Commentary Magazine


The German Left

To the Editor:

“With a few major exceptions, the German intellectual Left was solidly Jewish”—such a statement could be read every day in the Nazi press, but it is amazing to find it in the pages of COMMENTARY [in Lewis D. Wurgaft’s review of Germans and Jews by George Mosse, October 1970]. Of the 81 Communist Reichstag deputies elected in 1932 not one was a Jew; there were a few Jews among the Social Democratic leadership, but they were not what your reviewer calls “Left intellectuals”; they were establishmentarian. The opposition was formed on the one hand by a circle which called itself “Religious Socialists” and included Kurt Schumacher, the leader of the postwar SPD, and on the other hand by the Marxists who were to form the dissident SAP (Socialist Workers’ Party) whose leading figures were August and Anna Siemsen, the children of a Protestant minister; other well-known Marxists of the period were the historian Paul Froehlich, the philosopher Karl Korsch, the popularizer Hermann Duncker, the poet Bertolt Brecht, the librettist Walter Mehring, and the stage-director Erwin Piscator . . . some “exceptions”!

Carl von Ossietsky and Helmuth von Gerlach were the editors of the two radical weeklies, Die Weltbühne and Welt am Montag. Your reviewer erroneously groups these with Das Tagebuch whose editor was Jewish but not Left; he advised his readers to vote for Hindenberg and the (Catholic) Center party. The radical monthly, Deutsche Republik, was edited by the Catholic writer Thormann. . . . In fact, the only Jew Mr. Wurgaft does mention was Kurt Hiller, who was indeed an intellectual, a Jew, and a homosexual; Hiller’s monthly meetings, where I was an occasional guest, drew an audience of about twenty young men, none of them Jewish.

It is possible, of course, to name a number of Jews who can accurately be described as “left-wing intellectuals.” This is only to be expected since Jews tended to be concentrated in the big cities, in liberal middle-class milieus, in the professions, and among theater people, musicians, and journalists—in all these areas it became fashionable to be Left-of-Center in the late 20′s. But Jewish lawyers, doctors, engineers, and scientists tended to be establishmentarian, and those who were not Zionists adhered to the Association of the German Citizens of the Jewish Faith (which we used to stigmatize as “Jewish Citizens of the German Faith”) or if they had served in the army they were members of the “Patriotic League of Jewish Veterans.”

The underlying assumption of the sentence I quoted above is that German Jews were alienated; the truth is that they were assimilated, middle-class liberals. Had the Right permitted them, many Jews would have loved to have become conservatives. Those of us who turned Left did so because the choices for maneuvering within the republican framework grew narrower and narrower during the Depression, while the danger of fascism increased from election to election. But there were, after all, 7.2 million German citizens who voted Socialist and 5.9 million who voted Communist—according to your reviewer a solid Jewish majority!

No service is being done to historiography when your reviewer tries to make additional “connections between intellectuals of the Left and of the Right” by citing the bündische movement. In fact, there was absolutely no such connection; the youth movement split down the middle, and the Left could not accept any of the corporatist (bündische) ideas which became the nostrum of the Right. To become a “left-wing intellectual,” I found I had to make a clean break with the romantic ideas of the youth movement. . . .

Finally, your reviewer seems to believe that German Jews accepted the Nazi dichotomy of “Aryan” rootedness and “Jewish” rootlessness. As any reader of Hegel or the German romantics knows, this was not a Jewish problem but a problem of modern industrial society. Among Jewish youth the “back to the racial soil” idea took the form of Zionism and among non-Jewish youth it became Nazism. But it was not a problem either of Jewish or of non-Jewish left-wing intellectuals. They were “individualistic” where-ever they were creators, thinkers, critics, or where there was any reason to voice dissent. In making themselves spokesmen for the opposition, they were not “rootless” but communicated with that part of the nation which they felt represented the future. . . .

Henry M. Pachter
New York City

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Lewis Wurgaft writes:

Henry Pachter’s effort to deny the close connection between Jewishness and the intellectual Left disregards the facts of the matter, and wilfully distorts the definition of that group offered in my review. There, following Professor Mosse’s lead, I described these intellectuals as journalists and creative writers who were non-Marxists, or opponents of the major Marxist parties of the German Left. On these grounds, many of the non-Jews whom Mr. Pachter mentions do not even qualify as part of the intellectual Left, including the 81 Communist Reichstag deputies. Mr. Pachter goes on to point out that the overwhelming majority of German Jews were middle class and establishmentarian. This is certainly correct, but quite off the subject. No effort was made in my review to assess the political views of German Jewry as a whole—to say nothing of Mr. Pachter’s ludicrous contention that I described the Socialist and Communist vote in Germany as consisting of a “solid Jewish majority.”

Mr. Pachter performs a service by pointing out a few more exceptions to the Jewish dominance of the intellectual Left, but his statements mislead as much as they enlighten. . . . While Mr. Pachter implies that there were no Jews in Kurt Hiller’s circle, his closest associates in the activist movement, men like Ludwig Rubiner, Rudolf Kayser, and Alfred Wolfenstein, were all Jewish. Though Carl von Ossietsky was not Jewish, the Weltbühne’s two other editors during the Weimar period, Siegfried Jacobsohn and Kurt Tucholsky, were. Indeed, in Weimar Germany’s Left-Wing Intellectuals Istvan Deak shows that two-thirds of the major contributors to the journal were of Jewish origin. . . .

Even after this issue has been clarified, what remains disturbing is Mr. Pachter’s effort to conceal the radicalism of so many German-Jewish intellectuals behind the more moderate politics of Jewish businessmen and professionals. In this respect, Mr. Pachter is himself guilty of a disservice to historiography. The connection between Jewishness and the intellectual Left was a major factor in the cultural life of Weimar, as it is in the United States today. As a phenomenon that has never received adequate scholarly attention, it needs to be understood, not hidden.

Mr. Pachter’s other objections are more difficult to deal with adequately in this limited space. Basically, they reflect too rigid a distinction on his part between the conservatism and romanticism of the intellectual Right, and the individualism of the intellectual Left. As Mosse has established, and as my own research confirms, the left-wing intellectuals hoped to articulate a humane socialism which would counteract the dogmatism and materialism of the major Marxist parties. Their individualism was tempered by a yearning for community, or Gemeinschaft, which could enhance the spiritual character of modern life. In order to reconcile these conflicting needs, the intellectual Left drew upon many aspects of the German cultural tradition, including the bündische concept. One could also cite the elitist implications of the idealist tradition, or the romanticism that found an outlet in literary expressionism. Mr. Pachter is generally correct in his negative appraisal of the youth movement as a conduit of these ideas to the intellectual Left. Yet the activist movement under Kurt Hiller had more success. . . . In short, the political attitudes of the intellectual Left had complex philosophical and aesthetic roots which tended to qualify its attitude toward individualism.

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Errata

A number of unfortunate typographical errors occurred on page 92 of the February number, in David Bromwich’s review of The Voice That Is Great Within Us.

In the clause: “. . . the idea has something to do with laying bare the mind of the poet showing the process of raw creation at work,” a comma should apppear after the word poet.

For “discarded and slightly garrulous wit” read: disordered and slightly garrulous wit.

For “highclass gothic” read: highclass gossip.

For “a third interpolation” read: a third edition.

For “first two additions” read: first two editions.

Also, on page 39 of Walter Laqueur’s article in the February number, the denunciation of King Ahab should have been ascribed to Elijah, not Isaiah.

On Page 54 of Robert Alter’s article, the quip about the Bundists should have been ascribed to Plekhanov, not Lenin.

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