Site Content

Exile and Interpretation

An Interdisciplinary Conference at Wake Forest University

“About the Term Exile”

The title of my lecture is purloined from a poem by Bertold Brecht. He opened his poem, Über die Bezeichnung Emigranten, penned in Svendborg, Denmark in 1937, with the ironic verse, “Immer fand ich den Namen falsch, den man uns gab: Emigranten” (I always found wrong the name, they have given us).  In my lecture I will reflect on the appropriateness of the term “Jewish exiles” to characterize the intellectuals of Jewish provenience who fled Nazi Europe as exiles and on whether the designation is meant to specify some cultural specificity, other than the fact that anti-Semitism obliged them to take refuge in the U.S.A. and elsewhere.

Paul Mendes-Flohr

University of Chicago and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

“Entering a New ‘Universe of Discourse’: Kurt Riezler at the New School for Social Research”

When Kurt Riezler (1882-1955) emigrated to the United States in 1938, he had already completed three quite different careers. Having been an adviser to German chancellor Bethmann Hollweg during the First World War, he retired after Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles and lived as a publicist in Berlin, supporting political liberalism as a member of the German Democratic Party (DDP). In 1928, he was appointed Curator of Frankfurt University where he had a crucial impact on its academic orientation until he was dismissed in 1933 because of his alleged support of Jews and communists. Parallel to his administrative duties, he devoted himself to questions of epistemology and aesthetics, influenced first by the work of Ernst Cassirer and, from the late twenties on, by Martin Heidegger and Karl Reinhardt.  Upon arriving in the United States, Riezler entered a new “universe of discourse”, as he characterized it in letters to old friends back in Europe. Together with his new colleagues at the New School for Social Research in New York City – some of whom he already knew from his time in Frankfurt – he tried to interpret recent political and social developments in Germany in light of sociological or psychological categories, searching for a way between American social science, which he could not fully accept, and a humanism, which tried to preserve the notion of the unity and immutability of man.

Sonja Asal

“Nietzsche´s Image of the Mask or Two Ways to Understand History: A Comparison between Erich Auerbach and Karl Löwith”

Nietzsche´s image of the mask can be understood in opposite directions. It represents on the one side the artful will to conceal a deeper and dialectical meaning. On the other side, it stands for the scientific intention of unmasking certain primarily hidden or unclear meanings. The first perspective characterizes the way Erich Auerbach understood Western literature in his  masterwork Mimesis written in Turkish exile before 1945. There Auerbach articulated his concept of texts having a visible foreground and hidden backgrounds. Irrationality and multilayered meanings which cannot be fully understood were seen by him as positive components of the hermeneutical process. The second perspective was adopted by the philosopher Karl Löwith who, in 1933, also fled Germany because he was Jewish. His intellectual approach to Western history of ideas rests on the concept of pure critical science, which claims that although authors often conceal themselves consciously or unconsciously, their works contain discernable and distinct rational meanings. In this way his masterwork From Hegel to Nietzsche – The Revolution in Nineteenth Century Thought, written in Japan before 1941, attempts to trace and expose as clearly as possible Western philosophies of history and their revolutionary intentions. Especially in his later criticism of his teacher Martin Heidegger, called “Thinker in a Destitute Time,” Löwith characterized this method as a condition sine qua non for the historian of ideas while also referring critically to Heidegger´s way of understanding the “Unsaid” in Nietzsche. Auerbach´s letter to Löwith, written in 1953 after having read Löwith’s book, gives an idea of how much he had become aware of their different approaches as intellectual historians.

Finally, the paper draws a line to Leo Strauss´ famous essay “Persecution and the Art of Writing.”  From the perspective of this essay, Auerbach is effectively one of the “few” who are able to read what was hidden between the lines and beyond the foreground of the text. At the end of Mimesis, he called readers like himself his “friends” and “the others for whom it [Mimesis] was intended”. For Auerbach, such rare readers love the challenge looking behind the mask of the written and thereby prove their membership in the community of lovers of the Platonic-Jewish-Christian tradition in its modern transformation. In the way Löwith unmasked texts, Auerbach sought to provide scientific insights for the “many” who seek rational enlightenment and only wish to encounter clear results. Auerbach went beyond merely scientifically seeking to clarify the multilayered character of history mirrored artfully in the over-determined quality of his texts. For him, texts conceal as much as they reveal. The image of the mask is present in multiple dimensions in his work. One can assume that Nietzsche might have delighted more in reading Mimesis than From Hegel to Nietzsche although, in both works, crucial parts of his multilayered  philosophy of unmasking is present at its best.

