Jerusalem (Mendelssohn) - History of Reception - Hannah Arendt's Reception of The Haskalah and Of The Emancipation History

Hannah Arendt's Reception of The Haskalah and Of The Emancipation History

Hannah Arendt’s political theory is deeply based on theological and existentialist arguments and in her very sceptical reception of Jewish Emancipation in Prussia it is just regarded as a failure – especially in her writings after World War II. But the earliest publication discussing the Haskalah with respect to the German debate of the Jewish Question opened by Christian Wilhelm von Dohm and Moses Mendelssohn dates back to 1932, when she was 26 years old. In this essay Hannah Arendt is reviving the debate between Dohm, Mendelssohn, Lessing and Herder, and in this debate she shares Herder's side. According to her Moses Mendelssohn's concept of emancipation was assimilated to the pietist concept of Lessing's enlightenment based on a separation between the truth of reason and the truth of history, which prepared the following generation to decide for the truth of reason and against history and Judaism which was identified with an unloved past. Somehow her theological argument was very similar to that of Kant, but the other way round. For Kant as a Lutheran Christian religion started with the destruction and the disregard of the Mosaic law, whereas Herder as a Christian understood the Jewish point of view in so far, that this is exactly the point where religion ends. According to Hannah Arendt the Jews were forced by Mendelssohn's form of Haskalah to inscribe into a Christian version of history in which Jews had never existed as subjects:

So werden die Juden die Geschichtslosen in der Geschichte. Ihre Vergangenheit ist ihnen durch das Herdersche Geschichtsverstehen entzogen. Sie stehen also wieder vis à vis de rien. Innerhalb einer geschichtlichen Wirklichkeit, innerhalb der europäischen säkularisierten Welt, sind sie gezwungen, sich dieser Welt irgendwie anzupassen, sich zu bilden. Bildung aber ist für sie notwendig all das, was nicht jüdische Welt ist. Da ihnen ihre eigene Vergangenheit entzogen ist, hat die gegenwärtige Wirklichkeit begonnen, ihre Macht zu zeigen. Bildung ist die einzige Möglichkeit, diese Gegenwart zu überstehen. Ist Bildung vor allem Verstehen der Vergangenheit, so ist der „gebildete“ Jude angewiesen auf eine fremde Vergangenheit. Zu ihr kommt er über eine Gegenwart, die er verstehen muß, weil er an ihr beteiligt wurde.

In consequence the Jews have become without history in history. According to Herder's understanding of history they are separated from their own past. So again they are in front of nothing. Within a historical reality, within the European secularized world, they are forced to adapt somehow to this world, to educate themselves. They need education for everything which is not part of the Jewish world. The actual reality has come into effect with all its power, because they are separated from their own past. Culture is the only way to endure this present. As long as culture is the proper perception of the past, the "educated" Jew is depending on a foreign past. One will reach it through a certain present, just because one participated in it.

Although her point of view was often misunderstood as an abuse of a prejudge against Judaism, just because of the fact that she often also described forms of opportunism among Jewish citizens, her main concern was totalitarianism, the anachronistic mentality of the ancien régime, and a postwar criticism which was concerned about the limits of modern democracy. Her method was very unorthodox, for instance according sociological standards, because she used Marcel Proust's romance « À la recherche du temps perdu » as a historical document and partly developed her arguments on Proust's observations of Faubourg de Saint Germain, but the publication of this book 1951 made her very popular, because she also included an early analysis of Stalinism. Seven years later she finally published her biographical study about Rahel Varnhagen. Her former studies of Varnhagen's remains at Berlin state library were interrupted by World War II, when she emigrated to France. In her late book she draws the conclusion that the emancipation failed exactly with Varnhagen's generation, when the wish to enter the Prussian upper society was related with the decision to leave the Jewish communities and their jurisdiction. According to her a wealthy minority which she called parvenues, tried to join the privileges of the ruling elite of Prussia. The term "parvenu" was taken from Bernard Lazare and she regarded it as an alternative to Max Weber's term "paria", while she analyzed the exclusion of the Jewish population in Prussia – despite or through their assimilation. In her perception of Herder's concept of Judaism as nation, she found Max Weber's idea of "paria" somehow anticipated. According to her main work the modern society still remained deeply rooted in the ancien régime, even after it had multiplicated itself into a mass society.

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