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The German-Jewish Economic Elite, 1820-1935: A Socio-Cultural Profile.

ONE OF THE central issues in modern Jewish history is the degree to which Jews have "assimilated," that is, abandoned the world of the traditional Jewish community in order to become integrated members of Western culture and society. In this excellent, well-documented, and extremely interesting book, the eminent British historian, Werner Mosse, has explored the limits of integration into German society of the very richest Jews in Germany, a group which should have had the best chance of all for full integration.

Mosse uses as the foil for his discussion the position taken by the Israeli scholar, Gershom Scholem, in a very interesting essay, "On the Social Psychology of the Jews in Germany: 1900-1933" (in David Bronsen, ed., Jews in Germany from 1860-1933: The Problematic Symbiosis |Heidelberg, 1979~). There, Scholem had argued that, unlike most Jews who retained a large measure of Jewish ethnicity, Jewish millionaires in Germany were utterly assimilated, had rejected Jewish identity, strove only for close ties and full integration in Gentile society, and tried to ignore the anti-Semitism that they encountered. Mosse deems this argument a "simplistic" stereotype. Relying on the memoirs, personal papers, and letters of Germany's Jewish economic elite, he presents a sensitive and nuanced group portrait, revealing how these people balanced their Jewish identities with their desire for acceptance in Germany.

Mosse convincingly argues that most very rich German Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries retained a Jewish identity, whether out of sentimental attachments, filial piety, or defiance in the face of anti-Semitism. More importantly, they maintained Jewish ethnic cohesiveness, thus forming a distinct sub-culture in Germany and within Jewish society. The level of Jewish religious observance in the group may have been very low, but most of them remained bound to their fellow Jews through very strong economic, social, and kinship networks. Indeed, family ties provided the matrix of economic and social life, thus inhibiting social integration with non-Jews. In general, wealthy Jews did business with each other, socialized with each other, formed their closest friendships within the Jewish elite, and married each other. Whether by choice or necessity, even the most wealthy Jews in Germany were ethnically Jewish in their personal and social lives. Moreover, most wealthy Jews retained a strong sense of Jewish solidarity, which they expressed in activism on behalf of Jewish causes, whether to combat anti-Semitism or to help the suffering Jews in Russia. Thus, wealth did not necessarily lead to the abandonment of the Jewish people, as Scholem had posited.

The strength of Mosse's book lies in his depiction of the closed social world of the German-Jewish elite. He provides fascinating insight, for example, into the marriage strategies of wealthy German Jews, who maintained Jewish ethnic cohesion by parental "pre-selection" of suitable mates for their children. In the majority of cases, by controlling the sociability of their sons and daughters, wealthy Jews saw to it that their children married the offspring of other wealthy Jewish families, thus cementing already existing economic, social, and ethnic alliances, and thereby guaranteeing Jewish survival. Mosse shows that, unlike the Jewish middle class, the elite eschewed arranged marriages, rarely fussed about dowries, and sometimes married for love. Still, financial, familial, and ethnic concerns intersected to generate high endogamy rates.

On the other hand, of course, full integration into German non-Jewish society was never possible even for those who devoutly wished it, even for the baptized, even for the descendants of the baptized. Germany, after all, was not a pluralistic society tolerant of ethnic diversity. More importantly, the rise of aggressive anti-Semitism after the 1870s rendered full acceptance of the Jews impossible in most German circles, with the important exception of intellectuals and the political left. Whatever limited sociability existed between Jews and Gentiles in the early and mid-nineteenth century, it evaporated at the century's end. Jewish/Gentile relationships which did exist were highly self-conscious, based usually on material considerations or on shared outsiderness, and often reflected social inequalities. The status equals of the Jewish elite, wealthy non-Jewish businessmen, would not socialize with or marry wealthy Jews. Jewish men who insisted on marrying Gentiles had to "pay a price," that is, marry someone with less social prestige.

Baptized Jews suffered most of all from the refusal to recognize Jews as Germans, and Mosse does well to include them in his analysis. He documents at length the painful experiences of one Paul Wallich, for example, a wealthy Jew baptized at birth, whose Jewish origins hindered his attempts to enter German high society at the university, in the army, in marriage, in friendship. Wallich, like most other baptized Jews in Germany, socialized with other baptized Jews, forming yet another "Jewish" sub-culture in Germany. While, in the early nineteenth century, some baptized Jews did manage full integration, the emergence of racial anti-Semitism at the end of the century rendered total Jewish integration absolutely impossible -- at least for men.

