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Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin

Deborah Hertz

Paper $24.95s    |    0-8156-2955-9    |   2005

Offers the first detailed analytical social history explaining why this institution arose and what it meant to its participants.

"A definitive examination of upper-class Jews in Berlin during the latter half of the 1700s and the first half of the 1800s. Focusing especially upon the salons and those who attended them. Jewish High Society in the Old Regime Berlin draws upon statistics, anecdotes, historical references, and biographies, and is illustrated with occasional black-and-white diagrams or photographs. Evenhandedly examining the lives of both men and women, [the book] is smoothly written and highly readable to historians and lay people alike."
dash Bookwatch

"A welcome surprise . . . [Hertz] asks questions that have generally have been ignored about the origins and social significance of this curious phenomenon and the reasons why it vanished almost as quickly as it appeared; and because she then answers them on the basis of a staggering amount of reading on virtually every aspect of the history of the last phase of the old regime in Prussia."
dash New York Review of Books

"An enlivening study of the era. . . . Its special appeal is to cover a neglected area of women's emancipation that has been both regretted and admired, since the role the salonieres carved out for themselves was so precarious and transitory."
dash Jewish Book News and Reviews

"A definitive examination of upper-class Jews in Berlin during the latter half of the 1700’s and the first half of the 1800’s. Focusing especially upon the salons and those who attended them, Jewish High Society In Old Regime Berlin draws upon statistics, anecdotes, historical references and biographies, and is illustrates with occasional black-and-white diagrams or photographs. Evenhandedly examining the lives of both men and women, Jewish High Society In Old Regime Berlin is smoothly written and highly readable to historians and lay people alike."
dash The Midwest Book Review

Please scroll down for a review by Jason Peck, Department of German and Center for Jewish Studies, University of Minnesota in H-German.

During the quarter century between 1780 and 1806, Berlin's courtly and intellectual elites gathered in the homes of a few wealthy, cultivated Jewish women to discuss the events of the day. Princes, nobles, upwardly mobile writers, actors, and beautiful Jewish women flocked to the salons of Rahel Varnhagen, Henriette Herz, and Dorothea von Courland, creating both a new cultural institution and an example of social mixing unprecedented in the German past.

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Deborah Hertz is Herman Wouk Chair in Modern Jewish Studies at the University of California at San Diego.

6 x 9, 320 pages, 33 photographs, 19 figures, notes, bibliography, index

A Missed Opportunity?
Why does eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German "salon" culture hold such power over German-Jewish historical research? In her recent book, Barbara Hahn attempts to explain what she sees as a seductive "myth of the salon": "the myth ... continues unabated. There must be good reason for this, reasons that critique cannot simply demolish: The idyllic, almost Biedermeier picture apparently fulfills a wish. In it an idea reaches its culmination, the idea that at least once German and Jew lived together harmoniously."[1] One work in this vein that Hahn singles out for particular criticism is Deborah Hertz’s Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin. According to Hahn, Hertz’s book, because of its perceived overly enthusiastic tone, reads like a "historical novel" rather than (one assumes), an academic work of history.[2] It is this particular criticism (as well as criticism Hahn has published elsewhere) that Hertz addresses in the preface to the new edition of the book. She responds to Hahn thus: "[p]erhaps my open confession of my own enthusiasm for the salon women was unusually honest for an academic scholar.... Yet we know so well that creative work, including scholarship, requires a deeply personal investment if the work is to get done at all. It is entirely valid for historians writing after World War II to have new feelings and questions about eighteenth-century Germany" (p. xix).

Although one should not discount Hahn’s worthwhile, cautious approach to German-Jewish history, Hertz does raise an important question for the researcher who reconstructs German-Jewish history from any perspective: namely, how can our own desires and subjective perspectives not influence our work? After all, what made Hannah Arendt’s book on salon culture (Rahel Varnhagen [1958], which Hahn praises) so compelling was the complex introspection both the author and the subject display in the work. Hahn’s criticism aside, then, Hertz’s book remains an exemplary work on salon culture. Thoroughly researched and convincingly argued, it has thankfully been reprinted for the next generation of scholars working on what has been termed the Rahelzeit.

Hertz’s book begins with a conundrum: given the fact that both Jews and women could barely claim any power in late-eighteenth-century Prussian society, how is it possible that informal meetings between Germans and Jews, or men and women, could have had such a profound impact on German social history (p. 19)? Although Arendt argued that this impact was illusory, we are left with the question of how such disparate communities of individuals could have come together.

Hertz uses the first two chapters of her book to resolve this seeming contradiction via consideration of late-eighteenth-century Prussian social history. She notes that before 1780, Berlin’s social hierarchies were "abstract and frozen" (p. 28), but by the end of the eighteenth century, caste systems had begun to break down through a series of contingent factors: "as rising land prices and the allure of city living polarized the nobility, as the Seven Years’ War enriched the Jewish mercantile elite, and as the educational system allowed young commoner intellectuals to ascent the social ladder, [the] narrow style of socializing began to loosen" (p. 96). Once a healthy dose of Enlightenment tolerance and a weakening of traditional rabbinic authority within the Jewish communities was added to this loosening of the social space in Berlin, the background of "salon" culture begins to emerge.

