Steve Whitfield tells how Weimar culture shaped early development of Brandeisian standards

Photo/Mike Lovett

Professor Stephen J. Whitfield

This is the text of “Weimar in Waltham,” the talk on the early history of Brandeis with which Max Richter Professor of American Civilization Stephen J. Whitfield opened the Dec. 15 faculty symposium honoring outgoing President Jehuda Reinharz.

It is fitting that our seventh president pursued, as his earliest scholarly specialty, the history of modern German Jewry, because the cultural atmosphere of Brandeis University was permeated from the beginning with the ideal of Bildung, with the sense that a well-conducted life had to honor the sublime legacy of Western civilization itself. 

Bildung meant the cultivation of character through the refinement of taste, the intensification of education through the exploration of the heritage of thought and art.  That legacy was generally believed to be most fully realized among speakers of German, and constituted an intellectual and aesthetic achievement that had to be enriched and perpetuated.  To live bewitched by the demands of Bildung required its devotees to have huge swaths of learning at their fingertips, and those fingertips had to be as sensitive as a safecracker’s.

Here is one illustration.  Having fled Vienna under the threat of Nazism, the future art historian Ernst Gombrich spent the war years working for the BBC, monitoring radio broadcasts from Berlin.  At the end of April, 1945, he heard the recording of an Anton Bruckner symphony, and because Gombrich knew that Bruckner had composed it to commemorate the death of Wagner, no one else in England had yet realized that Hitler was dead.

No one in this room needs to be reminded that the vitality of Bildung, to which post-Emancipation Jewry was so ardently dedicated, could not be sustained after 1933.  No one needs to be told that German Jewry did not die a natural death.  But elements of Weimar culture would manage to endure among several of the teachers whom Brandeis University employed in its early years.  A radiant and cosmopolitan German culture was fragmented and imperiled.  But at this university the expiration date that Nazism expected to stick would be extended.

Helping to promote the gravitational pull of the Weimar Republic was Albert Einstein.  As a rationalist whose sympathies were with socialism, with internationalism, with Zionism and with pacifism, he personified the humane leftist politics of the Weimar Republic and came to symbolize everything that its enemies detested.

By 1935, two years after finding refuge in the United States, Einstein was writing to Justice Brandeis about the need to respond to domestic bigotry by forming a Jewish-sponsored institution of higher learning.  The “ever-increasing negative attitude” that gentiles were exhibiting in the United States would “push us out from the more desirable intellectual fields unless we succeed in obtaining a certain independence,” Einstein argued.  Institutions like a theological seminary or Orthodox higher education, which then constituted the existing sites of that communal independence, offered no solution, he claimed.

“Adherence to a narrow-minded ritual education” simply did not satisfy the standards of Bildung.  Unaffiliated with any religious denomination or with rabbinical studies, the new university that he proposed to Justice Brandeis had to be secular, and would provide “many of our gifted youth . . . [with] the cultural and professional education they are longing for” but are “denied” “under present circumstances.”

Einstein’s public endorsement consolidated the effort to give birth to Brandeis University in 1948.  He was after all the most famous scientist in the world, indeed the most famous scientist who ever lived.  He promised: “I would do anything in my power to help in the creation and guidance of such an . . . [institution as Brandeis].  It would always be near to my heart.”

That pledge was rather quickly broken, however, upon perceiving that the university was already becoming too conformist, too accommodating to the national consensus.  Albert Einstein was therefore the first in line of those critics, whom all seven Presidents of Brandeis University have encountered.  For Einstein, the institution was not liberal enough.  For others, it would be too liberal; for some too Jewish, for others (including Einstein) it was not Jewish enough.

A son-in-law, Rudolf Kayser, nevertheless came to teach at Brandeis beginning in 1951.  Kayser had served, from 1922 until the collapse of the Weimar Republic, as the editor-in-chief of a leading literary magazine, Die Neue Rundschau.  In 1930 he published an early biography of his father-in-law.  Three years later Kayser managed to save the papers that Einstein had kept in Berlin.  Fleeing to Paris and then to New York, Kayser published biographies of Spinoza and Kant, and then taught philosophy at Brandeis beginning in 1951.  Two years later Kayser he switched to Germanic Language and Literature.  But not even his notable presence on the faculty could persuade Einstein to accept an honorary degree from Brandeis, or to have anything further to do with us.

