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Tudvad Interview (Part 2)

Piety: Your new book, Stadier på Antisemitismens vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne is not simply about Kierkegaard. It’s a comprehensive look at attitudes toward Jews and Judaisim in 19th-Century Denmark. Are there other books that do this, or is yours the first?

Tudvad: As I far as I know, this is the first comprehensive look at the way people – theologians, philosophers, politicians, publishers, authors, etc. – described the Jews in the so-called Golden Age in Denmark (i.e., Danish romanticism). Of course you may find quite a few articles about aspects of this topic, e.g. the “eternal” or “wandering Jew” as a literary figure, but I’m quite sure that until now nobody tried to see all of it as parts of one single question, the Jewish question (even though it was seldom addressed in exactly this way, there certainly was a continuous discussion in Denmark of the Jews and their position in the Danish society, in particular in relation to the church and Christianity as the dominant religion).

I try, in my book, to trace the sources of the question in order to identify possible agendas which might reveal things like that, for example, a political discussion, underneath the surface, is in fact a cultural or theological one. The best work on some of these matters is no doubt professor Martin Schwarz Lausten’s thorough study of the relation between the Christians and Jews in Denmark from 1814 to 1849, i.e. from the formal equation of Christians and Jews in civic matters until Jews were accorded full civil rights in the first free constitution. I rely naturally very much on this excellent work.

Piety: Reviews, or at least articles about the book began to appear before the book did itself. How did people get word of the book’s appearance? Did the publisher send out review copies in advance of the book’s release?

Tudvad: As I just told you, a newspaper published an interview with me about the book about three weeks before the book appeared. Shortly after that, a PDF file of the book was sent to the major newspapers and handed over to the reviewers. We had some troubles with the printing of the book, thus a copy of the book itself was not posted until about a week before the publication on Nov 9. The reviewers naturally did not interfere in the row, which would have discredited them as reviewers. Nobody among the many persons who spoke out on the case had had the opportunity to read the book, except one who – if I am not wrong – all of a sudden stopped commentating on it, after he had received it, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn. I made the publisher send him a copy in advance although he was naturally not supposed to review it. I just thought that he might change his mind if he took a close look at the book, i.e. return to his original point of view.

Piety: Do you think Kierkegaard was anti-Semitic? If so, in what sense?

Tudvad: Yes, I do. Sure he was not a kind of anti-Semite as the Nazis. He hated any kind of collectivism, and he would certainly not have participated in the pogrom in 1938. Nevertheless, I published my book on November 9, i.e. on the anniversary of the Kristallnacht in 1938, but my point was, that anti-Semitism and pogroms are not exclusively a German phenomenon. We had one, a pogrom, in Denmark in 1819 too, which was so severe that the king had to declare Copenhagen, his capital, in a state of emergency. The city was under a curfew for several weeks, and the military patrolled the streets of Copenhagen. Nobody was killed, thanks to the king and the military, but many Jews were injured, their houses vandalized, and a lot of rioters sentenced to prison. Before the pogrom in 1819 we had experienced a long period of literary attacks on the Jews, something which, so to speak, fertilized the ground for the physical attacks. My point is, that Danes are not less disposed to anti-Semitism than Germans, Poles, Russians or any other peoples, and that words are not harmless. So, Kierkegaard’s words are not harmless either. Some Danish Nazis actually referred to him in 1940 as their ally against the Jews.

(I will post the rest of my interview with Tudvad on Friday.)

 

 

Interview with Peter Tudvad

As I mentioned last week, Peter Tudvad was in New York recently doing research for his forthcoming book on Bonhoeffer. He graciously consented to be interviewed about the controversy surrounding his new book on Kierkegaard and anti-Semitism. The first part of that interview is below. I will post the second part next week.

Piety: Not much is known in the English-speaking world about the controversy over your new book. Can you give a brief summary of it?

Tudvad: That might be difficult as the row lasted for about two months, and was very intense. A newspaper, Berlingske Tidende, published an interview with me about three weeks before the book was actually published. The reporter was shocked by the quotations I had included in the preface, which I let him see, such as Kierkegaard writing that the Jews were typically usurers and as such bloodthirsty, that they had a penchant for money (due to an abstract character, as Kierkegaard supposes), and that they dominated the Christians. As I told the reporter, Kierkegaard was of the opinion that the Jews would eventually kill the European Christians – something which he wrote in an entry in his diary, but which was omitted from the Hong’s translation, I guess on purpose – and that they had an extraordinary sexual appetite and thus many children. They were, according to Kierkegaard, mundane and had no real spirit, no quest for the eternal bliss.

