A History of Jews in Germany Since 1945

Politics, Culture, and Society

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Editor(s): 
Michael Brenner
Translator(s): 
Kenneth Kronenberg
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , January
     2018.
     552 pages.
     $60.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780253025678.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

When in 1948 the World Jewish Congress stated “the determination of the Jewish people never again to settle on the bloodstained soil of Germany” (2), few people argued with this sentiment. How could Jews, after surviving years of genocidal terror, live once again in the land of the murderers? Expertly edited by Michael Brenner, A History of Jews in Germany Since 1945: Politics, Culture, and Society describes the rebuilding of Jewish life in Germany against all odds, from the transitory settlement of Displaced Persons (DPs) in the immediate postwar era, to a cautious sense of arrival in subsequent decades (“Who builds a house intends to stay,” Salomon Korn famously said at the1986 dedication of the Jewish community center in Frankfurt), to the recent wave of Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union. The book, which first appeared in German in 2012, constitutes the unofficial fifth volume of German-Jewish History in Modern Times, published by the Leo Baeck Institute under the editorship of Michael A. Meyer. If that work originally ended in 1945, the appearance of a new volume dedicated to the postwar era signals both a hope and a conviction: that there is a significant German-Jewish history after the Holocaust.

In the book’s introductory essay, Dan Diner offers an interpretation of that history, identifies important turning points, and analyzes the tensions between different groups and stakeholders. The main part of the book then sensibly and persuasively divides postwar German-Jewish history into four epochs. Atina Grossmann und Tamar Lewinsky focus on the period from 1945 to 1949, the year in which the DP camps were formally dissolved. They discuss the differences between the mostly Eastern European DPs, who intended to leave Germany as soon as possible, and the few remaining German Jews, who were slightly more open to a future in Germany. Michael Brenner and Norbert Frei analyze the reconstruction of Jewish communities between 1950 (the year in which the Central Council of Jews in Germany was founded) and 1967. During this period, West Germany developed its policy of restitution, and Jews often served as a barometer of the country’s successful democratization. Constantin Goschler and Anthony Kauders sketch new developments between 1968 and 1989, which included the founding of new Jewish institutions such as the Hochschule für jüdische Studien (College of Jewish Studies) in Heidelberg, the coming of age of a younger generation of politically active Jews in West Germany, and a renewed interest in Judaism among some East German Jews. Finally, Yifaat Weiss and Lena Gorelik explore the impact of the influx of the so-called “quota refugees” from Eastern Europe, who had often been assigned a Jewish nationality in the former Soviet Union but knew little about Jewish religious traditions, and who radically changed the size and composition of Jewish communities in post-unification Germany. In the conclusion to the volume, Michael Brenner stresses that the situation of Jews in present-day Germany is still far from “normal.”

Written by internationally renowned scholars, this book is poised to become a standard work in the field. It offers many intriguing details, and includes reflections on its own sources and limitations—for example, on the difficulty of obtaining reliable demographic data due to an understandable reluctance to distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans in postwar Germany. The story of revival and rebuilding the authors tell remains a nuanced one. They pay close attention to the challenges that Jewish people, organizations, and communities faced at different junctures in postwar German history, from the difficulty of finding suitable religious teachers and leaders, to the rise of left-wing antisemitism in the 1970s, to the public debate about circumcision in 2012. One potential imbalance of this book is its emphasis on West Germany at the expense of East Germany, but given the numbers and the self-understanding of Jews in the two formerly different German states, this emphasis is justifiable. Altogether, this is an eminently readable work of history that addresses an important gap in the scholarship and will appeal to specialists and interested lay readers alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Katja Garloff is Professor of German and Humanities at Reed College.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Brenner is Professor of Jewish History and Culture at the University of Munich and Seymour and Lillian Abensohn Chair in Israel Studies at American University in Washington, DC. He is a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and International President of the Leo Baeck Institute. Brenner’s publications include A Short History of the JewsProphets of the Past: Interpreters of Jewish HistoryZionism: A Short History, and he is a contributing author to the four-volume German-Jewish History in Modern Times.

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