Conspiracy Theorist

Wilhelm Marr: The Patriarch of Anti-semitism.
by Moshe Zimmermann.
Oxford University Press. 178 pp. $19.95.

No one thought much of Wilhelm Marr during his long life (1819-1904) or afterward. Karl Marx called him “loathsome.” The historian Heinrich von Treitschke, the doyen of academic anti-Semites, referred to him as a “windbag.” Nazis, offended in retrospect by his flamboyance, harbored (unwarranted) doubts about the purity of his Aryan blood. He married four times and divorced two of his three Jewish wives. He was just not a likable man.

Nor did he have steady principles. Over a political and literary career of forty years, he espoused anti-Christian atheism and the defense of Christian-Germanism; German particularism and German unity; the rights of man and black slavery; socialism and the sanctity of private property; equality for Jews and anti-Semitism. He was not an important thinker, enjoyed only modest success as a litterateur specializing in satire and heavy irony, and was by his own admission a terrible failure as a politician.

Yet Marr was more than an interesting crank, and his life has more than antiquarian interest. It touches and comments upon some major episodes of 19th-century history, from his beginnings as a Young Hegelian among the German artisans and exiles of Switzerland during the 1840’s, through the Revolution of 1848, the turbulent politics of German unification, and the rise of social democracy and modern anti-Semitism in the 1870’s and 1880’s. He was personally acquainted with Marx, Mazzini, Wagner, and Bismarck. He left behind over thirty published books and pamphlets, reams of journalism, and a large collection of unpublished papers. Still, had he not in 1879 written “The Victory of Jewry Over Germandom” and been credited with coining the term “anti-Semite,” he would have remained forever in obscurity. This pamphlet and the speedy adoption of the neologism attached to it have much to tell us about the nature of anti-Semitism. So do Marr’s life and thought.

A few scholars have picked over Marr’s career, but Moshe Zimmermann is the first to have undertaken serious research, and he has found out a good deal more about the details of Marr’s life than had been previously known. He has managed this by a diligent reading of Marr’s unpublished memoirs and by meticulous attention to the immediate setting of his activities in Hamburg and Berlin. Since I am myself now writing a book on Marr and the meaning of anti-Semitism, I can say with admiration that this hard work will not be improved upon.

Unfortunately, Zimmermann tells the story of Marr’s life as though it will, of itself, illuminate the subject of anti-Semitism. But the context in which he places the life is too small, too narrowly focused on the political, professional, and emotional travails of the man. Zimmermann does not tell us enough about Germans and Jews or about the European intellectual tradition within which Marr developed.

This defect is apparent in his treatment of the matters that justify a biographical study of Marr in the first place—the famous pamphlet of 1879 and the term, “anti-Semite.” “The Victory of Jewry” was not Marr’s first piece aimed against the Jews. Seventeen years earlier, after his return to Hamburg from a period of travel in North and Central America, he published “A Mirror to the Jews” (1862). There, citing “biblical evidence” and his own personal experience, he argued against the legal emancipation of Jews, at least so long as they adhered to their archaic religious customs and failed to assimilate completely. Often illogical, the “Mirror to the Jews” was also traditional, a plea to fend off the pretensions of “this alien people.” Zimmermann shows that the pamphlet, which fell into almost immediate oblivion, was occasioned by Marr’s political grudges against some of Hamburg’s leading Jewish politicians. But here and elsewhere, Zimmermann confuses occasion with cause.

Marr had begun his political career in the 1840’s as a radical democrat, a self-professed “apostle of freedom” and human equality. That he found it possible to square an attack on the “tribal characteristics” of Jews with his democratic principles cannot be explained by reference to a simple political vendetta. In fact, Marr’s previous publications show a clear anti-democratic trend, beginning even as the Revolution of 1848 was failing. In 1852 Marr wrote an analysis of the failure of the movement toward democratic emancipation; although quite self-critical, it also placed chief blame on the unreliable and easily misled masses of Germans, who listened to the wrong leaders and were prone to mindless violence. This loss of faith in the masses was, I think, crucial to Marr’s becoming an anti-Semite. He never forgave the Volk, and the theory of Jewish conspiracy he later developed rested ultimately on the gullibility, greed, and stupidity of ordinary Germans as much as it did on the evil of Jewry.

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Marr could abandon a democratic world view but not his own personality, particularly not his personal ambitions or the conception of himself as an important thinker. In his early writings there recurs a telling image: the search for a “fulcrum and a lever long enough to lift the world off its hinges.” The metaphor is unoriginal, but it reveals his most consistent motivation. More than anything else, Marr yearned all his life to be famous, influential, and, in his terms, “honored.”

