The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933

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The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933 by Amos Elon Metropolitan Books * 2002 * 446 pages * $30.00 hardcover; $15.00 paperback

The ideological and then political triumph of liberalism in the eighteenth and nine-teenth centuries ushered in a momentous period in human history. It ended the reign of absolute monarchs; it freed commerce and industry from the shackles of mercantilist regulations and controls; it heralded a new era of representative government and civil liberties. Freedom of the press and of speech, religion, and association became the hallmarks of an epoch that increasingly came to view individual liberty as the cornerstone of a humane, peaceful, and prosperous society.

Few groups benefited as much from the ascendancy of political and economic liberalism as the Jews in central and eastern Europe. Since the Middle Ages they had been confined to ghettos, often prohibited from owning and working land, and restricted from pursuing a wide variety of professions and trades. Severe limits were placed on their ability to live and work in capital cities such as Berlin and Vienna. They were burdened with special taxes, including marriage and birth taxes. Except for a small handful of privileged financiers and merchants who served the special interests of kings and princes, most Jews in central and eastern Europe were poor peddlers and traders who wandered the countryside earning meager livings.

Amos Elon's The Pity of It all is a sweeping history of the Jews in Germany from the middle of the eighteenth century to Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Their liberation began with a new awakening of self-improvement through what was called Bildung in German, or the refinement of the individual's character through literature, philosophy, the arts, and the sciences. By this method they would rise above the cultural backwardness that prevailed throughout much of the Jewish community at that time, and at the same time they would fully integrate themselves into the best of German society. They would become Germans who happened to be of a Jewish heritage, rather than outsiders-Jews who happened to live in Germany.

Elon tells this story of cultural assimilation through the lives of leading Jewish figures, such as Moses Mendelssohn, the great proponent of reform and change within the Jewish community, and Heinrich Heine, one of the great poets and essayists in German literature. He details the lives and ideas of the many of the leading Jewish advocates of political and social liberty, and the prominent roles they played in the advancement of constitutionalism and liberal revolution in the 1840s and 1850s. …