Book Review of “The Pity of It All” by Amos Elon

This excellent, moving history of German Jews from 1743-1933 is a well-researched, informative, and consistently interesting investigation into the pre-Nazi relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish populations in Germany. The story begins with the arrival of Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin through the Rosenthal Gate – the gate reserved for Jews and cattle. It ends with the despair, exile, suicide, and/or murder of the cream of Jewish – and indeed – German – culture in 1933. What a tragic story of the efforts of a people to fit in who were never allowed to fit in, in spite of assimilation, in spite of conversion, in spite of a passionate patriotism rivaling that of any “Aryan” nationalist.


The true religion of the Jews, Elon avers, was the ideal of “Bildung,” or high culture. Their goal was “to civilize German patriotism: to base citizenship not on blood but on law, to separate church and state, and to establish what would today be called an open, multicultural society.” Alas, as Elon observes, “the prominence of German Jews and the contributions they made became fully apparent only after they were gone.” In fact, in 1933, an organization of German Jews commissioned a compilation of all Jewish “achievers” and “achievements” in all fields, in a sad attempt to convince the nation of their value. “The oversized book,” as described by Elon, “ran to 1,060 pages and comprised thousands of entries and names.” The Gestapo ordered it to be destroyed, just as they later ordered the “people of the book” to be destroyed as well. Elon shares with us some of the stories of these remarkable humanists, scientists, philosophers, musicians, journalists, and others. He places them in the political context of their time, so that we can judge for ourselves the pressures they felt, the compromises they made or did not make, and the environment that contributed to their brilliant accomplishments. (Ironically, one factor that led to such a wealth of output among Jews was the discrimination against them: unable to get jobs in academia or law or many other fields, they had a great deal of time in which to be prolific, providing they could find sponsors.)

It is interesting that long before Hitler was even a mote in his mother’s eye, Germans were coming up with all sorts of discriminatory practices later associated with the Nazi movement. For example, in the 1700s, Jews were required by law “to be recognizable from a distance.” The mandatory yellow patch could only be avoided by a large payment to the state. The extra taxes on Jews were a long tradition also: large surcharges were imposed upon marriage, birth of children, and buying a house. In response to the conversion to Christianity of much of the social and intellectual elite, Germans in the early 19th century extended their exclusion criteria of Jews down to the third generation. Ludwig Borne, who converted to Christianity in 1813, observed to his blonde and blue-eyed friend Heinrich Heine (who had also converted) “Some reproach me for being as Jew; others forgive me for being one; there are even those who commend me for the same – but there’s no one able to put this fact out of his mind.” (Heine, who managed to hide his Judaic origins from his French Catholic wife, was not as successful with the Nazis: although they could not suppress the widely-beloved poem Die Lorelei, they did insist it be attribed to “Anonymous.”) The prohibition against Jews in certain professions, especially the military, was an old practice as well. (In October 1916, after thousands of Jews had already fought in the war and more than seven thousand had received decorations, the War Minister ordered a “Jew census” to determine how many Jews actually served in the front lines. When the results yielded a figure of some 80 percent, the census had to be destroyed.)

Elon postulates that hatred of Jews resulted not from ignorance but from increasing familiarity:

These Jews spoke and wrote the common language, sometimes better than their Christian countrymen, and lived not segregated from other Germans but among them. … In a process analogous to Freud’s narcissism of minor difference, the more Jews came to resemble other Germans the more, it seemed, Germans resented them.”

Elon argues that Hitler was not inevitable, and yet the historical patterns he has identified seem to say otherwise. The “blips” on Germany’s historical screen were not periods of German hatred of Jews, but periods of tolerance. When world events turned sour, there was always a familiar reason. As Elon reports during the Weimar period, “In short order, every unresolved problem and all of the world’s evils from the crucifixion of Christ to capitalism, Communism, syphilis, and the lost war were projected onto a tiny minority representing 0.9 percent of the population.”

The book ends with Hannah Arendt leaving Berlin on a train along the same route Moses Mendelssohn took on foot as a boy, “on his way to fame and fortune in Enlightenment Berlin.” In Mendelssohn’s time, Jews weren’t allowed through that Rosenthal Gate without a sponsor within Berlin, and without paying a head tax. When Arendt left, she had to leave all her worldly goods, in hope of escaping with her life. Enlightenment indeed.

Rating: 5/5

Published in hardback by Metropolitan Books, 2002 and in paperback by Picador, 2003

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