December 18, 2023

Napoleon, The Liberator of The Jews


"Medallion struck by the Paris mint in commemoration of the Grand Sanhedrin. In the collection of the Jewish Museum of Switzerland." (Source: Wikipedia).


The Grand Sanhedrin was a Jewish high court convened in Europe by Napoleon to give legal sanction to the principles expressed by an assembly of Jewish notables in answer to the twelve questions submitted to it by the government. The name was chosen to imply that the Grand Sanhedrin had the authority of the original Sanhedrin that had been the main legislative and judicial body of the Jewish people in classical antiquity and late antiquity.

On October 6, 1806, the Assembly of Notables issued a proclamation to all the Jewish communities of Europe, inviting them to send delegates to the sanhedrin, to convene on October 20. This proclamation, written in Hebrew, French, German, and Italian, speaks in extravagant terms of the importance of this revived institution and of the greatness of its imperial protector. While the action of Napoleon aroused in many Jews of Germany the hope that, influenced by it, their governments also would grant them the rights of citizenship, others looked upon it as a political contrivance. When in the war against Prussia (1806-7) the emperor invaded Poland and the Jews rendered great services to his army, he remarked, laughing, "The sanhedrin is at least useful to me." 

An excerpt from, "Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance" By Michael Goldfarb, Simon & Schuster, 2009, Pg. 163 - 167 (Source: Google Books):

By 1828, Heine was truly famous, but money remained a problem. The author showed the same business skill in managing his writing career as he had in the import-export business. He needed a job and asked Karl August Varnhagen von Ense to write Germany's foremost publisher, J. F. Cotta, on his behalf. Cotta published both Goethe and Schiller and to work for the firm was to join the establishment. With baptismal certificate and Byronic status in hand, Heine met with Cotta. The company was keen to join the journalism boom and was setting up a new weekly called the New World Political Annals. Heine was appointed editor and moved to Cotta's headquarters in Munich.

It didn't take long for Cotta and Heine to mutually realize that editing was not a good fit. The publisher decided to send his famous new signing back out on the road. The demand for Heine's travel writing was high. Where to go was the question. Goethe had written a famous travelogue about Italy. Heine, always on the lookout for an opportunity to try and knock that living icon off his pedestal, decided to head over the Alps and write a better book about Italy than the greatest German writer of all time had.

Once again travel deepened his imagination. For Heine, reconciling Napoleon the conqueror of Germany with Napoleon the liberator of the Jews and the oppressed had been an almost impossible conundrum. He and Börne argued about it. The latter was a German patriot when it came to the question of Napoleon. He abhorred the emperor's work. Heine's view was more complicated. What happens to the ideal of Emancipation if there is no great man to spread it? Somewhere along the road over the Alps he resolved the question.

In The Journey from Munich to Genoa, he invents a scene. Dr. Heine finds himself riding in a stagecoach, and as it crosses an open plain in northern Italy the guard calls down to the passengers, "We are on the battlefield of Marengo." Marengo was the scene of Napoleon's greatest victory in Italy. For Heine this is where it all started to go wrong. Marengo was where the seeds of egotism were planted that grew into Napoleon's imperial delusion. This place was where the betrayal of freedom and democratic ideals began. But looking out over Marengo, three decades after the battle, Heine has an epiphany. History has come to a new age. The nationalism that separated Europeans is fading. From country to country the same questions are being asked about justice and equality. Heine had the greatest gift of poets, the gift of prophecy, and in this imagined scene his vision is full of optimism. 

"Gradually, day by day, foolish national prejudices are disappearing; all harsh differentiations are lost in the generality of European civilization. There are no more nations in Europe only parties; and it is marvellous to see how these parties, for all their varying coloration recognize one another and how they understand one another, despite many differences in language. Our age hastens towards its great task.

"But what is the great task of our own age? It is emancipation. Not only the emancipation of Irishmen, Greeks, Frankfurt Jews, West Indian Blacks and other such oppressed peoples but the emancipation of the whole world..."

Heine was a man of letters, a poet, essayist, journalist. He was not as keen a political theorist as Börne but he understood just as clearly that Emancipation could not just be about Jews or any particular group gaining equal rights. It had to be a universal mission on behalf of all the oppressed people of the world.

