By Matthew Johnson
Marc Volovici’s German as a Jewish Problem: The Language Politics of Jewish Nationalism, was published by Stanford University Press in 2020. Volovici is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of History, Classics & Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London, where he is also affiliated with the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism. His impressive first book, German as a Jewish Problem, offers a new perspective on the history of Jewish nationalism by delineating the varied and often contradictory meanings of the German language in the formation of modern Jewish identity and politics. As Volovici demonstrates, in a study that spans the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, “German has held a momentous and multifaceted place in the history of European Jews, serving as a catalyst of secularization, emancipation, and assimilation in various Jewish communities within and without German-speaking areas” (2). In his use of language as an analytic lens, Volovici opens up rich spaces of investigation and reflection at the intersection of politics, religion, science, and literature. In addition to scholars of modern Jewish history and nationalism, his book should be of interest to anyone concerned with the knotted relationship between language and identity. Matthew Johnson interviewed Marc Volovici about his new book.
Matthew Johnson: You write that your “book tells the Jewish history of the German language, focusing on German’s paradoxical place in Jewish nationalism” (3). Can you tell us about how you came to write about this topic? What does it mean to tell the history of a language and, more specifically, to tell its Jewish history? Why is German so important to the history of Jewish nationalism, even if, as you note, it “was not at the center of Jewish nationalism’s ideological debates” (3)?
Marc Volovici: My interest in the Jewish history of the German language emerged out of my fascination with its status in the postwar period—as a tainted language that carries the memories of the Nazi period and the Holocaust. This idea was integral to how the Holocaust was remembered and represented in Israel and the Jewish world in the immediate postwar period, and was frequently employed by numerous individuals and institutions who carried out a boycott of the German language. But whether German could be reduced to its role in the persecution of European Jewry was a matter of controversy and of political and intellectual debates. The more I delved into these debates, the more I reckoned how rooted they were in much longer and older trajectories of Jewish engagement with the German language, its allure and danger.
These trajectories go back to the late eighteenth century, when German served as a symbol and a catalyst of processes of social transformation in Jewish communities. The acquisition of High German was actively encouraged by state reforms in German principalities and the Habsburg Empire, and was also key to the early ideology of the Jewish Enlightenment. This tightened German’s association with enlightenment ideas, as well as with secular, progressive, and liberal currents in Central and Eastern Europe. German thus carried a symbolic value that exceeded its mere practical merit. Whether deemed a positive or a threatening presence in Jewish life, German was part and parcel of Jewish multilingualism. The history of German as an integral and contested part of the Jewish social landscape has been largely overshadowed by German’s “Nazification.”
In the book I argue that the emergence of Jewish nationalist ideas in the late nineteenth century brought the profound ambivalence toward German in Jewish life to the fore. At a time when national movements championed their language as a bedrock of national consciousness and self-determination, Jewish nationalists faced a more complex linguistic predicament. Hebrew was revered as the language of Jewish ritual, but was only beginning to be used for modern domains and as a vernacular, and was entirely inaccessible to most Jews in Western countries. Yiddish was the language spoken by the vast majority of eastern European Jews, but until the late nineteenth century it was not considered a respectable language, or even a language at all. More commonly it was described (even by Yiddish speakers) as a German dialect, or distorted German. It is against this backdrop that German’s role in early Jewish nationalism can be characterized as paradoxical. German was adopted by political activists due to its presumed ability to advance the Jewish national cause, but in so doing it also embodied the chronic condition of Jews as a nation lacking a common language.
This paradox was enhanced by the fact that, on the one hand, German played an indispensable role in the formulation and dissemination of Jewish national ideologies. On the other hand, it was associated with historical currents of assimilation that undermined the postulate of Jewish national unity.
Even though German was not a Jewish national language, I argue that it is impossible to understand the language politics of Jewish nationalism without considering its critical place in the movement. As Jewish nationalists navigated between the ideological significance and the functional merit of German, key questions of the modern Jewish diasporic condition came to the surface.
