Academic journal article German Quarterly

Feuchtwanger's Jud Süß and the Ambiguities of Jewish Political Power

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Feuchtwanger's Jud Süß and the Ambiguities of Jewish Political Power

Article excerpt

Previous studies of Lion Feuchtwanger's novel Jud Süß (1925) have employed the author's writings on historical fiction as an interpretive tool, yet critics have offered inadequate explanations for Feuchtwanger's choice of that genre (Glasenapp; Levesque). Existing scholarship relies on Feuchtwanger's understanding of historical fiction and privileges the era of the novel's composition, ignoring, however, the temporality of the events portrayed (Petersen). Feuchtwanger's justification for writing Jud Süß has also been accepted at face value, closing off fruitful lines of inquiry (Shedletzky 145). By reassessing the novel as historical fiction and reading Feuchtwanger's commentary more critically, I seek to provide an interpretation that underscores historical fiction's political dimension, its conceptualization of the present by analogy to the past (Sternburg 237). If history can be understood as a narrative in some of the same senses as fiction, historical elements employed in historical fiction must be closely examined since these have aesthetic and political consequences for an author's commentary on his own time.

Feuchtwanger's genre choice relates to his decision to write about historical figure Josef Süß Oppenheimer and the ambivalence of Süß's political position as a court Jew. Historical fiction allowed Feuchtwanger to address Jewish dilemmas that concerned him-namely, the conflicts of Jews torn between religious community and civil society. Through Süß, the novel critiques Jews' relationship to the state and questions their faith that it will accept them as Jews. Süß gains power by allying himself with Duke Karl Alexander, and Süß's fall from power, precipitated in part by the duke's betrayal, indicates that Süß's loyalty is misplaced. The betrayal motif demands closer examination because it figures in the novel's treatment of Jewish loyalty and characterizes its setting in a corrupt world, where success is predicated on deceit and manipulation. While Süß secures power with tactics that Christians also use, his achievements are seen as illegitimate gains because he is Jewish. The novel suggests that Jews do not benefit from loyalty to the state. Powerful Jews remain politically suspect and vulnerable, and they survive only by concealing their power and accepting their marginal position. Jud Süß reveals that the state betrays Jews through its insincere offer of equal treatment in exchange for relinquishing Judaism.

Jud Süß thus posits a literary response to the so-called Jewish question, but also to non-Jewish fears of politically powerful Jews. These fears derived from the anti- Jewish claim that Jews, who are foremost loyal to other Jews, cannot pledge loyalty to any state.1 According to this logic, the prospect of Jews as public servants (or even citizens) threatened the sociopolitical order. While Feuchtwanger did not write to counter such fears, he depicted problems that a Jewish public figure faces because of them. Süß's position sets his convictions against state interests, and he addresses this conflict to transcend the stigma of Jewishness, by gaining political power in a hierarchy that deems him an outsider. In Jud Süß, then, the Jewish question is framed as a dilemma that sets the private sphere against the public sphere- a dilemma that didn't attain its full meaning until the age of absolutism, when it became a political rather than a religious matter (Stern 7-9).

Jud Süß as Historical Fiction

Recent scholarship has discussed the implications of the novel's genre in light of Feuchtwanger's essay "Vom Sinn und Unsinn des historischen Romans" (1935). Gabriele von Glasenapp (177-201), for example, relies on Feuchtwanger's conception of historical fiction to justify her approach. Feuchtwanger writes,

Ich bin in jedem einzelnen Fall zu dem Schluß gekommen, daß der Künstler nichts anderes beabsichtigt, als sein eigenes (zeitgenössisches) Lebensgefühl, sein subjektives (keineswegs historisierendes) Weltbild so auszudrücken, daß es sich ohne weiteres auf den Leser übertrage. …

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