The 1820s meandered to a close in the German-speaking lands. The society remained ill defined and backward compared to the rest of Europe. The industrial revolution was well under way in Britain and France, but not in Germany. The movement for national unity was split between the blood-and-soil Romantics and liberal modernists, and the split was in turn exploited by censors and secret police keeping a tight lid on political activity. Torpor surrounded the society, and Heine and Börne were floating listlessly in it. Then in the summer of 1830 came a revolutionary explosion that rocked Europe. Once again, it happened in France. For three days in July, Parisians rebelled against new censorship laws imposed by King Charles X. He was forced to abdicate and a constitutional monarchy was established.

Ludwig Börne raced off to Paris to report on events. Perhaps he could stir up his fellow Germans to act. Heine, typically, was traveling, spending the summer on an island in the North Sea off the German coast. By the time news of the revolution reached him it was over and the new French Constitution was in place. No matter. Heine set off immediately to join Börne in the French capital.

Neither Börne nor Heine would ever leave the city. They went to report on events for Germans. They hoped to use their writing to proselytize for change in their homeland. But they stayed because both men found that Paris was a place where they could be German. In Germany they would always be Jews.

Both sent dispatches in the form of letters back to German newspapers on the political changes in France and what they might mean for Germany. Börne's letters in particular gained him a wide new readership. In time, his collected Letters from Paris became a classic text of German liberalism. He could write things from Paris secure in the knowledge that he wouldn't be arrested. He became bolder. "When I say that all our various German governments have gone crazy, I mean it in the medical sense." What makes them crazy, according to Börne, is their obsession with the dark side of the French Revolution, which blinds them to the many good ideas that motivated it. "How sad! for when governments take leave of their senses, it's the sane who get locked up."

Over the Rhine, in Germany, Börne and Heine inspired a literary movement among the coming generation of liberal writers. "Young Germany" echoed the sentiments of Börne's and Heine's dispatches from Paris. For those who agreed with them the two authors were exemplary Germans. However, conservative nationalists answered back. They referred to Young Germany as Young Israel. The critics seemed incapable of writing about Heine's or Börne's ideas without referring to their Jewish origins, as if that explained everything about their at- tacks on "good" Germans and their beloved status quo: fragmented, semifeudal states, and lack of basic freedoms such as freedom of speech and the press. Börne finally had to answer.

"It is miraculous! Certain people object to my being a Jew; others forgive me; still others even praise me for it; but everybody remem- bers it," he wrote in an article for the Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung or Augsburg General Gazette. "No, that I was born a Jew has never made me bitter against the Germans and has never distorted my perspective. I would not be worthy of the sunlight if I repaid with ingratitude the grace which God had bestowed upon me by making me a German and Jew at the same time.

"I am well aware of the value of my unearned fortune, my being both a German and Jew. Thus being able to strive for German virtues without having to share any German faults."

Börne acknowledged that his ghetto birth had shaped his politics. "Yes, since I was born a slave I love freedom more than you do... Yes, since I was not born in a fatherland I wish for a fatherland more pas- sionately than you do."

He ended his letter with a missionary's zeal, urging his German antagonists to follow the lead of assimilated Jews and liberate themselves from the constrictions of the past.

For Heine life in Paris was sweet. The city was the epicenter of European culture and Heine's reputation as the voice of young Germany preceded him. He was immediately taken up by the city's glitterati. Victor Hugo and George Sand treated him as an equal. Despite the fact he was still living on an allowance from uncle Salomon he man- aged to find a way to hang out with aristocrats and the superrich, particularly Baron James de Rothschild. Börne spent his time exploring the new socialist ideas bubbling in the corners of the city. While Heine reveled, Börne became more and more serious about inventing a political program that would inspire a revolution.

That they would fall out was inevitable. Börne was a political polemicist searching for a system to change society, but Heine was an artist; the ideal society for him was one in which he could be left alone to write in perfect freedom. For him political writing was metaphori- cal. He was always willing to fight a duel and thought of himself as a soldier. Heine asked that at his death, mourners lay a sword on his coffin, not a poet's laurel wreath, because he had been a "good soldier in the fight for the Emancipation of mankind." Börne was dismissive. Heine was "a boy chasing butterflies on the battlefield while bloodshed rages all around."

Börne was brilliant but Heine was a genius. In the end that destroyed their relationship, but not before they had crossed together out of no-man's-land and established a place for their writing inside the mainstream of German and European society.