How Jews hothoused cosmopolitanism

By Cathy Gelbin, February 7, 2014
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When I was growing up behind the Wall in East Germany, cosmopolitanism was not a good word for the Jews. Hitler had persecuted us as “rootless parasites”. And hushed up as they were, rumours of Stalin’s purges of Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” had not escaped me either. My American-Jewish family, fleeing McCarthyism, had paradoxically averted this violent fate by settling in East Germany just as the Stalinist persecutions heightened in Moscow, Prague and Budapest. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, their shadows lingered as my step-grandfather Stefan Heym, the writer and later the German Parliament’s president by seniority, became East Germany’s most prominent dissident.

Fast-forward to the new millennium and cosmopolitanism has become a buzzword across academic fields. Now a literary and film scholar at Manchester University, I have followed this new trend with puzzlement. How could a concept so severely discredited by a history of persecutions suddenly accompany the celebrated vision of ethnic, cultural and national harmony in the New Europe? And moreover, where were the Jews in this new discourse, which barely mentioned, and often completely ignored, the past troubled history of the cosmopolitanist label?

Academia has seen a few such conceptual somersaults since the 1980s. First, we had the “hybrid” turning from a biological concept used in the Nazi definition of “mixed-race” persons of Jewish descent into a productive term for the post-colonial mix of ethnicities and cultures. Then, “queer” was lifted from its homophobic origins to connote the new academic study of human sexual diversity. Much as I have pursued these lines of interest in my own work, the niggling doubt remains: can we do this? Can we simply imbue a concept with new meanings and forget about its past histories of violence?

Granted, the history of cosmopolitanist discourse, and the place of Jews within it , has always been a chequered one. Together with my co-author Sander Gilman, the eminent cultural and literary historian at Emory University, I set out to unearth the ambivalent story of modern cosmopolitanism and the Jews. Our forthcoming study, which includes German archival material from the late 19th century to the early 1930s, reveals a remarkable culture of Jewish cosmopolitanism, which, despite the onslaught of Nazism, has survived into modern times. Indeed, German-speaking Jews have contributed disproportionately to the modern cosmopolitan idea and its vision of universal human rights in particular.

In the late 18th century, German Enlightenment writers revived the notion of the cosmopolitan from the ancient Greek, where “kosmopolitês” meant one’s sense of simultaneous allegiance to a city-state and a wider, universal context. The philosopher Immanuel Kant became a key figure in this debate when he demanded a Weltbürgerrecht, a universal law of citizenship, to which all humans were entitled. Of course, these Christian thinkers had little time for the Jews, who in their eyes were backwardly obsessed with their own culture.

Nonetheless, German-Jewish intellectuals who sought to gain full recognition in German-speaking society enthusiastically embraced Kant’s ideas and Goethe’s cultural equivalent of a world literature. Soon, German-speaking Jews became seen as either too particularist on the one hand or too international on the other. This antisemitism, in all but name, had a profound effect on German-speaking Jews, rejecting the accepted definition of their own German and Austrian identities. Zionists called for a separate homeland, whereas others insisted their identity was not merely Jewish or German or Austrian, but one beyond ethnicity and national borders.

And yet, this little-remembered Jewish engagement with cosmopolitanism in Germany and Austria between the 1870s and 1930s was a hotbed of ideas that drove the formation of the European Union. German-speaking Jewish intellectuals were among the first to see their identity as European. Just as Paris’s intellectuals gathered in the cafés of the Left Bank at the fin-de-siècle, German-speaking secular Jews would spend their time at coffee houses in Berlin, Vienna and Prague. Among them was Franz Kafka, as well as the already world-famous writers Stefan Zweig and Lion Feuchtwanger. World War One, with its senseless bloodshed among the European nations, galvanised their quest for a Europe beyond borders, as would the Nazis’ rise to power.

There were close connections between early Zionism and the cosmopolitan idea of Europe. Theodor Herzl imagined a Jewish state founded on the cultural and scientific achievements of a modern Europe cleansed of nationalist conflicts. And conversely, Kafka, Zweig and Feuchtwanger, in asserting the powerful idea of Jewish particularity in the diaspora, transplanted the ideas of cultural Zionism back onto their native European soil.

Likewise, political theorist Eduard Bernstein exerted an important influence on European identity. Though partially critical of Marxism, Bernstein followed in the footsteps of the German Jew Karl Marx who, while writing at Manchester’s Cheetham’s Library, dreamed of the international working class struggle against social injustice. But of course, Jews who represented the cosmopolitan were not always on the left: one of them was the German industrialist Walther Rathenau, who served as foreign minister in the Weimar Republic. He was assassinated in an antisemitic plot on June 24, 1922. Our research shows that these German-speaking Jews had a powerful impact on the thinking that spawned post-1945 European unity, especially the EU.

Although Nazism and Stalinism had largely destroyed cosmopolitan thinking and its bearers, its traces lived on among German Jews. It was the political theorist Hannah Arendt who, in 1951, coined the term totalitarianism itself. A decade later, in her famous report on the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, Arendt would envision a future international court. The creation of an international legal body had already been debated after World War One, but the Holocaust undoubtedly catalysed this process. With the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002 and the recent International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Arendt’s modern vision of Kant’s global norms of justice has now become a reality.

Has cosmopolitan thought become obsolete now that many of its ideas are enshrined in the political reality of the EU and United Nations sanctions?

Not so long as antisemitism and racism are still alive and kicking. In France, Hungary and the countries of the former Soviet Union, antisemitism has reached a worrying new high. In Germany, racist police bias enabled the systematic killings, execution style, of at least ten Turkish Germans by a Nazi underground group that is only now on trial. Many European countries, including Britain, remain dogged by a racist debate on immigration, which blames their own economic shortcomings on migrants, who, by providing cheap labour, create much of the wealth we enjoy. Elsewhere, the idea of universal human rights is fuelling the causes of disenfranchised ethnic and sexual groups, such as Israel’s Palestinian and migrant populations on the one hand, and its soaring gay activism on the other.

What is remarkable is that there are still Jewish thinkers living in German-speaking Europe, who are standard bearers for intellectual life. During my last visit to Vienna’s Café Central, a historic gathering place for Austrian Jews, I spotted Elfriede Jelinek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature, who often speaks of her own paternal Jewish roots. And aside from blatant social injustices, what about the image of Jews in the multicultural fabric of our societies?

Take London’s East End, whose Jewish roots reflect its cosmopolitan history, though on a smaller scale. And yet, as in contemporary Germany, today’s East Enders are largely unaware of the area’s rich Jewish cultural past.

Or take Manchester itself with its vibrant community of some 30,000 Jews, who rarely figure in debates on the city’s multiculturalism. One cannot convincingly argue that Jews are structurally disadvantaged nowadays, but many do feel left out of discussions about cultural diversity. Is this because Manchester has its very own North-South divide? In casual conversation, one sometimes hears slurs against the Charedi Jews “up North”, the supposedly authentic Jews of stereotype. By implication, the good — but also assumed to be less real — Jews, are the unobtrusive lot south of Piccadilly.

We want so much more: to be acknowledged and celebrated in our loud Jewishness and fierce commitment to civil society; to be cherished in our rainbow diversity as Jews, and as part of the wonderfully rich cultural and ethnic fabric of this society.

Dr Cathy Gelbin is senior lecturer in German Studies

    Last updated: 4:41pm, February 7 2014