Radical Jews

Weimar Germany's Left-Wing Intellectuals.
by Istvan Deak.
University of California Press. 346 pp. $9.75.

Among those who chastise today's radical intellectuals for their “irresponsible negativism,” the example of Weimar Germany has often served as an analogy of compelling weight. By abandoning the republic in its hour of greatest need, the reasoning goes, Weimar's Left made certain the fascist seizure of power. Lulled by a crude Marxist dialectic that assured the inevitable triumph of the proletariat, many leftists complacently insisted on the notion of nach Hitler, uns, while grossly underestimating the staying power of the fascist “last stage of capitalism.” Only by working with the responsible, democratic Center, the argument concludes, could the Left have helped forestall the horrors of Nazism. The parallels which can be, and often are, drawn to the current behavior of the New Left in Germany and America are too obvious to need spelling out; suffice it to say that political responsibility is equated by proponents of this argument with that pragmatic moderation which seeks at all costs to avoid arousing a right-wing backlash.

That there is some merit in this line of reasoning cannot be denied. In any era, a politique de pire is a nasty game, justifiable only under the most extreme circumstances. Nevertheless, the question must be asked in the case of Weimar's Left, as it should be today: how much of the critical negativism, the refusal to countenance lesser evils, was derived from a spiteful and destructive nihilism and how much was necessitated by the choices presented by the society itself? Istvan Deak's Weimar Germany's Left-wing Intellectuals, a study of the highly politicized, if nonaffiliated, literati who wrote for the Berlin journal Die Weltbühne, goes a long way toward answering that question.


Although Deak is overly ambitious in his choice of titles, Die Weltbühne did serve as an occasional forum for many of Weimar's most engaged intelligentsia. Scattered among the short biographies thoughtfully appended to Deak's text are such names as Heinrich Mann, Egon Friedell, Lion Feuchtwanger, Arnold Zweig, Egon Erwin Kisch, and Ernst Toller. The dominant figures in the life of the journal, however, were clearly its three editors, Siegfried Jacobsohn, Kurt Tucholsky, and Carl von Ossietsky. Under Jacobsohn's direction, the magazine began publication in 1905 as Die Schaubühne, devoted primarily to drama criticism. By 1917, however, with the prolongation of an increasingly senseless war, its purely cultural concerns were gradually replaced by more avowedly political ones. In 1918, the journal changed its name to Die Weltbühne and opened its columns to writers like Kurt Hiller, whose militant “activism” demanded the interpenetration of politics and Geist under the guidance of an ill-defined “Logocratic” cultural elite.

During the first years of the new republic Kurt Tucholsky began his prodigious contributions to the journal and after Jacobsohn's sudden death in 1926 he assumed the editorship. Although his tenure as editor was brief and he soon left Germany altogether to live in self-imposed exile in Paris, Tucholsky continued to exert enormous influence on Die Weltbühne. Under any and all of the five names appearing over his countless articles, he expressed the most bitter pessimism about a people he could neither live among nor simply ignore, anticipating in his writings the politics of negation which Herbert Marcuse has more recently made fashionable as the “Great Refusal.” Reproached for fouling his own nest, Tucholsky replied: “They tell us that we should make positive proposals. But these are worthless without a nationwide epidemic of candor. . . . No, we cannot say ‘Yes.’ Not yet. We know only one thing: that we must sweep away with an iron broom all that is rotten in Germany.”

Carl von Ossietsky, who succeeded Tucholsky as editor of Die Weltbühne, had prior to his accession been somewhat less prone to prophecies of imminent doom. But by 1926 he had become, as Deak admits, very much of an enigma. Coming originally out of the peace movement, as did many of the Weltbühne writers, Ossietsky was fated to direct editorial policy during the years when the magazine took a position of the greatest revolutionary militancy. The fervor of his written work contrasted sharply with the lassitude and aloofness of his personal style. Although after 1928 Ossietsky often lent his name and support to Communist causes, his grasp of Marxism was confused and impressionistic. Moreover, there was nothing in Ossietsky's lower-middle-class background that would help to explain his increasingly left-wing political sympathies. Unlike his two predecessors and the majority of Weltbühne writers, he lacked the one quality which might make his radicalization more easily understable: he was not a Jew.


