Monday, September 21, 2020

Alive and Kicking

Berlin-based Rixdorf Editions continues to establish itself as the premier publisher of Wilhelminia in English translation. Although a streak of social conservatism marks the reign of German Emperor Wilhelm II, which lasted from 1890 until the end of World War I, an undercurrent of progressivism coupled with a razor-edged avant garde ensures that Rixdorf’s catalog somehow still manages to feel like it’s ahead of its time.

Rixdorf’s most recent addition is James J. Conway’s translation of Austrian critic Hermann Bahr’s Antisemitism. Originally published in 1894, this is the first time it has been translated into English. The book is a collection of Bahr’s interviews with contemporary politicians and intellectuals on the topic that was experiencing its pre-Nazi zenith. Despite the force of Bahr’s critical work (art and literary criticism, dramaturgy, and essays) and the pervasiveness of his creative work (journalism, interviews, plays, short stories, and novels) across a life that spanned seventy years, few of his writings have been translated into English. This publication begins to correct more than a century of neglect by the English-speaking world.

Conway, who impeccably captures the original’s literary qualities, says it was the text’s sense of place that first caught his attention and made him want to translate it. From the eloquence of its opening paragraph, the reader can immediately appreciate that sense of place that Bahr’s book offers:

Hohenzollernstrasse, wide, white and empty, leads to the long, long street that borders the Tiergarten. Your footsteps echo and there is not a human sound to be heard. Only on the corner is there a shrivelled, scrawny woman selling wilting yellow stalks as though they were actual flowers (12).
Conway provides plenty of notes detailing the histories and biographies behind even the simplest of passages. In this example, he informs us that Hohenzollernstrasse was renamed Hiroshimastrasse in 1990 and currently runs through Berlin’s embassy district. Such details establish necessary contexts and equip readers with meaningful frames of reference.

The book’s original German title (Der Antisemitismus: Ein internationales Interview) effectively combined and gave currency to the then novel terms antisemitism, internationalism, and the new journalistic genre of the interview. At the time, Bahr’s use of the interview format was groundbreaking, and if even only for its historical significance in the history of journalism, the translation provides a critical resource. But it is its contribution to the vast field of Holocaust studies, offering a historical context of Europe before the rise of Nazism, that proves to be most significant. Antisemitism records a period of history in which millennia-old religious hatred and bigotry were being weaponized by virulent strains of nationalism and racist pseudoscience, and it’s telling how many of those interviewed interpret and dismiss antisemitism as a mere economic problem under the pretexts of religion and nationalism.

Bahr’s conversation with leftwing parliamentarian August Bebel, who founded German’s Social Democrat movement, provides a good example among several others. Bebal argues:
The true adherents of antisemitism, the small traders and the small landowners, are not entirely wrong from their point of view. It is largely in the figure of the Jew that they encounter capital. In Hesse and other parts of south-western Germany, … mortgages are in the hands of the Jews and in every market the buyers of agricultural products are Jews. As a result, the negative effects of capitalism always appear in the guise of the Jew, and of course it is natural that these classes, who are not given to pondering the capitalist system at length, but rather abide by the forms and experiences in which it confronts them, succumb to antisemitism (25).

Today this kind of economic account seems almost quaint, and it is particularly alarming to see how banally impotent such a diagnosis was and still is in the face of genocidal rhetoric, of which there are also several examples throughout the book.

From French polemicist Henri Rochefort we can hear pre-echoes from the “all lives matter” [sic] faction: “I do not oppose equal rights for Jews, I favour equal rights for others” (159). And from Belgian legal scholar and proud race-baiter Edmond Picard we catch a glimpse of overt racism and xenophobia: “there is great danger in granting liberty to Jews, who have an entirely different psychology, a very different way of thinking and feeling to us, even if they adopt our dress and our customs” (175). The sheer breadth of perspectives is striking, while the ways those perspectives resonate with our current discourse is disquieting.

It is to the translator’s credit that the book maintains such a high degree of readability while still sounding like something written more than 125 years ago. Conway describes the stylistic challenges of translating Bahr’s book as “trying to capture the flavour of conversation between prominent figures of the era, many of them at the top of their rhetorical game, in a way that might have been expressed in the English of the time.” To facilitate the process, he consulted “a few late Victorian texts to get a sense for syntax, register, tone, idioms, especially in dialogue.” He masters the effect of the German while injecting the English with enough verve to keep it from bogging down into a syntactical morass. His stylistic choices become another critical buttress, much like the helpful notes, concise biographical sketches, and meticulous and accessible Afterword he provides, that serves the text well in its new life in English.

From rabid anti-George Soros conspiracies across broad swathes of the Hungarian and American populations to the near-global rise of Holocaust-denying rightwing extremism, antisemitism still manifests as one of the foremost assaults on civil liberties and on liberalism in general. For all of its supposed specificity, antisemitism always appears as but the vanguard of a more general, more savage ethnonationalism. Bahr’s Antisemitism remains the epitome and apex of the modern form of what he calls a “seductive poison” before polemics gave way to a policy of genocide. For this reason alone, his book will continue to be more than just a mere historical curiosity.