Goethe and The Jews. By Mark Waldman. Scribner’s. $2.75.
With the advent of Hitler on the German scene, there ensued, at once, a complete reversal in the century-old policy of fair treatment of the Jews. The world, astonished, wonders how Germans can tolerate the present brutal abuse of a minority, which has been most helpful in keeping Germany in the van of progress, in all fields of endeavor.
Instead of seeking purely historic or economic explanations for the anomalous position of the Jews in Germany, Dr. Waldman sets himself the task of examining the influences that Jewish thought and contacts had upon the foremost German poet and thinker, Goethe, and how he reacted to those influences.
Dr. Waldman, a former Jewish minister and now Professor of German at the City College of New York, handles this subject ably and thoroughly. The author traces Goethe’s life and shows that as a child, he studied the Jewish vernacular and also Hebrew; that he was deeply moved to compassion at the sight of the Frankfort Ghetto; that as a university student, he uttered the loftiest sentiments about the Jews. Goethe defended the Jews most conscientiously when acting as their attorney, but whenever he was opposed by Jews, he invariably reverted to the old ingrained reaction, that of ridicule of the Jew.
Dr. Waldman further points out that Goethe’s masterpiece, “Faust,” “Hermann and Dorothea” and other works show Biblical influences. Goethe pays tribute to that “God-intoxicated Jew,” Spinoza, and manifests the highest regard for other prominent Jews namely: Meyerbeer, Felix Mendelssohn, Marcus Hertz and the artist Moritz Oppenheim.
Another instance of Goethe’s sense of fair play occurred when he prevented the presentation, in Weimar, of a play maligning the Jews. Again he commends the sentiment of tolerance and forbearance of Lessing’s “Nathan the Wise.” Occasionally, however, he speaks of Jews unfavorably. It is the author’s opinion that if Goethe be judged by the standard he suggested:
“If you are to reprove, if you are to be indulgent You must judge human beings humanly.”
We would find him essentially “menschlich.”
If we but realize that such a sympathetic and enlightened German as Goethe could still entertain derogatory opinions about Jews, we cannot be surprised at the cataclysm in Germany today. For it was not till 1801 that the monstrous picture, “Raillery and Shame,” was obliterated with the destruction of the Frankfort Bridge Tower. (2) Not till 1832 were Jews allowed to own more than one house and garden. (3) Not till 1864 were Jews allowed full citizenship.
Perhaps, after all, Goethe was right about the Germans when he said:
“Accursed people, no sooner art thou free, than thou scatterest thyself into fragments.”