It would be a mistake, as Deak correctly stresses, to say that many, if not most, left-wing intellectuals in Weimar Germany simply happened to be Jews. The proportion of Jews in the Left during this period, and indeed throughout the history of modern radicalism, cannot be explained as a coincidence. A better answer, which Deak quotes with approval, was given by Arnold Zweig. “The Jews are proletarians,” he wrote in 1933. “They are proletarians, despite their luxury, their ten-room apartments, their university education, and their intellectual professions. The essence of proletarian existence is also symptomatic of their lives: they have no way of securing their present or their future, because they possess neither political guarantees, the right to participate in political decisions, nor do they possess the instruments of production.”

And yet, a purely sociopolitical explanation such as this seems insufficient in itself when one considers the persistent involvement of Jews in left-wing politics today. The sons of suburban doctors who lock college deans in their offices can scarcely be called hidden proletarians (no matter how tickled they would be to be so honored). If they are indeed exploited, as Paul Goodman and others have been trying to tell us for years, it is not as a function of their Jewishness. Moreover, today's Jewish radical is faced with the embarrassing and paradoxical fact that, at least for the moment, the most strident voices of anti-Semitism are not those of the oppressors but those of the oppressed. Still, the fact is that, however they may appear to be lacking in direct social motivation, the number of Jews participating in radical activism remains disproportionately high.

This state of affairs is doubtless sustained in part by the lingering memory of the “proletarian” condition Zweig accurately described as the living reality of the Weimar Jew. Other factors, however, must also be acknowledged—factors which played a role in earlier periods as well. Jewish religious themes, for example, such as the hope for a messianic, worldly redemption, have an obvious affinity to the Marxist dream of an end to the “pre-historic” rule of necessity. This is clearly evident in the writings of such left-wing Weimar intellectuals as Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin, who were not part of the Weltbühne circle. Even to the assimilated Jewish radical of today, this similarity might well retain a subterranean resonance. Another possible influence which warrants investigation is the structure of the Jewish family and the moral stance with which it is so often associated. As Kenneth Keniston has recently made clear, the most radical students in today's New Left are often those least alienated from their parents. It is uncertain whether a similar situation existed during the Weimar period in Germany—when conflicts over assimilation and orthodoxy were keener than they are today—but the possibility should be explored further.


Yet whatever the cause of the Jewish commitment to left-wing radicalism, it should not be assumed that no other Jewish response to conditions in Weimar was possible. A viable alternative existed in Zionism, whose political solution to the dilemma of the Weimar Jew proved regrettably in the long run to be the only response which bore any fruit. It is noteworthy that nowhere in Weimar Germany's Left-Wing Intellectuals is the question of Zionism even raised. As pessimistic as the Weltbühne circle was about the future of Germany, its members never abandoned their efforts to reverse its course and never entertained the notion of escaping to Palestine.

And there were, certainly, enough abuses in the domestic life of the republic and the conduct of its foreign affairs to keep Die Weltbühne's attention riveted at home. Whether attacking the pernicious influence of the military, or urging reconciliation with France, or taking a stand in a hundred other causes, Die Weltbühne sought to free Germany from the fetters of its half-discarded Wilhelmian past. Surprisingly, as in the case of George Grosz's trial for blasphemy in 1929, it won an occasional victory. Most of its energy, however, was devoted to the larger question of the nature of the republic itself. From 1918 to 1933, what began as qualified support for parliamentary democracy turned gradually into fierce hostility toward the republic, accompanied by the demand for immediate revolution. Under Jacobsohn, Die Weltbühne had originally rallied to the side of the state, albeit with great reservations, against the Sparta-cists and their call for a Rätediktatur. But by 1930, with the collapse of the “party state,” the journal had traveled a course which brought it clearly to the Left of the Communists, closer to Trotsky than to Thaelmann. It is this apparent reversal of loyalties which has earned the scorn of today's liberal historians. That this judgment can no longer be accepted without serious question is perhaps the major achievement of Deak's study.

