Reviewed on September 9, 2002 by Publishers Weekly
In his excellent overview, veteran Israeli journalist and historian Elon (a biographer of Herzl and others) writes in a fluid and appealing style, with a talent for capturing the right anecdote or quote. He focuses on individual figures, both well-known ones such as Heine, Marx (both of whom converted to Protestantism) and Herzl, and lesser-knowns such as Ludwig Sonnemann (a newspaper editor who excoriated Bismarck’s 1871 annexation of Alsace and Lorraine), Kurt Eisner (head of a short-lived socialist republic in Bavaria in 1919) and Walter Rathenau (the assimilated foreign minister who was assassinated in 1922). Like other historians of German Jewry, Elon points to the leadership of Jews in bringing the Enlightenment to Germany and to their high rate of assimilation and intermarriage (by the 1920s, the intermarriage rate of German Jewry rivaled that of America today). Fortunately, Elon avoids the trap of seeing all of pre-Nazi German-Jewish history as a prelude to the Holocaust or of viewing the “Final Solution” as inevitable. At the end of the 19th century, he argues effectively, “In most other European countries, prejudice and discrimination seemed equally or more prevalent” than in Germany. Elon’s book is not without its shortcomings, such as focusing too much on Berlin and neglecting Jews in other cities, as well as rural and poor Jews, eastern European immigrants and women. But given these failings, this study will prove enlightening and enjoyable to those interested in both modern Jewish and modern German history.