Matthias Bormuth
Universität Oldenburg

“Passing Through: Internal and External Exiles in 1930s Oxford”

This paper examines some of the exiles from Nazism and Fascism who arrived in Oxford in the 1930s in relation to the intellectual and political atmosphere of the time. It focuses on Adorno, Strauss and others (such as Momigliano and Jacobsthal) in relation to R.G. Collingwood, a resident Oxford philosopher and archaeologist. In dealing with exiles and refugees arriving in Oxford, Collingwood was also acutely aware of his own sense of intellectual isolation (his internal exile) and this fuelled his desire to pursue his work in a more congenial environment. For many years he had considered moving away from Oxford, including to the USA, the common destination of so many of the exiles passing through Oxford. The paper concludes by examining the work of Adorno on art and Strauss on historical relativism.

James Connelly
University of Hull

“Erich Auerbach and Walter Benjamin in Flight: Figura and Allegory.”

As the friendship between Erich Auerbach and Walter Benjamin becomes more widely known, the impact of one upon the other calls for greater attention. Benjamin was completing research for his Habilitation thesis at the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin at the very time Auerbach arrived there as a librarian in 1923.  Their relationship at the library is attested to by Gershom Scholem, and some have speculated that Auerbach helped Benjamin with his research.  Benjamin and Auerbach were both working out their views of allegory, Benjamin his rehabilitation of Baroque allegory in relation to German Trauerspiel, and Auerbach his dismissal of allegory as an obstacle to realism in his own Habilitation thesis on Dante.  Auerbach later re-evaluated the question of realism in Dante at the time he was forced to leave Marburg, just as he was en route to Turkey, from where he completed (1935-1938?) and published (1938) “Figura,” his best known and perhaps most powerful essay; the work that straddles his journey from Marburg to Istanbul, and is thus one of the first scholarly results of his exile.  The essay replaces scholastic philosophy as an explanation of Dante’s realism with Christian “figural interpretation,” according to which Jewish scripture is a foreshadowing prophesy of Christian scripture.  This paper explores how the experience of exile affected Auerbach’s revision of his Dante thesis; it explores whether, in exile, his revision was influenced a decade later by Benjamin’s concept of allegory, and whether Auerbach’s “figura” is a version of Benjamin’s ruin, itself a figure of Judaism in a Europe headed for catastrophic decline.

Martin Elsky
City University of New York

“Three Modifications of the Galut: Leo Strauss on Germany, Israel, and America”

This paper examines Leo Strauss’ interpretations of the condition of the Jews in the three societies that most interested him: Germany, where he was born and raised; Israel, whose establishment he promoted as a participant in the Zionist youth movement and where he taught at several points in his career; and the United States, where he lived from the late 1930s until his death in 1972. According to Strauss, each of these societies promised a distinctive solution to the “Jewish Problem”. Yet each succeeded only in providing a “modification” of the Galut, a condition that Strauss presents as “the most manifest symbol of the human problem as a social or political problem.” This judgment is most provocative when applied to Israel, and reflects a revision of Strauss’ youthful Zionism. But it also sheds light on Strauss’ surprisingly favorable attitude toward the country of his birth, as well as his carefully distanced attitude toward the United States, his adopted home.

Samuel Goldman
Princeton University

“‘It’s Uncanny How He Lives Here as an Emigrant:’ On Arnold Zweig’s Exile in Zion”

Following the Nazi accession to power, German Jewish novelist Arnold Zweig moved to the Zionist society in Palestine, where he would spend fifteen years as an exile. Beyond his growing ideological estrangement from Zionism, the German author and the Hebrew Yishuv seem to have had little to offer one another. In the fall of 1948, shortly after the establishment of the Jewish State, he returned to (East) Berlin. This presentation will explore these fifteen years in Zweig’s life to probe the disconnect between his ideological affinities and his physical migrations.

Adi Gordon
University of Cincinnati

“‘Fear Not My Servant Jacob’:  Rabbis, Jewish Emancipation and European Intellectual History”

The recent convergence of Jewish and European intellectual history has created a historiography whose protagonists are cosmopolitan secular Jews, from Adorno to Arendt to Benjamin, intellectuals who held only a tenuous relationship to Judaism.  This paper attempts to address and redress this historiography by calling attention to fields and figures, specifically Reform and Orthodox rabbis, who can recover for European intellectual history traditions that are at the core of Jewish Studies.  The paper focuses on the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau in the writings of Moses Sofer, Adolph Jellinek, Samson Raphael Hirsch and Benno Jacob as they address the dilemmas of Jewish emancipation. All view Jacob’s struggle with Esau as reflective of contemporary Jewish-Christian relations. Sofer, anxious about emancipation, dissolves the brotherhood of Jacob and Esau. Jellinek regards emancipation’s opponents as murderous Esau. Hirsch welcomes the reconciliation as presaging emancipation. Benno Jacob doubts it was ever genuine. Their exegeses reflect Jewish hopes and anxieties about emancipation and the limits of Jewish integration in the European nation state. They become a European story of dilemmas yet unresolved.

