The Dangers of a Remote Past: A Re-Visit of the “Spiegel History-Controversy”

The German magazine Spiegel History published a special issue earlier this month on the “History of Jewish Life in Germany.” The issue roughly covers the 11th century until now. It features medieval communities in the Rhineland, pogroms, the Christian anti-Judaism of Martin Luther, migration from Sefarad, emancipation, Moses Mendelssohn, Yiddish, Glikl von Hameln, the rise of racial anti-Semitism, the Shoah, the decades following the genocide, and an epilogue situated in the present day.

The cover page shows a photograph of two so-called “Ostjuden,” Eastern European Jews. It is a black-and-white shot of two men, one sitting on a chair, the other standing and leaning on a cane, who are engaged in casual conversation. They are wearing black knee-long coats and hats, and each is bearded. The one who is standing seems a little older than the other. Maybe he is in his late sixties; his beard is white. The photograph was taken on Grenadierstrasse (today: Almstadtstraße), in front of the “Leihbibliothek Rosenberg”. Grenadierstrasse is located in a Berlin neighborhood referred to as “Scheunenviertel” and was once home to the majority of Jews who were fleeing pogroms and poverty in Eastern Europe. Some tried to emigrate, mostly to the US, yet others stayed. In 1925 approximately 41,500 of them lived in Berlin, which amounts to 22 percent of the city’s Jewish population.[1]

"Im Scheunenviertel"

This is the original picture, published in Eike Geisel: Im Scheunenviertel. Texte, Bilder, und Dokumente. Severin und Siedler 1981; courtesy of Yossi Bartal

To be sure, Ostjuden are not normally referred to as German Jews. Germany, the nation-state, was not their primary reference of identification. Yet they surely belonged to “Jewish Life in Germany.” To more assimilated contemporaries they were a source of embarrassment, a reminder of what they had overcome; others, however, were attracted to them, and marked them as carriers of Jewish authenticity which their parents and grandparents had lost. The Spiegel cover plays on this icon of authenticity, that goes along “non-Germanness,” strangeness, and it emphasizes this also in the title: “Jewish Life in Germany. An Unknown World Apart.” The subtitle distances “Jewish life in Germany” from Germanness; it exoticises.


That’s the cover

This act of marking Jews as different, at the hands of a non-Jewish German magazine, triggered an outburst of protest from the representative mainstream organization of Jews in Germany, as well as among prominent Jewish journalists and academics: Many Jews in Germany associated the act of marking and distancing with dehumanization and the horrors of genocidal extermination. The cover was read to say: “you do not belong here,” neither in the past, nor in the present. The terms of belonging to Germany, however, were thereby reproduced and affirmed: In an official statement, the Central Council of Jews in Germany slammed the cover for “triggering anti-Semitic stereotypes.” In an op-ed in Jüdische Allgemeine (, and in countless further exclamations on social media, the picture was read as distasteful reminder of a stereotypical (i.e. Orthodox) Jew that the German Jew has never been and surely now is not. A misrepresentation. This historical photograph of actual Jews chatting casually on a Berlin street was associated with crooked noses, greed, dirt, poverty, signifiers of backwards “religion” (peyos, hats, beards) – all that stinks. At times it seemed as if the Jewish gaze at this picture was intertwined (or worse, determined) by an anti-Jewish gaze, and a resulting incapability to see beauty, to sense pride, in two perfect Jews, whom anti-Semites define as ugly, unworthy, backwardly religious and archaic.

The very act of historical association with these Jews could not be tolerated: these Jews may have undeniably lived on German soil, yet they are apparently not part of our own collective history. They are a misrepresentation of what we truly are and have been. The correct historical reference point is, accordingly, a bourgeois, assimilated citizen. The two Ostjuden, as if they could jump off the cover, endanger Jews’ belonging to Germany in the present.

The cover is, of course, not representative of so many years of Jewish life in German-speaking lands, and it also does not claim to be so. Covers are generally not representative, and no cover can ever possibly represent the entire scope of “Jewish life in Germany”. At best, the editors could have opted for a collage showing different “kinds” of Jews over a longer period of time. Up until now, indeed, nobody ever admonished the equal non-representativeness of highly assimilated German Jews on German cover pages, or as name-givers to everything from schools to community centers: Nobody ever objected to the preponderance of Leo Baecks, Heinrich Heines and Moses Mendelssohns. The problem for some critics did not consist in the cover’s lack of representativeness, but rather in the choice of this specific representative, this specific embodiment of “Jewish life,” which traces Jews’ history back to a now repudiated past.

