According to Robert Weltsch, the Zionist intellectual and politician, the most important question was whether the Jews would be ‘capable of defending the spiritual values that form the basis of its existence against the tide of nihilism’ and of contrasting the Nazi ideology with a humanist Jewish version of nationalism based on justice and coexistence with other nations. In an article published in Jerusalem, in May 1939, in his journal Jüdische Welt-Rundschau he portrayed the Nazi persecution of the Jews as ‘the first step on the path towards nihilism’ and characterised the racist form of German nationalism as a destructive, demonic force that posed an ultimate threat not only to the Jewish people but to humankind in general. This statement by a Zionist who had narrowly escaped Germany only a few weeks before the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938 is characteristic of a specific current within Zionism prior to the establishment of the State of Israel dominated by German-speaking Jewish intellectuals and aimed at promoting a peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Intellectuals associated with the peace movement or the ‘Post-Zionist’ discourse in Israel have identified this group as the ‘Others’ within the Zionist movement. They dreamt of a Jewish nationalism based on ‘moral’ concepts rather than national power with which they would counter the experience of chauvinism, war and genocide in Europe. Representatives, as Jacqueline Rose states, of a ‘melancholic counter-narrative’ within Zionism, they drew a close link between the events in Europe and those in Palestine and tried to resist both the threat posed by the Nazis and the temptation to respond to it by sacrificing their ethical and political ideals. At the same time, Weltsch’s conviction that the Jewish people had a crucial role to play in countering the nihilistic consequences of nationalism points to the conundrum Zionism faced at this moment: how to preserve the moral character of Jewish nationalism with the survival of European Jews at stake while a tragic conflict between Jewish immigrants and the Arab population was unfolding in Palestine.
Robert Weltsch, born in 1891, belonged to the members of the Bar Kochba circle of young Jewish intellectuals in Prague. They were influenced by Martin Buber’s vision of a renaissance of Jewish national and cultural identity in the diaspora as well as in a future Jewish homeland. From 1919, when he was appointed editor-in-chief of the Jüdische Rundschau, he was at the centre of Germany’s complex world of Zionist politics.
Weltsch’s experience of the inhumanity and destructive power of European nationalism during World War I made him highly critical of chauvinist tendencies within the Zionist movement. Together with his friend Hans Kohn, Weltsch joined the association Brit Shalom in Jerusalem which advocated a bi-national Arab-Jewish state in Palestine characterised by political equality, cultural autonomy and socio-economic co-existence. Brit Shalom had a pacifist philosophy: the Jews should enter Palestine not as invaders, nor should they aim to rapidly form the majority, but should settle the land cautiously, in a peaceable manner, and win the Arabs over through cultivating work and joint development of a socialist society. After the Arab riots in Jaffa in 1921 and particularly after the eruption of Arab-Jewish violence in 1929, Weltsch’s position developed into that of a deeply ambivalent, dissenting Zionist who strongly rejected Jewish mass settlement in Palestine and fought against the will to power displayed by those who wanted to establish a Jewish majority as rapidly as possible. On a more personal level, in private correspondence, he expressed grave doubts as to whether his youthful ideals of a humanist Jewish nationalism had not been shattered by the unfolding conflict in Palestine. In contrast to Hans Kohn, however, who completely broke with Zionism in 1930 and left Palestine, Weltsch held fast to Zionism. He felt a great responsibility for the German Jews who, in a Germany that would soon be national-socialist, would ‘no longer be certain of their life’ — a perspective that he felt Kohn took little account of from the distance of his life in Palestine.
By the time Hitler had seized power Weltsch had become one of the most articulate interpreters of the German Jewish plight. In his now famous article Tragt ihn mit Stolz, den gelben Fleck (Wear it with pride, the yellow badge), he called on German Jews to finally accept the existence of a ‘Jewish question’ instead of denying it, to affirm their Jewishness with dignity and pride and to make the branding a mark of honour. Throughout the early years of the Nazi regime the Jüdische Rundschau, under Weltsch’s leadership, aimed to give courage to those who were defencelessly exposed to terror and exclusion, and to make it clear to them that it was no shame to be a Jew. On the other hand, he criticized the illusions of those who still harboured hopes for Jewish integration and denied the severity of the Nazi challenge. The generation of German Jews confronted with Nazism, he suggested, should re-embrace a proud Jewish identity, and command a certain respect of the Nazis. However, Weltsch very soon realised that the German Jews were faced a merciless enemy, and the chasm between the liberal cultural nationalism of the Zionists and the criminal Nazi regime could not be bridged. Ten years later — in 1943 — Weltsch wrote, in a letter to Ha’aretz, that he would no longer call upon Jews to wear the yellow badge with pride –it had become a stigma that ‘reveals its wearer as prey for unbounded martyrdom’.
