“Those Who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I have always doubted this much-quoted dictum by the philosopher George Santayana. When does history ever repeat itself? Now, however, when I think about Germany, I have misgivings. True, the world has learned from the German past. Yet is it possible that now, forty-five years after the end of World War II, history might repeat itself nevertheless? Where Germany is concerned, only three things are certain: reunification is an accomplished fact; the country is at a monumental crossroads; and the way it goes will have a huge effect on the world. Still quite uncertain, to me at any rate, is where Germany will go.
The longing for the Middle Ages began in Germany at the very moment when the actual Middle Ages—the Holy Roman Empire ruled by a German—came to an end in what was then thought to be the moment of Germany’s deepest humiliation. In Germany, and there alone, did the end of the Middle Ages coincide with the beginning of the longing for the Middle Ages.
This passage, which provokes even more thought today than when it was published in 1962, was written by the late Leo Strauss, a Jewish philosopher of German origin who had reason to reflect deeply on Germany. The passage may be glossed as follows. In 1806, Napoleon defeated the Prussian army at Jena, and then tried to bring Prussia and other conquered German states into the modern world. This was the “humiliation.” As for the “longing,” it took a variety of forms. France became, for Germans, the Erbfeind (hereditary enemy), and “holiness” came to be ascribed not only to the river Rhine—which the Erbfeind was ever greedy to rape—but also to Germany itself, widely referred to in song and poetry as a virgin without blemish. Indeed, such was Germany’s purity as to endow it with a mission for all humanity. This Volk was not merely one among others—other Europeans, that is, for Asians, Africans, Americans did not count at all—but rather the Urvolk, alone endowed with a language uncontaminated by alien (i.e., Latin) elements. The Urvolk was what Germany had once been, and the Urvolk it was destined to become again, if necessary through the agency of a “Zwingherr zur Deutschheit” (a master forcing Germans into Germanness).
This, and much more, was proclaimed to rapt German audiences by the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In 1806 Fichte had fled from French-occupied Berlin to unoccupied Koenigsberg: the shame of living in the shadow of French bayonets was more than he could endure. Yet with a boldness none could fail to admire, he returned to Berlin in 1808 to deliver his Addresses to the German Nation. The French occupiers would have been wise to take notice, for the Addresses were to reverberate well into the 20th century.
In just two years, Fichte announced, world history had made gigantic strides. What had divided Germans for so long was now to be cast aside, was being cast aside. A recovery was taking place, a recovery of an age-old “German essence,” of German unity, of the German soul. In the heady years following, more and more poets, journalists, professors, and students were to speak, write, and sing in this vein.
If I treat Fichte as though he singlehandedly created modern German nationalism, it is because he was one of Germany’s few truly great philosophers: next only to Immanuel Kant, he initiated the golden age of German philosophy. But I would not wish to ignore lesser philosophers, writing in a coarser vein. Of these I have in mind in particular Jacob Friess—no major thinker but, after all, a professor at Heidelberg and a Kantian of sorts. Friess was present at the 1817 student festival at the Wartburg, Luther’s famous stronghold. It was a remarkable event, noted for expressions of hatred of the French, and of the sentiment that murder was no crime so long as it was committed for the sake of the Vaterland. A book was burned at the Wartburg festival which had dared to suggest that Germans were not the only Christians in the world. And coming in for more than their share of calumny were the Jews.
This brings me to a second passage from Leo Strauss, occurring a page or so later than the one I quoted earlier:
The action most characteristic of the Middle Ages is the Crusades; it may be said to have culminated not accidentally in the murder of whole Jewish communities.
The Middle Ages for which the Germans of the 19th century longed, in other words, were inseparably, and in Strauss’s view necessarily, identified with the hatred of Jews. And the “humiliation” visited upon Germany by Napoleon was similarly and reciprocally identified with the emancipation of the Jews brought about by his writ and his armies. Such were the ominous beginnings of modern Jewish history in Germany.
Jacob Friess saw the connection clearly. In a pamphlet read aloud in taverns by beery voices, Friess declared that popular hatred of Jews, far from being a blameworthy phenomenon, should be encouraged and fomented—and he went on to foment it, climactically calling for nothing less than an Ausrottung (extermination) of the Jews. To my knowledge, he was the first occupant of a chair in a modern university to articulate this particular demand. He was, of course, not the last.
