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Berlin Jewish Pioneers of Modernism

ISSUE:  Spring 2001
Berlin Metropolis: Jews and the New Culture, 1890—1918. Edited and with an introduction by Emily D. Bilski. With essays by Sigrid Bauschinger, Inka Bertz, Emily D. Bilski, Barbara Hahn, Peter Jelavich, Paul Mendes-Flohr, Peter Paret, and Chana C. Schütz. University of California Press and the Jewish Museum, New York. $29.95

The listing of “notable books of the year” by such publications as the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times Book Review and other periodicals is a useful convention. Somewhat surprisingly the lists for 2000 apparently overlooked a recent book I (not alone) would deem among the very best of the nonfiction titles. It is Berlin Metropolis: Jews and the New Culture, 1890—1918, 12 years in genesis, much superb writing, richly illustrated. The book’s eight authors draw upon the fruit of a veritable concatenation of research by scores of scholars on intimately related subjects. These are listed in “acknowledgment” pages, striking in their voluminousness, in their depth and comprehensiveness. The reader sees that this book, so profoundly nourished by corps of scholars, is in effect a team effort. A single review cannot do proper justice to the breadth of this multifaceted work.

The basic subject is modernism, its origins and evolution. But the paradox is that just to do justice to this subject the book is much more. Thus in identifying modernism’s creators and their achievements it necessarily illuminates the cultural forces and the technology and political circumstances that molded these creators. So the book transcends the story of Berlin per se and comprehensively expresses the core character of modern Western cultural history. It serves, so to speak, as a rich interdisciplinary guide to understanding today’s world. How well it could be used as a text in courses on the humanities in several disciplines! It needs to be said, too, that, grand as its scope is, the book inevitably reveals the cardinal role of Jews in every pursuit: art, cabaret, music, cinema, journalism, cafes, gallery exhibitions, salons, even the first emporiums in retail trade.

Emily D. Bilski, the book’s lead editor/author, is an art curator and scholar now living in Jerusalem who curated the exhibition for which this book serves as a “catalogue” (though it goes far beyond that function). The exhibition, which ran at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan from November 14, 1999 through April 23, 2000, has been lavishly praised. The exhibition consisted of some 250 disparate works in every medium from more than 70 private and public collections worldwide. Bilski’s own two essays—her Introduction and her “Images of Identity and Urban Life: Jewish Artists in Turn of the Century Berlin”—are stunning in their intelligence, the wealth of historic information, their imaginative sweep. Take, for instance, as typical of her range of comment, her recalling the emancipation of German Jewry, that is, their liberation from the ghetto, the granting of civic equality but still excluding careers in the military, the courts, the state bureaucracy, even the universities. She writes of the Jews’ subsequent economic success and their intense interaction with German culture—the ideology of Bildung, the zealous individual pursuit of humanistic culture. She observes that economic modernization in Germany was the world’s most rapid, from an agrarian society in 1850 to an industrial nation by 1890, and that because the Jews “had left their villages for the cities approximately one generation before other Germans” (my italics) they became dominant in economic life by the 1890’s. But denied access to “official public spheres” as “outsiders,” as “marginal Jews,” they, the so-called Grenzuden turned to the creative fields noted above. In so doing, they created “the most exciting epoch in German intellectual history.” It was American social philosopher Thorstein Veblen who, in 1919, wrote Jews “count for more than their proportionate in the intellectual life of western civilization; and they count particularly among the vanguard, the pioneers, the uneasy guild of pathfinders and iconoclasts, in science, scholarship, and institutional change and growth.”

Bilski cannot resist quoting here Peter Gay cautioning against “philo-Semitic parochialism,” “celebratory display of self-congratulation.” And her fellow essayist the historian Paul Mendes-Flohr’s amiably observes that Jewish genius is not exactly unique in Germany, citing “the Kants, the Hegels, the Nietzsches, the Jungs, the Thomas Manns, the Beethovens, the Bruckners.” Mendes-Flohr observes that Jews maintained an ingrained skepticism owing to their origins as “outsiders,” on the boundary between two different cultures, their ethnic origin’s culture and European culture, without “unquestioned allegiance to either.” So the Jews were the cosmopolitans and thus appropriately the “prophets of modernity,” the subversives of fatuous bourgeois convention.