Citing Marr’s memoirs, Zimmermann reports that he was genuinely surprised and hurt by the reaction of his democratic friends to “A Mirror to the Jews.” But Marr’s retrospective and self-serving memoirs are a less valid guide to his real motives than his highly autobiographical publications and public utterances at the time. These reveal that his airing of anti-Jewish views was a calculated act. Marr had learned from reading Machiavelli, he tells us, that the Volk was a law unto itself, best compared to something elemental like the sea. One had but to learn to sail upon it. An appeal to the irrational hatred of Jews, something that Marr already felt typified 90 percent of the Germans of all classes, might provide him with that Archimedean lever to repair his declining political fortunes and launch him on a new career. He was, in short, making a conscious political choice.

This is not to deny either Zimmermann’s well-documented evidence of Marr’s deep personal animus toward some Jews, or even his less well-grounded speculations about Marr’s troubles with his baptized Jewish father-in-law and unloved wife. But the significance of this first, unsuccessful foray into anti-Jewish polemics is not exhausted by establishing its origins in the details of his personal or political relations.

The ease with which Marr was able to adopt an anti-Jewish position is instructive. Jews responded feebly to the book; some of his Jewish friends—and he had many—even forgave him his vile sentiments. For in truth, what he said about the Jews was wholly unoriginal, borrowed liberally from a long, often quite nasty discussion of the Jewish question in Germany and in Hamburg. Marr was more particularly inspired by his culture heroes, Voltaire, Spinoza, Heine, and Ludwig Börne. And he repeated what his Left-Hegelian acquaintances and models—Marx, Hess, Feuerbach, and Bruno Bauer—had written or were known to have thought about the Jews. While he was no longer a democrat, he did not wish to lose the respect of former comrades, and did not think he would do so merely by speaking out against the Jews.

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It was the further development of these anti-Jewish views, and especially the willingness to act on them, that would eventually separate Marr from other left-wing haters of the Jews. While acrobatically searching for a political cause that could do him some good, and writing as compulsively as ever on affairs of the day, Marr gradually constructed a theory of Jewish conspiracy to accommodate his needs. Among these, the need to feel ideologically “justified” may have been the most important. His succession of failures, his personal experiences with Jews, his declining health and fortunes—his general lack of significance—could all be laid to Jewish evil, but the argument had to be made in grandiose style. A Jewish conspiracy of world-historical dimensions was thus called into existence to explain what a more courageous and honest man might have attributed to his own shortcomings.

Marr did not put this conspiracy theory fully before the public until 1879, when he published the pamphlet which made him briefly famous. He had argued in 1862 that to emancipate the Jews would simply not work, that they would make use of legal “privileges” to enhance their material position. Now, in “The Victory of Jewry,” this argument was obsolete. The Jews had won legal equality in the whole German empire and there was no stopping them. An unassimilable race bent on world conquest had already conquered Germandom.

With his telling portrayal of Jewish triumph at German expense, Marr was trying to goad his readers into action. They were told that the visibly prospering Jews had engaged in an 1,800-year conspiracy against them, culminating in a Thirty Years’ War of pillage. And there was reason for them to believe him. German unification had been followed swiftly by a financial crash and depression, rapid urbanization, and the appearance of a militantly organized proletariat. The peasantry and lower-middle classes felt desperately threatened by these developments and by the chaotic transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy. “The Victory of Jewry” expressed the need of countless Germans to assign blame for all this.

Marr, for the only time in his life, found a public ready to hear his message, and ready as well for a political movement based on it. By the end of 1879, “The Victory of Jewry” had gone through eleven editions, and in that eleventh edition there appeared an announcement of the formation of an “Anti-Semites’ League.” In all likelihood this was the first use of the word in a political sense, and it was almost certainly the creation of Wilhelm Marr.

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Zimmermann is informative on the incidental political value of the new word. It was the atheistic Marr’s way of avoiding association with the familiar Christian/social contempt for Jews. “Anti-Semite” had a scientific ring, proclaiming a racial rather than a religious connotation to the Jewish question, and was vague enough to fend off what was expected to be a ferocious legal counterattack by Jews. Characteristically of the man, however, the term was also misleading, and later anti-Semites would be peeved at being saddled with such an imprecise description of their world view.

All this is interesting, but again misses the main point. The designations “anti-Semite” and “anti-Semitism” gained immediate currency all over Europe. They answered a need for new terms, terms that better described a new and, it was felt, necessary form of action against Jews. Marr, the inveterate politician, had understood that once Jews gained legal emancipation, the old sorts of anti-Jewish behavior—the occasional book, the occasional pogrom—were no longer adequate. Now it was too late for such defensive gestures. A continuous political effort would have to be mounted, institutionalized in parties, propaganda associations, and newspapers.

Anti-Semitism not only proffered a reinterpretation of the past and the present, but demanded a new, broadly based politics. Wilhelm Marr, who had been living this new definition of anti-Semitism for the past decade, spelled out the politics of it in a spate of follow-up pamphlets that helped channel the hatred, contempt, and fear of Jews already present in German society into a movement whose terrible consequences he could scarcely imagine.

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