Academic journal article German Quarterly

Moses Mendelssohn, Germany's First Migrant 1

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Moses Mendelssohn, Germany's First Migrant 1

Article excerpt

in the standard version of Moses Mendelssohn's life, his arrival in Berlin in 1743 as a fourteen-year-old boy marks the beginning of the enlightenment in Germany, just as it lays the foundation for modernism and secularism in Jewish life and starts the trend towards civic emancipation and the participation of Jews in German high culture. since the actual history of Mendelssohn, his contemporaries, and successors is far more complicated, one might wonder about muddying the issue further by claiming him as Germany's original migrant. arguably, Mendelssohn was not migrating, but merely moving just over 100 kilometers within Germany, from Dessau, the capital of anhalt-Dessau, to Prussia's largest city. People had been making similar journeys to, from, and within the Germanspeaking territories of central europe for hundreds of years, and Mendelssohn originally traveled to Berlin specifically to join that city's largely autonomous community of Jews. He simply wanted to continue studying torah with the rabbi who had taught him in Dessau, but things turned out differently.

to claim Mendelssohn as a migrant requires, among other things, challenging the term's history in Germany and taking into account the word's multiplicity of meanings and implications, particularly at a time when refugees and asylum-seekers have been arriving in overwhelming numbers. in common parlance, in much of the scholarship of migrant literature and film, and in official usage as defined by Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge in 2005, "Migrationshintergrund" designates people who settled in the present territory of the federal republic after 1949, revised in 2011 to 1955, or who were born there either as foreigners or as Germans with one foreign parent.2While the term has mostly ended the taboo of regarding Germany as a nation of immigrants, it still leaves the discussion of migrants and migration trapped in an ahistorical morass. far from starting the sort of critical rethinking that i want to use Mendelssohn to encourage, the term "Migrationshintergrund" perpetuates the fiction that migration began not simply after World War ii, but also and more specifically after the arrival of ethnic German expellees from eastern europe. this usage not only consigns the very real difficulties of integrating the "Vertriebenen" to a repressed past, but it also treats Germany of 1945, a country that had just experienced war and an extraordinarily thorough ethnic cleansing, as the norm rather than the exception. among other things, it excludes all the previous migrants in German history, including Moses Mendelssohn, just as it racializes those who arrived after 1955, the date of the federal republic's first labor migration accord, with italy.

limiting the definition to "Gastarbeiter" and their descendants also overlooks the reality that migration as a concept has recently been disrupted at the lowest end of the socio-economic-political spectrum by refugees and asylum-seekers who are anything but universally welcomed, but who, for a variety of practical, legal, and ethical reasons, cannot simply be sent back to their counties of origin. at the upper end of the continuum, the difficulty is just as real when applied to the mobile employees of multinational companies for whom residency is often temporary, while citizenship, particularly if it is from within the european Union, is practically meaningless. in addition, the category of "migrant" implies its opposite, namely, a core group of permanent, homogenous residents who constitute a cultural or ethnic majority, a situation that never existed in Germany or, for that matter, anywhere else. instead, cultures and peoples are always "contaminated" (appiah 101-13). My strategy is nevertheless to retain the term "migrant" to describe people who move from place to place and culture to culture, paying particular attention to those who create the kind of artifacts that are of interest within the field of German cultural studies, while simultaneously stretching the definition almost beyond recognition. …

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