I would point out that the Jews of Imperial Berlin represented just 3 percent of that population, yet their presence, their contribution, was dominating. And I am reminded that, curiously enough, Jews also represent just the same 3 percent of the American population today. Yet they make up 40 percent of American Nobel Prize winners, 20 percent of professors at the leading universities, 40 percent of partners in the leading New York and Washington law firms, and are represented 12 times more than the general population at the seven Ivy League colleges, about one-third of the student body of these colleges—this according to Jews and the American Scene (1995) by top social scientists Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab.

Limited space necessitates summaries of all the book’s essays, but they suggest the range of this remarkable work. Paul Mendes-Flohr’s essay, “The Berlin Jew as Cosmopolitan,” has a fascinating account of the debate over Moritz Goldstein’s cogent, intensely controversial article “The German-Jewish Parnassus.” Peter Paret’s “Modernism and the “Alien Element” in German Art” covers the Berlin Secession and the giant figures, veritable protagonists, of the period, the artist Max Lieberman and publishers/gallery founders Paul and Bruno Cassirer. Sigrid Bauschinger’s essay on modernism in literature and journals (in particular Der Sturm) contains a masterful analysis of the advent of the café as the site for artistic and intellectual exchange. Bilski’s essay in the book focuses on Max Lieberman and fellow artists Lesser Ury, Ludwig Meidner and Jakob Steinhardt. Max Lieberman again is the subject for Chana C. Schütz’s piece about the relationship between art and Jewish identity. Inka Bertz’s essay addresses the relationship between the two parallel movements— Zionism’s origins and German modernism. The topic of the salon’s role, specifically of the profuse participation of Jewish women among the upper bourgeoisie, is subtly examined in the essay by Barbara Hahn.

Perhaps especially interesting for contemporary readers is Peter Jelavich’s essay, “Performing High and Low: Jews in Modern Theater, Cabaret, Revue and Film.” Curiously enough, there were hardly any Jewish playwrights. Where the Jews predominated was in popular entertainment in film, and as composers, scriptwriters, performers, producers. The Berlin audiences were “disproportionately” Jewish as well. In the theater world of Imperial Berlin, the giants were the directors Max Reinhardt and Otto Brahm, in cabaret the composer Rudolf Nelson, in revues Julius Freund and Viktor Hollaender, and in film the genius comedian and director Ernst Lubitsch.

It was Otto Brahm who first championed “Naturalist” drama, realism in social criticism, and who idealized the Ibsen of A Doll’s House. In German theater of the late 19th century the public was to be shielded by censorship from such nastiness as hereditary syphilis or adultery. So, to circumvent this, there was recourse to closed performances to which only invited guests were admitted. Eventually, however, Brahm acquired the Deutsches Theater, whose financing and patronage were overwhelmingly Jewish. And this fueled anti-Semitism, so often the counterpart to the “subversive” impact of critical intelligence inherent in Naturalism.

Max Reinhardt became Berlin’s dominant figure, beginning with his fabulous cabaret “Schall und Rauch” (Sound and Smoke), in 1901. He created shatteringly comic parodies of theatrical styles and dramatic literature (à la today’s Forbidden Broadway?). Nothing fazed Reinhardt. He dared to make fun of derogatory Jewish stereotypes, often quite mercilessly, as witness this parody of Markwitz quoting here from the text of the “Karle” episode of Don Carlos: “He is doubtlessly a Hebrew, but does not like to admit it. In addition he has had himself baptized several times, but not to any apparent advantage. His nose has the boldly curving line of the Chosen People. It is white and huge and sweats constantly. The moustache under the nose resists being forced to look like that of the Kaiser.” These caricatures caused no ruffle for invited audiences. But after Sound and Smoke went public protests grew.

An early full-length play Reinhardt produced (1902) was Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a one-time closed performance. Its later public version (1903) was spectacular, with opulent sets and costumes designed by the sculptor Max Krause and heralded Impressionist painter Lovis Corinth. Reinhardt’s sponsoring of the Berlin premiere of Frank Wedekind’s first Lulu play, Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) also created a sensation. So too did the 1903 presentation by Reinhardt of his dearest compatriot, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s production of the Electra story. Reinhardt also produced Gorky’s The Lower Depths and Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande to great acclaim.