MJ: One of your book’s methodological innovations is to turn our attention to “German-reading Jews,” not just to “German-speaking Jews” (7). Can you say more about why this latter category is important and about how it allows us to ask new questions? Who exactly were these “German-reading Jews”? And to what degree is your book, in fact, a history of reading?
MV: When we think about Jews and the German language, the first group that comes to mind is Jews in German-speaking lands who saw German as an essential aspect of their self-understanding and culture. But German is not only the language of the Germans, and we miss a great deal of the historical picture when we focus exclusively on “German-speaking Jews.”
The category of “German-reading Jews” introduced itself to me soon after I began looking for traces of Jewish thought about German. German-reading Jews were a broad, transnational collective of Jews spanning from Palestine, Europe, and the Americas that exercised various degrees of fluency in German, read German literature and science, engaged with it critically, and recognized the value of German for the advancement of Jewish society. They learned German at school, with a tutor, at the university, or on their own. Their motivations to learn German were manifold. It was a global language of science, culture, and politics, serving for many as a pathway to universal knowledge. A common motif in memoirs of young Jews in nineteenth-century Russia is a moment of realization that they wish to break away from the confines of Jewish traditional life. Learning to read German was often the first step that followed this realization. And it was indeed this scattered collective of German-reading Jews in Eastern Europe that imbued the German language with many of its layers of significance in Jewish historical memory. The very fact then that German had a distinctive status in Jewish diasporic culture cannot be understood by looking exclusively at German native speakers. The history of how German acquired a captivating and often haunting image—from the enlightenment to the Holocaust—becomes more comprehensible only by following Jews’ ambivalent attachment to German, an ambivalence that was cultivated more often through written rather than spoken German.
Beyond the case of German, studying communities of readers can help us challenge the common assumption that language is the spiritual possession of those who speak it—and speak it fluently. This assumption excludes those masses who approach, use, and mobilize a language in various ways, often leaving a profound imprint on how that language evolves. Sharpening our intellectual sensitivity to communities of readers holds particular relevance for Jews, a diasporic minority living at the crossroads of different languages.
MJ: While you focus on the German language, your book is also concerned with questions of multilingualism and of competing language ideologies, e.g., Hebraism and Yiddishism. You argue that “[w]hile Yiddishism was Hebraists’ main political rival, it was German that encapsulated the virtues and dangers of Jewish multilingualism” (102). Can you say more about these “virtues and dangers” and about the larger claims you are making about the role of German in “Jewish multilingualism”?
MV: Both Hebrew and Yiddish were, in their own ways, a staple of Jewish nationhood. Yet in the formative decades of Jewish nationalism both lacked certain aspects cardinal to the idea of a “national language” at the turn of the twentieth century, such as the proven ability to form the basis of a modern literary and scientific corpus and to mediate between different Jewish communities in the diaspora. Questions of linguistic prestige and practicality were interwoven, and it was in this sense that German was more ‘dangerous’ than Yiddish to proponents of Hebrew—precisely because it was already serving as an international language of Jewish social, cultural, and political affairs. That Zionism emerged under Theodor Herzl’s leadership as a Germanophone movement was not merely a reflection of the cultural proclivities of the Zionist leadership, but was grounded in a longer tradition that deemed German a respectable European language that is well suited to advance political and diplomatic action in the Jewish social sphere. German’s omnipresence in Jewish political life was its main virtue and danger.
The book therefore considers the role of German in Jewish nationalism as one chapter within a longer history of a fraught reliance on German in modern Jewish culture. German appears from this point of view as a language that is both an insider and an outsider to Jewish life—and for this reason it defied the nationalist monolingual imperative.
MJ: Building off the previous question, you note that your “book examines […] Jewish secularization—in the sense of the neutralization of religious sensitivities, terms, and categories—in its multilingual and not merely Hebrew contexts” (11). In this regard, you also discuss the “theological meanings attached to German in Jewish culture.” How does German allow us to rethink the history of Jewish secularization? And how is this linked to your larger focus on nationalism?
