The Pity of It All by Amos Elon

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Comments from our member, Michael Liebermann

This book splendidly describes the periods of grudging acceptance alternating with periods of strong anti-semitic anger in Germany over 200 years (1743-1933.) Interspersed throughout this history are more than a hundred brief biographical sketches which illustrate the achievements of these Jews. I will mention only a few.

In 1743 Moses Mendelssohn entered Berlin, through the cattle gate, a 14 year old penniless, Talmudic scholar sponsored by the Chief Rabbi of Berlin. This occurred during the reign of the “enlightened” King Frederich the Great – where Jews in Prussia were barely tolerated, and only a small number of wealthy Jews were permitted to settle in Berlin.

Mendelssohn’s education had been exclusively religious. But within a few years he had taught himself German, French, English, Mathematics and Philosophy – and had become a leading figure in the German Enlightenment. He was the first of many assimilated Jews who admired German culture and civilization. “This duality of German and Jew would preoccupy German Jews throughout the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century.”

Assimilation was increasingly accompanied by conversion, particularly among the upper classes. i.e. Felix Mendelssohn “the most jewish thing he ever did was to become a Christian” someone quipped.

Following Napoleon’s conquest of Prussia (1806) the French Civil Code was introduced – emancipating Jews. But unfortunately, Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and once again Jewish civil rights were suspended. A new kind of Jew hatred emerged mixing religious feelings with anti-jewish, and anti-french attitudes. The main targets were the newly assimilated Jews.

Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) eventually became one of those assimilated Jews. He arrived in Berlin in 1821 to study Law. But he was also an enormously gifted poet; considered the greatest German literary figure after Goethe. His poetry was drawn from both German and Hebrew mythology. In one of his poems, “Almansor,” he wrote “Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.” How prescient!

He vacillated about conversion, and in 1825 he did convert. But he deeply regretted it – and remained a Jew psychologically for the rest of his life. He died in Paris in 1856.

Following the Revolution of 1848, and subsequently the unification of Germany under Otto von Bismark, Jews made increasingly positive gains in wealth, art, science and literature – until the financial crash of 1873. This great recession changed all good feelings, and once again provoked tremendous anti-semitism. But by 1884 the economy had recovered. There was great technological progress and economic prosperity – and anti-semitism once again subsided. 1884-1914 became the “golden years” for Jews in Germany.

Among the most privileged were Max Warburg (1867-1946) and Walther Rathenau (1867-1922.) Warburg was the chairman of the prominent Hamburg banking empire, M.M. Warburg & Company and a confidante of the Kaiser – a Kaiserjude. His brother, Paul was even more influential. Paul had settled in New York where he became a partner in Kuhn Loeb & Company. He became a strong advocate of central banking in America and in that role he became the chief architect of the Federal Reserve System. He was appointed to the first Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve in 1914.

Walther Rathenau was the scion of an old Prussian Jewish family. His father, Emil, had founded A.E.G. which launched the electric industry in Germany. Among other things they built the electric trolley system in most major Germany cities. Rathenau eventually became the chairman of A.E.G. as well a sitting on the boards of many other corporations. He was also an author who wrote books on political and economic matters, and he was considered one of the most brilliant men in Berlin.

As Germany was heading toward the outbreak of World War 1, he was one of the few Jews who vehemently opposed the war. But once war broke out, he headed the Raw materials department in the Ministry of War. As the war drew to a close, the Kaiser resigned, and a Republican government (Weimar Republic) came to power.

It was this government – rather than the German General Staff – which surrendered to the Allies at Versailles, infuriating many conservative Germans, who blamed the “Jewish capitalists.” This coupled with severe hyperinflation, led to considerable political instability, a breakdown in law and order – and many political assassinations committed by right wing fanatics.

And in 1922 – under the Weimar Republic – Rathenau was appointed Foreign Minister of Germany. Fearing for his safety, many friends including Einstein, tried to dissuade him from accepting this post, but he ignored their warnings. In this role he tried to comply with the Treaty of Versailles, which infuriated the right wing, who also looked upon him as a “Jewish” traitor. Sadly, two months after his installation he was assassinated. Yet at his funeral two million Germans lined the streets of his cortege.

On the other hand, in the new Germany Jews finally achieved social and political equality. Berlin became the center of Weimar culture – and the German Jewish tradition flourished with such notables as Kurt Weil, Max Reinhardt, Bruno Walter, Arthur Koestler and Erich Fromm. Jewish scientists, Paul Ehrlich, Fritz Haber, James Franck, Otto Meyerhof and Albert Einstein were all recipients of the Nobel Prize.

Einstein was also the Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. In 1905 he had published four momentous papers, and these were followed in 1915 by his General Theory of Relativity which predicted that intense gravity could bend light rays. When this was confirmed by Arthur Eddington’s astronomical expedition in 1919, Einstein became an international rock star – and his name became synonymous with genius.

But in the end, the Great Depression began in 1929. Millions of Germans lost their jobs.
The German people responded by assaulting democracy and Jews – and Adolph Hitler led the way. In the 1930 election the National Socialist Party (Nazi) elected 107 delegates to the Reichstag, and in 1932 this number increased to 230. This led the doddering old German President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler to the post of Chancellor (1933). And the rest is history.