national attribute of a universal sense of humanity, and thereby an essential hope of the idea of peace.” And he continued by writing that “in Zionism, the mission of Jewish people is to create a community that is national without falling into the antisocial, imperialist, murderous abuses of that degenerate sentiment called ‘nationalism’ today.” It is interesting to note that Brod’s explanation on the meaning of Zionism does not differ so much from the concept of National Humanism described by Weltsch and Kohn in the early 1930s.
To understand the legacy of the Habsburg Empire according to this Zionist intellectual group, it is useful to discuss the writings of Hans Kohn. In his diaries during the First War World, he sketched a sort of dream about the Habsburg Empire. He wrote, “in my dreams I imagine the shape of the future as follows: Austria annexes the territory of Poland, Lithuania and Volhynia…and Rumania.” This vast new empire “would be transformed federatively into an intra-Austrian complex of Hungarians, Czechs, Polish, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Romanians, and South Slavs.” And in this Greater Austria, Jews “like all national minorities, would have their own national assemblies with certain communal and educational autonomy.”
Several years later, in the midst of World War II, Kohn returned to that dream in a more disillusioned but no less relevant way. He wrote, Austria “was a bridge, on which Germany and smaller peoples of Central Europe could meet, where all the civilizations of Europe could mingle for mutual stimulation. The multinational Reich of the Habsburgs had appeared to many as an anachronism. It was that, but it was also a promise for the future.” He further added that “[i]n her best moments, Old Austria had shown in a very imperfect form, as an embryonic promise,” that is for him, the possibility of “a federation of equal peoples, not in submission and uniformity, but in freedom and tolerance, … without brutality or domination, without any exclusiveness or exclusivism.” He concluded by stating that “Austria’s fate, her end became symbolic of Europe’s destiny.” Finally, Kohn pointed out that in the interwar period the only exception to the general trend within the ex-territories of the Habsburg Empire was presented by the Czechoslovak Republic.
I thus will move now to the conclusion. This relationship between Zionist groups and the new Czechoslovak Republic is quite well-known. We have several publications from that period which attest to such a connection, perhaps the most important of which is the volume Masaryk und das Judentum, which was published in German in 1931 and translated ten years later into English as Thomas Masaryk and the Jews. This publication contained contributions by Felix Weltsch, Max Brod, and Hugo Bergman (1883-1975), but also by Friedrich Thieberger (1888-1958), a member of the Bar Kochba Association, and Oskar Donath (1882-1940), a proponent of coexistence for Czechs, Germans, and Jews in the Czech lands. I would like to end my talk with the following quote taken from Felix Weltsch’s article, focusing on Masaryk and Zionism. In this piece, Weltsch wondered what the ethical, nationalistic, and political “Masaryk” phenomenon meant to the Zionist movement — and he gave quite a meaningful answer for our topic. Indeed, according to Weltsch, there was an inner connection between Masaryk’s idea of the nation and that of Zionism. “The nation is to Masaryk, in the worlds of Herder, only the organ of humanity,” wrote Weltsch. “The nation is only a means to an end — humanity. But it is the means.” These words fit exactly with what Weltsch wrote only two years later in explaining what Nationalhumanismus was.
To sum up, my current impression is that National Humanism involved an attempt to reshape both Jewishness and Zionism after World War I in order to look for new meanings of belonging for the Jewish people in secular time, and especially to find a valid accommodation between nationhood and diaspora. In this sense, the search for an inclusive idea of nation not only fits into the historical trend of nationalizing empires, but also belongs to the longer process of Jewish emancipation. National Humanism could therefore represent one of the multiple secular forms of being Jews in the modern world, or to say it with Yosef Yerushalmi’s (1932-2009) words, one of the “interim Jewish hopes for the times before the end of Time.”
Thank you for your attention.
 Scott Spector, “‘Any reality, however small.’ Prague Zionism between the Nations,” in Kafka, Zionism and Beyond, ed. Mark H. Gelber (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2004), 7-22, 16.
