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German speaking Jews were force behind EU unity

Date: 08/01/2014

A little-remembered Jewish culture in Germany and Austria between the 1870s and 1930s was a hotbed of ideas which drove the formation of the European Union, according to new research.

Literary and film scholar Dr Cathy Gelbin from The University of Manchester says cosmopolitan German speaking Jewish intellectuals, many of whom met in the coffee houses of Berlin, Vienna and Prague, were among the first to see their identity as European. These are the findings of an AHRC-funded study, co-authored with cultural and literary historian Professor Sander Gilman from Emory University in Atlanta.

Dr Gelbin said: Our research shows these German speaking Jews had a powerful impact on the thinking which spawned post-1945 European unity, especially the EU.

Rather than sidelining this important contribution, as has been the case in recent public discussions, perhaps the time has come for their role to be recognised. Even before the onset of Nazism, German-speaking Jews were seen as either too assimilated on the one hand but too international on the other. This anti-Semitism, in all but name, had a profound effect on the community, rejecting the accepted definition of their own German and Austrian identities. Jewish Zionists called for a separate homeland, whereas others insisted their identity was not merely Jewish or German, but one beyond ethnicity and national borders.

Dr Gelbin and Professor Gilman have been studying German archival material from the late nineteenth century to the early 1930s. The study revealed a remarkable culture of cosmopolitanism, which despite the onslaught of Nazism, has survived into modern times.

Just as Paris's intellectuals gathered in the cafés of the Left Bank of the Seine, the German speaking secular Jews would spend their time at coffee houses in Berlin and Vienna in the fin-de-siécle.

The ideas of the political theorist Hannah Arendt and other thinkers, can be credited says Dr Gelbin, with the recent establishment of global norms of justice such as crimes against humanity and the idea of universal human rights. Politicians, writers, intellectuals such as political theorist Eduard Bernstein and literary writer Stefan Zweig, all exerted important influences on European identity. And, there are still Jewish thinkers living in German speaking Europe who are standard bearers for intellectual life, including Nobel Prize winners.

Dr Gelbin is also working on London's East End, where she says its Jewish roots reflect Jewish cosmopolitanism, but on a smaller scale. Today's Eastenders, she says, are less aware of the area's rich Jewish cultural past.

The community will have the opportunity to take part in a public meeting to explore the complex stories of migration to London's East End from the 1800s to the present.

She added: Our event will look at the rich stories of groups such as the Huguenots, Jews, and more recently Asian, Caribbean and Eastern Europeans. It will gather together ordinary people with practitioners in migration politics, education and the arts.

You can't convincingly argue that argue that Jews are nowadays structurally disadvantaged, but many do feel left out of discussions about cultural diversity. We hope this event will address this.

Notes to Editors

  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. www.ahrc.ac.uk
  • The meeting will take place on January 20, 6.30-9.30 pm at Richmix cultural centre, Bethnal Green. Richmix is a charity and social enterprise that offers live music, film, dance, theatre, comedy, spoken word and a range of creative activities for people of all ages and all cultures. To attend the event, obtain your free ticket from http://www.richmix.org.uk/whats-on/event/migration-and-culture-in-the-east-end-1800-to-the-present, or phone the RichMix box office, 020 7613 749
  • For media enquiries contact: Mike Addelman, Press Officer, The University of Manchester. 0161 275 0790. Michael.addelman@manchester.ac.uk
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