The Jewish-sponsored university that he had envisioned would have been anomalous without curricular distinction in Judaic learning, especially when extremely few other secular colleges or universities offered any programs or professorships in Jewish studies.

The first Judaic scholar to arrive in Waltham was Nahum N. Glatzer.  Born in 1903 in Lemberg, Galicia, when it was then part of Hapsburg Austria, Glatzer moved with his family under the pressure of the Great War to Bohemia in 1915.  Five years later he got to Frankfurt, where he found himself at the very center of a remarkable recuperation of Jewish learning--the most sophisticated center not just in Germany, but of the entire world.

Glatzer met Franz Rosenzweig in a Talmud class and immediately came under his influence, and later helped him compile an index of rabbinic sources for his major contribution to religious thought, entitled in English The Star of Redemption.  Glatzer also joined the future psychoanalyst Erich Fromm to study how the Zohar, the “book of splendor” that comprises the most important Kabbalistic text, could illumine the Book of Ruth; their teacher was Gershom Scholem.  Joining the faculty of the Freies Judisches Lehrhaus in Frankfurt, Glatzer taught the Bible and Midrash.  He also helped Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig in their heroic enterprise of translating the Hebrew Bible into German.  “Only one who is profoundly convinced of the impossibility of translation,” Rosenzweig had paradoxically proclaimed, “can really undertake it.”

Glatzer entered the University of Frankfurt in 1928, and completed his doctoral dissertation under the direction of Buber and the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich in 1931.  In the summer of 1932, Glatzer succeeded Buber in teaching Jewish religion and ethics at the University of Frankfurt.  Buber resigned his post the following year, when Glatzer left for Palestine, where he stayed for four years and edited several source readers in Jewish studies for the publishing house of Schocken.  In 1938 he immigrated to the United States, where he managed to secure itinerant teaching positions in Chicago and New York City, where he also became the editor-in-chief of Schocken Books.  Another of the firm’s editors was Hannah Arendt.  In 1950, when he came to Brandeis, he was already 47 years old.  It was the first secure professorship Glatzer had ever had.

The university formally divided the curriculum and the faculty into departments in 1953.  Four years later he chaired Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, and served in that capacity until 1969.  Glatzer was by all accounts a beloved teacher, and his course on Jewish thought was typically among the university’s most popular offerings.  He kept a collection of notebooks on his thousands of students; and some of his comments about them were written in Greek, possibly because he wanted to conceal unfavorable verdicts upon those undergraduates who had failed to live up to the standards of Bildung.

One of Glatzer’s students, a member of the class of 1959, was Abbie Hoffman, who once remarked that only persons who ever called him by the name on his birth certificate--Abbott--were his own father and FBI agents.  To that list, add Nahum Glatzer, whose formality of manner bestowed a certain Old World dignity upon a brash, pioneering campus.  He retired from Brandeis in 1973; and by the time of his death in 1990, he had authored, edited or translated over 50 books. This afternoon his influence can be only briefly suggested. 

Auden claimed that what Dante was to the Middle Ages, Kafka is to the modern age.  In 1924, soon after Kafka died in virtual obscurity, the literary rights to his mostly unpublished and sometimes unfinished work were acquired by Schocken.  How he became the representative writer of the past century owes something to Glatzer, who joined the international team of editors preparing a critical edition, and on his own also edited anthologies of the writer who registered more indelibly than any other the bleak tonalities of Central Europe. The New York Times recently reported an estimate that, somewhere in the world, a book on Kafka is published every ten days.  If you’re having trouble keeping up with this secondary literature, pin part of the blame on Glatzer.

