Historical Essays

The Unique and the Universal.
by J. L. Talmon.
Braziller. 320 pp. $6.50.

Publishers do not like collections of essays because they do not sell well; critics are not fond of them because they are awkward to review. They may have challenging titles but usually they lack a central unifying theme, and even the best of such collections are, by necessity, uneven. Professor Talmon, the author of this collection of essays, needs no introduction. A great teacher of history, he writes forcefully and with erudition; his illustrations and anecdotes are always entertaining and he takes more trouble than most of his colleagues with presentation and style. He ranges widely; in this volume, he comments on the interaction between nationalism and socialism throughout the 19th century, on the sub-acute Kulturkampf in Israel, on Herder’s ideas, on the function of the kibbutz, and many other topics. His position (he says) is that of a Jew who has lived through the traumatic experience of Nazism and Communism, chosen Israel as his home, and at the same time feels deeply committed to Western traditions. Characteristically, and rightly in my view, he takes issue with Toynbee not only for misreading Jewish history but for his prostration before the East and his self-flagellation as a Westerner. He writes with particular understanding about the historical necessity of the nation and the dangers of nationalism. Talmon criticizes the late German historian, Friedrich Meinecke, for devoting the greater part of a long life to the victory of the idea of the National-staat, which is a law unto itself, over Weltbuergertum or universalism. For a Zionist, this is dangerous ground—the same charges were made for decades against the Jewish national movement by the assimilationists. There can be no doubt about Professor Talmon’s Zionism: history, he writes, would make no sense unless Israel were one day to be spiritually significant and, in conjunction with the Jewish diaspora, spiritually effective in the world. Obviously, there can be no effective cultural center without a state as its basis.

The history of ideas (“books about books,” its critics say) as practiced by Talmon is one of the more interesting divisions of the wider field of historiography, but it has its pitfalls. There is a tendency to treat ideas in isolation from their historical context. There is also the danger of retelling with only slight variations (which are not always important, nor necessarily correct) stories that have been told by others before. Since, moreover, a historian of ideas usually has to cover a lot of ground, and since he cannot be equally familiar with all of it, there are, almost inevitably, generalizations which are half true, interpretations and statements of fact which are dubious.

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Dealing with the Jewish ingredient in the cosmopolitan culture of the last hundred-and-fifty years, Talmon, following Isaiah Berlin, points to the contrast between the superb achievements of Jews in (for instance) music, and their rather inferior showing in literature. He mentions Stefan Zweig, Ilya Ehrenburg, André Maurois, and a few others, and says that it is not enough to penetrate the inner springs and hidden recesses of men and societies; vigor and intimacy in literature can come only from subtle, almost unconscious and automatic associations which are imperceptibly experienced within a concrete and long-established tradition. Here, I fear, almost everything is wrong. The Jewish contribution (if there is such a thing) to literature is certainly not inferior to that in music; on the contrary, the choice of names by Professor Talmon is unfortunate. Great novelists are not necessarily the greatest masters of the language—Dostoevsky is one example, Kafka another. As for these “almost unconscious and automatic associations,” the absolute mastery of, and feeling for, the language, they are to be found even where there is no concrete, long-established tradition of cultural symbiosis: Pasternak, Mandelstam, Julian Tuwim—one could easily add to the list.

With the intellectual history of modern Germany, Professor Talmon deals at length; the fascination this subject has for a Jewish historian is obvious. He traces the roots of Nazi doctrine back to Herder, Fichte, and Hegel. This is not exactly a new approach, and few will now maintain that Nazism was a sudden aberration of the German spirit. But is it really true that Hegel was an aggressive, pan-German militarist à la Bernhardi, who thought that nationhood reached its highest point of self-realization in the convulsions of war? Is it correct to say that in German the word “state” is imbued with the deepest emotions? (It has certainly not been true for Germany since World War I; even the Nazis put Volk and race far above the state.) One has the impression that Professor Talmon writes with less authority about German intellectual and political history than about the French Revolution. There is always some truth in what he says, but it is hardly ever the whole, complicated truth. It is, as Taine said about Michelet, “admirable mais incomplet.” This also emerges from several of Professor Talmon’s asides. It is highly unlikely, for instance, that Hindenburg ever called Hitler “einen boehmischen Feldwebel.” A Feldwebel is a sergeant; Hindenburg was no intellectual giant, but about military ranks he knew his stuff. Since Hitler was never promoted to Sergeant, Hindenburg would no more have called him a Feldwebel than Professor Talmon would make a mistake about the year of his birth.

Professor Talmon’s anti-Germanism is in the pre-1914 East European tradition, which found a number of converts among leading East European Jews—Weizmann, for instance, and perhaps most notably, Professor Talmon’s teacher, the late Sir Lewis Namier, who during World War I wrote propaganda pamphlets for the British Foreign Office. This position was not shared at the time by most Jewish leaders outside France and England. Events during the Nazi era seemed to justify the foreboding of Weizmann and Namier, and the historian cannot fail to adjust his perspective accordingly. But one feels that Talmon occasionally misuses his post-hoc wisdom. The ideological precursors of National Socialism can be traced back into the 19th century and even beyond—but not only in Germany. On the other hand, it was from Germany that the Jewish national movement received its decisive impulses. Zionism is based on German philosophy; Fichte, Hegel, Lagarde, and the other chief exponents of the German national idea, were its preceptors. Those who are embarrassed by this heritage should know that one cannot really re-evaluate German intellectual history without reassessing the origins of Zionism. As for anti-Semitism, the decisive idelogical impact came from France and Russia. And yet, it was precisely in Germany that millions of Jews were killed and the historian wants to know why. At this point, the traditional history-of-ideas approach ceases to be of much use; as Talmon says in a different context, “It is to psychology that we have to look for a new fertilization of historical thinking.” I am less confident that at our present level of knowledge in this field, psychology can provide the key—quite apart from the fact that one should not concentrate one’s efforts in one direction only. So far there have been many pious wishes; Namier voiced similar sentiments, as also did William Langer and many others. But in their own work, as in that of Professor Talmon, one will look in vain for the results of a new approach. Political scientists have been more daring in this respect but not exactly more successful.

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A collection of essays, as I said, is an awkward medium for the reviewer, and as a result the author is likely to be treated unfairly. I have dwelt on the weaknesses of this book, but it also has fresh insights, and much of value and interest. The essay on Namier (originally published in COMMENTARY in March 1962) is not only a labor of love, the tribute of a pupil to his teacher, it is one of the best such essays I have ever read. Talmon’s long review of Leonard Stein’s book on the Balfour Declaration is excellent.

On the subjects of socialism and nationalism in the 19th century, there have been many studies in recent years—good, bad, and indifferent; it is doubtful whether fresh ground remains to be broken in our time for really novel approaches or major works of synthesis. There are lacunae—for instance, the history of the Jewish national movement and Jewish socialism. With his profound interest in things Jewish and his powerful equipment for dealing with them in a wider context, it is regrettable that Professor Talmon has not written more often and more systematically on this curiously neglected field, modern Jewish history.

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