The 2,000-Year-Old Panic
A newly reissued novel evokes the charms and hatreds of a lost world—and the enduring contradictions of anti-Semitism.
A sour old joke from prewar Germany has two elderly Jews sitting in a Berlin park, with one of them reading a Yiddish paper and the other one scanning the pages of Der Stürmer. The latter Jew is laughing. This proves too much for the former Jew, who says: “It’s not enough you read that Nazi rag, but you find it funny?” “Look,” replies the other. “If I read your paper, what do I see? Jews deported, Jews assaulted, Jews insulted, Jewish property confiscated. But I read Der Stürmer, and there’s finally some good news. It seems that we Jews own and control the whole world!”
Anti-Semitism is an elusive and protean phenomenon, but it certainly involves the paradox whereby great power is attributed to the powerless. In the mind of the anti-Jewish paranoid, some shabby bearded figure in a distant shtetl is a putative member of a secret world government: hence the enduring fascination of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. (Incidentally, it is entirely wrong to refer to this document of the Czarist secret police as “a forgery.” A forgery is a counterfeit of a true bill. The Protocols are a straightforward fabrication, based on medieval Christian fantasies about Judaism.)
Of course when Jews do achieve actual power, like the famous Rothschilds, they often become the targets of even more envy than other plutocrats. Political anti-Semitism in its more modern form often de-emphasized the supposed murder of Christ in favor of polemics against monopolies and cartels, leading the great German Marxist August Bebel to describe its propaganda as “the socialism of fools.” Peter Pulzer’s essential history of anti-Semitism in pre-1914 Germany and Austria, which shows the element of populist opportunism in the deployment of the Jew-baiting repertoire, is, among other things, a great illustration of that ironic observation. And then there is the notion of the Jews’ lack of rooted allegiance: their indifference to the wholesome loyalties of the rural, the hierarchical, and the traditional, and their concomitant attraction to modernity. Writing from the prewar Balkans in her Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West noticed this suspicion at work in old Serbia and wrote:
Now I understand another cause for anti-Semitism; many primitive peoples must receive their first intimation of the toxic quality of thought from Jews. They know only the fortifying idea of religion; they see in Jews the effect of the tormenting and disintegrating ideas of skepticism.
The best recent illustration of that point that I know comes from Jacobo Timerman, the Argentine Jewish newspaper editor who was kidnapped and tortured by the death-squad regime in his country in the late 1970s. In his luminous memoir, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, he analyzes the work of the neo-Nazi element that formed such an important part of the military/clerical dictatorship, and quotes one of the “diagnoses” that animated their ferocity:
“Argentina has three main enemies: Karl Marx, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of society; Sigmund Freud, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of the family; and Albert Einstein, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of time and space.”
The three cosmopolitan surnames involved in this anti-Trinity, it was made perfectly clear to Timerman between thrusts of the electric cattle prod, were considered to be no coincidence. But notice that this is an anti-Semitism that is full of dread as well as of disgust and contempt. That is perhaps what distinguishes it from other forms of racism. Almost every tribe or ethnicity has a rival tribe or ethnicity that it views as inferior or dirtier or more primitive: the Hutu with the Tutsi, the Sinhalese with the Tamil, the Ulster Protestant with the Irish Catholic, and so forth. The “other” group will invariably be found to have a different smell, a higher birthrate, and a lazier temperament. These poor qualities are sometimes attributed even by Jews to Jews: elevated German and Austrian Jews once wrinkled their nostrils at the matted sidelocks and large families of the poor Ostjuden who had come from the backwoods of Galicia and Silesia; and Ashkenazi-Sephardic rivalry in Israel sometimes recalls and resembles this hostility. But garden-variety racists do not usually suspect the objects of their dislike of secretly manipulating the banks and the stock markets and of harboring a demonic plan for world domination. Gregor von Rezzori, in his newly reissued novel Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, meshes the micro and macro versions of interwar anti-Semitism very skillfully indeed:
They spent their childhood skipping among mounds of horse dung and flocks of gay sparrows, warbling Hebraic words of wisdom in Jewish schools … disappearing then to the next town. They returned gangling, cheeky, precocious, and self-confident a couple of years later, unfurled little red flags, and chanted socialistic marching songs; then they went off again. The next time they came back they were unrecognizable—polished, poised, coiffed, and manicured, lugging doctorates on their proud shoulders; they dug themselves in and became dentists, high-school teachers, professors of music, and God only knows what other intellectuals, married similar solid burghers and produced streams of progeny, teaching them to speak refinedly through their noses, packing them off to the Sorbonne to get equipped the better to meddle with the course of the history of civilization.
