‘Antisemitism is the creed of the scoundrel. It is like a ghastly epidemic – it can neither be explained nor cured.’
In 1883, Austrian author Hermann Bahr was arrested for antisemitic abuse. Ten years later, he was a champion of the Viennese avant-garde and its numerous Jewish exponents, and would soon marry a Jewish actress. In Antisemitism Bahr makes the political personal (and vice versa) using the then-novel form of the interview for a sweeping international survey of the most contentious issue of his day. His respondents are economists and anarchists, preachers and political grandees from across Europe, with such figures as activist Annie Besant, novelist Alphonse Daudet, polymath Ernst Haeckel and trailblazing socialist August Bebel. Now available in English for the first time, this hugely important document was originally published in 1894, and it captures the moment when an ancient enmity assumed new force, the age of the Dreyfus Affair and Germany’s pre-Nazi peak in politicised race hate. Antisemitism is no echo chamber, with some respondents offering robust defence of prejudices that would have harrowing consequences in the 20th century. But with its conspiracy theories, babbling demagogues and demonised minorities, Bahr’s investigation is sadly all too relevant today.
Born in Linz, Hermann Bahr (1863-1934) was a vital catalyst for new writing across Europe. In the closing 19th century he marked out a route beyond Naturalism and is credited as the first proponent of ‘modernism’ as a literary virtue. As a novelist, journalist, essayist, critic and director, Bahr cultivated an extensive international network and was a pivotal figure in the ‘Young Vienna’ group which also included Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig and Karl Kraus. Leaving the reactionary views of his student years behind, he championed a cosmopolitan ethos exemplified by his belief in a ‘United States of Europe’. Common to each stage of Bahr’s cultural development were fearless rhetoric, intellectual curiosity and an unfailing sense for the next literary breakthrough. A handful of his critical and dramatic works appeared in English in the early 20th century.
FROM THE AFTERWORD
In an age of widespread financial speculation and rapidly acquired fortunes, there was equally widespread suspicion of wealth gained not through labour or inheritance but investment, a phenomenon associated in the public imagination with Jews in particular. The ‘blood-sucking’ Jew of medieval legend – the avaricious money-lender, but also the parasite literally killing Christians for ritual purposes in the most extreme anti-Jewish legends – had now turned his attention to capital markets and would, the theory went, bleed them and their host nations dry. These notions were freely aligned with a wide variety of other political ideas of the time in ways that can surprise the present-day reader; anti-Jewish feeling was by no means confined to the reactionary right wing.
This brings us to a crucial point that helps explain why antisemitism could attain such heinous intensity – it was an extremely adaptable prejudice that could assume religious, racial, social, economic, political or cultural dimensions as required. Like a grappling hook, its strength and tenacity increased exponentially when two or more prongs were activated simultaneously. For the beneficiaries of declining economic structures, Jewry could be fashioned to represent the new power of capital, but the ethnicity of figures like Karl Marx and Ferdinand Lassalle also meant that socialism could be characterised as a Jewish conspiracy. Jews could subvert from above or below, as the covert string-pullers of international finance or as bedraggled immigrants from distant shtetls, competing in the market for low-paid labour. An early 20th-century German postcard neatly illustrates this duality in paired caricatures, with a Jewish hawker in ringlets selling coin purses alongside a big-nosed, cigar-smoking plutocrat counting his piles of gold coins.