Book review: “The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933”

The Pity of It All by Amos Elon is my most recent delve into German history through the eyes of German Jews. I have encountered many of the characters in the dramatis personae before: Moses Mendelssohn figured prominently as one of the great rationalists in The Age of Reason: From Kant to Fichte. Hannah Arendt, another later philosopher, showed up in The Existentialist Cafe. And Walter Rathenau, the great industrialist and German foreign minister murdered shortly before Hitler came to power, was a main character in several including Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, a history of factors leading to the Great Depression Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World, and a memoir of a fellow German (well, Austrian actually) Jew The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig.

Image result for the pity of it all amos elon


How much do you know about Judaism in Germany? Most had the basics of the Holocaust covered in history classes throughout their school experience. And perhaps you have visited the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. This book takes the timeline a step back, and actually doesn’t directly deal with the Holocaust at all (you’ll notice the dates in the title end in 1933 right when Hitler came to power). The book is wrestling with the question that many have: was Germany’s history somehow inevitably leading it towards the Holocaust? Did the Germans have some deep-seated hatred of Jews that led them to this atrocity?

The answer is a lot more complex than you’d think. While the history of Jews in Germany is a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs, in German Jews were patriotic, proud of their country, and had no intentions of leaving. In general, there was an upward trend towards increased rights for Jews that usually outdid their neighbors in Europe (the exception being Napoleon who extended equal rights to Jews during his brief tenure). In the late 19th and really up to 1933, Jews were democratically elected to positions of power, over with very high representation. Russia was actually known as the most anti-Semitic nation at the time, killing millions of Jews in horrible pogroms right into the 20th century. One reason German Jews supported World War I was the prospect of fighting against Russia. But German antisemitism was there through it all too. Jews were pretty much blamed for every lost war, every economic recession. The prominence of Jews in journalism, the intelligentsia, and government, gave Germans irrational fears that often lead to accusations of secret schemes of world domination. Jews gained and lost rights back and forth.

The book is cleverly framed with two German emigrations: the first, young Moses Mendelssohn entering Berlin at the invitation of one of the few wealthy Jews given permission to live within the city limits (many cities, Berlin included, either had a blanket prohibition on Jews or would only allow wealthy Jews but with exorbitant fees). Mendelssohn would become the first truly integrated Jew into German culture, moving Jews away from their culture of separatism (many didn’t even know German, they only studied the Torah, and avoided interactions with Gentiles) towards a proud German identity. The book ends with Hannah Arendt fleeing Berlin shortly after Hitler’s election. Many Jews called her crazy for abandoning Germany, because “Germany is your past, present, and future.” Hitler was, unfortunately, not a passing craze that would wear off once the economy picked up.


I identified strongly with the attempts of German Jews to merge their German-ness with their Jew-ishness. A passage in the first chapter tries to capture this struggled:

For all their irony and skepticism, the Jews of Germany never ceased in their effort to merge German and Jewish identity. The heartstrings of their affection were tied early; their overriding desire was to be complete Germans. Many succeeded. If their success appears in retrospect an illusion, it was often a highly creative one and with a grandeur of its own. Accepted or rejected, German Jews continued to potter with their identity, inventing, suppressing, rediscovering, or professing it. The vast majority never hid the fact that they were Jews. There were long intervals when the forthright approach was no impediment, especially in smaller communities. A great many intermarried. Tens of thousands converted and disappeared within the majority. Those who converted often seemed no less remarkable or creative than those who, spurred by the force of a divided allegiance, found themselves in the vanguard of modern art and inquiry.

As a gay Mormon, I feel some of the same unique interactions between my relationship with my faith community and the outer culture of the academy, of politics, and everything else. Perhaps we all have some element of colliding identities, but the example of German Jews is even more stark because of its tragic ending. By looking at how small prejudices can result in mass murders over time, should we not be vigilant within our own communities?

Rahel Levin is an interesting case. She held a very popular salon in Berlin at the turn of the 18th century. German princes, scholars, and writers all came to meet in her parlor. I like this sentiment she struggled with about fitting in:

The idea that as a Jew she was always required to be exceptional– and go on proving it all the time– was repugnant to her. “How wretched it is always to have to legitimize myself!” That is why it is so disgusting to be a Jew.” She was one of the first of a new breed more common later on, always self-conscious, always looking over her shoulder. She was denied, she felt, what was readily granted to the simplest peasant woman– an easy sense of identity.

Later in the 19th century, another Jew made a list of Judenuebel, what he saw as the failings of the Jews. Some Jews became very critical of their culture and faith communities, sometimes to the point of self-hatred:

  1. Religious concepts, especially God’s love and exclusive favoring of the Jews.
  2. Conceit
  3. Superstition
  4. Intolerance of other viewpoints…
  5. Huckstering
  6. Avarice
  7. Greed
  8. Contempt for science; all leading to
  9. The persistent delusion, contrary to law, that it is permissible to cheat non-Jews.

You could imagine such a list being written on a Mormon blog about Mormons. Oh wait, there’s one right here. Such inward-looking critiques I feel are good, but can nose-dive into self-hatred: like Walter Rathenau, who literally thought Jews needed to do everything they could to look like Germans: he hated how crooked his nose was, how black his hair was, etc. etc.

The Betrayal of the Intellectuals

The other fascinating aspect was just how riled up German Jews got with their fellow Germans by the emotion of the times, the best example being World War I. The WWI German propaganda machine painted England and France in vile terms. The Jews, who tended to have an very internationalist view, got caught up in it just as bad as everyone else. Einstein, for instance, saw his fellow Jew and academic friend Franz Haber, dedicate his talents to making poison gas for the war effort. Einstein reflected:

He was shocked that intellectuals proved to be the most likely to yield to the collective psychosis of hate: perhaps this was so, he speculated, because they had no contact with life in the raw but only with life on the printed page.

Karl Kraus, a critic of the war whose articles somehow escaped the censors, had similar thoughts:

Man had invented the airplane but his political imagination was still dragging through the mud like mail coaches before the age of railways. The brainwashing was made possible, above all, by the corruption of language in politics and in some of the major newspapers. The newspapers ignored the horrors. They found words only for the courage of young men at war and none for the madness of those who sent them there. Kraus warned of the world’s impending downfall through the “black magic” of newsprint… How was it possible, that even as, on a single day, fifty thousand human beings lay dying, caught in barbed wire, poets still found words to laud the carnage?

I could write a lot more, but my time is cut short (I write these on bus trips to campus), and book reviews shouldn’t be summaries (sorry! I always degenerate into this form). The book was also some of my first solid history into pre-20th century German history. I knew, for instance, that Germany was a collection of autonomous kingdoms and city-states, but I had no idea how they came together under one government (other than the name Bismarck being thrown around). While reading, I took advantage of the great bibliography to add some primary and secondary sources to my German reading list Fritz Stern sounds like another good historian of all things at the German/Jewish interface. Many of the books look like they’ve been long forgotten, judging by their Goodreads pages. It looks like I’ll be well-stocked for a while!

A great read to give you a little dose of history for modern problems. After all, those who don’t learn their history are doomed to repeat it. (I thought this quote from Theodor Lessing after the election of Hindenburg was rather prescient: “Better a zero than a Nero… Unfortunately, history shows that behind a zero there always hides a Nero.

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