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The Biases of Heinrich Graetz

In a previous post we mentioned the biases of the great historian Heinrich Graetz. I wanted to quote from two important historians who illustrate one of the most important aspects of critical scholarship, the constant need to reevaluate previous scholarship and to always try and refine research and methodology. I am bringing these selections less to criticize Graetz than to show that critical scholarship is a continuous enterprise of rethinking former beliefs and theories. The first is from Alexander Marx, one of the most important scholars of Jewish history and bibliography from the early 20th century.

“The author has his pronounced prejudices to which he gives unrestricted vent. He has e.g., no sympathy with and no understanding for mysticism, and the mere fact that any writer is mystically inclined is in his eyes a sufficient warrant for condemning him. He equally dislikes Polish Judaism, and Polish Jews, as a rule, find no favor in his eyes, whatever be their merits.”
(Marx, 13)

Some decades after Marx, Salo Baron had the following to say,

“[Graetz] also paid relatively little attention to large areas of Jewish history, including the history of the Jews in Poland, Russia and Turkey. In general he interpreted the history of the Jews in the Diaspora almost exclusively in terms of ‘history of sufferings and scholars’ and hence paid little attention to economic and social history…With extreme subjectivism, he indulged in sharp condemnations of movements within and outside Judaism which he disliked, such as later Christianity, German nationalist trends, Kabbalah, Hasidism, and the Reform movement…

…At first Graetz’s History enjoyed little recognition. His old friend Samson Raphael Hirsch published in Jeschurun (1855-56) a series of sharp attacks on the fourth volume [i.e. from the German edition, MM], which he described as ‘a piece of fantasy derived from superficial combinatory mannerisms.’ Less surprisingly, Abraham Geiger assailed the work as containing ‘stories but no history.’ Moritz Steinschneider, too, criticized it sharply and even accused Graetz of constant plagiarism. Graetz replied in various periodicals, as well as in later volumes of his History, adding many critical asides on his predecessors, Isaac Markus Jost and Leopold Zunz.”
(Baron, 267-8)

Graetz was undoubtedly one of the most important historians of the Jewish people in the modern era, yet no scholar is beyond reproach and immune from legitimate criticism.


Alexander Marx, “Aims and Tasks of Jewish Historiography”, in Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, no. 26, 1918.
Salo Baron, History and Jewish Historians, 1964.

One Response to “The Biases of Heinrich Graetz”

  1. 1
    Menachem Mendel:

    See Reckless Rites by Horowitz where he discusses other biases and collects some of the criticism of Graetz.
    Dan Rabinowitz | Homepage | 04.28.06 – 9:34 am | #

    Yes, you can find Rav Hirsch’s criticism of Graetz’s volume IV of the “History of the Jews” in “The Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch” volume III. Graetz, by the way, published volume IV, which is about Jewish antiquity because he felt it demarcated the Jewish persona for two thousands years thereafter. But some kudos do go to Graetz. He was an awesome historian. Nobody is perfect.
    Shimshon Ayzenberg | Homepage | 04.28.06 – 2:09 pm | #

    Interestingly, the first critique of Graetz’s biases that I ever read was in . . . The Chosen, by Chaim Potok.

    Go figure.
    jdub | 04.28.06 – 5:32 pm | #

    Is this the same Marx who wrote about Chassidus after joining the movement? I read his book on Chassidim but unfortunately only the censored version. Is the full one available?

    You failed to mention Halevi in Doros Harishonim who gets to be quite colourful in his criticisms on Graetz and others historians he considers either biased or amei ho’oretz.
    david g. | Homepage | 04.30.06 – 8:21 pm | #

    This is Alexander Marx who was the son-in-law of David Tzvi Hoffman and later the librarian at JTS. Whenever speaking about Graetz it is important to remember that the English edition of his “History” is approximately 1/5 shorter than the German version and contains none of the footnotes from the German edition. Also, there were a number of editions to the German edition and in later ones Graetz changed some things and responded to some of his critics. From a scholarly perspective apparently the Russian and Hebrew editions are better than the English one.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 04.30.06 – 10:02 pm | #

    I read Graetz as a teenager in Hebrew as it was the only edition available at the Sao Paulo Jewish center, Congregacao Israelita Paulista. Ii have not seen it since except when referred to.
    david g. | Homepage | 05.01.06 – 3:53 am | #

    You are thinking of Marcus who wrote the book on Chassidus and the full version was never translated from German. The hebrew version of Graetz is valuable for Harkavy’s notes.
    andy | 05.01.06 – 7:45 pm | #

    Yes, the Hebrew (I can’t speak for the Russian) retain almost all of the original. However, the English, and there are two editions of that, are more abridged. One edition is significantly abridged while the other is less so, but still missing portions. Also the Hebrew includes the notes of Shepher (Saul Pinchas Rabinowich) which add considerable value. Although, to be fair these also, at times, demonstrates a bises and present some problems of scholarship.
    Dan Rabinowitz | Homepage | 05.02.06 – 3:37 pm | #

    In the article which I cited by Marx, although he acknowledges the shortcomings of Graetz’s History, he feels that no better groundwork existed for a comprehensive Jewish history so it should be updated and reworked by later scholars. This is similar to what happened to Emil Schurer’s The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. I guess that Marx shouldn’t be held guity for not anticipating Baron’s monumental work.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 05.02.06 – 5:01 pm | #




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