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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

Adam Kirsch
September 16, 2013
Fanny von Arnstein, left, and Hilde Spiel.(Courtesy of New Vessel Press)
Fanny von Arnstein, left, and Hilde Spiel.(Courtesy of New Vessel Press)

Reading Fanny von Arnstein: Daughter of the Enlightenment, the newly re-translated biography of the German-born Austrian aristocrat, by Hilde Spiel, induces a kind of historical double vision. Von Arnstein represents one of the most fascinating and paradoxical eras in modern Jewish history: the brief moment, around the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, when a few privileged Jews moved to the center of German and Austrian culture.

But Fanny von Arnstein the book is also the product of a particular historical moment. Though now published in the United States for the first time, by the enterprising new publisher New Vessel Press, it originally came out in German in 1962, less than 20 years after the Holocaust. And its author herself represents an era of Jewish history, as Michael Z. Wise explains in his introduction to the book. Born in 1911 to Jewish parents who had converted to Catholicism, Spiel remained Jewish enough to have to flee Austria in 1936, before the rising tide of anti-Semitism. She found refuge in England, but unlike the vast majority of refugees, she ended up returning to her native country, becoming a major figure in postwar Austrian literature. As Wise writes, “Like Fanny, Spiel had a complicated relationship to Judaism and to Austria.”

Indeed, Spiel’s life can be seen as a later chapter in the long story of which Fanny’s is the beginning. That is the story of Jewish emancipation—the original title of Spiel’s book, in German, was “Fanny von Arnstein, or Emancipation”—and it is an endlessly paradoxical and tragic one. Starting with the Enlightenment, in the third quarter of the 18th century, the Jews of Western and Central Europe began to believe in the possibility of release from traditional Jewish life. For the first time in Christian Europe, it became imaginable for Jews—only a few favored ones, at the beginning—to enter Christian society on something like equal footing.

This was a delirious prospect, promising freedom from persecution, social and economic opportunity, access to modern science and art. German Jews, in particular, embraced emancipation with fervor, becoming the leading bearers of German culture or “Bildung.” And the pioneers of this movement were the Jewish women who emerged as the chief hostesses of enlightened Berlin and Vienna. These women, including Henrietta Herz, Dorothea von Schlegel, Rahel Varnhagen, and von Arnstein, benefited from the wealth their families had amassed as financiers to the Crown. Yet as Jews they remained outside the usual social hierarchy, in a zone of freedom from convention. As a result, in their drawing rooms, intellectuals, politicians, and noblemen could mingle on terms of equality. The conversation in these houses was as adventurous and witty as in the famous salons of Paris and did a great deal to help spread Enlightenment ideas in Germany.

About Fanny as an individual, little is recorded. She was not an intellectual or a voluminous correspondent like Rahel Varnhagen, and most of what we know about her comes from the reminiscences of her many guests. These tend to be unspecific and idealized, but Spiel quotes enough of them to make clear that Fanny von Arnstein was a perfect hostess—intelligent, witty, hospitable, charming, generous. Here is how she was described by Karl August Varnhagen, Rahel’s Gentile husband:

Of tall, slim stature, radiant with beauty and grace, of distinguished manner and behavior, spirited and fiery expression, combining acute intelligence and wit with a cheerful temper, not without learning, and mistress of foreign languages as well as her own, she was a most striking and notable phenomenon in Vienna; the qualities which belong in general to only a few women of the highest position were observed wondrously shining forth in a Jewess, whose freedom of thought and culture … had already begun to be appreciated and desired.

It soon becomes clear, however, that Fanny von Arnstein is more the occasion for Spiel’s book than its subject. That subject is really the experience of the Jews during the German Enlightenment—say, between 1776, when the 18-year-old Fanny moved from her native Prussia to Austria, and 1814, the year of Napoleon’s downfall, when her house became one of the most glamorous meeting-places during the Congress of Vienna.

Spiel shows how, during this time, the legal position of Jews in Austria remained extremely precarious. Almost all Jews in the Empire were subject to punitive taxes and legal disabilities; they could not enter the professions or own real estate. Yet a small group of “tolerated” Jews—some one hundred families living in Vienna—managed to win for themselves extraordinary privileges, because their financial expertise was indispensable to a Court always in need of money. Among these were Nathan Arnsteiner, Fanny’s husband—just as her father, Daniel Itzig, had been one of the most favored Jews in Berlin.

The promise of emancipation, which these ‘tolerated’ Jews embodied, was a false one

Of course, by Spiel’s day, it had become clear that the promise of emancipation, which these “tolerated” Jews embodied, was a false one. After generations of assimilation, including widespread conversion to Christianity—Fanny’s grandchildren were all raised as Catholics—Jews remained hated “Others” in German and Austrian society. The more conspicuously they succeeded in cultural and economic terms, the more deeply they were rejected in social and political terms. Finally, the Jews of Central Europe were annihilated, along with their Eastern European brethren, in the Holocaust.

In the wake of this disaster, the whole project of Jewish emancipation began to take on a different appearance. Doesn’t the word “emancipation” already suggest that what one is being released from is a kind of slavery? If so, doesn’t that mean that the basic terms of the bargain for European Jews entailed a rejection of Judaism and Jewishness, a refusal to see it as a valid human identity? German and Austrian Jews were caught in a torturous double-bind. The more they strove to be just like their Christian compatriots, the more they had to reject their own identity—only to find that even the sacrifice of their self-respect did not win them genuine acceptance.

There are two ways, then, of looking at the generation of pioneering Jewish women that included Fanny von Arnstein. Hannah Arendt took one approach in her book Rahel Varnhagen, which she began writing in the 1930s, though it wasn’t published until the 1950s. To Arendt, Rahel Levin, as she was born, was a tragic example of the folly of German Jewry, which trusted so much in culture and personal merit that it ignored its dangerous political weakness. Arendt, who identified deeply with her subject, called Rahel a “schlemiel,” in the sense of a hapless and helpless person, and saw her as a representative of the dead-end path of Jewish emancipation.

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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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.