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Reviewed by:
  • “Ausserdem waren sie ja auch Menschen”: Goethes Begegnung mit Juden und Judentum
  • Klaus L. Berghahn
“Ausserdem waren sie ja auch Menschen”: Goethes Begegnung mit Juden und Judentum, edited by Annette Weber. Berlin/Wien: Philo Verlag, 2000. 170 pp. Euro 14.50.

Of the many “Goethe and . . .” conferences, which celebrated Goethe’s 250th birthday in 1999, two stood out. They dealt with a classical chiasm: Goethe and the Jews, the Jews and Goethe. While Goethe’s ambivalent relationship toward the Jews and Judaism has been the subject of much scholarly debate, Goethe’s reception by a Jewish audience has attracted far less attention. Like many of his contemporaries, especially Herder, Goethe praised the cultural achievements of the ancient Hebrews and of Judaism, but he scarcely contributed to the tolerance debate of the eighteenth century, and he was opposed to the emancipation of the Jews. In spite of his well-known ambivalence, he became the favorite of the Jewish salons of Berlin, and his concept of Bildung (self-cultivation) was adapted by a Jewish elite in the nineteenth century; not to forget that Jewish authors and scholars contributed substantially to Goethe’s fame in the late nineteenth century. It is to the merit of the Jewish Museum of Frankfort that its conference concentrated on this aspect of Goethe’s works and reception.

Goethe’s mental reservations toward the Jews are already inscribed in the title of the volume, “Besides, they [the Jews] are human beings too.” This quote is part of his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth), published in 1811, in which he portrayed the Judengasse of Frankfort. It is a minimal statement of tolerance: honor the Jews as human beings, which around 1811 also implied: respect their human rights, but don’t give them civil rights.

The conference proceedings are introduced by Wilfried Barner, who has become over the last two decades the foremost expert on this topic. The reviewer would have preferred another contribution by him, instead he moderated the discussion and knowledgeably summarized the conference. The scope of the symposium was somewhat limited since it concentrated mostly on Goethe’s Frankfort years (up to 1775). There are, however, two exceptions to this rather narrow viewpoint. Daniel Wilson, whose book Goethe Tabu (1999) disrupted severely the harmony of the Goethe festivities, applies his political criticism of Goethe to his relationship to the Jews, and his overview leaves [End Page 158] no room for any apology: Goethe was opposed to Jewish emancipation. Whether this already makes him an antisemite is rather doubtful. Willi Jaspers carries this criticism even further by demonstrating how the nationalization of the Goethe-cult in the 19th and 20th century became more and more antisemitic. This development goes hand in hand with the evolution of Goethe’s Faust into a German myth, an ideology to which Richard Wagner’s antisemitism substantially contributed.

Coming back to the narrower Frankfort perspective, one finds an original piece on Goethe’s well-known portrait of the Judengasse. The historian Gabriela Schlick not only carefully reconstructs what Goethe could have seen there, but also utilizes documents of the city archives and reports of travel literature on the Frankfort ghetto to give us a more realistic picture of this place. Under her perspective, Goethe’s often praised image of the ghetto becomes a construct of eighteenth-century clichés, his own sentiments and prejudices, far from the reality of this overcrowded street.

Karl Dienst, a protestant theologian, sheds new light on Goethe’s religious upbringing in Frankfort, where Protestants, Lutherans, and Catholics lived peacefully side by side, excluding, of course, the Jews. He is mainly interested in the “other Frankfort,” i.e., the Pietists, the Separatists, the Herrenjuts, and the “Quiet of the Land,” and how it influenced Goethe’s eclectic belief system. By placing Goethe in the context of a multi-religious environment, Dienst shatters the cliche of Goethe as the “great heathen.”

What is often forgotten or overlooked in Goethe’s biography is the detail that he spent four years in Frankfort as a lawyer (with substantial help from his father, himself a doctor juris and imperial counselor). Hans Peter Benoehr takes a closer look at the...

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