Doctrines of Cultural Economy against the Antisemitism of the Day: The Jewish Economists Richard Ehrenberg, Hermann Levy and Julius Hirsch, Abstract by Nicolas Berg
In his works on the intellectual history of the 19th century, the German-Baltic cultural historian Viktor Hehn (1813–1890), whose books were widely read as part of popular classic literature among the educated German middle class down to the years after WW II, repeatedly referred to the death of Goethe as the beginning of the “Jewish era.“ That caesura in 1832 as Hehn saw it, sought to transfigure the past of German idealism, demarcating it from a present that supposedly thought only in economic categories. In the Berlin Antisemitism Conflict of 1879, this figure of thought then became the fulcrum for a major attack against the Jews, as Heinrich von Treitschke famously attributed to them a “heavy burden of shared guilt for the vile materialism of our times,“ an attitude “that sees all work solely as a form of business and threatens to throttle the traditional pleasant joy in work of our people.“
The lecture proceeds from this classic conviction espoused by economic antisemitism but does not sketch its history of genesis. Initially, it concentrates rather on delineating the scientific and intellectual efforts that served to consolidate the dichotomy of this species of thought in the course of the late 19th and early 20th century. An exemplary example here is the work of the economist Werner Sombart (1863–1941), whose coining of concepts regarding the supposedly Jewish role in modern economic life was particularly influential. In his work and in the writings of his successors, economics or “Volkswirtschaft“ ultimately became more and more a national and even folkish project, something “bound up with the German landscape […] inside the borders of the Reich“ (as formulated in an early text by the economist Wilhelm Röpke, later the “intellectual progenitor“ of the social market economy).
The main portion of my lecture is framed in counterpoint to this. With Richard Ehrenberg (1857–1921), Hermann Levy (1881–1949) and Julius Hirsch (1882–1961), it introduces three contemporary Jewish economists who in their work dealt with the same questions and phenomena in modern economic development that Treitschke and Sombart had sought to examine, yet came up with different answers: none formulated an analogous ‘folk psychology‘ or critique of capitalism; instead they were interested in the classic elements of modern economy, such as acceleration, internationalization and entrepreneurship, transfer and mobility, labor migration and the future of the global economy. For all three economists, the American consumer society was the exemplary paradigm, not some horror vision, and they read the basic writings of Scottish-English economic liberalism as a promise of civilization not yet realized in Germany. Thus, all three formulated modern doctrines of cultural economy (“Kulturwirtschaftslehre”) that proceeded from a different conception of productivity. Here the questions of who should be considered “productive,“ who “non-productive,“ were no longer central. These are writings whose thrust is pitted against the economic antisemitism of the times, and whose shared feature is that they were grounded on practical entrepreneurial experiences: they saw not only threats and new constraints in modern economy but also opportunities and new freedoms.
Nicolas Berg is 2015/16 Guest Professor at the Goethe-University / Fritz Bauer Institut Geschichte und Wirkung des Holocaust in Frankfurt a. M. Before that he was Chief Research Associate at the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture between 2003 and 2015; between 2003 and 2009 he was responsible there for the institute’s editorial department.
From April to September 2012 he was Visiting Scholar at the German Historical Institute in London; from October 2012 to March 2013 he was Fellow at the Center of Excellence »Cultural Foundations of Social Integration«, University of Konstanz.
He studied History, German Language and Literature, and Slavic Studies at the University of Freiburg (in 1995 1st State Examination) and he was Doctoral Candidate between 1997 to 1999 at the University’s Historical Seminar there, funded by the German National Academic Foundation. He received his PhD in 2001, the subject of his PhD thesis was „Der Holocaust und die westdeutschen Historiker. Erforschung und Erinnerung” (published at Wallstein-Verlag in 2003; 2nd ed. 2003; 3rd revised ed. 2004).
He has just finished his Research Project “The other Productivity. Cultural Theory and Jewish History in the German Economy in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century”, which deals with the academic reactions from Jewish Scholars to Werner Sombart’s “The Jews in Economic life” from 1911.
His Research Interests are generally German and Jewish historiography in the nineteenth and twentieth century, Anti-Semitism and modern nationalist thought and the History of concepts and metaphors.
Hashtag on Twitter: #antisem19c