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  • "Exkurs über den Fremden" and the Jewish Question of the Fin de Siècle Period
  • Søren Blak Hjortshøj

In recent years, Georg Simmel's "stranger" figure has been highlighted as a universal ideal for cultural encounters, cosmopolitan identity, mobility, and migration.1 Yet the focal point of this essay is to discuss whether it is accurate to perceive Simmel's stranger as a universal ideal when examining the contextual references of the "Exkurs." Thus, by focusing on the many references to the so-called Jewish Question of the fin de siècle period, I will discuss whether Simmel's stranger is bound to Jewish history in particularistic fashion.

From the beginning of Simmel's essay, we find references to Jewish particularities. For example, Simmel identifies Jewish history as a prototypical case in the study of the stranger.2 In Simmel's coining of the key term "characteristic of objectivity," furthermore, we find references to central topics of the Jewish Question of the period: "Objectivity could also be defined as freedom. The objective man is not bound by ties […]; he examines conditions with less prejudice; he assesses them against standards that are more general and more objective; and his actions are not confined by custom, piety, or precedent."3 In this quotation, Simmel denotes the characteristic of objectivity as produced by the stranger's in-between position. Specific references to the Jewish Question can also be found in the quotation. Most often [End Page 308] when the Jew was described in such terms—as an individual who assessed matters without any form of "piety," "not bound by ties"—it partook of an antisemitic stereotype.4

In Heinrich von Treitschke's "Unsere Aussichten" (1879), which set off the famous Berliner Antisemitismusstreit (1879–81), the focus was on a small group of German Jews who lived according to a hybrid "Mischkultur" consisting of German and Jewish elements.5 Treitschke mainly focuses on this subgroup as he denotes German Jews as "unser Unglück."6 Indeed, the German Jews existing between the German majority society and the more traditional German-Jewish groups (a segment Simmel himself was part of)—no matter whether these individuals were "acculturated or assimilated, observant, Confessionslos, or baptized"7—were often identified as the forerunners of the modern liberal transformation of Germany by antisemites.8 Particularly, democracy and capitalism were represented as "Jewish," and individuals identified as being part of this "Mischkultur" became the focal point of the antisemitic "resistance battle." In "The Stranger," Simmel only momentarily touches upon the stir that this stranger type could create. Yet in the first edition of the essay, Simmel lists another stranger, "the barbarian."9 The reactions to the barbarian are most often negative; yet, according to Simmel, it is not meaningful to compare the barbarian stranger with the stranger type he focuses on because the barbarian is not "a member of the group."10 The barbarian will always be conceived as a negative alien element while Simmel's stranger occupies a unique inside-outside position.

We can observe several other references to the Jewish Question in the essay. Simmel even thematizes "rootlessness." Simmel writes: "The stranger is by nature no 'owner of soil' not only in the physical, but also in the figurative sense."11 A few lines later, Simmel explicitly states: "because he is not bound by roots."12 Yet Simmel turns around a key stereotype of this period, since he does not think that "rootlessness" threatens social cohesion; instead, it provides the stranger with a freer, less prejudiced, outlook than a monocultural individual. [End Page 309]

Still, my aim is not to exclude a universal reading of Simmel's essay. Rather, Simmel's representation of the stranger is ambivalent: the stranger is a universal ideal, and Jewish history provides the best case-study examples. The double reading strategy also makes it possible to understand Simmel's essay as thematizing the German-Jewish minority situation of this period. Also, the "Exkurs" can be interpreted as commenting on universal minority/majority relations in the context of ideal modern nation building by which the stranger as a minority figure represents a highly constructive element.

Accordingly, Simmel's essay is not...


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