Modernism, the Germans & the Jews
THE modern historical fate of Jews among the German-speaking peoples is a continuing source of puzzlement, wonder, and brooding reflection. It was here that the Jewish entry into modern European culture began, rapidly releasing, as has often been observed, an unprecedented torrent of creative energies, so that German and Austro-Hungarian Jews, within a generation or two of emergence from the ghetto or shtetl, became leading figures in the arts, and in intellectual and economic life, a few of them actually helping to transform prevalent conceptions of human nature and society. In many instances, of course, from Heine and Felix Mendelssohn to Marx and Georg Simmel, these signal contributions were made by Jews who had themselves converted to Christianity or who were the children of converts, and the powerful impulse to self-effacement in the most literal sense is surely one of the more dismaying themes of the German-Jewish story.
But our consciousness of this extraordinary movement outward into the expanses of the surrounding culture should not lead us to forget that the Germanic realm was also the seedbed for developments of supreme intrinsic importance to the survival of the Jewish people and the reshaping of its own culture. To be sure, these developments themselves had their “assimilatory” motives, but one could hardly refashion Jewish existence without emulating available models, and it was through such emulation that Jews acquired many of the intellectual and political tools for coping with a radically new historical predicament.
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