Malachi Hacohen
Duke University

“The Awful English Language: Emigration, Translation, and the Fate of German Ideas in Post-War America.”

The disagreement between the philosophers Kracauer and Adorno over whether English was capable of expressing the complexity of philosophical ideas is well known. “The Awful English Language” argues that their scuffle was more than merely semantic: it reveals deep methodological differences concerning the relationship between social context and epiphenomenon in historical analysis. Bridging new work in comparative literature and recent attempts in intellectual history to historicize émigré reception, the essay examines a few different episodes among émigrés, including Kracauer, Adorno, and Panofsky, to illuminate central methodological debates among them, debates concerning the merits of dialectical thought and social biography, iconography and iconology, and historicism and the New Critics, respectively. Taking seriously Adorno’s charge, I consider the extent to which criticisms of Panofsky and Kracauer for “simplifying” their ideas through “reductive” analyses may be linked to their different approaches to language. Integrating biography, context, and the quotidian into an analysis of their ideas, I suggest one possible model for analyzing how German ideas worked in the American context.

Emily Levine
University of North Carolina Greensboro

 “Leo Strauss on ‘Galut’ and ‘Exile’”

The lecture will give an overview of Leo Strauss’s (1899-1973) lifelong preoccupation with the ideas of “Galut and Exile.”   I will focus on two unpublished essays from 1926 on the relationship between prophets and kings in the Bible and on the lecture “Progress or Return?” from November, 5-19, 1952.  In the two essays, Strauss tied to solve the problem of “Derealization” (“Entwirklichung”) resulting from the “Galut-attitude” (“Galut-Gesinnung”).   In “Progress and Return,” Strauss offered his understanding of “Exile” and of the notion of “t’shuvah.”

Thomas Meyer
Vanderbilt University and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität

“Exile’s Territories of Experience: Hans Baron and Paul O. Kristeller in America”

Two of the most eminent twentieth-century interpreters of the Renaissance, Hans Baron and Paul Oskar Kristeller were forced to flee their native Germany, following their initial training as scholars, but before they had acquired much of a scholarly reputation. Both settled in the United States, where they published works that profoundly marked the field of Renaissance historiography. In this paper, I shall argue that the experiences of exile from their homeland, and their resettlement in their new homeland profoundly coloured their approaches to the study of the Renaissance, all the while their scholarship remained deeply rooted in their training in Germany.

Anthony Molho
Brown University and European University Institute

 “Specters of Benjamin II: Benjamin’s Bed”

This paper concerns Benjamin’s spectral afterlife as a major German Jewish intellectual who fell victim to Nazi persecution and therefore ended his own life in the south of France, having thought that he had run out of options for escape.  Benjamin only started to become well known internationally in the 1970s, due to the publication of his collected work by Suhrkamp Verlag, and by the 80s a rather noticeable industry of scholarship had begun to take hold. It’s fair to say that, as the early twentieth century began to fade from living memory and humanists had become overspecialized to the point of cultural irrelevance, Benjamin had started to become emblematic of the last great European intellectual: someone outside the university system with immense genius who had leftist credentials and considerable powers of cultural observation. His work was proto-deconstructive and remains elusive enough that no one can convincingly systematize it. Yet the desire to connect the conceptual dots continues to tempt scholars who see this as a test of critical strength.  Hence Benjamin studies seem to be organized around a contest that can be won only if someone manages to rationalize and systematize Benjamin’s thinking to everyone’s satisfaction. But in order to do this, one would have to essentially be Walter Benjamin himself, after the fact of his death. In other words, one would have to identify oneself with him to a very high degree, which various Benjamin scholars do. This type of emulation, it seems to me, is caught up with the mourning of Benjamin for the sake of resurrecting him, that is, for the sake of his sur-vivance, as the Derrideans call it. My paper concerns sur-vivance in Helene Cixous’ identification with Benjamin by way of a story about how her mother had come round to buy Benjamin’s bed from him in Paris during the 30s. With respect to the conference, I’m making the point that sur-vivance is exilic and in Benjamin’s case, especially. “Specters of Benjamin I” was published in the British journal, Textual Practice, at the end of 2005.