For if principles were abandoned and responsibilities betrayed, Deak convincingly demonstrates that the majority socialists were among the worst offenders. Time after time, they threw away opportunities to create the social basis which might have made political democracy in Germany a real possibility. In 1919, following the first elections to the National Assembly; in 1920, after the workers' successful uprising against the Kapp putsch; and in 1922, with the storm of indignation over the murder of Walter Rathenau, sufficient popular support existed for the necessary social changes to have been made. Instead, the Social-Democratic party of Ebert and Noske, fearing the workers they claimed to represent more than they feared the continuation of a political structure built on social and economic quicksand, refused to act. Even after the impressive Social-Democratic electoral victory in 1928, the Müller government betrayed its campaign pledge to “feed children instead of building armored cruisers” and announced support for increased military expenditures.

Although Die Weltbühne had been willing at first to base its hopes for a united socialist movement and radically reformed Germany on the SPD, by the end of the decade Ossietsky and the others felt a lesson had been learned. As Deak argues: “. . . it was a tactical error for the SPD to seek support in the political center after 1930 when that center was rapidly disintegrating. It ought to be recognized, finally, that the Nazis and Communists did not destroy the Weimar Republic: it had been destroyed by the German bourgeoisie and the bourgeois political parties . . . who, after 1929, consistently favored an authoritarian solution. Because they clearly perceived the fallacy of the SPD's course, the writers of the Weltbühne could not submit to that party's discipline.”

Deak does not ignore the fact that their disillusionment with the majority socialists led many of the left-wing intellectuals into a kind of naive fellow-traveling, especially in their dealings with Willi Munzenberg's Communist propaganda apparatus. In retrospect, however, the idealism which lay behind their naivete seems less reprehensible than the craven opportunism which characterized the SPD's aping of the bourgeoisie. The crucial fact which the majority socialists stubbornly failed to accept had been grasped by the Weltbühne in the middle 20's: only a radical restructuring of the socioeconomic basis of the republic could prevent its eventual decline into authoritarianism. If in the early 30's the only possible hope for change lay in an alliance with the Communists and in the call for revolution, the pusillanimity and shortsightedness of the republic's “responsible” parties had left no other choice. In the face of this melancholy reality, the pessimism and negativism of the Weltbühne circle becomes far easier to understand.


By sympathetically tracing the radicalization of one of Weimar's most important, independent journals, Istvan Deak has succeeded in challenging many of the prevailing assumptions about the period as a whole. To be sure, not all of his conclusions will be readily accepted by other students of Weimar, nor will all be satisfied with the scant attention he pays to the intellectual sources of the Weltbühne's increased militancy. If, for example, Ossietsky knew little of Marxism, one would like to know what the analytical foundations of his politics in fact were. Similarly, Deak neglects to probe deeply enough into the nature of the Geist which Hiller and others wished to guide their politics. Deak takes pains to limit himself to a “political history,” but when intellectuals engage as self-consciously in politics as did those he has undertaken to study, such a limitation is difficult to uphold.

Nevertheless, it will no longer be possible to damn all of Weimar's Left for irresponsibility without answering Deak's persuasive arguments concerning at least one of its factions. But before this brings too much comfort to those who today would follow a similar path, in the belief that America's choices are equally limited, one fact which Deak makes perfectly clear ought to be thoroughly pondered and understood. If Weimar's left-wing intellectuals did not destroy what was already collapsing from within, they were also totally powerless to achieve the alternative they so passionately sought. And in politics, impotence, however “responsible,” is a quality historians may choose to honor or explain away, but contemporaries can only mourn.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link