MV: First, the acquisition of German by Jews in German-speaking lands since the late eighteenth century eroded Hebrew’s status as the primary language of Jewish religious ritual. Beginning in the 1820s and 1830s a number of reformist communities introduced German sermons and even prayers into the synagogues. Abraham Geiger, the prominent German scholar and reformist rabbi, admitted in 1845 that, to him, a Jewish prayer in German “strikes a deeper chord than a Hebrew prayer.” But one did not have to be a staunch reformist in order to hold a close attachment to German in the religious domain. German orthodox Jews also read the Bible in German translation. No other language was so deeply associated with processes of departure from Hebrew as German—precisely because it coalesced the profane and the holy. Not for nothing did the Czech Jewish philosopher Hugo Bergmann call it a “half-holy language.”
Second, German had an active role in the creation of Jewish secular politics. German was relatively accessible to Eastern European Jews who turned to German when seeking to equip themselves with the contemporary scientific and political knowledge of the time—in particular around socialist and nationalist theories. In this sense, German had an auxiliary but important role in withdrawal from Jewish traditional political frameworks and in the formation of new ones.
And third, German facilitated the development of Jewish national thought. A key example of this is the 1882 text Autoemancipation!, which was written in German by Leon Pinsker, a Russian Jewish doctor who had not written political texts in German beforehand. He made extensive use of German political and scientific terms, attempting to align the Jewish national cause with the self-justification of national movements in Europe. In this sense, the “Germanness” of the text was a vital characteristic of it, and it is no coincidence that Autoemancipation! would later be considered a founding text of Jewish nationalism. The first translations of the text into Hebrew and Yiddish were characterized by their effort to “Judaize” the text, to set it within the religious, traditional conceptual apparatus of Jewish writing. For the translators, none of these languages and their readerships were equipped to handle Pinsker’s ideas in their German form. Speaking of a Jewish collectivity in secular terms was far more feasible in German than in Jewish languages.
MJ: In a memorable passage that seems to bring your work into conversation with the history of emotions and affect theory, you argue that “[t]he ideological excess of a language is transmitted not only in its representations and in discussions about it but also in the language itself. Words, sounds, accents, and concepts inform the image of languages. Though elusive in nature, it is often the sensory responses to language or to certain words within it that acquire added meaning as beautiful, lucid, irritating, or violent” (39). How did you access and analyze these “sensory responses to language,” which, as you note, are often “elusive in nature”? And how did such sensory responses become operative in the development of Jewish nationalism?
MV: It is difficult, if not impossible, for historians to capture the sensory responses to languages. What is possible, however, is to try and make sense of how individuals describe their relation to a certain language—the feeling of admiration, irritation, disgust or fear that a given language or certain words instill in them. And these emotions cannot be separated from the political context surrounding them, making certain views about the sound of a language meaningful and socially acceptable. That German was a “pure,” elegant language, was a household assumption worldwide. It is against this common perception of German that it made sense to designate Yiddish as an “ugly” language. German was a marker of high culture, refined poetical expression, rationality, and scientific precision. The self-understanding of many German Jews as equal and full Germans was predicated to a considerable degree on their rootedness in the German language. Gabriel Riesser, the foremost advocate of Jewish emancipation, wrote in 1830, “The thundering sounds of the German language, the songs of the German poets, are those that inflamed and fed us with the holy fire of freedom.” The sound of German was a liberating one. And yet at the same time German nationalists and antisemites rejected Jews’ relation to the German language as “inauthentic” and as dangerous to Germany.
After Hitler’s rise to power, the association between the German language and antisemitic hatred became a steady feature in Jewish nationalists’ debates of language matters, especially in Palestine. Hebraist activists repeatedly agitated against German, “the language of Hitler” or “the language of our enemy” Some commentators bound together Yiddish and German, calling to “cure us from the big Hitler in Berlin, and the little Hitler in the mouths of my brethren in Tel Aviv” as one writer put it in 1939. During the war years, this argument became ever more common and was used to question the moral legitimacy of having German heard or even read in public venues in Palestine. Such a view did not go uncontested, but it persisted well into the 1950s and onwards. It is against this political background that the sound of German came to be associated first and foremost with Hitler and the Nazi movement. Yet as I argue in the book, the emotional association between German and antisemitic brutality is not merely an emotive response to the shocking violence of Nazi antisemitism; rather, it builds on recent as well as old trajectories of signifying German as a dangerous language to Jewish life.