 George L. Mosse, “Can Nationalism be Saved?,” in Israel Studies 2, no. 1 (1997): 156-173, 171.
 Mosse, “Can Nationalism be Saved?,” 159.
 Felix Weltsch, “Thesen von Nationalhumanismus,” in Rassentheorie und Judentum (Vienna: R. Löwit Verlag, 1936), 80.
 George L. Mosse, The Jews and the German War Experience 1914-1918 (New York: Leo Baeck Institute, 1977).
 Mosse, The Jews and the German War Experience, 25.
 Robert Weltsch to George L. Mosse, dated 10 March 1965, in the Leo Baeck Institute (London, England), 1960-1996, Box: 43, Folder: 47. George L. Mosse Collection, AR 25137, Leo Baeck Institute. See also: Christhard Hoffmann, “An International Forum for German-Jewish Studies: The Year Book of the Leo Baeck Institute,” in Preserving the Legacy of German Jewry: A History of the Leo Baeck Institute 1955-2005, ed. Christhard Hoffmann (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 299.
 I would also like to thank John Tortorice who confirmed that Mosse was fascinated by Weltsch and this generation of founding scholars.
 George L. Mosse, Masses and Man: Nationalist and Fascist Perceptions of Reality (Wayne State University Press, 1980), 17.
 Mosse, Masses and Man, 18.
 Aleida Assman, “Re-imagining the Nation: Memory, Identity and the Emotions” in European Review 29, no. 1 (2020): 3–17, 3-4, “Tabooing and abandoning the concept of the nation by the left may even have contributed to empowering the right, which has in the meantime answered the trend towards pluralization with polarization.”
 Jacob Taubes – Carl Schmitt, Briefwechsel mit Materialien, Herbert Kopp-Oberstebrink, Thorsten Palzhoff, Martin Treml (eds.) (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2011).
 Max Brod, “Der Zionismus,” in Selbstwehr 12, no. 34, 13 September 1918: 3.
 See: Kohn’s war diary, Hans Kohn Collection, AR259, box 23, folder 1, Archives of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York.
 See Adi Gordon, “The Enduring Promise of Multinationalism: Hans Kohn’s Habsburg Legacies,” in the Botstiber Institute for Austrian-American Studies, 3 August 2021.
 Hans Kohn, “The Legacy of the Habsburgs,” in Not by Arms Alone: Essays on Our Time. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1941: 56.
 Kohn, “The Legacy of the Habsburgs,” 57.
 Hans Kohn, “Czech Democracy,” in Not by Arms Alone, 66.
 See Masaryk und das Judentum, ed. Ernst Rychnovsky (Prague: Marsverlagsgesellschaft, 1931). The English translation is Thomas G. Masaryk and the Jews: A Collection of Essays, ed. Ernst Rychnovsky, trans. Benjamin R. Epstein (New York: B. Pollak, 1941).
 Felix Weltsch, Masaryk and Zionism, 105.
 Yosef H. Yerushalmi, “Toward a History of Jewish Hope,” in The Faith of Fallen Jews, eds. David N. Myers and Alexander Kaye (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014): 299-317, 310.
Stefania Ragaù earned her PhD in contemporary history at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa with a work on the flowering of the Jewish utopian novels in relation to the emergence of Zionism. In her challenging studies on Jewish utopias, she deals with the secularization of Jewish thought between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, analyzing the influence of a modern messianism through which Jewish nationalism configured itself as a secular religion. These projects led Ragaù to Mosse’s works. She is currently developing her studies along two further lines of research, which is related to the encounter between the European philosophy of history and Jewish thought: one line is the Jewish utopian imagination beyond Zionism, while the other is the historical reconstruction of Nationalhumanismus, a concept which seems to have been created by Max Brod and Felix Weltsch in the so-called “enger Prager Kreis.” Finally, she has recently published her first monograph, Sognando Sion (Dreaming of Zion), on the Jewish utopian novels before Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland (1902).