“Jealousy born of envy” is the way that Rezzori (1914–1998) elsewhere summarizes this combination of anti-intellectualism fused with the hatred of material success and the suspicion of social and international mobility. If the Jew isn’t a mutinous prole, he is a stinking bourgeois! (And don’t fail to notice those “streams of progeny,” even though Jews are not invariably known for their philoprogenitive capacity.)
If there was ever a time and place where all these ancient insecurities and uncertainties were allowed their very fullest scope, it was the terrain of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1918 and the Anschluss, or abolition of Austria by its assimilation into Greater Germany, in 1938. The figures of Marx and Einstein and of course Freud were very much imbricated in the numerous interlocking Vienna and Budapest circles, but it’s the imaginative literature and literary journalism of that epoch and that space that still make one catch one’s breath. Here is the world, now as lost to us as Atlantis, of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March; of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity and Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. Here, also, are some of the most arresting polemics and feuilletons ever written, by such masters of the genre as Ernst Fischer (whose memoir, An Opposing Man, I would propose as one of the great autobiographies of the 20th century) and Karl Kraus. The main reason for the utter erasure and obliteration of this historic territory was precisely the madness of anti-Semitism, which grew to a point where it eclipsed all culture and civilization and became self-destructive and suicidal. Yet it is interesting and sometimes touching to note how many Jews manifested a sympathy with, and even a nostalgia for, the old Austro-Hungarian dispensation. It had had at least a respect for pluralism and for minorities, and Joseph Roth, for one, preferred it to the stark and brutal Teutonic efficiency that aimed to replace it. Karl Kraus (like Roth, a cosmopolitan refugee from Judaism) became famous for saying loftily, when asked why he never wrote anything about Hitler, that nothing occurred to him when he heard the name.
It was once said that Austria’s two achievements were to have persuaded the world that Hitler was German and that Beethoven was Viennese. The line might have appealed to Rezzori, whose unreliable narration of Mitteleuropa between the wars is one of the minor (and later—Memoirs was first published in 1979) gems of the Austro-Hungarian tradition. In her introduction to this welcome new edition in the library of classics kept evergreen by The New York Review of Books, Deborah Eisenberg makes the intriguing claim that Rezzori’s “coup” is his ability “to keep his narrator’s consciousness severely restricted to the moment it is experiencing, his tone pristinely untouched by the reader’s (and author’s) indelible awareness of the conflagration about to engulf entire populations.” She underlines this by saying, “There is no stain of hindsight—sanctimony, apology, self-exoneration, regret or even sobriety regarding the shattering events that are soon to follow.” This is very nearly but not quite true.
Subtitled as “A Novel in Five Stories,” the book mirrors Rezzori’s own trajectory as a young man from one of the more distant and umbrageous departments of the Dual Monarchy: the “Bukovina” province that was then Romanian in character and now forms part of Ukraine. Like the Krajina between Croatia and Serbia, Ukraine basically means “frontier” or “borderland,” and Rezzori deftly evokes the sense of coming from “a meeting point (or chafing point, if you will) between two civilizations.” He specifies the role of “the steppe winds from the east, opposed [to] the Western in the spirit of a fatalistic resignation to destiny,” and the title of his opening story—“Skushno,” a Russian word for extreme anomie—could well be the name of an enervating wind like the simoom.
As wonderfully as he evokes the torpid, inspissated atmosphere of this moribund region, Rezzori evokes local anti-Jewish prejudice mostly in its clichéd form, and his narrator, perhaps unreliable in this respect as well, is rather more an observer of the prejudice than (as the novel’s title might imply) a carrier of it. Thus, there are hordes of apparently dirty Jewish children, no doubt destined to mutate into subversive burghers as described above, but the young man’s first Jewish acquaintance and contemporary is portrayed as smart, tough, musically gifted to an impressive degree, the son of a leading physician (again something of a stereotype), and inclined to be extremely rude about the stupidity and backwardness of the goyim. In other words, those who expect to be reading of lurid pogroms will be disappointed. Instead, Rezzori’s character insinuates with the greatest of subtlety that there is something feminine about the Jew, and that this is what sets him apart from the manly and robust and patriotic characters who like to roar cheery songs rather than listen to the tinkling piano, and whose chief joy is the hunt. Apart from his desire to stroke the keyboard in the company of women and his lapses into Jewish vernacular (written off as “yiddling,” which has a somehow girlish intonation), young Wolf Goldmann’s other defects are his telling fascination with psychoanalysis and his indifference to animals and the outdoors. In a tremendous sentence, the Rezzori character announces, “I forced myself to act toward him with that chivalrous generosity which guards the aristocrat against the ignominy of being resented.”
