Simon Dubnow Institute
for Jewish History and Culture at Leipzig University

Research project »Another Productivity«

Economic Debates on Capitalism and the Jewish Collective in the early 20th Century

 

This study is conceived as a counter-history to economic antisemitism: Focusing on four economists and one social historian, all of whom are hardly known today, it demonstrates how Jewish scholars reacted to ascriptions in the realm of economics in their theoretical works – ascriptions such as the paradigmatic 1911 monograph Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben (Engl.: The Jews and Modern Capitalism) by Werner Sombart. This text reflected something like a status quo in German economics around 1900, while its success was a symbol of an ideological way of thinking become manifest. Yet this text has a counterpart that has hardly been examined in historiography to date, namely the works of Richard Ehrenberg (1857–1921), Hermann Levy (1881–1949), Julius Hirsch (1882–1961), Sigbert Feuchtwanger (1886–1956), and Frieda Wunderlich (1884–1965). Richard Ehrenberg developed a theory of commercial productivity. Hermann Levy extolled the economic practices of immigrants in his works on the global economy, which he considered to be motors of economic processes. Julius Hirsch praised American economic ideas as paragons for Germany. And Sigbert Feuchtwanger formulated an entire theory of cultural economics relating to independent professions through the example of lawyers. Yet the most foundational of these thinkers was Frieda Wunderlich, whose 1926 study on the shift in meaning of the term »productivity« complicated and historicized economic thought.

 

All five dedicated themselves to elemental economic questions of modernity, yet arrived at entirely different answers than Sombart. None of them formulated a critique of capitalism as a total rejection of the present or as an expression of the essential style of a nation or collective. Instead, they were interested in entrepreneurial daring and acceleration, in transportation and internationalization, in mobility and labor migration, in consumption and in the future of the global economy. Despite all their differences, their works had two things in common: First, they proceeded from an alternative understanding of productivity, for the central issue to them was no longer the question of who counted as productive and who did not. Second, their ethos was oriented decisively against the economic antisemitism of their time, since they did not regard the modern economy as a threat, but rather primarily as an opportunity for new freedoms.