Mythology: From Ancient to Post-Modern

By Jürgen Kleist; Bruce A. Butterfield | Go to book overview

Barbara Fischer


The Myth of Tolerance: Historical Dimensions of a German-Jewish Friendship

The second centennial of two Enlightenment promulgators of Jewish emancipation -- the influential Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and the most prominent literary figure of German Enlightenment, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing -- fell in the year 1929. This well-documented friendship between a Jew ( Mendelssohn) and a Lutheran ( Lessing) seemed, in their own time, to hold out the promise of a bright future for German-Jewish interaction and acculturation.

Lessing's second centennial also provided an occasion for celebration of rationalist thinkers and thought (it was the 100th anniversary of Goethe Faust). President von Hindenburg opened the 1929 ceremonies in Wolfenbiittel with the following words:

May these commemorative festivities, organized by the State capital of Braunschweig and the city of Wolfenbüttel, in keeping with the hallowed tradition of German cities of spreading German culture and letters, follow the high-minded course which should be accorded to them; may they contribute to the recurring propagation and conservation among our German people of the imperishable works of our great cultural heroes.1

By 1933, when Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of the German Reich, Lessing Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise), the play, that only four years earlier had been praised by Hindenburg himself as one of the monuments of German literature, as the embodiment of the tolerance ideal and as representative of the "best of German culture," had been banned from all German theaters. The banning of Nathan the Wise appears in retrospect as a small episode in the series of humiliations and persecutions of Jews, whose epilogue was to be gruesomely played out in

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