One is struck here by the significant difference between the experiences of men and women. Men could never jettison their Jewish backgrounds, but Jewish heiresses willing to convert to Christianity could marry into the German aristocracy, presumably because many noblemen appreciated the large dowries that these Jewish women brought with them into marriage. The nobility would not marry its daughters to Jews, but it would marry its sons to Jews, undoubtedly thinking that women simply bear the identities of their husbands. Thus, sexist attitudes toward women enabled one group of rich Jews to assimilate fully. Does this intermarriage pattern tell us that Jews really wanted to intermarry but were generally unable to do so only because of anti-Jewish prejudice? Some information on the number and proportion of Jewish women who succeeded in marrying into the German aristocracy could help answer this question.

The limits of Jewish integration extended beyond the private sphere of sociability and family into the public sphere as well. Mosse documents at great length how wealthy Jews had absolutely no influence on German public life, especially after the 1870s and 1880s. They had no influence in parliament, the political parties, or the bureaucracy. Jews had no impact at all on political or economic policy-making, even when, like Bismarck's famous private banker and financial advisor, Gerson von Bleichroder, they were poised to do so. Here, the fate of Walther Rathenau, a wealthy Jewish industrialist, who was made Foreign Minister in 1922 and was murdered by right-wing thugs shortly afterwards, becomes paradigmatic for the possibilities of a Jewish role in public affairs. Of course, anti-Semitism was not the only obstacle to Jewish participation in German public and political life. The social and political structure of Germany (at least before the Weimar Republic) vested power in the hands of the aristocracy, a group which even baptized Jewish men could not join. Moreover, as commercial entrepreneurs, Jews stood outside the powerful interests of heavy industry, agriculture, or organized labor. Jews, thus, were doubly burdened, both by their place in the economy and by their Jewishness, in a society which resented them on both counts.

Only in the realm of culture could Jews play a prominent role, as important cultural figures in the early nineteenth century, and as patrons, collectors, and consumers of culture at the end of the century. Mosse reiterates historian Peter Gay's argument that these cultural figures made their contributions as acculturated Germans, not as Jews. The world of culture fully accepted Jews as equals. One wonders, of course, why that was so.

In The German-Jewish Economic Elite, Werner Mosse has made an extremely convincing case for the continued ethnic cohesiveness of the wealthiest Jews in Germany. Like all good books, of course, it has a few minor problems. Although the author frequently points to differences between the early and late nineteenth century, he should have been more sensitive to changes over time. The strength of the book lies in his anecdotes about individuals, but Mosse might have presented fewer anecdotes, condensed the book somewhat, and relied less heavily on extensive German quotations in the text and in the footnotes. Moreover, while the absence of statistics is appreciated, one might have liked some sense of what proportion of the elite retained some religious observance, or was baptized, or was active in Jewish life, or retained a sense of Jewish solidarity.

Mosse might also have tried to present more information about women in the elite. He assumes that they pushed their men into greater assimilation, but Marion Kaplan's work on Jewish middle class women reveals the lower level of assimilation among women as compared to men. One would like to know more about these women, including the nature of their relationships to their non-Jewish servants and to non-Jewish women of their class.

A further problem is Mosse's assumption that the elite had the best chances for full integration. One wonders why that would be true. Would not the very poor have the best chances for total integration? Todd Endelman's work on British Jews reveals an extremely high level of assimilation precisely among the poor. It is true that by the late nineteenth century there were virtually no poor German Jews. They had prospered, or migrated to America, or perhaps they had disappeared through total integration. Still, Mosse's point about the limits of integration for the elite holds true. Why, then, did the Gentile haute bourgeoisie refuse to socialize with or marry Jews? Mosse accepts this fact as a given without speculating about its causes.

The German-Jewish Economic Elite raises many questions about the limits of Jewish integration in modernity. Clearly, in Wilhemine and Weimar Germany both the class and status structure of society and the reality of anti-Semitism rendered full Jewish integration impossible. What, though, is the future of Jewish integration in a more tolerant society? To what extent is Jewish ethnic cohesiveness the result of anti-Semitic exclusion, and to what extent do Jews stick together simply because they want to, or find it natural to do so? These questions remain the central ones for Jews in the late twentieth century.

MARSHA ROZENBLIT is Associate Professor of History, University of Maryland, at College Park, Md.
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Author:Rozenblit, Marsha
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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