By Michael Brenner. Yale University Press. $30. Reviewed by Ruth Gay
No phase of German history has been more closely studied than the fourteen years of the Weimar Republic, as we turn the events over and over seeking clues to the catastrophe that followed it. In the past year alone, two major works on Weimar politics--by Heinrich Winkler and Hans Mommsen, respectively--have appeared in Germany, while in the United States, Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., the dean of historians of the Nazi period, has just published a suspenseful study of the fateful last thirty days before Hitler was named chancellor of the young republic. Although these are the most recent investigations, a huge literature on Weimar has emerged in the postwar years, for Weimar has remained in our imaginations as the tantalizing ante-room to hell. Not least of the catastrophes was the disappearance of an ancient Jewish civilization. While Germany--in fact two Germanies--rose from the ashes of Hitler's war, the Jewish community, with its history of sixteen hundred years on German soil, was totally destroyed.
Whether they disappeared by emigration, deportation, or murder, of the half-million Jews counted in Germany when Hitler came to power, only some five thousand managed to live through the war within the country, and all under the most perilous circumstances. They were soon joined by other Jews: survivors of the concentration camps; refugees from the East Bloc countries; later, Jews in flight from Iran and Iraq; some few returnees; and a handful of converts. These disparate, sometimes even hostile, groups made up a new community but one that was in no way a successor to the old Jewish world. One cannot read of those last years of the German Jews, therefore, without remembering the fate that awaited them and the culture that they had built.
In The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany, Michael Brenner has written a brilliant, original book about the Jews in the Weimar Republic. Unlike many earlier works that emphasized the Jewish "contribution" to Germany, Brenner brings us inside the community at a time of enormous ferment. He shows us the issues, questions, and problems that agitated the Weimar Jews: their dissatisfaction with the price of integration and their attempt to recover their past, the new developments in their cultural life, and the many subgroups that existed under the rather gross rubric "German Jews." He shows us how the very period that was to be their...