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Peter Tudvad on Kierkegaard’s anti-Semitism

December 18, 2011

4221503-foto-af-peter-tudvadThere has reportedly been a hot controversy over the last year in Denmark, thanks to Peter Tudvad’s book examining the anti-Semitism of Kierkegaard. Below is a transcript of an interview that M[arilyn] G. Piety (Drexel) had with Peter Tudvad, as published in her blog (parts 1, 2, 3).

(HT:  Alan Brill and Alan Brill)

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 anti-Semitism. 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 labeling Kierkegaard as an anti-Semite and began polemicizing 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” anti-Semitism, 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 anti-Semitism with his theology, and vice versa, I think we really ought to discuss the problem seriously.

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 Judaism 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.

Piety: Were there anti-Semitic remarks in Kierkegaard’s published works or only in unpublished ones such as his journals?

Tudvad: Most of his anti-Semitic remarks are in his journals but quite a few can be found in his published works too. But I don’t think that it is really appropriate to distinguish between these to parts of his authorship as he himself did not doubt that his diaries too would be published after his death. He even had a title for them: “The Book of the Judge”.

Piety: Has anyone advanced an argument that Kierkegaard was not anti-Semitic that is based on anything other than the claim that Kierkegaard’s remarks have to be placed in their historical context?

Tudvad: Yes, several have argued that anti-Semitism is a notion which was not defined until a couple of decades after Kierkegaard’s death, thus, he can not be labeled an anti-Semite. Others have argued that anti-Semitism is a purely racist concept, and that Kierkegaard almost never defines the Jews as a race. But today, in dictionaries of contemporary Danish, you do not define anti-Semitism as something purely racist, but rather as a hostile attitude towards Jews.

Piety: The English theologian George Pattison actually admitted in his article “Søren Kierkegaard was neither better nor worse than his times” that he had not read your book. Is that right?

Tudvad: Yes. – ”Neither better nor worse!” He was surely not worse than some people, and surely not better than quite a few liberal politicians, the ones who fought at the same time for a free constitution that would guarantee freedom of religion. Now, is it really a relevant argument that somebody, and especially one who is considered a genius and far ahead of his contemporaries, was neither better nor worse than his times? Would you excuse somebody living in Germany in the 1930’s or 1940’s the same way?

Piety: How many other people who published articles claiming that Kierkegaard was not anti-Semitic had actually read your book? How many admitted that they had not read it?

Tudvad: Until recently none of my critics had read the book but nobody did – without being explicitly asked – admit that they had not read the book. That does not mean that they pretended they had read the book, only that nobody seemed to care about having read the book or not. The conclusion was given: Kierkegaard was not an anti-Semite. So why read the book?

Piety: What do you think was the biggest problem that critics of the book had with it?

Tudvad: That I made clear a tight link between Kierkegaard’s theology and his anti-Semitism. People seemed to be surprised that anti-Semitism as such has it’s origin in Christianity. Maybe they are sincere, but if they are, they certainly do suffer from a heavy suppression of a historical fact. The Nazis did not invent anti-Semitism, did they?

Piety: Is there anything else you would like to say on this controversy to Anglo-American readers?

Tudvad: Yes, I’m very sad that I was not born in the US, where I could have raised this discussion without being met by so much ignorance and prejudice, so much unwillingness to discuss a rather important aspect of western civilization and the Christian religion.

PietyIn resulting controversy, the official newspaper of the newspaper of the Danish state church has published a defense claiming that even Luther’s “On the Jews and Their Lies” (and presumably, the Nazi holocaust which used Luther’s essay as its blueprint) was not anti-Semitic.  Piety reports:

