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The Emancipation of Fanny von Arnstein and the Quandaries of German Jewry

Hilde Spiel’s newly re-translated biography of the Austrian aristocrat is a cautionary tale of Jews during the German Enlightenment

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Fanny von Arnstein, left, and Hilde Spiel. (Courtesy of New Vessel Press)
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Fanny von Arnstein tells a fundamentally similar story, but Spiel draws a diametrically opposed conclusion from it. To Spiel, Fanny stands for a “third solution” to the Jewish question, one that could have saved the Jews if only fate had allowed it. The two pragmatic solutions, Spiel writes, were conversion to Christianity and Zionism, each of which solved the Jewish problem in Germany by removing Jews from the country. Fanny, however, “refused to take up one of the two positions.” She “moved half in the Jewish and half in the Christian world, was at home in both and looked with the serenity of a true daughter of the Enlightenment upon the orthodox as well as the converted among her fellow believers. Such a woman was … the symbol of a third solution of the Jewish question, which would have been so perfect that it could not be carried out: like every other idea since the beginning of time.”

But this can’t help but appear like sentimental evasion of the historical reality, which is that Fanny’s success was by definition exceptional. The curiosity and self-consciously “advanced” opinion that allowed a handful of very wealthy, assimilated Jews to flourish in Vienna and Berlin could not be scaled up to accommodate hundreds of thousands of poor, unassimilated Jews. Indeed, Spiel herself writes about the average Jew in language that verges on the anti-Semitic, seeming to suggest that the unassimilated Jews brought anti-Semitism on themselves by being so aesthetically unappealing:

Weighed down by the suffering of the centuries, their backs had become crooked and their pace heavy and dragging. They had the restless look of the persecuted and the greed of a starving man forcing his way to the bread-platter. Finding support only within their own families and community, they had only indifference or even hate to offer the rest of society. In their narrow, dirty lodgings they lived in a constant state of siege. By being constantly prepared for them, they positively called down ever more blows of fate upon their heads. Had there not been those among them who had freed themselves from this vicious circle and given an example to the world of how a dehumanized Jew could be transformed into a human being, their condition would have been held to be unalterable.

This is revolting, especially coming from someone born a Jew writing just after the Holocaust. It suggests that, far from being a glorious “third solution,” the assimilationism Spiel praises was ultimately premised on self-hatred and a cultivated ignorance of what Jews and Judaism really were. For an American Jewish reader, Fanny von Arnstein is fascinating above all as a cautionary tale—and a reminder of our luck at having avoided the excruciating choices that Fanny, and so many Jews like her, had to face.

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The Emancipation of Fanny von Arnstein and the Quandaries of German Jewry

Hilde Spiel’s newly re-translated biography of the Austrian aristocrat is a cautionary tale of Jews during the German Enlightenment

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