Presumably it was not so much Friess’s hatred of Jews as his rabble-rousing Deutschheit that caused the reactionary Prussian authorities to ban his pamphlet and dismiss him from his post at Heidelberg. As it happens, the great philosopher Hegel, fearful of German nationalism la Friess and his kind, voiced his support for this action by the government. But what about Fichte? When it came to the Jews, this noble figure, for whom morality was the supreme principle of philosophy, did not much differ from the coarse Friess. As early as 1793 he had expressed his alarm at the French Revolution and the ensuing emancipation of the Jews. There could be, he wrote, no true emancipation of the Jews unless their heads were cut off and replaced with new ones, “in which not a single Jewish idea remained.”
Consider now some subsequent effects of the German longing for the Middle Ages, and of Fichte’s idea of the Urvolk. At the time of World War I, a great many Germans believed themselves encircled by a Welt von Feinden (a world of enemies); and even as their armies marched into neutral Belgium, these Germans recited the 19th-century dictum, “am deutschen Wesen soil die Welt genesen” (the world shall be healed through the German essence). Indeed, in 1917 Kaiser Wilhelm himself, assuming the mantle of the philosopher, declared that this was a war not merely between nations or states but between philosophies—in particular, between the commerce-minded materialism of the Anglo-Saxons and the idealism of the Germans.
The longing for the Middle Ages did not end with Germany’s defeat in World War I. Martin Heidegger, Germany’s greatest philosopher at the time, declared in the 1930’s that Communist Russia and capitalist America, “metaphysically considered,” offered the “same desolate frenzy [Raserei] of a rootless and groundless organization of mediocre humanity.” “In the pincers between these two,” he went on, lay Germany, the “metaphysical Volk par excellence.” This Heidegger said in Hitler’s Germany of 1935. Six years later his Fuehrer expressed Germany’s “metaphysical essence” by invading Russia in Operation Barbarossa. The code name was not accidental. Friedrich Barbarossa (ca. 1483-1546) had been the German under whom the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation had enjoyed its largest expansion.
Such were the thoughts that came to my mind when, on a cold November day in 1984, I stood at the Berlin Wall. Like Leo Strauss I am a Jewish philosopher of German origin; but that day, returning to the Berlin from which I had fled forty-five years earlier, I could not help feeling like the German I had once been. And so feeling, I came face to face with the contemporary German tragedy.
On “their” side of the Wall was the Brandenburg Gate, symbol not only of Prussia but of Hegel, Germany’s greatest philosopher. On “our” side was the Reichstag, symbol not only of Germany but also of Bismarck, the statesman who had tried once and for all to end the fatal longing for the Middle Ages, and thus to save Germany from itself. This he tried to do through the Ausschluss (disjoining) of Austria, accomplished in the 1866 Prusso-Austrian war. That Bismarck’s “small” Reich, founded in 1871, would succeed only in part became clear a few years later when a new wave of anti-Semitism swept both Germany and Austria. However, it was only with the forcible rejoining (Anschluss) of Austria in 1938, through the agency of an Austrian who had previously conquered Germany politically, that modern Germany’s fate may be said to have been sealed.
And not, of course, the fate of Germany alone. Hegel had formulated a philosophy that reconciled right with might but had been confined in its scope to Prussia. Then came the Reich of Bismarck, the “iron chancellor,” based, to be sure, on might, but also justly priding itself on being a Rechtsstaat, a state of right. Bismarck’s work was destroyed by the Kaiser; the Weimar Republic, which arose after World War I, offered right without might or, in Strauss’s words, “the sorry spectacle of justice without the sword, or unwilling to use the sword.” And this in turn was succeeded by a regime that not only destroyed right by might but did so systematically—philosophically, as it were. If the culminating expression of the German Middle Ages was the murder of whole Jewish communities, the action most characteristic of the Nazi regime was the Holocaust. To quote Leo Strauss for the last time, the Third Reich was “the only German regime—the only regime ever anywhere—which had no other clear principle than murderous hatred of Jews.”
Having looked at the Wall, I climbed a ladder to look beyond. The dreary prospect that greeted me was empty but for a large number of black birds. “What birds are these?” I asked my companion, who did not know. Then it came to me: ravens! In a legend known to all German children in my time, the Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa never died, but sits waiting inside the Kyffhaeuser Mountain, his red beard growing longer and longer, for der Tag, the day of reckoning which will herald his inevitable return and the recon-quest of all the once-German lands; but so long as ravens still circle the mountain, der Tag will not come.