However, young Goldmann is also portrayed as being more sexually knowing than the narrator, and this under-emphasized trope of anti-Semitism—of the Jew as the possessor of arcane erotic skills—is taken up more explicitly when Rezzori’s character moves from the retarded provinces to the more advanced cities of Bucharest and Vienna. In these locales it is a commonplace among young rakes, and even among young Nazis, to say with a wink and a leer, “A Jewess is no Jew,” and Rezzori’s young man (who begins urban life as a salesman for “the Aphrodite Company”) takes this as permission first to humiliate a Jewish sexual partner in public and then to carelessly betray a nonsexual Jewish partner in private. In each instance, he seems almost surprised that the females concerned have any emotions, but then, as he phrases it with splendid callousness: “They always expected some calamity, these Jews.” (Or, with even more magnificent condescension: “The usually Jewish shopkeepers were kind and mellow people so long as the two-thousand-year-old panic did not flare up, which made them hysterically vehement.”)
In general, then, the book at first appears to deal more in the microcosmic elements of die Judenfrage: the gossipy and folkloric side of the prejudice, with the grander themes of Nazism, Bolshevism, and Zionism—even Freudianism—occurring distantly offstage. Every now and then, the narrator makes a reference that—pace Eisenberg and her praise for his avoidance of the anachronistic—has him showing slightly too much awareness, as well as too little. He several times makes an allusion to the Moldovan town of Kishinev, but never betrays any knowledge of the fact that it had been the site of a Czarist massacre of Jews that made headlines around the world. But on the other hand, really, would a Gentile youth from the Bukovina know at once how to identify and name a “kupat kerem kayemet,” or collection-box for the redemption of Palestine, or be able to say of a Jewish woman’s bedroom that “it had too much Chagallian poetry”? I think here we can see the reticent figure of Rezzori, who was himself a stateless person for many years, peeping obliquely through the layers of his own story.
It took me a while to make the slightly kitsch connection that had been forming in my mind, and to compare Memoirs of an Anti-Semite to Bob Fosse’s filmic masterpiece Cabaret. As with the original Isherwood stories, the action indeed gets along with the help of idiotic remarks made by bigoted landladies, and the wheels are greased by flashy talk of easy money and easy sex. And then the compere of the show turns graphically ugly in his humor, and the pretty blond youths begin to sing in Horst Wessel tones. With Rezzori, this critical moment comes in his penultimate story, titled “Troth.” The real-time name of Adolf Hitler, along with his Austrian comic-opera name of Adolf Schicklgruber, has finally been mentioned, and things are turning nasty and serious. As night falls, the narrator finds himself:
in the middle of an uncanny procession. In blocks that in their disciplined compactness seemed made of cast iron, people marched by thousands, men only, in total silence. The morbid, rhythmic stamping of their feet hung like a gigantic swinging cord in the silence that had fallen on Vienna.
Here is the darkness-haunted mass demonstration in favor of the Anschluss. The symbolism is almost perfect. In place of the oddly shaped, anomalous, pluralistic, ironic jigsaw of old Austria-Hungary, there is the stamping, tramping tyranny of the uniformed, square-shaped “block.” And the anonymous, faceless robots of this block are bent on one objective above all: the cleansing from the German-speaking lands of “the low, materialistic Jews.”
In his essay on Malinowski, Ernest Gellner wrote of how the borderline and marginal peoples of Austria-Hungary needed three things from their benign, whiskered old monarch. They required insurance against mutual fratricide, protection of local and eccentric cultures, and guarantees against the ambitions of Germany and Russia. By giving way first to micro and then to macro anti-Semitism, not only did this fair approximation of a civilization lose its best minds; it lost its collective mind, and thus managed to invite the two worst possible fates by beckoning on first a German, and then a Russian imperium. Writing as he did from the wreckage of postwar Europe, Gregor von Rezzori could claim the peculiar distinction of being one of the few survivors to treat this ultimate catastrophe in the mild language of understatement. This is what still gives his novel the power to shock.
When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.