In the evolution of Jewish thought, however, his most important achievement lay elsewhere.  Having brought the Rosenzweig Archive with him to Boston, Glatzer introduced the thought of Franz Rosenzweig to anglophone readers.  Rosenzweig’s elucidation of “authentic language as that by which the partners in speech share in mutual revelation,” in the words of Glatzer’s student Michael Fishbane, exerted an unexpected impact in the rather rarified precincts of American Jewish theology.  In 1966, when Commentary magazine asked three dozen American rabbis about their religious beliefs and how their Judaism was shaped, one discovery must have come as a special surprise.  “The greatest single influence on the religious thought of North American Jewry,” an editor of Commentary concluded, was Franz Rosenzweig--“a German Jew” who was “not [even] a rabbi.”  In the religious history of American Jewry, at least in the past century, there may be no greater instance of de-provincialization.

Thus, nearly two generations after the intellectual power of German Judaism was dispersed or stilled, its shelf life was extended.  Glatzer himself claimed little credit.  His modesty, reserve, and lack of pretense struck observers; and his conversation could be laconic, the silences suggesting depths.  He characteristically explained that he did not want his own voice to rise above the text.  His achievement was nevertheless secure.  Eugene Sheppard, who has succeeded Jehuda Reinharz in teaching Brandeis students about the meaning of German Jewish history, has generalized that “Glatzer’s portraits of the cultural giants of interwar Central European Jewry in particular--Rosenzweig, Kafka, Agnon, and Buber, to name just a few--to an English-reading audience in the United States still function as the prism through which many readers have come to appreciate the rich legacy of a pre-Holocaust European Jewish voice.”

The most famous German-born Jew ever to teach at Brandeis was Herbert Marcuse.  In 1954 he came to the campus as a professor of politics, with a joint appointment in the History of Ideas program.  Marcuse cut an incongruous figure in that decade, when the nation’s most popular work of non-fiction (besides the Bible, which compilers of best-seller lists classified as non-fiction) was the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale’s "The Power of Positive Thinking" (1952).  Marcuse insisted on the value of negative thinking, of ideological opposition to industrial and consumer capitalism.  He exalted what he would come to call “the great refusal.”  His two best-known and important books (Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man) were published while he taught on this campus.

But no one could have foreseen during the 1950s the stunning emergence a decade later of an international New Left, or that he would often be designated as its unofficial faculty advisor.  In 1968, at the crest of the radical movement, protesting students at the University of Rome, for instance, were brandishing signs with the alliterative names of Marx, Mao, and Marcuse.

As one of the marquee names of Marxist thought, Marcuse also remains, I believe, the only past or present Brandeis faculty member ever to be explicitly condemned by the Vatican.  In 1969 Pope Paul VI singled out Freud and Marcuse by name, and denounced the “disgusting and unbridled” manifestations of eroticism, the “animal, barbarous and subhuman degradations” that were “cloaked as liberty” and packaged as emancipation “from conventional scruples.”

Another sign of iconic status came in the spring of 2008, when Daniel Cohn-Bendit spoke at Brandeis to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the near collapse of France’s Fifth Republic that he had almost seemed capable of pulling off.  No one had a stronger claim to have personified the international scale of the New Left in the 1960s than Cohn-Bendit (whose parents, it so happened, had known Hannah Arendt).  He summarized the failures as well as successes of the Sixties by mentioning the two most influential students of Martin Heidegger in the Weimar Republic.  Cohn-Bendit lamented of his generation: We should have been reading Arendt instead of Marcuse.

Born in Berlin in 1898, Marcuse studied at the University of Berlin and earned a doctorate in 1922 for a dissertation on novels about artists.  Then Heidegger inspired him to switch to the University of Freiburg, where Marcuse worked on the ontology of Hegel.  Marcuse studied with Heidegger from 1928 until the very end of 1932, just before the Nazis seized power.  Marcuse immediately found refuge with the Institut fhr Sozialforschung, also known as the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

That both Glatzer and Marcuse represented different branches of learning stemming from Frankfurt suggests that the title of my remarks is overstated; one German city did play a conspicuous role in the early staffing of Brandeis University.  After escaping to Geneva, where the Frankfurt School had established an office in exile, Marcuse reached New York in 1934.  From then until 1940, he lived in New York and belonged to the Institute for Social Research, which had installed itself at Columbia University as well.

