Just in time for Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is today, I finished reading Amos Elon's The Pity of It All: A Portrait of Jews in Germany 1743-1933 (2002).
This elegant and absorbing book is essential reading for anyone trying to understand the Holocaust -- although Elon doesn't really write his history from this perspective. For me it clarified for once and for all just how long-standing and pervasive German anti-Semitism and discrimination against Jews really was.
Throughout the 18th century and much of the 19th, Germany was essentially a backwater compared to much of Europe, its many states ruled by despotic monarchs long after the rest of the continent -- and America -- had either deposed or neutralized theirs. In addition, the country had a deeply militaristic bent and an unusual tendency to obey authority.
As Elon's book opens at the end of the 18th century, the only Jews allowed to live in the major cities were the extremely wealthy ones. Jews had to enter Berlin through the gate reserved for cattle; were prevented from leaving the Frankfurt ghetto after dark or on Sundays; and were forced to buy damaged surplus wares from the ailing Royal Porcelain Manufactory on marriage (Moses Mendelssohn, for example, famously ended up with 20 useless porcelein monkeys). They were not allowed to practice law and rarely took up university positions well into the 19th century; army commissions -- extremely important in such a militaristic society -- were denied to Jews into the First World War. In addition, there were sporadic anti-Jewish riots well into the 19th century, and social snobbery and public anti-Semitism never went away.
Nevertheless, Germany's extremely large Jewish population was not only determined to integrate, but was often the country's most patriotic and devoted residents (I avoid the word 'citizen' because the majority were denied citizenship in the country of their birth). Indeed, one theme that runs through the book is that there was some kind of symbiosis between Germany and its Jews. I remain unconvinced, but what is clear is that German Jews worshipped German kultur, and were often at its pinnacle, producing some of the country's best-known (and loved) poets, authors, musicians, philosophers, scientists and political activists. Perhaps in this way they fed off each other. Certainly, without its Jews it is doubtful that Germany would have achieved quite the same prominance as an intellectual and creative hub. I'm not sure the Jews needed Germany in quite the same way.
By closely following the stories of several important Jewish-German figures, Elon manages to convey the dynamism, excitement and vibrancy of the community throughout its history. Ultimately, though, the story of German Jewry is one of frustrated hope. The community seems to have spent 200 years believing it was on the cusp of acceptance -- that next year, true integration will finally be achieved! Ironically, the only time they were given legal equality was during the Weimar Republic, and we know how that ended.
Elon, as I said, does not portray this ending as inevitable; indeed, at one point he argues that anti-Semitism seemed worse elsewhere during the 19th century. There was no country, though, that the Jews loved quite as much as they loved Germany. The question that remained with me at the end of the book was why Germany's Jews were so exceptionally devoted to and passionate about this country which rejected them again and again and again, and why they were so desperate to be part of a people which had never loved them back? They could have been intellectuals anywhere. What was their fetish with Germany? I still don't get it.