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Philo-Semitism in Nineteenth-Century German Literature.

Philo-Semitism in Nineteenth-Century German Literature. By Irving Massey. (Conditio Judaica, 29.) Tubingen: Niemeyer, 2000. Pp. vi + 199. DM 98.-

Nineteenth-century German fiction and drama contains many Jewish figures, but few are presented favourably by non-Jewish authors. Two novels of enduring popularity, Gustav Freytag's Soil und Haben (1855) and Wilhelm Raabe's Der Hungerpastor (1864), include demonic Jewish villains, yet the authors denied imputations of anti-Semitism. Theodor Fontane's fiction is noted for its humane tolerance, yet his letters contain some alarmingly intolerant remarks about Jews, including the prophecy that in the not too distant future Jews will suffer grave and well-deserved afflictions. Such philo-Semitism as George Eliot displayed in Daniel Deronda is not to be found in German fiction. How could the same writer display liberal principles and cheap anti-Semitism?

To this problem, Professor Massey brings an astonishingly comprehensive knowledge of relevant primary and secondary texts in German, and wide reading in English, Polish, Yiddish and French. His approach is personal, quirky, and sometimes downright eccentric (as when he argues, pp. 56-9, that conversion to Christianity always drives Jews mad). A good editor would have reduced his tendency to digression and rearranged his material to make the argument more perspicuous.

Though sometimes irritating, Massey's discussions are serious and often rewarding. The first chapter, based on an article in Aschkenas (1997), circles round a text by Sacher-Masoch, Pintschew und Mintschew (1878), about two obsessive Talmudists, in which Massey finds a pleasing sympathy for democratic debate and dialogue. Sacher-Masoch's work as a whole, with its strange alternations between apparent philo-Semitism and anti-Semitism, does not, however, come into focus. The next main chapter deals judiciously with Freytag, Raabe, Fontane, and many other authors. The remarks on Freytag's Soil und Haben, Fontane's L'Adultera (1882), and Raabe's Frau Salome (1875) are particularly worth consulting. Even better is the chapter on Austrian writers, which acknowledges the philo-Semitism of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach and reveals the contradictions in the lives and works of Ludwig Anzengruber and Ferdinand von Saar, culminating in a defence of the latter's great story Seligmann Hirsch (1889) as philo-Semitic. A curiou s fact which Massey rightly stresses is that conversion to Judaism was not uncommon: 2,300 cases are recorded in Vienna alone between 1868 and 1903; yet such conversion practically never appears in literature, the one exception being Ada Christen's story Rahel in her Aus dem Leben (1876).

The uncertain status of Alsace-Lorraine, which was German from 1871 to 1918, justifies a chapter on the once-famous Alsatian novelists known as Erckmann-Chatrian, whose work contains many affectionate portraits of Jews alongside some anti-Semitic stereotyping.

Despite displaying these contradictions in instructive detail, Massey does little to explain them. He tends to reach for ahistorical, metaphysical answers, but it might have been more productive to consider historical factors such as the gradual and conditional nature of Jewish emancipation in Germany and the accelerated modernization that made the dispossessed anxious for scapegoats. A book by Hannah Burdekin, currently in press with Peter Lang, addresses controversial texts by Freytag, Raabe, Sacher-Masoch, Fontane and Thomas Mann in a more searching manner. Massey's book is important, however, both for its bibliographical thoroughness and for its refusal to smooth away the awkward contradictions in the texts discussed.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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