The start of this book is extremely annoying. On page three there is an inept echo of Gibbon, which has the effect of making us observe that Elon’s style is greatly inferior to the high culture which he sets out to describe. On page four there is a patronising remark about Moses Mendelssohn, the first great German Jewish man of letters, who, we are told, was passionate about social justice ‘for a man of his time and place’. None of those benighted men of the Enlightenment could be expected, of course, to attain the degree of passion about social justice that moves us now. We begin to fear we are in the hands of a liberal so complacent that he does not even know he is complacent.
On page seven, we get our first snatch of Heine. Elon quotes Heine often, but ruins the effect of this great German Jewish poet by quoting him only in English. ‘The ironist Heine’s memorable lines come to mind,’ Elon writes, followed by:
I think of Germany at night.
The thought keeps me awake till light.
How trite, how banal. Maybe the publisher, rather than the author, thought to save space by leaving out the original German, but for the reader it is an infuriating decision. The worse one’s knowledge of a foreign language, the more one values – as in the Loeb Classical Library or indeed the Penguin Book of German Verse – the printing of poems in the original with adjacent prose translation. Heine called the German language his true fatherland, yet Elon denies the English reader so much as a glimpse of the lucid, luminous wit with which Heine used that language. As written by Heine, the famous couplet reads:
Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nach
Dan bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht.
Yet there are compensations in this survey. Elon gives us Karl Kraus’s wonderful remark about Heine: ‘He loosened the bodice of the German language to the point where every petty clerk felt entitled to fondle her breasts.’ We are also reminded of Heine’s astonishing prescience. As early as 1834 he warned the French:
Watch out! … You have more to fear from a liberated Germany than from the entire Holy Alliance along with all Croats and Cossacks. A drama will be enacted in Germany compared to which the French Revolution will seem like a harmless idyll.
Elon’s undecidedness about what went wrong in 1933 is in some ways an advantage. He does not see the great cultural flowering which he describes, to which the Jewish contribution was so extraordinary, as a mere prelude to tragedy. He tries to celebrate it for its own sake, and in so doing he provides many instances of Jews who were assimilated into German culture and politics, but also offers many examples in the two centuries before the Holocaust of anti-Semitic prejudice. These strands are given without any attempt at reaching a false synthesis, and without suggesting that the brilliant success of so many German Jews was bound to end in a horrifyingly efficient attempt to exterminate them. Elon notes the paradox that the more similar the Jews became – by language, religion, inter-marriage, military service etc -to their fellow Germans, the more resented they were.
Yet Elon’s recurrent, well-meaning attempts to assess how far German Jews had become integrated into German society, and his implicit view of the whole subject as a struggle between assimilation and rejection, mean he is unable to consider another possible interpretation, which would run as follows. The Jews were genuinely German, and what happened after 1933 was a form of suicide or self-mutilation. The Nazis hated and were trying to kill, not an alien race, but a part of Germany itself. At the end of Elon’s survey, in 1933, we have the burning of the books, with Goebbels proclaiming ‘the end of the age of Jewish intellectualism’, but what he and his thugs were actually trying to destroy was German intellectualism, represented in the flames by Thomas Mann as well as Albert Einstein.