As I descended the ladder, I reflected that with Hitler and the Nazi Reich, der Tag had indeed come, and der Tag had gone; as for the ravens, they seemed to have settled permanently in the heart of Communist East Germany. Here was a tragedy, a German tragedy, which I fully shared. Yet my feeling of solidarity vanished as, standing once again on “our” side of the Wall, and gazing at the graffiti there, I was abruptly reminded that ever since Fichte and Friess, ever since the onset of that longing for the Middle Ages which coincided with the end of the Middle Ages, the worst enemies of the Germans have been not Frenchmen, Englishmen, or Russians—and certainly not Jews—but Germans themselves. In my mind’s eye I visualized on the wall an omnipresent motto of my youth, “Wir danken unserem Fuehrer”—we thank our Fuehrer—and I could not erase it from my imagination.
That was in November 1984. On a November day five years later, the Berlin Wall was breached, and once again I felt like a German. This time, on November 9, 1989, I was not in Berlin but in the United States, at Colorado College, lecturing on Kristallnacht, of which this date marked the 51st anniversary. I heard later about what had happened in Berlin, and later still saw the images on TV.
In my lecture that morning I had described how the Nazi state had legalized crime, had made Jews into non-humans in law before treating them as non-humans in deed. What happened at Auschwitz during the war may not have been common knowledge in Germany. But in 1938, there was no one in all of Germany and Austria who did not know about the hundreds of synagogues that had been set on fire and the thousands of Jewish storefronts smashed during Kristallnacht.
My lecture mixed general reflection with personal experience. At one point I said that what I saw in Berlin the day after Kristallnacht had been worse than my subsequent experiences in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. The people operating Sachsenhausen, after all, were SS men and kapos. But when my late friend Karl Rautenberg (later to be known in England as Rabbi Charles Berg) and I, oblivious to personal danger, wandered around Berlin to see the damage on November 10, 1938, and at length arrived at the fashionable “Ku-damm” (Berlin’s Fifth Avenue), we discovered there well-dressed, respectable citizens stepping over the broken glass, climbing into Jewish stores, helping themselves to shoes, coats, gloves, and the rest. The legalization of crime had done its work.
Now on November 9, 1989, I saw in the breach of the Berlin Wall, not only brothers embracing, sisters embracing, but also the chance of a new beginning in German history. But what kind of beginning? Would history, or would it not, repeat itself? Did any of those rejoicing on November 9 remember the other November 9? Would they learn about, think about, what I had seen with my own eyes on the “Ku-damm” in 1938? Would anyone, thinking about the Wall, think too of the motto that sprang irresistibly to my own mind? Is it not worth reflecting on the strange conjunction that the Fuehrer and all he stood for, the worst enemy of the German people in modern history, was also the worst enemy of the Jewish people in all history?
Ever since I moved with my family to Jerusalem in 1983, I have been involved with Studium in Israel. This is a Christian organization in Germany that for the past twelve years or so has annually sent twenty or so theology students to study and live in Jerusalem. I meet with these young people year after year, discussing with them Jewish-Christian and Jewish-German relations in an age in which there has been a Holocaust and there is now an Israel. In years past I used to lecture to them; this year, I said that when it came to Germany, I wanted to listen. I could tell them—and I did tell them—about the German-Jewish past, now dead and gone. But what of the future?
My question was greeted, at first, by silence. It was broken by a young woman who expressed her grief at the fact that when there was a major Jewish presence in her country, Germans paid no serious attention to it, and now that some Germans did wish to pay attention, there was, so far as Jews in Germany were concerned, only a gaping hole, only the wounded presence of an absence. The ensuing discussion produced little, could produce little, beyond the thought that in order for German history not to repeat itself, the best thing Germans could do was what these young people were doing—spending time in Israel, and better still in Jerusalem. Not everyone, to be sure, could be expected to study Jewish sources. But to visit Jewish Jerusalem was possible for many, and a positive obligation for anyone considering himself a thinking person.
At the time when the German longing for the Middle Ages began, when Fichte and Friess, the one nobly, the other ignobly, set German history on the course that made Germans into their own worst enemies, the cry “HEP! HEP!” reverberated in the streets of Germany. It was an abbreviation of a Latin phrase meaning “Jerusalem is destroyed.” Perhaps Germans concerned to set German history on a new and better course must indeed seek orientation in a Jerusalem rebuilt. And perhaps those rejoicing in the collapse of the Berlin Wall, if they worry at all about the possibility of history repeating itself, can do no better than to relate this symbolic wall to another wall, the Wall in Jerusalem—that Wall to which, during nearly two millennia of exile, Jews could come only to wail, but to which, after the Holocaust, of all impossible times, of all necessary times, they have returned; to which they have returned in order to stay.