The Second World War brought Marcuse to Washington, where he joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime forerunner of the CIA.  After the war Marcuse moved over to the Department of State, and became the director of the Eastern European Section of the Office of Intelligence Research.  As the Cold War was intensifying, and pressures were mounting against any bureaucrat suspected of divergence from an unsubtle brand of anti-Communism, the leading expert in the Department of State on the politics of the most critical site of the Cold War – Germany -- was a radical critic of the Cold War itself.

Eerily enough he was left alone.  But he must have jumped at the chance to come to Brandeis, which offered him the first professorship he ever had.  Marcuse was then 54 years old.  It says something about the unconventional way that Brandeis hired in those days that the list of English-language publications on his c. v. consisted of one book, a revised dissertation on Hegel that had been published thirteen years earlier, and one book review.

Having been provided with his first full-time, permanent teaching position, Marcuse expressed his appreciation by dedicating his most controversial essay, “Repressive Tolerance” (1965), “to my students at Brandeis University.”  He had blamed the Weimar Republic for failing to crush the emerging Nazi Party.  The civil liberties granted to the National Socialists, he believed, enabled them to achieve the power that they used to destroy the civil liberties of everyone.  Hence Marcuse proposed that the protection of the First Amendment be denied to American advocates of “aggressive policies, armament, [and] chauvinism.”  He also wanted the Constitutional freedom of expression to be withdrawn from citizens who opposed “the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.”  (Note the open-endedness of that “etc.”)

Thus did Weimar haunt his attitude here.  Marcuse taught at Brandeis for twelve years, until he reached mandatory retirement age in 1965, when he decamped for the University of California at San Diego.  Death came in 1979. His pedagogical effectiveness deserves to be briefly recorded.  The testimony comes from a member of the class of 1965, whom Marcuse praised as “the best student I ever had.”

Angela Davis majored in French literature, writing a senior thesis on the influence of phenomenology on the nouveaux romans of Alain Robbe-Grillet.  But she was increasingly drawn to philosophy, first sitting in on his lectures among the banked seats of Schwartz Auditorium in Olin-Sang.  “His presence dominated everything,” Davis recalled.  “There was something imposing about him which evoked total silence and attention when he appeared,” she recalled.  “The students had a rare respect for him.”  Concentration on his words was “total.”  And “if at the sound of the bell Marcuse had not finished, the rattling of papers would not begin until he had formally closed the lecture.” 

Soon Davis was enrolled in a tutorial with Marcuse on the philosophy of Kant, and accepted her teacher’s recommendation to study with his friend, Theodor W. Adorno, at (where else?) the University of Frankfurt.  Adorno personified Bildung.  His contributions to sociology, musicology, philosophy and literary studies were so formidable that Marcuse admitted that not even he could not fully understand Adorno’s work.  When Davis returned to the United States, it was a nation in turmoil; and she became a Communist.  Though she ran twice--in 1980 and in 1984--for the Vice Presidency of the United States on the ticket of the Communist Party, it expelled Marcuse’s most famous student for the heresy of “reformism,” thus capping a story that could be traced, however sinuously, back to the neo-Marxist revisionism that the Frankfurt School first articulated in the Weimar Republic.

Because everyone here understands my role this afternoon as modest, as the warm-up act for Michael Sandel and Tom Friedman, let me close by mentioning one episode that evoked the artistic glory of the Weimar Republic.  It gave us, as perhaps its most popular and most enduring cultural artifact, "Die Dreigroschenoper," which opened in Berlin in 1928, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics and libretto by Bertolt Brecht.  Five years later "The Threepenny Opera" had arrived in New York, where it suffered an ignominious death after only twelve performances.

For nearly two decades thereafter, no one in the United States had attempted a revival until "The Threepenny Opera" got included in the first Festival of the Arts at Brandeis in the late spring of 1952.  Weill, the son of a cantor from Dessau, had died two years earlier; and his widow, Lotte Lenya, who had made her Weimar reputation in the role of “Pirate Jenny,” sang it at Brandeis.  The translation and adaptation were by Marc Blitzstein, who between the songs provided the narration for what had to be, for financial reasons, only a concert version rather than a fully-realized performance.  Not for the last time in the history of Brandeis University did vaulting ambition outstrip the budget.

