Jakob Wassermann: About Success and the Illusion of Belonging – A German-Jewish Career
Today we would like to introduce you to one of the most popular German-Jewish writers of the early 20th century, Jakob Wassermann (1873 – 1934). Born the son of a shopkeeper in the German provincial town of Fürth in 1873, his career as a highly successful author took him to cultural centres such as Munich and Vienna, and led him to ultimately settle in a beautiful lakeside villa in the Austrian resort of Altaussee. This charming little town was at the time a very popular destination for artists, intellectuals and writers and counted Theodor Herzl, Sigmund Freud and Hugo von Hofmannsthal among its regular visitors. Jakob Wassermann’s circle also included famous literary figures such as Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke.
Wassermann was not only one of the most popular writers of his times, he was also notable for his remarkable productivity. His impressive oeuvre encompasses over 30 novellas, historical novels, plays, poetry and critical essays, i.e. Melusine (1896) and Caspar Hauser (1908).
His breakthrough came with Das Gänsemännchen (The Goose Man, 1915) which is one of the few of Wassermann’s works translated into English. This novel about an aspiring composer was published by the renowned S. Fischer Verlag, Berlin. The S. Fischer Verlag, founded by the Jewish bookseller and journalist Samuel Fischer in 1886, was one of the most established German publishing houses of its time. Among other things, it is credited with the introduction of English authors such as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw to a German audience. Wassermann’s Gänsemännchen was also part of the S. Fischer Verlag’s Feldbücherei (Field Library of the German Army in WWI) and this pocket book edition was taken to the frontline in the backpack of many a German soldier.
In Wassermann’s very famous and much debated autobiographical text Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude (My Path as a German and a Jew, 1921) he expressed deep concerns over anti-Semitism as a constant threat to the successful integration of Jews into the social fabric of German society. Despite his own considerable professional achievements, Wassermann remained doubtful about the stability of his position and pointed to patterns of exclusion that, in his opinion, could not be overcome.
His autobiographical text is one of the key sources allowing us to explore the experiences of German Jews in the early 20th century. It exposes the inherent challenge of living in two very different realities at the same time. On the one hand, the Weimar Republic offered German Jews new political, social and cultural opportunities, yet on the other, they were confronted with a significant rise in anti-Semitic violence that they had not experienced in late Imperial Germany.
The rise of the Nazis brought Wassermann’s impressive career to a quick and brutal end. His books were banned and publicly burned in 1933. Jakob Wassermann died of a heart attack shortly after that and his work faded into oblivion for decades.
The Leo Baeck Institute London is in possession of a festive collection of essays about Jakob Wassermann, published by his native town of Fürth to commemorate his 100th birthday in 1973. This extremely interesting document is an early example of the grass-roots interest in German-Jewish history that emerged in West Germany in the 1970s. The book contains a biography of the author and a range of articles discussing different aspects of Wassermann’s life and work. In 1995, the town established the Jakob-Wassermann-Literaturpreis, a generously funded literary prize that honours authors who write against anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Other than commemorating Fürth’s famous son, this award also serves as a testimony to remind the public of his challenging experiences as a German Jew, experiences which still reverberate today.
The second edition of Fürth’s commemorative volume on Jakob Wassermann was published 50 years after his death in 1984. The book is part of the collection of historical pamphlets within the Leo Baeck Institute London’s specialist library on German-Jewish history and culture, which can be accessed via the library at Queen Mary University of London. Furthermore, we also hold a copy of the first edition of Wassermann’s famous book Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude.
Jakob Wassermann’s villa on the shore of Lake Altaussee, Austria (Image courtesy of Bernhard Holub)
The Goose Man by Jakob Wassermann, originally published in 1915
Jakob Wassermann, Thomas Mann and Samuel Fischer in St. Moritz, 1931 (Image courtesy of Thomas-Mann-Archiv, ETH Zürich)
Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude by Jakob Wassermann, published 1921 (Image courtesy of the German Historical Institute Washington, D.C.)
Commemorative volume celebrating Jakob Wassermann’s 100th birthday, published by the City of Fürth