At this time the newest and most popular mass medium to emerge, however, was film, first surfacing in 1895 at Berlin’s Wintergarten variety theater, then in vaudeville houses throughout Germany. By 1906 movies had graduated from the nickelodeon level and Berlin had become the cinema center. The leading figure was the actor Ernst Lubitsch (1892—1947), who starred in and then directed a series of highly successful films. One of his best (actually screened in the Jewish Museum exhibition) was Pinkus’s Shoe Palace, in which Lubitsch, amazingly suggestive of the Groucho Marx to come, cons a famous dancer into purchasing a pair of shoes by faking a smaller size on the shoebox. Lubitsch is slyly subversive in all his films. He reverses the paradigm of the blond Teutonic he-man, emphasizing his own stereotypical Jewishness, faking his prowess in gym, yet winning the girl in the end. Funny and lovable. But World War I was now under way, thousands dying at the front, and anti-Semitism spread. In 1916 there was the devastating Judenzählung, a tally of Jewish soldiers in battle after malicious gossip of Jewish draft evasion—and when it was found that Jewish soldiers were indeed proportionately fighting at the front, this exonerating fact was suppressed. Here was an early intimation of the murderous anti-Semitism to come.

Jelavich concludes his essay (and the book) noting that in Germany Lubitsch’s wartime films were successful among Jewish and Gentile audiences alike. “In the last years of Imperial Berlin, Lubitsch could still create a hit by both writing and casting “Yiddish,”” writes Jelavich, despite the fact that as the war intensified there were increasing omens of growing anti-Semitism and nationalistic fervor. Later, after the war, when Lubitsch came to America and became a part of the Hollywood establishment, one of the standard quips for a successful production was “Write Yiddish—cast British.” Reflecting on the theatrical culture of Berlin in this period, Jelavich writes, “If Berlin’s stages and screens were sites of innovation, excitement, open-mindedness, and, above all play, it was to a great extent due to the efforts and inspiration of its Jewish citizens.” “Play”:—the antecedents of Groucho, of today’s Mel Brooks and the comedian Jackie Mason; of the glory days of the Borscht Circuit? Yes, and so much more.

While Berlin Metropolis is an exaltation of the Jewish cultural achievements in the Imperial Berlin and Weimar periods, the reader cannot escape its ominous intimations of the Holocaust to come, the multiplying signs of the pathological rationale of Hitler’s “willing executioners” of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s landmark if controversial study. A highlight of the book is essayist Paul Mendes-Flohr’s powerful analysis of the thesis of German historian Werner Sombart. Sombart’s insidious argument is that the Jews’ predominant traits are racial and derive from their allegedly Oriental nomadic origins. Hence Jews are rootless, tribal, descended from harsh desert climes, environments replicated in their peregrinations in the Diaspora, Jews as ever anchored to their “Asiatic” origins yet successfully assimilated into restless urban commercial capitalism. Mendes-Flohr summarizes Sombart’s argument thus: “Capitalism is primed by an appetitus divitiarum infinitus—unlimited lust for gain—whose development, therefore, knows no bounds. It is this conception of capitalism that allowed him to discern its “phenomenological” origins in the life of nomads and their endless wandering in a seemingly boundless desert. Accordingly he posed the rhetorical question, “Is it not too much to say that nomadism is the progenitor of capitalism?”“

Sombart goes on to posit that Jews disdain physical labor, become people of brain rather than brawn, yet their intellectuality is ultimately “superficial,” as “shiftless as the desert sands.” Sombart’s anti-Semitic animus, asserting that the Jews, utilizing the ploys of urban civilization, subvert the culture and life of the native population precipitated in 1912 the so-called “Kunstwart debate.” This was the debate on these allegations in the prestigious cultural review Der Kunstwart (Guardian of Art), a debate triggered by the young Jewish scholar Moritz Goldstein’s essay “The German-Jewish Parnassus.” Asserting that “we speak as Germans to Germans,” he attacked the Sombart thesis head-on, dismissing the labeling of Jews as “Asiatic” as absurd and observing that the German critics “reluctantly feel obliged to acknowledge our achievement” yet “they wish we would achieve less.” This “provoked a ramified debate that reverberated for several years throughout the German press,” writes Mendes-Flohr.

He concludes his essay with a breathtakingly prophetic quotation, written midway between World Wars I and II, defining the ideal cosmopolitan Berlin, from “the grand patron of Berlin’s avant-garde,” Herwarth Walden, the brilliant editor of his famous journal Der Sturm: “Russia lies in West Berlin. Berlin is very large and therefore she is the capital city of the United States of Europe. . . . Is it not a great city, in which Russians live in the west, the Germans in the south and the Italians in the north? A city in which the Germans speak French, the Russians German, the Japanese a broken German, and the Italians English. . . . Berlin is a microcosm of America. Berlin is timeless motion and timeless life. Perhaps the United States of America has a Berlin. But Berlin lacks a United States of Europe. One should establish the United States of Europe as quickly as possible. Not only for the sake of Berlin, but for the sake of Europe.”


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