Research Unit Politics

Secularization and the Concept of History. A Jewish Perspective on the Crisis of Historicism

until 2019

This project focuses on a transformation of modern Jewish reflections on history that became evident in the aftermath of World War I. The impact of this catastrophic event on Jewish interpretations of history and the upheaval in the notion of history will be examined by reference to the intellectual biography of Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929), in particular his major work »Der Stern der Erlösung« (The Star of Redemption, 1921). It is here understood as symptomatic of a twofold renunciation: Rosenzweig distanced himself from the idea of the progress of humanity and from a historico-philosophical interpretation of Judaism. Both notions were grounded in the Enlightenment and developed further throughout the nineteenth century. Rosenzweig was thus responding to the process of secularization in the »historical century« altogether. This transformation will be elaborated in juxtaposition to the works of Hermann Cohen (1842–1918) and Walter Benjamin (1892–1940). For a brief period before the war, Cohen was Rosenzweig's teacher at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin. In his posthumously published work »Die Religion der Vernunft« (The Religion of Reason, 1919) Cohen tried to reconcile the sacred sources of Judaism with secular history through a critical idealism and, thereby, preserved a hope for the progress of humanity. Benjamin in contrast followed Rosenzweig’s path, but developed a messianically impregnated philosophy of history in his last writing »Über den Begriff der Geschichte« (On the Concept of History, 1940).