Sheldon Kirshner

Der Spiegel Misrepresents The Jews Of Germany

Germany’s preeminent newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, carried a story on the Jewish community of Germany in one of its latest special editions. On its cover was a vintage photograph of two elderly ultra-Orthodox Jews clad in traditional caftans. The Central Council of Jews in Germany, in a tweet, objected to the illustration, saying it perpetrated antisemitic stereotypes. “To portray Jews as foreign or exotic promotes antisemitic prejudice,” it said.

I fully agree.

That this respectable mass-circulation magazine saw fit to view the mostly secular Jews of Germany through the lens of Hassidic Jews is bizarre, to say the least. Der Spiegel‘s representation of Jews is so skewed that it feeds into anti-Jewish tropes.

There are, to be sure, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Germany, but they are not representative of Germany’s wider Jewish community. They are but a minuscule minority in contemporary Germany, an insular, closeted and pre-modern sect whose values, outlook and mode of dress are largely, if not completely, at odds with the average Jewish person in the country.

From the emancipation of  German Jews in 1871 until their systematic persecution by the Nazi regime after 1933, German Jews made immense strides in integrating themselves into mainstream society. Historians have documented this phenomenon in voluminous detail, and there is no need to regurgitate it here.

Antisemitism never disappeared during the course of this epoch, however, and one can argue that the advancement of German Jews galvanized the malevolent and seething forces of antisemitism in Germany.

German Jews who achieved prominence tended to be highly assimilated and included such stellar figures as the scientists James Franck and Paul Ehrlich; the film director Ernst Lubitsch, the theater director Max Reinhard, the painter Max Liebermann, the composer Kurt Weill, and the industrialist Walther Rathenau, Germany’s first and still only Jewish foreign minister.

German Jews from their socio-economic milieu were so acculturated that mixed marriages and conversions to Christianity were not uncommon. The Jewish community in the last third of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th century was deeply steeped in German culture and intensely patriotic. During World War I, 12,000 Jewish soldiers were killed.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, hewing to ancient customs and traditions, were very different, living their lives as centuries before and not venturing boldly into society. Most of them, from the impoverished shtetls of Eastern Europe, arrived in Germany after World War I and settled in the rundown but colorful Scheunenviertel district of Berlin.

The antisemitic propaganda that inundated Germany after its surrender to Allied forces in 1918 focused, in part, on these ultra-Orthodox newcomers, who were regarded as foreigners and outsiders.

The vast majority of German Jews in Berlin lived in far more prosperous and sedate neighborhoods.

Strangely enough, the editors of Der Spiegel seized upon the Scheunenviertel neighborhood to universalize the Jewish experience in Germany. They could have chosen more historically and sociologically accurate representations of German Jewry, but, succumbing to stereotypical preconceptions, they opted for a perennial cliche.
In response to objections from Jewish organizations and readers, Der Spiegel issued a statement saying it had tried to “show an aspect of the rich diversity of German-Jewish history.” Anticipating its explanation to be rejected, Der Spiegel added, “We did not want to use an antisemitic cliche, (and) if this impression was created, we are sorry. This was not our intention.”
The magazine offered a fuller explanation to the Jerusalem Post. In an email, spokeswoman Anja zum Hingst wrote, “The cover issue of ‘Jewish Life in Germany’ shows a historical street scene from 1928 in front of a lending library in Berlin’s Grenadierstraße. We chose the picture because it is an authentic scene from the Berlin Scheunenviertel. The picture shows public, visible Jewish life, as existed in Germany before the Holocaust.”
She went on to add, “At the time, many Jews living in Berlin’s Scheunenviertel … had fled to Germany because of persecution in Eastern Europe. It was considered at that time the center of Jewish culture in Europe. Threads from East and West wove together, and here developed a Jewish everyday culture with bookstores, theaters and clubs, which was unique in Europe, and contributed a significant part to making Berlin the Roaring City of the (20th century).”
The explanation, however sincere, does not withstand scrutiny.
Presumably, Der Spiegel had access to thousands of archival photographs and illustrations and could easily have selected an image that was far more representative of German Jews than a banal and boring picture of two ultra-Orthodox Jews glancing at each other. Had they been better versed in German-Jewish history, or had they stayed clear of stereotypical images, the editors of Der Spiegel would have chosen a radically different photograph to adorn the cover of their special edition on the Jewish community. Alas, they flunked this test miserably.
About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,
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