In the orchestra pit, conducting Kurt Weill’s score, was a professor of music as well as the first chairman of the School of Creative Arts, the 34-year-old Leonard Bernstein.  He had agreed to introduce and to direct a campus arts festival, and he became the chief vehicle of the Americanization of "Die Dreigroschenoper."

To do so, at the height of McCarthyism, entailed an element of bravery.  The political atmosphere, Bernstein wrote to a Brandeis colleague, encouraged “caution” and “fear.”  Bertolt Brecht himself was then living in East Berlin, a stone-cold Stalinist.  In transplanting his left-wing musical from the spirit of Weimar cabaret to a suburban Fifties campus, the Festival of the Creative Arts was asking the audience to confront a savage satire that portrayed capitalism as indistinguishable from criminality, that equated free enterprise with predatory free-booting.  So heartless are the economic arrangements depicted in "The Threepenny Opera" that Mack the Knife is compelled to wonder: "what is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?"

In "The Threepenny Opera" a premium is put on treachery, on the betrayal of friendship and love--behavior that dramatically collides with is the exaltation of human solidarity that Michael Sandel eloquently invokes in his book on "Liberalism and the Limits of Justice."  The sheer misery of the Brecht-Weill underworld also contradicts the achievement of widespread and unprecedented prosperity that Tom Friedman analyzes with such authority and astuteness in "The Lexus and the Olive Tree."

The progressive politics to which Bernstein subscribed heightened the audacity of the undertaking at Brandeis.  The son of an owner of a beauty-shop supply business, Leonard Bernstein was not yet the triumphant incarnation of American music he would become; and his status was hardly secure.  In 1950 CBS had blacklisted him.  Life magazine had run a photo of him as a dupe of the Reds.  The FBI had placed him on its Security Index.  The Department of State had even imposed passport restrictions--a formidable barrier for a conductor who, though suffering the twin handicaps of being American-born and American-trained, had already shown the talent that entitled him to an international career.  Moreover, were he to expect to be given the baton of a major orchestra, he was advised by the musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to anglicize his name to Burns.

In 1952 you’d have to be either clairvoyant or a little crazy to have foreseen the day when the president of Dartmouth would be named Friedman, when the president of Princeton would be named Shapiro, when the president of Yale would be named Levin.  Bernstein’s father found it so difficult to imagine the acclaim that his son would come to know that he kept reassuring his son that, if his musical ambitions did not pan out, there would always be a place for him in the beauty-shop supply business.

But even in its concert version, the rediscovered and revived "Threepenny Opera" created something of a sensation that could not be confined to the Brandeis campus.  An off-Broadway run that began later in the 1950s lasted nearly nine years, longer even than the Broadway record set by "Oklahoma!."  Lotte Lenya’s show business career was reactivated; and barely a decade after singing “Pirate Jenny” at Brandeis, she played the chief villain of Spectre, which enabled her to come frighteningly close to killing Sean Connery at the very end of the James Bond film, "From Russia with Love" (1963).

The Festival of the Arts had shown the vestigial power of a brilliant but brittle culture that had been dancing two decades earlier on the edge of an abyss; and in a climate of renewed repression and conformism, Brandeis University itself had shown itself secure enough to present a work of art that had drawn its inspiration from the Communist politics of Bertolt Brecht.  Already by 1928 the score of Kurt Weill had registered the Americanization of the world’s culture.  His jaunty tunes were marked by the popular music that had swept across Europe from New Orleans and Chicago and New York, the music that gave its name to the decade that F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the jazz age.”  Henceforth Bildung would have to speak in a more vernacular voice.

In its scholarship and in its arts, a university had also managed to breathe life into the endangered legacy of Weimar culture, a culture that was inflected both with the spirit of Jewishness and with an edge of dissidence.  In succeeding decades, that legacy would inevitably dissipate, without eliminating the critical distance that universities at their best are designed to foster.  The historic tensions that were reproduced in the early years of Brandeis have not disappeared either, and permit the hope that such tensions will always be creative.

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