he pity of it all" seems an appropriate descriptor of our age. With the blessings of unimagined progress everywhere evident in human life, particularly in developed nations, we seem to have turned our backs on what brought us to this point and have reverted to a frame of mind we were once so intent on leaving behind.
I have watched the rise of radical conservatism, worldwide, and I have seen the surging power of strident religious groups of all stripes. I have studied the coy acceptance of bias in society and understand how easily it develops into prejudice. I have seen prejudice subtlely emerge into malice and become hatred. And I have been a witness to hatred, like a malignancy metastasizing, to become the disease of violence and destruction, both personal and social.
Beyond observations, my thinking has been informed of late by my recent reading of Amos Elon's marvelous The Pity of It All (2002). This book, the history of the Jews in Germany between 1743 and 1933, begins in the fall of 1743, with the arrival of 14-year-old Moses Mendelssohn, frail and sickly, at Berlin's Rosenthaler Tor, "the only gate in the city wall through which Jews (and cattle) were allowed to pass." We watch the rise of this young Jewish youth to become the intellectual leader of the "Age of Mendelssohn" — the "German Socrates," as he was called. His devotion to studies launched a long series of successes making Jews and Germany nearly synomous for the next 200 years.
We then meet Salomon Maimon, who arrived at Rosenthaler Tor in 1778. Befriended by the always-kindly Mendelssohn, Maimon became a "Betteljude, a mendicant, a wandering scholar 'in search of truth,' at once a genius and a wretch." Kant considered him the best interpreter of Kant's works, and Goethe attempted, without success, to bring Maimon to Weimar to" become a part of his intimate circle."
We come to understand Heinrich Heine, a genius so complex and brilliant that no good biography of him exists, who fused German and Hebrew mythologies in his poetry. "No other writer," Elon says, "has ever been so German and so Jewish and so ambivalent and ironic about both." Germans and Jews were, Heine said, "Europe's 'two ethical peoples,' who might yet make Germany 'a citadel of spirituality.'" Or just the opposite.
And, of course, we meet German Jews Karl Marx, whose legacy marred the 20th Century, Albert Einstein, who gave us modern science, and Hannah Arendt, whose presence nurtured Chicago until her death in 1975.
After presenting the important Jewish personages in Germany, Elom concludes his important study with a description of the evening in May 1933, at the Brandenburg Gate, when Joseph Goebbels, under orders of the recently-investitured Adolph Hitler, held the first book-burning: not only would they destroy the people whom they hated; they would destroy their memory. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
A passage in reference to the beginning of the American Civil War, from Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Vol. I, (1939) seems appropriate: "Thus the war of words was over and the naked test by steel weapons, so long foretold, was at last to begin. It had happened before in other countries among other peoples bewildered by economic necessity, by the mob oratory of politicians and editors, by the ignorance of the educated classes, by the greed of the propertied classes, by elemental instincts touching race and religion, by the capacity of so many men, women, and children for hating and fearing what they do not understand while believing they do understand completely and perfectly what no one understands except tentatively and hazardously."
The pity of it all in our time emerges from our failure, with so much at the very tips of our minds, to know and understand the whole of human history, to grasp the enormous devastations social hatreds have brought to humankind over the years. The test of our time is whether we can forge a fellowship of intellect, kindness, courage, and discipline to counter the increasingly pervasive sectarianism, self-righteousness, and malevolence of our age.
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