Just when you thought the debate surrounding Peter Tudvad’s book Stadier på antisemitismens vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (Stages on the Way of Anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) (Rosinante, 2010), had probably died down, it’s actually flared up again. Ole Jørgensen published what has got to be the most bizarre defense of Kierkegaard yet. Jørgensen’s article, “Sjusk med ord. Søren Kierkegaard var ikke antisemit” (Linguistic carelessness. Kierkegaard was not an Anti-Semite) appeared in Monday’s edition of Kristeligt Dagblad (Christian Daily News). The title might lead one to suppose that Kristeligt Dagblad is a relatively obscure paper. It isn’t. Remember, Denmark has a state church. The Danish Lutheran Church is the official church of the Danish people. This undoubtedly explains why Jørgensen took it upon himself to defend not only Kierkegaard, but also Martin Luther against the charge of anti-Semitism. Luther, he asserts, merely “chastens the Jews in his book On the Jews and their Lies.” One might be tempted to conclude from that remark that Jørgensen hasn’t actually read Luther (or Tudvad either since Tudvad quotes extensively from Luther’s works where they bear on the Jews).

It’s not clear whether Jørgensen has seriously studied Luther on this issue. What is clear, however, is that Jørgensen has what one could charitably call a rather idiosyncratic understanding of what constitutes anti-Semitism. He observes, for example, that far from being an anti-Semite, “Kierkegaard even had a Jew in his employ for several years: Israel Levin, who […] was thus able to advance himself, in the manner Jews are so good at, both economically and socially.” That is, Jørgensen apparently does not see the generalization that Jews are particularly good at advancing themselves economically and socially as in any way anti-Semitic, which is bizarre given such a generalization buys into stereotypes concerning Jews and money, and that there is hardly a worse crime in the eyes of the Danes than social climbing.

Jørgensen observes that “[o]ne should use some other word than ‘anti-Semitism’” to apply to Kierkegaard. “[I]t was more Kierkegaard’s [religious] zeal,” he continues, “that led him to rein in [lægge mundbidslet på] these occasionally mischievous [frække] Jews.”

It wasn’t merely Kierkegaard, or even Luther, who felt it necessary, according to Jørgensen, to “rein in,” or “chasten” the Jews. Christ himself, observes Jørgensen, “pulls no punches” (lægges der virkelig ikke fingre imellem) when he “says to the Jews: ‘You are of your father the devil and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and a father of lies’” (John 8:44).

“See how closely,” asserts Jørgensen, “lies and murder are connected with each other–both with the Jews and with Hitler. The lies of the Jews crucified Christ. Hitler’s lies murdered six million Jews.” Jørgensen’s digression on what he claims is the connection between lies and murder is not merely a stylistic flaw in his piece; his attempt to use this purported connection to draw an analogy between the Jews and Hitler suggests he may be suffering from some sort of cognitive disorder. How could anyone trot out the stereotype of the Jews as “Christ killers” (a stereotype so offensive that even the pope was forced recently to officially repudiate it) in an article that purports to defend someone, anyone, against the charge of anti-Semitism?

“Søren Kierkegaard was not an anti-Semite,” concludes Jørgensen, “That’s a careless us of language and an [attempt to] exploit Kierkegaard’s good name for personal gain.” That is, Kierkegaard was no more an anti-Semite than Luther was, or than Jørgense’s “careless use of language” make him appear to be. Wow, that puts a whole new spin on the expression “damning with faint praise.” It makes the textbook example of “For a fat girl, you don’t sweat much,” seem positively considerate!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2011 9:31 pm

    Theophrastus and the rest of BLT,
    You need to fix your icon/avatar to appear when you link to another blog. Right now your pingbacks have no image. There is a wordpress setting that quickly takes care of it but I forgot the instructions to set them out here. You also may want to upload different icons for each author.


  2. December 19, 2011 2:04 pm

    Alan, thanks for your comment.

    You are absolutely correct. There is an option to set a favicon in Dashboard->Settings->General — it is in the right-hand column and is called “Blog Picture / Icon”

    Now we’ll need to have a group discussion on what the blog image should be.

  3. December 19, 2011 5:40 pm

    it worked- you now have an image on my page.

  4. December 26, 2011 3:25 pm

    Typo: “Their Lives” –> “Their Lies”

  5. December 26, 2011 3:38 pm

    D, thanks for catching that! Fixed.


  1. Eric Gritsch: “Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism” « BLT

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