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  • Antisemitismus und Judentum bei Clemens Brentano
  • David B. Dickens
Antisemitismus und Judentum bei Clemens Brentano, by Martina Vordermeyer. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. 252 pp. $51.95.

Clemens Brentano (1778–1842) was a major figure of German Romanticism whose family has been at or near the center of German intellectual life for 200 years, from Goethe’s passing infatuation with Brentano’s mother-to-be in the early 1770s to the 1950s when a Heinrich von Brentano served as German’s Foreign Minister. As poet, novelist, dramatist, and writer of stories and fairy tales, Clemens Brentano possessed enormous talent that unfortunately and too often suffered from a lack of discipline. His complex spiritual life and a turbulent external career combine to validate an observation by the poet and Brentano contemporary Eichendorff that a satisfactory Brentano biography might never be written. Bit by bit, however, we are assembling the mosaic- like pieces of this personality, just as—since 1975—a critical edition is finally offering us the collected body of his works and letters. This book by Martina Vordermeyer, developed from her 1997 dissertation (University of Munich), addresses a matter that has long been something of a vexing undercurrent both in Brentano’s life and works, and in much secondary literature as well.

Was Brentano indeed a virulent antisemite in his personal views and in his works, or are utterances of this nature little more than a mirror of the cultural bias of the day, something intensified by his own later work as an ardent promoter of the Roman Catholic church? Or were the occasional displays of blatantly anti-Jewish attitudes something that reflected views of his close friends (and even his own sister Bettina) as well as a reaction to his (often Jewish) detractors? Did Brentano really deliberately insult Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, Jewish leader of a prominent Berlin literary salon, and thereby provoke a bitter argument with her husband? Finally, was he—although born and baptized a Catholic who took “Maria” as a middle name—of Jewish origin himself?

Not only does Vordermeyer know Brentano’s life and works well, but she also demonstrates impressive familiarity with the now enormous body of Brentano scholarship and has been able to marshal and manipulate it very well in a story that [End Page 168] began exactly 200 years ago with a perhaps offhand remark by Goethe in a letter to Schiller (27 July 1799) describing two of Brentano’s sisters as “seltsame . . . unnatürliche Erscheinungen” (“peculiar unnatural creatures”). Goethe and Schiller are only two figures in a fascinating cast of characters paraded through the pages of Vordermeyer’s book, many of whom might have been given a bit of introduction for the non-Germanist. On the other hand, this book is probably not something for the casual reader.

After defining various terms she uses in her work (modern racist antisemitism contrasted with an older Christian anti-Judaism that viewed Jews as the murderers of Christ, poisoners of wells, and practitioners of ritual infant sacrifice), the author first examines Brentano in the context of critical study of him and his work by earlier biographers with a pronounced Roman Catholic slant (Diel and Kreiten, 1877–78; Heinrich, 1878; Stockmann, 1915–17). They were clearly interested in rehabilitating him as a pious Catholic as part of the Kulturkampf of their own era; thus Heine—more so than Varnhagen von Ense—appears as an opponent and discreditor of Brentano. Another school of criticism with inner dissension of its own (Reinhold Steig, Hermann Grimm, 1894–1913) developed around the presentation of Brentano as a pro-German nationalist and populist; the degree to which he did nor did not play a leading role in the (admittedly antisemitic) “Christlich-deutsche Tischgesellschaft” that Arnim founded in Berlin became a focal point in the controversy (Brentano served as secretary to the literary club; his scurrilous satire, “The Philistine in Pre-, Current and Post-History,” is prime proof for much of his anti-Judaism). Brentano as an antisemite in the modern racist sense became an issue with Garreau’s biography (in French, 1938) that intensified with National Socialism; a 1939 dissertation (Hans Karl Krüger, “Berliner Romantik und Berliner...

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