Simon Dubnow was born in 1860, the son of a timber dealer and grandson of the rabbi in the White Russian town of Mstislavl, and was murdered in 1941 by the Nazis during the violent liquidation of the Riga ghetto. Not only was he one of the first scholars to research Russian-Jewish history, but he was also the renowned author of a work on the universal history of the Jews. In addition to his activity as a historian, he was a publicist, politician and political thinker, and following Heinrich Graetz, the first to publish a comprehensive history of the Jews which covered recent historic developments. His extensive memoirs, once correctly termed an “encyclopedia of Jewish life”, made him in a broader sense the “historian of his times”. In his autobiography Dubnow presented reports and commentaries by contemporaries from the centers of the intellectual society of his era; he documented key events in Jewish and general history from the late 19th into the first half of the 20th century, in the process revealing the ruptures and contradictions in his own scholarly thinking and political action.
Raised as a traditional Jew in the home of his grandfather Benzion Dubnow, Simon Dubnow later became an outspoken critic of the Orthodox cheder schooling given to young Jewish boys, an upbringing to which he attributed his own “rebellion against the Talmud”. To the disappointment of his grandfather, the young Simon turned toward the Haskala, Jewish Enlightenment, publicly calling for the dismantling of the cheder system. Having escaped from the narrow strictures of the White Russian shtetl, he lived for a time in St. Peterburg, Odessa and Vilna, where he became involved in the social struggle of the Russian Jews from the era of reform under Alexander II until the first years of Soviet rule. Here he came into contact and debated with the central personalities from the circle of the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia (Ginsburg, Frug, Kagan, Kulisher, Lifschitz, Kantor et al.). He was one of the critical commentators of the pogroms in the late Tsarist empire and the great revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Beginning in the 1880s, Dubnow expressed his political views in various essays published in the journals Voskhod, Russkii evrei and elsewhere. One of many such articles is his “What Kind of Auto-Emancipation do the Jews Need?”, written in 1883.
After the collapse of the Tsarist empire, Dubnow followed the daily events of the civil war from Petrograd, but finally decided to emigrate to Berlin. Until the early 1930s he was a keen observer of the real and symbolic encounter between eastern and western Jewries in the Prussian metropolis. There are also numerous detailed descriptions and reflections on the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the third volume of his memoirs. Dubnow’s active participation in public life, which extended over a long period and many localities, ultimately led him to the conviction that he was living through a period of fundamental transformation, an epoch in which the 20th century was destroying the intellectual legacy of the 19th in all spheres: “an entire era came to an end, our epoch on the cusp between two centuries”. Between his 62nd and 73rd year of life, Dubnow lived in Berlin. His 70th birthday on September 24, 1930 was celebrated in the city as a social event of the scholarly world. In his German exile, where he continued his scientific work, he completed inter alia his two-volume Geschichte des Chassidismus. When the Nazis seized power in 1933, he found himself compelled to leave Germany and move on, a second emigration. Although he had been offered an immigrant visa to the United States, he did not depart for the States but sought instead the closeness of his family in Riga – a decision that would prove fateful with the later Nazi occupation of the city.
Simon Dubnow stands as a figure symbolic of a national and secular identity of the Jewish people. He championed autonomy for East European Jews in a transnational context, thus embodying and exemplifying a specifically Jewish answer to the political upheavals of modernity. His attitude toward Zionism was ambivalent, while he rejected assimilation completely. He developed a theoretical model of history on whose basis he connected Jewish history with universal history. As a universal historian, Dubnow structured the individual epochs according to the principle of bipolarity, maintaining that the isolation of the Jews forced upon them from outside always went hand in hand with a process of return to the traditions and values of the Jewish community. By contrast, in periods of general political liberalism, there was a tendency to dissolution of that community, facilitating a free unfolding of Jewish patterns of life in dynamic exchange with the respective environment. In his thought, Dubnow was influenced by the liberal political culture of Western Europe. The intellectual proximity to the West, combined with his personal experience in Russia, made him an ideal cultural mediator between Western and Eastern Jewries. Thus, for example, in 1881, at the age of 21, he translated Heinrich Graetz’s Volkstümliche Geschichte der Juden into Russian, while his Weltgeschichte des jüdischen Volkes von den Uranfängen bis zur Gegenwart first appeared in 10 volumes in German during the 1920s. In this work, he distanced himself from the traditional methods of history, focusing on social and economic questions as well as aspects of communal constitutions and the history of everyday life. He articulated his views on Jewish history in several theoretical pieces on Judaism, Jewish history and its historiography. One example is the treatise What is Jewish History? (1893), translated from Russian into German and published in 1897 as Die jüdische Geschichte. Ein geschichtsphilosophischer Versuch. Better known were his Letters on Ancient and Modern Judaism, published in the journal Voskhod between 1897 and 1903. His fundamental conception was the passionate plea for a Jewish “self-perception as a nation.” What he meant by this was an intellectual nationalism that was attuned to harmonize with the fulfillment of general civil obligations of the Jews in their respective Diaspora countries. The core of his vision was always directed toward Jewish legal emancipation and autonomy in self-administration, language and education.