Never mind, the former head of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center at the University of Copenhagen, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, was interviewed too for the very same edition of the newspaper, and he actually agreed with me that what Kierkegaard had said about the Jews was something which we today must term antisemitism. He agreed, too, that the reason that we have seldom discussed this aspect of his theology might be that we were afraid of damaging his image, his reputation, thus losing the prostrate respect many have for one of the few internationally renowned Danish authors. Nevertheless, the day after, in another newspaper, Cappelørn said the opposite. Many other people seemed to be offended by my labelling Kierkegaard as an antisemite and began polemicising against me without ever having read my book. Especially theologians were eager to make the case smaller than I think it is, saying that it was only in entries in Kierkegaard’s private diary that he wrote bad things about the Jews – which, by the way, is not true, even though I don’t see why we should not discuss his “private” antisemitism, when we have discussed so many other “private” aspects of his thoughts. His diaries have always been considered a key to the understanding of his published works, so if one, for example, with the help of his entries can link his antisemitisme with his theology, and vice versa, I think we really ought to discuss the problem seriously

The rest of the interview with Tudvad will appear next week.

More on Kierkegaard and Anti-Semitism: The Importance of Historical Context

Once upon a time, before Julia Watkin left Denmark for Tasmania, she and Grethe Kjær used to hold “kaffe aftener” (coffee evenings) for all the foreign, and occasionally also some of the local, Kierkegaard scholars in Copenhagen. The famous Ukranian Kierkegaard scholar, Gregor Malantschuk used to live with Grethe and her husband, so Grethe would sometimes tell stories about Malantschuk, The one that stood out in my mind concerned Malantschuk’s childhood in the Ukraine. I think it had something to do with how badly Ukrainians were treated by Russians. I don’t remember now. What I remember was Grethe’s remark that something like a third of the children Malanschuk had gone to school with had been Russian, a third Ukrainian and a third “Jewish.”

I was immediately taken aback by that remark. “Weren’t the Jewish children also either Ukrainian or Russian?” I asked. Judaism, after all, was a religion, not a place. Of course I knew that Jews had not always been accorded all the privileges of citizenship in the countries where they lived. I didn’t really understand until then, however, how ingrained was the thinking of many Europeans that Jews were a people apart, that they would always be a people apart no matter what the law said.

I don’t mean to suggest that Grethe was anti-Semitic. She never said anything else, in my memory, that would remotely suggest such a thing. I’m sure she was just repeating Malantschuk’s own description of the makeup of students in his classes.  Neither do I mean to suggest that Malantschuk was anti-Semitic. He may have been, of course; I simply don’t know. I’ve never heard that he was though, so I’d like to think he was not.

This brings up an issue, however, that continues to preoccupy Danish journalists: What constitutes anti-Semitism? If speaking about Jews as if they had no nationality, no ethnic heritage, other than a religious one (as if that could make any kind of sense) was acceptable in polite circles during a certain period in history, does that mean it was not anti-Semitic? Does it mean that absolutely everyone always spoke this way, and that no one, not even a Jew, was offended by it? That seems implausible to me. There were opponents of slavery, after all, even when it was still a socially accepted institution. That it was socially acceptable to use racist epithets does not mean that they weren’t racist, or that absolutely everyone used them and that no one was offended by them.

People have been arguing that Kierkegaard’s apparently anti-Semitic remarks have to be placed in their historical context. That’s true, of course. Everything has to be placed in its historical context to be properly understood. Well, here’s a little background from Peter Tudvad’s book on the historical context of Kierkegaard’s remarks. Anti-Semitism, as I observed in an earlier post, was so virulent in Denmark in Kierkegaard’s time that the literary attack on the Jews that began in 1813 was followed by a series of riots and physical attacks on Jews in 1819.  It’s clear, however, that most Danes were not involved in the violence. What is even more encouraging is the fact that it became illegal in August of 1813 to refer to Jews as “Jews.” They were to be referred to in official documents as “adherents of the Mosaic faith.” This suggests, unfortunately, that the literary feud had become so ugly that “Jew” had become a racist epithet. (Here it is perhaps important to note, in relation to my post from 1/7, that racism, as such, far predates Darwin.  Many ancient peoples had, in fact, a pronounced tendency to think that they were the only fully human beings and that other peoples, while they might look human, were not.) The positive aspect of this change in Danish law was that, as Tudvad observes, it sent a clear message to the Danish people where the king stood on the Jewish question. “In the same spirit,” writes Tudvad, “the king gave Jews full civic equality, and thus the same protections under the law as were enjoyed by Christians, on the 29th of March 1814” (pp. 33-34).

That is the context in which Kierkegaard made statements about Jews that were so offensive that, according to Johnny Kondrup, a scholar at the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen, the statements were omitted from the English translations of Kierkegaard that were done in the 1970s and ‘80s (“Var Kierkegaard Antisemit? Berlingske Tidende, 26 October 2010. This article is unfortunately not online, but I have a scan of it that I can email anyone who would like to read it).

Yes indeed, Kierkegaard made what would today be considered some pretty offensive anti-Semitic remarks. I’ll confess to you that I am still holding out hope that there is some way of interpreting those remarks that will save Kierkegaard from the charge of anti-Semitism. I’m not certain, however, that placing them in their historical context is going to be enough.