Weltsch’s correspondence with his friend Hans Kohn from the years 1933 to 1938 reveal his predicament as a critical Zionist. Fully aware of the Nazi theatre to Jewish life in Europe, he continued to advocate a cautious process of immigration to Palestine, increasingly concerned by the bitter conflict between Jews and Arabs. At the end of 1933, Weltsch still saw the future of the German Jews as being in Germany. ‘Anyway,’ he wrote, ‘unless one is actually in the concentration camp, one can live quite unmolested in Germany,’ and he reported that despite the Nazi propaganda, he had never been harassed and the Jüdische Rundschau was even allowed to be publicly displayed at kiosks. In several letters from 1935 to 1937, Weltsch, already felt the situation of the Jews in Europe to be desperate. He was aware that Palestine could not cope with mass immigration and felt that, despite the mounting threat, the majority of Jews would have to continue living in the diaspora.
Until 1938 Weltsch’s attitude remained ambivalent. In public reports about his trips to Palestine in the Jüdische Rundschau, he did not remain silent about the problems, particularly about the worsening clashes with the Arab population and the mandate authority, but tried to encourage German Jews to emigrate and spread hope for a new era of Jewish peace. Weltsch’s personal remarks sounded considerably darker. ‘These days, I have no idea what may become of me, and I also dread Palestine with its awful narrowness and all those people’ he confessed in 1937. In the letters from Palestine in early 1938, he describes a Germany with unstoppable plans for world domination and the worsening of the Jewish situation throughout the whole of Europe. He foresaw — in May 1938 — that the Jüdische Rundschau would soon be banned, and that he would be left with no other option than to emigrate. Despite his love for Palestine, he feared both a life among Arabs and Jewish terrorism. Moreover, he dreaded the corruption of everything he had associated with Zionism by increasingly dominant chauvinist voices. However, as he wrote on board the Gerusalemme in June 1938, on his return from Palestine to Germany, for him the time would come when he would be happy ‘at least to have escaped Germany with my bare life’, for if a war were to break out, ‘all the Jews in Germany would be lost’. ‘For the rest,’ he added a little later, ‘I know that I shall not be happy in Palestine and that I shall live in opposition to everything, in particular inwardly.’ In September 1938, a few weeks before Kristallnacht, Weltsch was permitted, as a Czech citizen, to leave Germany. Shortly before his departure, on 30 August 1938, he wrote to Kohn: ‘Yes, Palestine! In fact I have only one thought in my head, how to get away from it again!’
In the first issue of the Jüdische Welt-Rundschau, published in Jerusalem on 10 March 1939, Weltsch rails against the discrimination and physical attacks suffered by German Jews, particularly in 1938, and emphasised that his new journal would focus on representing the needs of German-Jewish refugees in Palestine. In the same issue, Weltsch declared the definitive end of German Jewry. Those noble elements of German culture that the Nazis had symbolically destroyed during Kristallnacht would survive among the refugees and form part of their contribution to Jewish society in Palestine. This included, from Weltsch’s point of view, a critical approach towards Jewish nationalism. The correspondence with Hans Kohn during these years reveals Weltsch’s disappointment about the deepening rifts between Arabs and Jews in Palestine, about the ever-present violence and about the Biltmore programme, with which Zionism officially proclaimed for the first time in 1942 that its aim was to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. For Weltsch the partition decision by the UN in November 1947 was no cause for jubilation. He feared that the proclamation of a state of Israel would lead to a war which the Jews would either lose or — in the event of victory — would use ‘to really drive the Arabs out, just as the Czechs [did] with the Sudeten Germans’. ‘It can only end badly,’ he wrote on 20 May 1948 and predicted an endless war in which the very nature of Zionism as a humanist version of nationalism was in peril.
The conflict reflected in Weltsch’s development throughout the Nazi period in Berlin and Jerusalem can be understood as the tragedy of a movement which espoused those utopian elements of Zionism destroyed by the political developments in Europe and in the Middle East before and after the Holocaust. Would the ideals of Buber, Kohn or Weltsch have proved politically realistic if the Zionist settlement of Palestine had not taken place amid violent nationalisms that made Europe a place of utter destruction? The experience of the war deepened the common conviction that only a Jewish state would ensure the survival of the Jewish people. In contrast to this, throughout his life, the ambivalent Zionist Robert Weltsch, who had escaped Nazi violence and for whom the years in Palestine were a period of exile rather than refuge, continued to mourn the failure of the political hopes he and his friends had harboured before they were shattered by the catastrophic events following Kristallnacht.
In 1972, in an article on the history of German Zionism, he concluded with the following words , which still convey the shock and despair he felt in 1938:
In retrospect, it must be admitted that the ideas that have characterised German Zionism […] have fallen at the hurdle of reality. […] The notion that a developing nationalism need not necessarily mutate into an aggressive form, and that the idea of a spiritual renaissance, moral renewal, personal human dignity and national creativity can also – and in fact only – be realised in the context of peaceful co-existence with other free peoples, was an illusion. World history has taken a different turn. Armageddon has triumphed. The Jewish people has been drawn into an unimaginable catastrophe. A nationalism of infernal origin tore the whole world to pieces and unleashed evil. Brute force appeared to rule. This cynical insight has shaped the thoughts and actions of the generation.
Christian Wiese is Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Centre for German-Jewish Studies at the University of Sussex. He is currently writing an intellectual biography of Robert Weltsch.