Herman Rapaport
Wake Forest University

“Looking Back to Read the Writing on the Wall: Reflections of the Spanish Expulsion  in the Third Reich “

This paper contextualizes the ways in which writers and readers looked to medieval persecutions and expulsions of Jewry as a way to gauge not only what was happening in Germany during the Third Reich, but to also grapple with where things were heading.  I pay attention to the particular case of popular historical work written by Valeriu Marcu, a Romanian Jewish writer who published a 1934 study of the expulsion of Jews from Spain.  While Marcu’s German book (which was published in Amsterdam due to censorship) featured no explicit mentioning of the present, his contemporaries such as Carl Schmitt, Ernst Junger, and Heinrich Mann read his work as a window onto the present and near future.  It therefore became a matter of urgent reading, not only for Jews, but especially for a plugged-in, cultural and intellectual German elite.  When the book was published in German, and then translated into several other languages, many figures associated with the conservative-revolution, debated not the aesthetic qualities nor the historical accuracy of the presentation, but rather how much the model of Spain’s persecution and ultimate expulsion of its Jews in 1492 illuminated the reality of the present.  Moreover, the work also pointed to a catastrophic future for Germany’s Jews and modern day Marranos as well as the ultimate fate of Germany itself.

Eugene Sheppard
Brandeis University


“Exile’s Hindsight: Karl Loewith’s Multi-layered Nietzsche and the Transformation of Philosophy”

The experience of being forced into exile prompted Karl Loewith to re-examine the German intellectual traditions to which he belonged. One of his own philosophical idols, Nietzsche, who also became a central figure of Nazi ideology, particularly attracted his attention. Loewtih’s book on Nietzsche, which he published in exile in 1935, engages the intellectual prehistory that enabled the “Zivilisationsbruch” of 1933.  Nietzsche’s alluring aphoristic style led Loewith to defend Nietzsche’s thought from all-too-easy abuse.   At the heart of Loewith’s struggle, lies the European reconstruction of philosophy and a fundamental realignment of the relation between philosophy and politics. Loewith’s cautious reading of Nietzsche demonstrates anew the complex character of Nietzsche’s revaluation of values and makes explicit that the interpretative struggle between religious and naturalistic world views is to be understood as a quarrel for the meaning of the philosophic life. Therefore, Loewith’s Nietzsche points not only to a fresh reflection on philosophy and politics, but reveals its link to the problem of philosophy and nature as an unanswered core issue of our time.

Stephan Steiner

Centre for Literary and Cultural Research, Berlin

“Around the World in 18 Years: Karl Löwith’s Exile”

For writers, scholars and philosophers who emigrated after 1933 from Germany, exile was for the most part a time of austerity and suffering. Nevertheless, some exiles were able to benefit from their experience. We witness this unsuspecting enrichment with Karl Löwith. Löwith’s exile endured 18 years and led him around the globe. What makes his experiences unique is how he responded to them in philosophically. Here I would like to illuminate this dynamic transformation based on unpublished documents which I have discovered in the Löwith papers at the German Literature Archive in Marbach. Of particular interest shall be Löwith’s diaries and letters to Hans-Georg Gadamer.

Ulrich von Bülow
Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach

“Talmud in the Wrong Place”

Our essay focuses on Strauss’s writings on Hobbes from the 1930s before and just after he left Germany though it also draws from his other writings from this period.  We want especially to situate his idiosyncratic interpretation of Hobbes in the historical and intellectual contexts from which it emerged.   We also suggest that the intertwined political and philosophical crises of post-WWI Germany from which Strauss fled not only infused his unconventional interpretation of Hobbes but continued informing his entire idiosyncratic history of political thought that eventually became his seminal Natural Right and History.  As we shall see for Strauss, the political crises of modernity, especially the rise of liberalism and fascism, were to a significant extent, a philosophical crisis brought on by historicism invented by Hobbes.

We begin by devoting considerable attention to Strauss’s 1936 The Political Philosophy of Hobbes as well as discuss more briefly his earlier studies of Hobbes, which appeared in German for the first time in 2001 and only in English translation in 2011.  We then examine Michael Oakeshott’s swift criticism from 1937 of The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, which helps us better appreciate just how much Strauss’s Hobbes displaces his anxieties about the German historicist tradition on to early modern English political thought.  We next briefly address the first chapter of Strauss’s 1934 Philosophy and Law, where Strauss settles accounts with Julius Guttmann, in order to situate more comprehensively Strauss’s unconventional Hobbes, and the havoc he purportedly initiated, within the wider context of other examples of Strauss’s historicist worries in the 1930s.  Finally, we close by taking up Gadamer’s complaint that Strauss’s history of political thought is “Talmud in the wrong place.”  We are less interested in the aptness of Gadamer’s characterization of Strauss’s intellectual history as wrong-headily Talmudic than with what we take Gadamer to be saying about his underlying differences with Strauss, whom he admired considerably.  Many critics of Strauss, besides ourselves, regard his history of political thought as idiosyncratic overall.  We suggest that these idiosyncrasies, like his idiosyncratic Hobbes, derive, in part, from his idiosyncratic method of reading philosophical texts.

David Weinstein
Wake Forest University
Avihu Zakai
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem