An English-language resource for people interested in Jakob Wassermann.

As a first point of reference, the excellent German website has a wealth of information. It is well worth a visit, even if your German is as poor as mine.

Details about Wassermann's life and work are hard to obtain in English: I hope this helps, in part, to correct that.

Comments, suggestions, and corrections are more than welcome. Contact.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Jakob Wassermann, My Life As German And Jew

My Life As German And Jew was first published in Germany in 1921. Despite being the most overtly autobiographical of Wassermann’s books, it was not Wassermann’s intention – so he maintains – to write an autobiography; rather, his aim was ‘merely to describe a fateful conflict’:

‘I find myself impelled to seek a clear understanding of the nature of that discord which runs through my life and all its activities, and of which the years have made me ever more painfully sensible and conscious.’

This discord – between being German and being Jewish – is really the central theme of the book. However, there are other conflicting elements in Wassermann’s character, and in his past, that both illuminate the main conflict and explain – in part - Wassermann’s response to it.

Wassermann’s mother died when he was nine, to be replaced a short time later by a stepmother who clearly felt little affection for Wassermann and his siblings. His father was a failed businessman, whose sole ambition for his eldest son was a successful career in commerce. Wassermann was raised in impoverished circumstances - a harsh contrast to the richness of his imagination. He tells how an uncle, alarmed by the family’s poverty, would send them money, and how, as the oldest child, it was his responsibility to buy food each week for himself and his younger brothers and sisters. One of these brothers, Wassermann recalls, remained permanently mistrustful of Wassermann’s financial probity – and for good reason: Wassermann would keep some of the money to buy cheap books, which he then read in secret. In order to discourage his younger brother from revealing his suspicions to their stepmother, Wassermann would invent long, complicated narratives (bedtime stories – the two brothers shared a bed in a closet) then threaten to withhold the ending if his brother misbehaved. This storytelling, he claims, forms the basis of his art and reveals ‘an Oriental instinct in my blood’:

‘It was Scheherezade’s method transposed into everyday life; a latent seed made to grow by chance and peril. Scheherezade tells stories to save her life, and as she spins her tales she becomes the very genius of story-telling. As for me – well, my life was not at stake, but the fever of romancing took complete possession of me and determined my thoughts and my way of life.’

Needless to say this ‘fever’ was viewed as a dangerous illness by Wassermann’s parents, who then did everything they could to cure him of it. Forced into an apprenticeship with his uncle, Wassermann soon rebelled, and before long – faced with no other choice – he enlisted in the army for his year’s compulsory service. There, he encountered for the first time overt anti-semitism:

‘I encountered that dull, rigid, almost inarticulate hatred that has permeated the national organism. The word “ANTISEMITISM” does not suffice to describe it, for the term reveals neither the nature nor the source, neither the depth nor the aim of that hatred. It contains elements of superstition and voluntary delusion, of fanatical terror, of priestly callousness, of the rancour of the wronged and betrayed, of ignorance, of falsehood, of lack of conscience, of justifiable self-defence, of apish malice and of religious bigotry. Greed and curiosity play their part here, blood-lust, and the fear of being lured or seduced, the love of mystery, and deficient self-esteem. In its constituents and background it is a peculiarly German phenomenon. It is a German hatred.‘

Until that point in his life Wassermann had been spared the worst of this hatred, owing mainly to his appearance:

‘My facial type was not Jewish, nor my manner, nor my speech. My nose was straight, my demeanour quiet and unassuming. This argument sounds primitive; but people who have not had this experience cannot imagine how primitive non-Jews are in their estimation of what is Jewish and their conception of Jewish characteristics. Their instinct is silent when it is not confronted with a caricature.’

Also, his family’s somewhat relaxed attitude to worship made them less conspicuous than more devout Jews, Wassermann intimates, and therefore less of a target.

With his military service, however – really, with his entry into manhood – the full extent of anti-semitic hatred is revealed to him. From then on, inevitably, it becomes one of the most significant elements in his life – the source of a profound inner conflict and his motive for writing the book.

Ultimately, My Life As German And Jew is a response to anti-semitism; one that won Wassermann few supporters, either among his German contemporaries, or among fellow Jews.

Prompted by his experiences in the army, and by conversations with an unnamed non-Jewish friend and mentor*, Wassermann struggled with the question of his identity: was he primarily German, or primarily Jewish? His friend – a representative of the liberal element in German society, an element that nevertheless could not rid itself of its prejudices – pressured Wassermann to side with the Germans, to assimilate in other words. Wassermann was also pressured by several Zionists he knew – among them the (again unnamed) ‘author of the idea’ (Theodor Herzl ?) – to identify himself as a Jew above all else. Wassermann’s answer was to reject the idea of choosing and instead to try to contain the contradiction of being both German and Jewish. Maintaining his individuality was paramount:

‘To the demands with which people tried to do violence to my nature I could oppose only obstinacy – a dumb defiance and non-conformity...

... I will have nothing to do with argument, with vindication or indictment, nor with any sort of constructive eloquence. I take my stand upon personal experience...

... I do not ask anyone to imitate me, nor do I claim that my attitude or my actions were right; I am simply describing my experience and my conflict...

... In order to rule the intellect needs conviction. But conviction destroys reason, breaks the image, strips the form of its flesh until it becomes a skeleton, a phantom. He who is swayed by conviction can no longer see the form, and becomes detached from life and growth.’

In itself, this was probably enough to antagonise both his German and his Jewish (and his German Jewish) acquaintances.

But Wassermann then goes further. In attempting to expose the true source of German anti-semitism, he makes certain observations that many Germans and Jews doubtless found – and no doubt continue to find – deeply unpalatable.

First, from the arguments of his non-Jewish friend, he draws the following criticism of the Jews:

‘The charge against them, however, is of a more fundamental nature. It concerns their incapacity for spiritual adaptation. Their intellectual adaptability is extraordinary, even too great for their own good. But spiritually they have, as a body, as a racial entity, remained to this day what they were in Biblical antiquity...

... From the earliest times the Jews have called themselves the Chosen People. The proclamation of their faith in their election and their mission occurs in all their myths...

...a conviction cherished so obstinately for thousands of years entails quite extraordinary obligations, which the group can never wholly fulfil, and engenders a quite abnormal state of moral and mental tension, whose inevitable discharge results in a catastrophic existence; and, on the other hand, such an axiom, when made the basis of a national existence, paralyses moral development and replaces it by moral quietism, which leads to arrogance and self-righteousness...

... The tragedy of the Jew’s life is the union in his soul of a sense of superiority and the feeling that he carries a stigma of inferiority...

...I have come to realize that a race cannot be permanently the Chosen People, and that it cannot permanently designate itself as such, without conflicting with the proper order of things as seen by other nations.’

It is unsurprising that Wassermann was so unpopular – and remains unpopular to this day – among Zionists. Questioning the idea of election, of the Jews being a ‘Chosen People’, was never going to win him Jewish friends. Arguing that the spiritual inflexibility this has created – and still creates – is a legitimate cause for resentment among non-Jews, was an act of intellectual bravery bordering on the foolhardy. Wassermann knew he would be upbraided for it, yet he did it all the same. He was sincere in his attempt to understand German anti-semitism – sufficiently so that he disregarded the consequences of his honesty.

Likewise, when talking about the Germans, he risked alienating friends and readers (we should remember Wassermann, in 1921, was a successful author with a lot to lose). Three years after Germany had lost the war, when countless Germans were looking for someone to blame, and the familiar scapegoat of the Jew seemed more and more inviting ( ‘The menacing embitterment of the masses has always diverted into this convenient channel...’), Wassermann told them the one thing they did not want to hear: he pointed out the similarities between them and their perceived enemies:

‘I once dreamt an allegorical dream, but I am not sure that I can make it clear. I placed the surfaces of two mirrors together; and I felt as though the human images contained and preserved in the two mirrors must needs fight one another tooth and nail...

... Let me endeavour to interpret my metaphor of the mirrors.

That a similarity of destiny and character exists here is evident. Here as there we see centuries of dismemberment and decentralization. A foreign yoke, and a Messianic hope for victory over all foes, and for unification. Indeed, in this connection a special German God was invented, who figured in every patriotic hymn as the Jewish God figures in prayers. Here as there we find misunderstanding on the part of the outside world, ill will, jealousy and suspicion; here as there a heterogeneous configuration within the nation; dissension among the tribes. And we find irreconcilable contrasts of individual traits: practical activity and dreaminess; the gift of speculation in both the higher and the lower senses; the impulse to economize, to accumulate, to trade; the impulse to learn, to acquire knowledge and serve it; a superabundance of formulae and a lack of form; a detached spiritual life that imperceptibly leads to hubris, to arrogance and unteachable stubbornness. Here as there, finally, we find the dogma of election...

... at bottom I feel more sorrow for the Germans than for the Jews.’