MJ: Your book assembles a fascinating cast of characters and focuses both on well-known figures, like Martin Buber, and lesser-known figures, such as Simon Bernfeld. You analyze and compare the work of writers, translators, academics, cultural activists, philosophers, and politicians. Can you talk about how you chose the particular sources and protagonists for your book? How is your corpus linked to what you describe as the “diffused presence” of German in Jewish societies and to your stated effort to “de-Germanize the place of German in modern Jewish society” (12)?
MV: There is a vast and brilliant body of literature by literary scholars who have investigated the approaches of prominent Jewish writers—Kafka, Benjamin, Scholem, Freud, and Heine come to mind—to the German language, emphasizing the different contexts that shaped their relation to German. Yet these figures were masters of German style who were highly self-reflexive of language matters. Their writings are ridden with references to what language in general and the German language in particular meant to them—as Jews, as intellectuals, as human beings. This is a crucial aspect of the Jewish history of the German language, but it is not the whole story. My aim was to broaden the scope of the historical study of Jews’ relation to the German language.
One way of doing this is by paying closer attention to figures who were not accomplished writers in the Germanophone literary sphere. I tried to trace the meanings of German in its more immediate, mundane presence—through the engagement of political activists, popular journalists, lay people, soldiers, and low-brow writers whose main concern was not with matters of representation and self-understanding, but with practical questions such as the usefulness of German as a language of political action and of knowledge. What mattered to them was not (only) how language can reach the depths of one’s soul, but rather whether it can get things done.
Another way of broadening the conversation is indeed by de-Germanizing the place of German in modern Jewish society,” that is, to consider German’s transnational quality in Jewish diasporic life. And it is through this angle that the book tries to study those figures who did not necessarily identify themselves as German writers, and to assess closely questions regarding the practical acquisition of German, its place in the multilingual fabric of empires and nation-states in Central-Eastern Europe, the role of German as a universal language of knowledge, and the affinity between Yiddish and German.
MJ: Near the end of the book, after an analysis of the transformed meaning of German in the wake of the Holocaust, you make (with reference to Hugo Bergmann) a powerful and provocative observation: “German, a language that until recently had been fundamental to Jewish life, had turned into a foreign language” (228). Can you say more about what you mean by “foreign” here? How is this linked to the ways in which your book puts pressure on categories like “internal” and “external” bilingualism and “Jewish” and “non-Jewish” languages?
MV: One of the arguments I make in the book is that German did much to blur the very distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish languages. Precisely because it permeated the modern Jewish experience in crucial domains—as a language of Jewish enlightenment of Jewish religious reform, of Jewish scholarly knowledge, and of Jewish nationalism—it came to occupy a profound place in Jewish political and cultural existence since the late eighteenth century.
Seen from this angle, Jewish nationalists, above all Zionists, gradually strove to emancipate Jews from the grip of the German language, namely from Jews’ practical and often emotional dependence on it. In other words, German had to be made a normal language—a language free of the historical baggage accumulated over centuries. The historical irony consisted in the fact that German was expelled from the Jewish public sphere not as a result of the efforts to build a Jewish national polity, but following an event unrelated to it—German’s turning into a Nazi language. While Jewish nationalists sought to confine German to the realm of ordinary, practical languages, German became tied even more powerfully with Jewish historical memory. But this was not due to its role in the social transformation of European Jewry, but because of German’s role in its near destruction.
Matthew Johnson is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago writing a dissertation on twentieth-century German-Yiddish literature.
Featured Image: Theodor Herzl and other delegates at the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland (1897). Wikipedia.