Simon Dubnow Institute
for Jewish History and Culture at Leipzig University

6th Simon Dubnow Lecture

1 December 2005, 

Old Exchange in Leipzig


Professor Steven Aschheim (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)


In the Face of What is Different: Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt, Victor Klemperer and National Socialism


On 1 December 2005, the Simon Dubnow Institute held its sixth annual Dubnow Lecture. The event was made possible with the generous support of the Fritz Thyssen Foundation. Steven E. Aschheim, Professor for Modern European History at the Hebrew University Jerusalem, is a prominent expert on Jewish history in the twentieth century. Aschheim spoke on the topic »In Dark Times: Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt, and Victor Klemperer Face National Socialism.«

He began by pointing out that all three of the figures in German-Jewish intellectual life he wished to focus on in his presentation were also associated with the work of Simon Dubnow.  Scholem and Arendt dealt with Dubnow’s historical and political  thinking in the context of their own scholarship. Klemperer saw a personal analogy between Dubnow's experiences in revolutionary Soviet Russia and his own dramatic situation in Germany in the early nineteen fourties.

Aschheim looked at the intellectual confrontation of these German-Jewish intellectuals with National Socialist rule and the genocide of the Jews, a topic he has dealt at length with in several major publications, including his monographic study 2001 Scholem, Arendt, Klemperer: Intimate Chronicles in Turbulent Times and his Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem (2002). To understand the way these three thinkers approached National Socialism, it was in Aschheim's perspective necessary to keep in mind their very different personal identities and world views. Scholem remained faithful to Zionism from an early age, while Arendt distanced herself from Zionism. Klemperer espoused German-Jewish assmiliation and was a strong opponent of anything Zionist.

The geography and ecology of their lives also reflected differing ideological positions. Scholem (1897–1982) emigrated already in 1923 to Palestine, experiencing the dramatic events unfolding in Germany after 1933 only from afar. Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), by contrast, experienced the rise of National Socialism in Germany very directly, and went into exile soon after 1933, first to France and then the U.S. But Kemperer (1881-1960) remained  on in Germany, protected in part by his marriage to an »Aryan« spouse, and he experienced on German soil the entire span of National Socialism down to its debacle in 1945.

Yet these intellectuals had many commonalities. They sprang from one and the same tradition of education, had a similar senisbility, and all possessed a powerful ability to analyze the social and political shifts and pathologies of their time. Yet they arrived at quite differing assessments of National Socialist ideology and the colossal crimes of the great genocide.

Analyzing the view of these three German-Jewish intellectuals, Aschheim gave a new interpretation in particular of the work and impact of Scholem. Contrary to the view in research that Scholem had a strong premonition of the coming Nazi policy of stripping the Jews of their rights, and that he warned others early on of the dangers looming on the horizon and the criminal potential of this regime, Aschheim showed that there was no basis for this view in Scholem's own statements and writing. Instead, in Aschheim's analysis, Scholem had stressed a moral critique of Jewish behavior, charging German Jewry with fundamental self-deception and readiness to assimilate in the Imperial era and later in Weimar Germany. Scholem, Aschheim noted, later never made a really scientific analysis of the phenomenon National Socialism.

Arendt was a quite different case. Her major study The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) was based on the assumption that Nazi rule and the mass murder were an unprecedented singular crime in European history and could not be grasped with the categories of traditional political anti-Semitism. Whatever its weaknesses, her Origins of Totalitarianism was a pioneering work, paving the ground for »discourse on Evil« after WW II.

The third section of the lecture looked at Klemperer's confrontation with National Socialism as a pro-active assimilationist. Though he was not of the towering stature of the other two German-Jewish intellectuals focalized here, his journal entries from the period of the Third Reich were a valuable source for trying to determine the specific characteristics of Nazi rule. Here was discourse written in »real time« by a man in an extremely precarious position. His journal provides fascinating insights into the world of feeling and personal conflicts of identity of a highly assimilated German-Jewish Bildungsbürger in a time of extreme racial discrimination and persecution. Already at the end of the 1920s, Klemperer had a strong, well-developed sensibility for the impact and dangers of völkisch anti-Semitism. His journal is very useful for trying to grasp to what extent the anti-Jewish measures of the regime were approved by the population, and the array of reactions, ranging from regime-loyal brutality and opportunism to views highly critical of the Nazi regime. Yet the journal entries also showed, Aschheim stressed, the extent to which people were actually aware of the extermination camps and the deportation program. Thus, on the basis of rumor and foreign radio broadcasts, Klemperer noted already in October 1944 that a total of »six to seven million Jews had been slaughtered (or more precisely, shot and gassed).«

Frank Nesemann

Victor Klemperer, »Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten«. Tagebücher 1942–1945, Berlin 1995.