“There are limits to enlightenment”

Historian and political scientist Julius H. Schoeps celebrates June 1st his 80th birthday. In the interview, he looks at his projects and current tasks, the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, anti-Semitism, restoration of cultural values ​​and the Ukraine war.

Sir. Schoeps, which of your numerous projects have been the most important to you from today’s perspective?
It’s hard to answer because each project had its own appeal. There was the Salomon Ludwig Steinheim Institute for German-Jewish History in Duisburg, the Jewish Museum in Vienna, the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European Jewish Studies in Potsdam, and the Moses Mendelssohn Academy in Halberstadt. These are all foundations that I have tried.

Which of these tasks did you particularly like to take care of, or which one is closest to you?
At the moment it is probably Halberstadt. We currently have five houses on the site, which have been restored and remodeled. The Berend Lehmann Museum of Jewish History and Culture is now housed in the community mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath. This is a very attractive story, for one of the origins of German Jewry lies here in this area: Halberstadt, Braunschweig, the Seesen with the Temple of Jacob, the first Reform Synagogue in the world, and also Wolfenbüttel. The Moses Mendelssohn Foundation acquired the former Samson School there.

The former Jewish school, whose graduates from the 19th century included the co-founder of Reform Judaism, Leopold Zunz, and which closed in 1928.
Yes. The school is currently under renovation. A student housing and a documentation center will be built.

“The legacy of Moses Mendelssohn is very important to me and has shaped my life.”

Your ancestors include the philosopher and enlightener Moses Mendelssohn. What does this legacy mean to you?
This is very important and has shaped my life: Mendelssohn’s philosophy of enlightenment, the idea of ​​tolerance and his famous saying “Seek truth, love beauty, want the good, do the best – that is human destiny” – this saying is a leitmotif in my life life. The Moses Mendelssohn Foundation, which I currently lead, has built more than 20 student residences in Germany and Austria named after various people from German-Jewish history. This is a form of remembrance and memorial service. And this phrase by Mendelssohn is attached to each of these houses. I very much hope that every student housed there will remember this phrase.

You wrote a book about the “myth” about Prussia. And you once said that as a Berliner you were alienated from the region during your time in the Rhineland.
That was my gut feeling. I lived in the Rhineland for 20 years, but it was not the region where I felt particularly comfortable. My family comes from Berlin and Brandenburg and I have always been attracted there. It has to do with language, culture and landscape, which are formative.

Did you write the book Prussia as a result of this sense of belonging?
Maybe it’s influence from my father, Hans-Joachim Schoeps, who was a historian and studied Prussian history. I do not want to rule that out.

In 2020, you received the Cross of Merit for your services to the relationship between Jews and non-Jews.
I have always been interested in the history of the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, between Jews and Christians. It’s something I’ve been interested in all my life, and I’ve written several books on the subject. Recently I published “In the struggle for freedom – the Jews of Prussia in Vormärz and in the revolution of 1848”. These are the questions that interest me.

“Anti-Semitism is on the rise again. That worries me a lot. ”

From your point of view, how is the coexistence between Jews and non-Jews in Germany today?
This is very problematic at the moment. Anti-Semitism is on the rise again. That worries me a lot.

What does it take to curb anti-Semitism?
There is only one way: enlighten, enlighten and enlighten. Everyone should know that there are limits to education. For everyone who has a prejudice is very happy with this prejudice and does not want to be freed from it at all. It’s one of the big problems bothering me at the moment and I’m considering how to deal with it right now. I think we’ll have to come to terms with it.

Another issue that concerns you is restitution, that is, the return of stolen or expropriated cultural property to the rightful owners or heirs under National Socialism. Where is Germany today?
There is still a lot to do. I have long called for a restitution law, and I really hope that the current government will do something about it. Recovery of Nazi looted art is very difficult. Some museums have trouble restoring paintings from their possession to the previous owners or their heirs.

Against this background, what significance does the “Schwabinger art find” have around Cornelius Gurlitt from 2013?
The Washington Declaration has existed since 1998. In general, restitution cases are discussed again and again – only the public interest in these cases is waning. It’s very unfortunate.

The Gurlitt case, for example, was in the public eye for a long time.
What happened then was not pretty. Nor that Gurlitt’s legacy went to the Art Museum Bern. At that time, the German side could have done more. Whereby Cornelius Gurlitt was shown a part: the confiscation of the collection and that he was taken to court. It should have been approached a little differently. It should also not be forgotten that only a few pictures in the collection can be considered ‘looted art’.

“I wanted more common sense and Putin’s Russia’s will to end the war.”

Let’s finally look at Eastern Europe to Ukraine. The war is raging again in Europe. In your opinion, how could it be concluded as a historian and political scientist, and what conclusions should Europe draw from this?
Decades of peaceful coexistence are apparently over. I am very concerned about what is happening in Ukraine at the moment. Something has slipped. Geopolitical considerations and questions of power play the crucial role. I wanted more common sense and Putin’s Russia’s will to end the war. It would be desirable for politicians in Russia and Ukraine to approach each other and seek a solution to the conflict that is acceptable to both sides. The military is in charge at the moment. And it can not be.

What could this solution look like?
People’s right to self-determination applies without exception. If the Ukrainians want to join the EU and NATO – then so be it. It is their decision, not Mr Putin’s decision in Moscow.

Interview with the founder of the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies at the University of Potsdam and CEO at the Moses Mendelssohn Foundation, led by Leticia Witte.

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