Lessing’s Legacy to Germany
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Lessing’s Legacy to Germany

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The following article, entitled “Legacy to Germany”, was written by the famous German-Jewish philosopher and exile from Nazi Germany just before he was assassinated while sleeping in his villa outside Marienbad, Czechoslovakia. The article having been written in all probability after he had received threats that he would be murdered, it may be regarded in the nature of a spiritual legacy to Germany and to Europe. It is reprinted, with only slight omissions, from Die Wahrheit, Prague.

Professor Lessing’s preoccupation with the questions of truth and Jewishness apparently dates back a number of years. “It is good to be a Jew, for that implies a constant struggle for truth—and what is life without a struggle and without a truth?” Professor Lessing is reported to have said in an interview given in 1931 in Salonica, where he was visiting his daughter, Helene Sklavonius Lessing, wife of Professor Sklavonius, who studied under Lessing at Hanover.

We in Germany have said and sung hundreds of times: “He who knows the truth and speaks it not is indeed a pitiful creature.” In speeches to the people we have heard Luther’s words: “Truth must be spoken!” Again and again we have heard praised the words which Arthur Schopenhauer used as mottoes for his works: “vitam impendere vero” (Life must be dedicated to the truth) and “magna est vis veritatis et praevalebit” (Great is the power of truth and, in the end her’s will be the victory). Nothing shall be said here of the old questions which the philosophers asked concerning truth and reality, meaning and existence. It may be that all actuality of consciousness is a fiction. It may be, that outside of formal, therefore content-free, science, logic and mathematics, there is generally no truth to be found. It may be, that truth is a machination of the human mind. It may be—and that was the great problem of Ibsen, Strindberg and Nietzsche—that man lives only because of his ignorance, that truth is death to all life, in Schiller’s words: “Only error is life; yet knowledge is death.”

All this does not concern us here. Something very simple, clear and self evident to everyone shall be discussed honestly in the following: not objective “truth” but personal veracity. That is to say, human distinction between doing and recognizing, the balance between saying and meaning, thus the quite ordinary conception of decency, reliability, conscientiousness and meticulousness, without which the human world would be a worse hell than any hell nature could create. For nature is always truthful; man can cheat and lie and merely by the use of language and rationalization betray and mislead.


The command, “Be truthful”, in no way includes—as Kant and Fichte wanted it to—the other stipulation: “Never tell a lie”. For aside from the fact that to tell a lie and to speak an untruth are two different things, the old wise saying still applies to the arts of living: “In order to unite cleverness with wisdom, say everything as you mean it, yet don’t say everything, which you mean.” Unorganized, unclear truthfulness can also make a hell of human life, and could condemn the fanatic for veracity “always to be the thirteenth at table.” This much is certain: we are in duty bound to maintain the essence of our own being! If we cannot “to our own selves be true” in any situation, then there is nothing on earth that is certain and worthy of faith. Therefore “Truthfulness for its own sake” is the keynote of all spiritual existence. For man it is not merely a question of material existence, of mere being. On the contrary, the question always is: Why, after all, are we here? In the service of what good? In other words, what matters is not that we remain alive but rather the nature of the living creature which we do remain. In this sense at least the pedagogues (e.g. Herbart and Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster) are right in considering truthfulness the pre-supposition of all human endeavor, although, as for the rest, they far outweigh the importance of truth to life.

For six months I have heard no word so often as the half pleadingly, half threateningly, spoken: “Don’t speak! Don’t write!” I never hear of the events of German history (and since I am a German, I consider myself part of this history), of no public, no private event, without the warning: “Make no use of this.” I have never spoken even half a syllable (by mention of which I would harm others) about confessions, reports, facts about Germany. Everything which I have written I have thought through conscientiously. I have also considered the possibility of my own going astray. Yes, I have even taken into consideration that my whole philosophy may be too narrow, too subjective, and that my whole life work may be a mistake. No one can promise truth; but everyone should try to be truthful.


It is self-evident that a writer who follows sinister or illegal designs, who would hurt the fatherland or betray it in any way, will not do it with all of himself, where in this undignified age anonymous incitement and agitation are at everyone’s disposal in ten thousand secret ways. Therefore I have never written a word without naming names. Never, without clearly, openly and with all my being, defending what I have said. If I err, I hope to be set right. I know that everything has a thousand sides, and that he is wisest who is able to see also with the eyes of his enemies and to think with the mind of his foes. And so I am certainly not above being set right. But I do not understand what is happening today to truth and veracity.

