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  • Gypsies and orientalism in German literature and anthropology of the long nineteenth century
  • Gertrud Reershemius (bio)
Gypsies and orientalism in German literature and anthropology of the long nineteenth century. Nicholas Saul. London: Legenda. 2007. 197 pp. ISBN 978- 1900755887 (hardback)

In this book Nicholas Saul endeavours to "reconstruct the shifts in the representation of the Gypsy in German culture through the medium of literature and anthropology from around 1850 to the First World War" (Saul 2007: 6). Only the first chapter is dedicated to anthropology, where Saul refers to the writings of Jacob Thomasius, Heinrich Grellmann, Theodor Tetzner, Michael von Kogalnitchan, Carl von Heister and Franz Liszt.

Franz Liszt's book Die Zigeuner und ihre Musik in Ungarn, first published in 1859 in French, perhaps did not receive as much attention as it deserved, either from contemporary readers or from modern scholarship analyzing anthropological writing on Romanies. Liszt, who actually spent longer periods of time among Romanies, grasps the uniqueness and the value of a culture in which, as he claims from a Hegelian point of view, pure instrumental music takes the place of writing, the creation of epic art and historiography. From this point of view, he can look at the Romanies as equal others, not as inferior others.

The German discourse on Romanies during the nineteenth century and beyond, however, has been dominated by Heinrich Grellmann's book Historischer Versuch über die Zigeuner betreffend die Lebensart und Verfassung, Sitten und Schicksale dieses Volkes seit seiner Erscheinung in Europa, und dessen Ursprung, first published in 1783. The image of the Romanies, as created by Grellmann, became according to Saul "an expression of Germany's particular Orientalist tradition" (Saul 2007: 6). Grellmann creates the image of the Romanies as a pre-civilized Naturvolk with serious shortcomings in terms of intellect and work-ethos on the one hand. On the other hand, as Saul points out, Grellman glamourizes the Romanies by emphasizing their physical beauty, especially in their women. Thus, with the authority of the enlightened scholar, he builds the foundation for political intervention and oppression while at the same time he starts to create the myth of the Romanies as the desirable Romantic Others.

Having thus established the origins of the orientalist discourse on Romanies, Saul dedicates the following seven chapters to analyses of a long list of German authors who wrote about Romanies, from Romantic poets like Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, writers connected with nineteenth-century Realism like Theodor Storm, Wilhelm Raabe or Adalbert Stifter, to the early [End Page 183] twentieth-century author Carl Hauptmann. Commendably, Saul not only examines the A-list of German literature but also writers popular at the time but now largely forgotten, for example Karl May. It becomes apparent that very few of these writers and poets are familiar with or interested in the social and mostly grim reality of the Romanies' life during the nineteenth century. In the novels, plays and stories examined masterly by Saul, the image of the Gypsy serves as a projection for German authors trying to come to terms with modernity: the Gypsy as the pre-modern, pre-intellectual, sensual, unrestricted human being in opposition to modern man with all his self-inflicted limitations and obligations, also with more or less explicit sexual implications. For some authors like Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, this romantic projection leads, as Saul puts it, to a form of "obsessive self-identification with the Romany nation" (Saul 2007: 20). Interestingly, these two writers especially combined a positive image and identification with Romanies with antisemitism. This aspect, although mentioned in Saul's book, deserves in my view more attention and thought: nineteenth-century Germans found themselves presented with two ethnic minority groups in their midst who were perceived as "Others", Romanies and Jews. Whereas the majority of German Jews subscribed wholeheartedly to the concepts of enlightenment and modern society, actively assimilated into German language, culture and society, and became remarkably successful in many areas, Romanies did not. (They may not have had the chance to do so, but that was presumably not obvious to the majority of Germans during the nineteenth century.) Many German writers like Raabe, Keller...