Having outraged possibly every member of his audience (certainly those who were not sympathetic to start with) Wassermann now attempts to state his own particular case. Being a German Jew places him in a unique – a uniquely uncomfortable – position, he argues. He cannot simply choose to be one or the other: he is, and always will be, both:

‘A non-German cannot possibly imagine the heartbreaking position of the German Jew. German Jew – you must place full emphasis on both words...’

Unable to change what he is – and unwilling to do so should such a thing be possible – he can only insist on his individuality. As a writer, moreover, he has an obligation to remain true to himself, irrespective of how unpopular that makes him. His role in combating anti-semitism is to do precisely what he is attempting to do in My Life As German And Jew: namely, to expose the roots of that anti-semitism and then to leave it to the individual to decide if he or she is willing to dig out those roots. In other words, he is an artist, not a politician. And while this distinction often makes the politician and the politically-minded smile complacently, the fact nevertheless remains that art can have a far more profound, far more radical effect on the hearts and minds of people than ideology and dogma – something Wassermann understood very well:

‘In my field of endeavour everything depends on one’s ability to touch the hearts of men, to move them and uplift them. Not that I stand on a height and, godlike, raise up the lost. Nothing of the sort. He who opens and takes possession of men’s hearts is uplifted with them, because of love. That is why I believe that the renunciation of ignoble things will cause the ravings and frothings of hatred and injustice to grow powerless, and even the misdeeds that lie to their account will find expiation.’

Twelve years after its first publication, the same year Hitler came to power in Germany, only a year before Wassermann died in exile – his books banned and burned – My Life As German And Jew was reprinted in an English translation. To this new edition, Wassermann had added a post face, bringing the work up to date. The intervening twelve years – during which Wassermann had had ample opportunity to reflect on what he had written (and his opponents ample opportunity to berate him) – did not result in a change of mind or heart. Instead, when he came to write the post face, Wassermann only re-emphasised the importance of individualism. Anti-semitism, at that time, was reaching fever-pitch, but as ever Wassermann’s response to it was calm and dignified, further demonstrating for anyone who cared to see it, the gulf between him and his enemies:

‘In the case of every other people on the globe a few noble and outstanding individuals are taken as indicative of the merit and culture of the group; only in the case of the Jews are all judged by the basest. This would not let me rest, even if I were not a Jew; I know that I should not be able to rid myself of the sting, the reproach, the call of conscience, the feeling of a festering wound in the body of the nation. But fate has made me a Jew – that is, a man who will dedicate all his powers, his blood and his soul, his present life and future life, to the attainment of a state of balance; so that it is not surprising that the idea of justice hangs over me like an empyreal flame...

... Injustice welds one to those who suffer wrong, and the hatred that darkens the world makes an inner obligation of the external appeal.’

This inner obligation – to stand beside the victims of injustice even when the world is getting darker; the refusal to run and hide, either from others or from himself - makes Wassermann, in my opinion, one of the greatest writers of the Twentieth Century. His continuing neglect only confirms the suspicion that honesty and individuality, for all our protestations to the contrary, are still unwelcome traits.

My Life As German And Jew, (George Allen & Unwin, 1934)

216 pages
'Dedicated to FERRUCCIO BUSONI the friend and the artist'

* (identified only as ‘St’ by Wassermann’s first wife, Julie Speyer, in The Letters of Jacob Wassermann to Frau Julie Wassermann (George Allen & Unwin, 1935, p. 16)


On Zionism:
‘My personal attitude toward this movement was uncertain; sometimes painfully so. I necessarily had, from the first, quite a different opinion of its significance. I had lived among quite different associations. Many of its adepts told me that I must rouse myself, that one day I too would awake to the truth and to action. They did not know me...

I was prepared to recognize the effort expended on the cause, their self-sacrifice and devotion, and even to share their hopes; but my position was not theirs. I was not sensible of the solidarity which they considered to be obligatory upon me merely because I was a Jew... Frankly speaking, I recoiled from what they called the Jewish nation, for it seemed to me that a nation could not be created by the conscious efforts of men.’

On Anti-semitism:
‘A historian who should write of Antisemitism would necessarily write the history of an important phase of German cultural history.’

'What do the Germans want?

I ought to have answered: Hate.

I ought to have answered: They want a scapegoat. Whenever things have gone badly with them, after every defeat, in every difficulty, in every trying situation, they shift the responsibility for their distress upon the Jews. So it has been for centuries...

... There must be a vital defect in a people if it can – so lightly, so habitually, so unscrupulously, heeding no appeal, admitting no sincere discussion, capable here of no generosity, although a people that incessantly proclaims itself the leader of all nations in culture, art, research and idealism – continually practise such injustice, sow such dissension, heap up such mountainous accumulations of hatred.'