The people of Germany live and speak against their convictions. They are notoriously so intimidated, kept so much in fear, are subjected to so much attrition, that even the plainest matters of fact are, if not denied, at least brightly colored or kept in dead silence or merely passed secretly from ear to ear. But he who simply speaks the truth not only is made to feel the revenge and the hatred of the rulers, but, what is still worse, the rage and the betrayal of the anguished. Cowardice is called diplomacy, slavish inclination is opportunity, known lies are represented as permissible cautiousness.

Oaths are sworn with reservations. Just the opposite of what has been promised is always done. Issuing secret edicts is called practicing “politics on a large scale”. But the few who prefer death to life in slavery are represented to the people as corrupters. Every upright word is called traitorous to the fatherland. “They consent to their poverty, adorn their chains in cowardly wisdom, and wearing them graciously is called virtue.” Thus Schiller characterizes the state of mind of nations under terrorist rule.


Everyone who does not acquiesce in the contemporary state of the world, who does not see in the incidents of change of power so-called dispensations of Providence in the history of the world and splendid ideals, yes, in fine, everyone who criticizes at all, who thinks and gives utterance to his thoughts, is an enemy of the state and a traitor to the time and its ideas. The mass believes it. “Be in power and you live in the right, and faithfully the multitude will preserve it for you.”

We German emigrants have gone into strange lands under many trials and with great sacrifices, have lost house and home, and have not been able to save any means of existence, not even the most modest. Many die there, many end in suicide. The case of a man like myself, past sixty, who has to change his whole existence and begin at the beginning again, is, in view of the many terrible fates of single individuals, actually a fortunate one. We are hunted game; but not in the consciousness of our brothers. German minds are haunted by the notion that we are living an enviable emigrant life, that we have taken German money into exile with us, and now seek truth without danger, while the less fortunate must remain silent.

“Yes, your lot is good. You have it easy, being grave. How many, many times have I heard these words from men and women whose lot was really a thousand times easier than the lot of us who came out of Germany. The acclimated become so enslaved to public opinion that when “anti-Semitism” becomes the style, they are anti-Semites, and when heroic death becomes the fashion, they die heroic deaths. It is astonishing how many can yield to the crowd-psychology of self-abandonment! Why are we German who are abroad fighting against slavery? From motives of pride and grief in our Germany. Shall I, born on the soil on which my forebears strove for centuries for the fatherland, suddenly let myself be told by howling hordes what Fatherland is? Shall I, who have never brought anything to completion and mastery except German thought in the German language, let myself be instructed by half-barbaric, half-educated brown youths as to what constitutes German spirit and German soul? Whatever happens to us does not anger us as Jews, at least, not only as Jews, but also just as much as Germans.


If the German Jews do prove, by their modesty, that they are really of the soul of Germany, then they must be doubly and trebly indignant at being called alien in race, parasitic and foreign to the people. They must have said: “We cannot learn from you what is German, because we are that; because it is the soul which we carry in us.” But it is just this very crouching and clinging which is as un-German as possible.

But there is something much more serious to be deplored: the imponderable silence of all those upon whom we looked as prototypes and whose word has world value. Alfred Kerr writes in one of his lamentations: “My dear Gerhart Hauptmann, with whom I have had close ties for thirty years, knows of my fate, knows the injustice of it, and has sent me many a postcard.” Of how many German men and women who for decades have spoken to me of association and of community interests, of respect and love, could I say the same? More than that: wherever I helped old friends, even the very thanks were full of fear and faithlessness. From Germany we were being implored to help a deserving scholar. The newspapers report that for months he has been in a Prussian prison, he was mishandled, is almost insane. I wished to help and publicly called attention to this crime upon the spirit. He was freed. No line of thanks came; but there was a public shaking-off of my help: Yes, he was really in prison for five months. He also suffered from nerves, which comes from injuries which he carried away from his experiences as a soldier for Germany. But he was forced to testify before the world that he was treated in an exemplary and correct fashion. He was never mistreated, nor did he ever witness any instances of maltreatment in a German prison. All that is atrocity propaganda on the part of the fatherland’s enemies. He stands infinitely distant from all political thought and devotes himself entirely to the study of the German lyrics.


Such experiences, continually recurring, have long ago taken away my every desire to seek “truth.” I don’t know it. I only know that man today lies and is lied about. And that he would have it so!

All the countries of Europe are filled to the brim with inflammatory social material. In all the countries poison gases have been stored up in inconceivable quantities. In all countries the technique of murder is flourishing. Air-fleets are being built, new implements for murder are being invented. Everyone fears everyone else. Everyone knows it. Everyone anticipates the end. But everyone is cautious about speaking of it, and those who would speak of it would be lynched, and a funeral sermon would be read over some: “He was a traitor,” and over others: “He was a numbskull.”

What is there to do? From blessed Nirvana, Buddha smiles:

“Be silent. Turn away. Life is a disease, and death the deliverance there from.”

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