Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 June 2019
IT HAS OFTEN been noted that quotes, resonances, and the style of Goethe permeate if not inform the writing of Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929). Viewed as fashionable mannerism in the tradition of bourgeois culture that liberal German Judaism liked to embrace, the adoption of Goethe played an important role in nineteenth-century Jewish cultural life. Serving cultural as well as sociological and political functions, Goethe reception had become a central fixture in the arsenal of a nineteenth- and early twentieth-century culture war, and not just with regard to the positioning of liberal German Jewry. A central asset of the cultural capital backed by Germany's national ambitions, Goethe's stock, however, had not remained uncontested, and his valorization saw occasional fluctuations nervously reacting to the upheaval of an unsteady market. Participating in the Goethe cult could mean many different— and at times opposite—things. Many motives, interests, concerns, and agendas intermingled, but first and foremost, the appropriation of Goethe had become an affair of the liberal bourgeoisie.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Goethe reception had become a matter of particular Jewish interest. Without the salons of Jewish women such as Rachel Varnhagen and the rise of Goethe philology in the late nineteenth century (spearheaded by Jewish scholars such as Michael Bernays and Ludwig Geiger, to name just the exponents among the Jewish Goethe philologists), Goethe reception would be hard to imagine. At the home of Heine's parents, for example, Goethe had become such a towering presence that Heine's father worried: “Wie soll mein Junge aufkommen … wenn man immer und immer nur von Goethe sprechen will?” (How shall my boy succeed if everybody only wants to talk about Goethe all the time). Whereas Goethe had become politically unreliable for many nationally conservative Germans, his cosmopolitan and forward-looking vision of culture and Bildung (education) promised the emancipatory development that German Jews had so eagerly been looking forward to since the days of Moses Mendelssohn. If Goethe had become suspect to conservatives, liberals embraced him as an exponent of a reluctant modernity. In embracing a culturally liberal position, Goethe stood for the combination of the best that German culture had to offer.