I can’t remember how long ago, but once a book popped up on my Goodreads page I simply had to read. Published in back 2002, Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 looked like one of those books that’s right up my alley. And not just any book on Jewish history, but one devoted to the history of Jews in Germany. Therefore, like many promising books I read or hear about, I vowed to someday read it. Then, like I’ve done so many times in the past promptly forgot about it. That is, until I was surfing my public library’s online catalog and was it was listed. I quickly placed a hold and before I knew it, a copy become available. Once again, I found myself kicking myself because I should not have waited so long to read Elon’s outstanding book.
The Pity of It All begins with Moses Mendelssohn’s arrival in Berlin. Not yet 15 years old but confident, purposeful and smart enough to trade his backwater Jewish community in Dessau for the brighter lights of Berlin. (This, in an age when the Prussian military’s presence in the city was so huge some joked that Prussia was an army in search of a state.) Even though the city’s gate masters were officially tasked with keeping itinerant Jews from entering the city, Mendelssohn nevertheless made it inside. Once settled, he went on to become not only one of the leading lights of the Enlightenment, but also an early advocate of Jewish assimilation and interfaith dialog. Much like their co-religionists the Rothschild’s, in time the Mendelssohn family name would be associated with fame and accomplishment, from banking to composing.
As one might expect, according to Elon the history of Jews in German is ultimately a tragic one, both in nature and irony. As German Jews embraced German culture, language and education and thus assimilated, like so many of their Christian neighbors Germany’s Jews became increasingly secular. Unfortunately, with many of Germany’s top positions in academia, the military and the like still closed to them, countless German Jews converted. Cynically, or depending how you look at it realistically, those like the poet Heine figured it was an easy transition from non-practicing Jew to non-practicing Christian. Fearing Jews would continue to convert and in great numbers, (one person wrote at the time it seemed like half of Berlin’s Jews were converts) a kind of Jewish Counter Reformation arose with its goal to preserve traditional Judaism while keeping it relevant in a modern secular age.
When it comes to tragedy and irony, during the 200 year history of Germany’s Jews the worst was saved for last. During the First World War and the run-up preceding it, some Germans accused the nation’s Jews of not being patriotic, and thus not German enough. However, in reality a number of influential Jews in academia and industry were solidly behind the Germany’s military endeavors, issuing supportive pronouncements and urging the nation to fight on. Later in the War, after four years of brutal trench warfare and Britain’s naval blockade left Germany hungry and bled white, antisemitic elements looking for scapegoats accused the nation’s Jewish soldiers of lacking bravery. A fact-finding report was issued and when completed, showed Jewish soldiers were fighting as hard as and taking as many casualties as the rest of the German army. (One crazy historical footnote I learned from Elon’s book is the German officer who went to bat for a young Adolf Hitler and made sure he was decorated for bravery was Jewish.) After Germany’s government collapsed at the end of WWI, the nation’s first democratically elected government arose from the political ashes. Also for the fist time in Germany’s history, many Jews held positions of responsibility in the new government. But that young government’s inability to effectively negotiate with the victorious Allies led to significant losses in German territory. (A war that right up to the end, the German people were told they were winning.) This would lead to a decade of widespread anger and resentment, and after the horrors of the Great Depression, opened the doors of power to the antisemitic Nazis in the early 30s.
The Pity of It All is an outstanding book and could easily make my year-end Best of List. It’s also a great companion book to Howard Sachar’s 2007 masterpiece A History of the Jews in the Modern World. Please consider The Pity of It All highly recommended.