Hertz devotes the next several chapters to individuals who both helped create and run the salons in Berlin. Beginning with Markus and Henriette Herz, who hosted a rare joint male/female salon starting in the 1780s, Hertz maps various constellations of men and women who frequented the salons. Most of these figures will be familiar to German intellectual historians. This strategy led Hahn to criticize Hertz for relying too heavily on previously published canonical texts emphasizing the notoriety of salon guests over more representatively accurate portrayals.[3] Yet, Hertz is fully aware of the inevitability of reconstruction after the fact: "holding a salon is best understood as a matter of degree, not an either-or affair--which does not make definitions useless, for a definition sets the parameters.... [T]oo rigid use of definitions can close us off to the rich diversity of past life.... Not only are salons elusive of definition retrospectively; they were fragile institutions at the time" (pp. 112-113). Towards the conclusion of the book she adds: "Using biographies and surviving letters to classify complex human relationships is a highly inexact and reductionist enterprise" (p. 254). These passages demonstrate that Hertz is fully aware of the precarious task of the "salon" historian: if one is to profile what is, admittedly, a rather unique phenomenon, an inevitable reduction of this very uniqueness takes place. Despite this reduction, Hertz’s collective biographies of the men and women who participated in the salons are rich and informative, remaining necessary studies of this particular social milieu.

Aside from the obvious contribution Hertz’s book adds to an understanding of salon culture, her additional work, in the penultimate chapter of the book, on the conversion and intermarriage of "emancipated" Jewish women, is equally important.[4] As she writes in the new preface to this edition, "[w]hat shocked me when I read [Steven Lowenstein’s book The Berlin Jewish Community: Enlightenment, Family and Crisis 1770-1830] was his reaction to the rebellions of many salon women. For Lowenstein was appalled by the frequent adulteries, divorces, ethnic intermarriages, and conversions among the families caught up in the salon subculture. For me, the salon women’s conversions and intermarriages had been a heroic protest against a strict system of arranged marriage" (p. xv).

Arguing against most research into the mass conversion of Berlin Jews in the subsequent generations after Moses Mendelssohn, Hertz sees the departure from Jewish communal life as a liberation rather than a self-delusion. Perhaps the most famous example Hertz considers is that of Dorothea Veit-Schlegel. Dorothea, the eldest daughter of Moses Mendelssohn, was married off by her father to the businessman Simon Veit. It was a loveless marriage, and she eventually divorced Veit and married the radical Romantic writer Friedrich Schlegel. Although her marriage to Schlegel was far from perfect, marrying the writer gave her a much greater freedom and eventually allowed her to write and publish the novel Florentine (1801). While it might have been possible to pursue intellectual interests (and even possibly publish) as the wife of Simon Veit, her relationship with Schlegel constituted a radical extrication from the rigidity of certain patriarchal conventions of Jewish marriage. In other respects, as Hertz points out, Jewish marriage was much more liberal than prevailing ideas of marriage in Prussia at the time. That said, Hertz now admits that what her work suggests is a more "subtle" picture of assimilation, rather than an out-and-out refutation of historians like Lowenstein (p. xx).

The weakest section of Hertz’s book is the concluding chapter, in which she argues that a precipitous decline (and the eventual demise) of salon culture in Berlin began after 1806. While evidence seems to support this conclusion (based on the cases examined in the extant literature), the causes of this decline remain ambiguous. Hertz points to two main reasons for the salon’s demise: Prussia’s defeat at the hands of the French army and the subsequent rise of German/Prussian nationalism, as well as a growing antisemitism in Berlin at the time. While the first cause could be persuasively argued (given the often patriotic and anti-French writings of central figures such as Achim von Arnim and Heinrich von Kleist), the second is more problematic. This is not to say that antisemitism did not create a backlash against the salons of Berlin; rather, overt antisemitism had always existed in Berlin, even during the "height" of the salons—occasionally existing along with them. The pamphlet war Hertz identifies as beginning in 1803 actually started many years earlier, with several satirical pieces appearing in newspapers parodying the new, educated Jewish female elite.[5] When the "real" backlash started in the new years of the nineteenth century, the ridiculous figure of the salonnière had already been planted in the minds of the reading public.

Additionally, the very same people who often frequented the salons in Berlin were the most vociferous opponents of Jewish assimilation. The most famous example, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who not only attended several Jewish salons in Berlin but also, during the very same period, published his Contribution to the Correction of the Judgments of the Public on the French Revolution (1793), in which he stated: "I would see no other way to give the Jews civil rights than to cut off their heads in one night and put others on them in which there would not be a single Jewish idea."[6] Hertz acknowledges that many gentile salon guests stated antisemitic feelings to friends and family privately, in correspondence, yet here is evidence that at least one salon participant publicly (and quite popularly) expressed his antisemitism. For the historian of this particular point in German-Jewish history, this apparent contradiction remains a frustrating (yet fascinating) puzzle. Despite this shortcoming, Deborah Hertz’s book remains the best introduction in English to this rather remarkable period of German-Jewish history.

—Jason Peck, Department of German and Center for Jewish Studies, University of Minnesota
H-German, H-Net Reviews, July, 2006. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=89891160500479 .

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