Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Time travel

The Atlantic posted a personal essay by a Nazi sympathizer - an American of German "Aryan" origin, as she puts it - married to a Jew. She doesn't understand why Jews make such a fuss about that nice Mr. Hitler, who's only just trying to solve Germany's Jewish problem. Those around her are fascinated by her "interracial" (as she puts it) marriage to a Jew, so she's decided to head to her typewriter and tell the world about her very exotic experience.

In case the typewriter didn't give it away, the article's not recent. It's from 1939, but it seems when the magazine first put it online, in 2011, that wasn't entirely clear. (There's now an editor's note in addition to a small-print dateline.) And so brings us the convergence of all my interests: Modern Jewish history! Historical intermarriage! Internet comments! Where oh where to begin?

-We kind of have to begin with the fact that some commenters - that is, commenters today, what with the scarcity of internet commenters in 1939 - agree with the author. As in, they think they're reading a new article, and it's one they agree with. And you know what? I can sort of see why they think it's a regular Atlantic article, not from the archives. It's a personal essay, a relationship essay, by a woman, written in a conversational tone. That to me says 2011 more than 1939. It's the agreement that's unsettling.

-Then there's the tremendous difference between what the article tells us about the author given when it was written, and what it would tell us about her if it had been written even a few years later, let alone in 2011. If you take a look at a timeline from the period, that whole invading-Poland thing hadn't happened yet. The U.S. wouldn't enter the war for quite a while. And if you consider the lag between when something was written and when it was published back in the age of print journalism, that this appeared in a January 1939 issue means it was written, almost certainly, in 1938. So plausibly before Kristallnacht. Point being, what "Nazis" meant to an American at that time, what Nazis were at that time, was radically different from what we hear when we hear that word.

-But, but, the author and her husband did argue about Nazi anti-Jewish policy! Evidently someone saw the Nazis for what they were! But here's the thing: Political anti-Semitism wasn't yet associated with death camps, what with that having not happened yet. By 1938, even, it was plenty clear Nazis weren't fond of Jews, but not remotely clear what they were going to do about it. When you read today about a regime with a repressive policy towards gays or Roma, you may disapprove or protest, but you're probably not in all-out panic that gas chambers are being set up. While it would have been a nice gesture for the author to condemn a regime abroad that had it in for her husband, her level of callousness isn't as extreme as it seems, reading the essay today.

-If the essay is about Jewish assimilation in America, it's also, in a more subtle way, about German-American particularity. The author describes a very specific kind of family culture, something about vacationing in the mountains and not having a warm relationship with relatives, as if that's just American, which, no. I can think of plenty of groups, apart from Jews, who'd be more "Jewish" than "German" in this regard. (See: many groups of non-German Catholics.) I venture to say there'd have been culture clash had this woman married into an Italian or a Belgian family.

-While reading the essay is a lesson in avoiding anachronism, it's also a reminder that, well, that there's a reason 'some of my best friends are X' has taken on the meaning it has. It's entirely possible for your best friend or spouse to be X, and for you to be intensely bigoted against that group. While we have no reason to think the author would have supported the Final Solution, there's not much of a sense, either, that being married to a Jew in some way stopped her from holding anti-Semitic views typical of her era. Or even above and beyond. She has quite the deeply-theorized anti-Semitism going, and has clearly given The Jew a lot of thought:
'But look at the matter from the political side,' I advise Ben. 'When a Swede or a Chinese settles down in a foreign land, such as the United States, the Swede makes haste to become a thorough American—at any rate he lets his children become thorough Americans; the Chinese, realizing that this is impossible, lives aloofly in Chinatown, minds his own business, and keeps out of American political affairs. The Jew, however, wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Like the Chinese, he clings to his own race, culture, and tradition; he trains his children to cling to these just as tenaciously. Then, like the Swede, he sets out to annex all the privileges of Americanism. He wants to rise to the top of the Gentile social structure, to wield power in Gentile politics of the community, state and nation. He wants to be left alone, but he also wants the country in which he lives to take good care of him. He wants to have full citizenship in that country, yet retain his citizenship in the Jewish nation.
I think the proper response here, the only one that can properly, and in a nuanced way, comment on this is: oy. 


Miss Self-Important said...

Who is this "Epstein" referred to in the same breath as Spinoza, Einstein, and Freud? Also, Spinoza? This woman had read and loved Spinoza?

Phoebe said...

Yes, thank you, I also wanted to know who Epstein was, and why he (or she?) has been forgotten.

As for Spinoza... I'm thinking a woman published in the Atlantic in 1939, and married to a Jew at that, would have been something of an intellectual.

Miss Self-Important said...

I guess, but Spinoza is a strange candidate for admiration. Kind of like saying you admire the English b/c they produced Hobbes. Famous, yes, but more in the sense of being infamous.

But I guess this woman is a strange bird to start with. I think you're right to be struck by her easy equation of "German" with "American." Germans historically were late to assimilate, and even by WWI, there were still large pockets of the Midwest and Great Plains where Germans who'd arrived two generations prior barely spoke English. I'm not exactly sure why this was - maybe b/c were remote from the urban centers of assimilation. But in any case, the assumption in 1939 that Germans are exemplars of American assimilation strikes me as odd as well. It's too bad the Atlantic doesn't name the author.

Phoebe said...

Spinoza makes sense, though, if you're going by a strictly "racial" definition of The Jew.

As for the Germans-as-Americans thing, there's a very big equivalent of that sort of in early 19th C France. As in, Jews would be singled out for not assimilating, when at the same point in French history, the Bretons, etc., weren't "French" either. There's one amazing source I found, where the author's explaining how, in our modern times, English people marry Russians, etc., no big deal, but only Jews resist. Which... pretty majorly exaggerates how cosmopolitan marriage patterns were among non-Jews.

Stendhal said...


Still well regarded, but in his (and the author's) day, his influence rivaled that of Picasso.

Phoebe said...



Petey said...

"That to me says 2011 more than 1939. It's the agreement that's unsettling."

Hey, the 1938/39 Nazi sympathizer woman is more sensitive than 2013 Dubya...