I suggest that German Jews’ repudiation of this specific past points at a formative undercurrent of post-war “reconciliation” politics. According to political theorist Robert Meister, specifically West Germany configured itself as a legitimate successor to its missing Jewish culture: a post-genocidal state built upon the archaeology of a cosmopolitan Jewish civilization that had been destroyed. Germany’s strong identification with its “missing Jews” as the foundation of its own (German) culture, Meister reasons, places some kind of “Yiddishkeit” itself as a source of German pride:

“If the Judaism celebrated by Herman Cohen, Jewish rationalism, was supposed to bring about a postnationalist cosmopolitanism in Europe, a ‘culturally Jewish’ postwar Europe could celebrate itself as the resurrection of the dream to which Cohen’s generation had given voice. Western Europe’s ‘cities without Jews’ would now commemorate and celebrate their Jewish heritage and represent themselves as its cultural continuation.”[2]

What is commemorated here is the murdered Jew as “proto liberal cosmopolitan citizen of Germany,” a Kulturbürger, whose murder can be configured as a “loss” to the German nation-state: a “self-injury.”[3] (Scholars such as Micha Bodemann or Robert Meister noticed and commented upon this common German post-war understanding of the Holocaust as “bad” on account of the damage it did to the German state.) Within a political formation that understands itself as a post-genocidal “continuation” of the murdered, Jews are a bifurcated figure: On the one hand, they have been granted political autonomy in the sense that they do not have to identify as Germans. They can identify as Israelis, or as incidental Germans who are “by heart” Israelis. An “Israeli-themed picture”[4] on the Spiegel’s cover would probably not have sparkled protest by German Jewish organizations, and would not have been read as implying “you do not belong here.” Yet, while association with a different place (that is, a different state) is a source of pride and does not imply alienation, the association with “Ostjuden” is read as a displacement unto a different time, a strange and problematic origin.

And having such origin, it seems, potentially undermines the terms of recognition underlying the post-war incorporation of Jews into the German state. Patchen Markell, in his critique of multicultural exchanges of recognition between minorities and the state, argues that the transition from an exclusionary or assimilatory to an inclusionary strategy of state sovereignty, that is supposed to respect and represent “difference,” is premised on, and directed at rendering the social world legible and governable:

“Multicultural exchanges of recognition (…) demand neither the overcoming of difference, nor its confinement to the private sphere; but they do require that it be overseeable and manageable: in short recognizable. They aim to secure the sort for sovereignty James Scott associates with the administrative state, which does not sweep away difference but instead measures it, maps it, categorizes it, renders it ‘legible’, – and sometimes, enforces certain limits on the acceptable expressions of cultural difference.”[5]

To appeal to the state for recognition of ones own identity – to present oneself as knowable – is to offer the state the reciprocal recognition of its sovereignty that it demands, and those striving for recognition will frame their requests in ways that abet rather than undermine the state’s aspiration towards sovereignty: Appeals to the state for recognition as Jews will be formulated in ways that attest to the German state’s commemoration of pre-war German Jewish citizens, who stand in as sharers of a common religious and secular tradition. The two men on the Spiegel’s cover-page disturb the idea of Germany as a cultural continuation of its murdered Jews, and do not lend themselves as cosmopolitan buffers from liberal citizens’ Christianity, carefully institutionalized in the secular state.

*Thanks to Andrew Mark Bennet, Yossi Bartal and Emily Dische-Becker for their critical comments, suggestions and revisions.
[1] These numbers are taken from Anne-Christin Saß: Berliner Luftmenschen: Osteuropäisch-jüdische Migranten in der Weimarer Republik, Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag 2012, 66. In an earlier version of this blogpost I had misstated the percentage as “46%” – an anonymous reviewer informed me that the 46% of page 67 of the book refers to the proportion of East European Jews in all Berlin’s foreigners. Thanks for this correction.
[2] Robert Meister: After Evil. A Politics of Human Rights. Columbia University Press 2011, 187.
[3] In parliamentary debates, for instance, a normative commitment to a support of Jews and expressions of the desirability of a Jewish revival, are commonly articulated through back-references to Jews’ “contribution to German culture,” their identification with the German state, the Prussian state’s laudable edict of tolerance, the importance of Judaism as an origin of Christianity, the Jewishness of Jesus and so forth.
[4] What I mean by “Israeli themed picture” is something like a picture of an Independence Day party, or a picture of a community gathering center, or a Jewish school’s class-room with an Israeli flag-garland as decoration.
[5] Patchen Markell: Bound by Recognition, Princeton University Press 2013, 170.
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2 Responses to The Dangers of a Remote Past: A Re-Visit of the “Spiegel History-Controversy”

  1. just fyI says:

    Thank you very much for your instructive and interesting contribution! But I noticed a small mistake: The 46% of page 67 of the book “Berliner Luftmenschen” refers to the proportion of East European Jews in all Berlin’s foreigners. The share of Eastern European Jews in Berlin’s Jews is shown in the overview on page 66, which is 24%. No need to publish this comment, just fyI.

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