Three Smart Jews: “What if three smart German Jews in the nineteenth century had taken different paths?”
So begins “Secrets of Genius,” an 88-page exploration by U.S. News & World Report of “three minds that shaped the twentieth century”: Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Karl Marx.
The “Special Collector’s Edition,” put out by Mortimer Zuckerman, editor in chief of U.S. News — and outgoing chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — offers a study in editorial judgment on how to portray historical figures such as Freud, Einstein and Marx — intellectual giants who, as Susan Headden writes in the introduction, have “earned the status of cultural icons, membership in the vernacular, the right to be subjects of both T-shirt designs and rarefied dissertations.”
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‘Conqueror of the Mind’: Sigismund Schlomo Freud, born in the Moravian countryside in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before moving to Vienna at age 4, was certainly smart and Jewish — but not German. This Freudian slip, the psychoanalyst might have said, is indicative of editorial countertransference: The characterization of Freud, Einstein and Marx as smart German Jews reveals an unconscious desire to form a cohesive narrative based on common ancestry.
Freud, who among other works authored “Moses and Monotheism,” “could hardly have been further from being a pious Jew, but his Jewish identity was strong,” Marianne Szegedy-Maszak writes. For Freud, “being a Jew was to be a member of an oppressed and significant minority.”
While “Secrets of Genius” places Judaism at the center of Freud’s development, the enduring legacy of his psychoanalytic work is contested among the authors of the collector’s edition. In the introduction, Headden argues that the Viennese’s vision “survive[s], to some degree, in failure.… Freud has been denounced as misguided, wrongheaded — even a quack — and some of his theories have been refuted by medical science.”
But as a cultural figure, Susan Brink argues, the father of psychoanalysis is omnipresent. “Over the past 100 years, Freudian notions of the subconscious have become so ingrained in the collective American psyche that anyone watching even a distorted portrayal of psychotherapy — as commonly seen on television and in the movies — has at least some understanding of the therapeutic process.”
Whether as debunked psychoanalyst or as father of the popular consciousness, Freud’s place in the modern era is perhaps best described by Szegedy-Maszak: “In Freud we find the tangled impulses of a century defined by search — for the nature of the universe on a distant lip of dark energy; for the elusive fulfillment of spiritual disciplines; for the self-improvement in how-to manuals on gardening or sex or even happiness.”
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‘Locksmith of the Universe’: Albert Einstein was indeed a German Jew, though his smarts were not immediately recognized by his teachers, one of whom famously predicted that “he would never get anywhere in life.”
For everyone from struggling students to proponents of nuclear disarmament, Thomas Hayden writes, “the lionized Einstein cuts a comforting figure: a gentle genius, as benevolent as he was intelligent — almost a scientific Santa. But the more we see that image, the less we seem to know about the real Einstein and the work that made him famous.”
The work that made the physicist famous, of course, is his theory of relativity, represented by the equation E=mc2. Einstein’s scientific legacy, though, also includes revolutionary work on waves — for which he won his Nobel Prize — molecular kinetics and light quanta (which paved the way for quantum physics, the science that has given us an understanding of everything from plant photosynthesis to Pentium computer processors).
“Secrets of Genius” dutifully catalogs Einstein’s involvement in founding the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, campaigning for Zionism and helping refugees flee the Nazis, and how his encounters with antisemitism in both Germany and the United States strongly reinforced his social-justice activism. But the collector’s edition fails to compile his social and political work into a “Unified Jewish Einstein Theory,” an ironic editorial judgement given that the physicist spent his life searching for a Unified Field Theory,
Of the “smart German Jewish” triumvirate, Headden writes, Einstein’s legacy is the most intact. The same cannot be said, Vicky Hallet writes, of the synapses that recharted the physical world. “The bulk of the great physicist’s brain is floating in a jar of formaldehyde at the Princeton University hospital. A piece resides in a purple tea tin in Osaka, Japan. Samples sit in a box in a Berkeley, Calif., laboratory. And Thomas S. Harvey, the pathologist who performed the autopsy on the scientist in 1955, still keeps a few slivers of the organ at his home in Titusville, N.J.”
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‘Catalyst for Revolution’: Karl Marx’s bona fides as a smart German are unassailable, given his intellectual accomplishments and marriage to a Prussian aristocrat’s daughter. Judaism’s influence on his life’s work, however, is unclear at best.
Born to parents who both descended from long lines of rabbis, Marx converted to Christianity at age 6 along with his seven siblings. Shortly before the birth of the future father of communism, Marx’s father Hirschel Levi converted and changed his name to Heinrich Marx for better business prospects.
Marx himself “was perpetually short of money,” Lewis Lord writes, “because he refused to live as the proletariat did.” The author of the seminal works “The Communist Manifesto” and “Das Kapital” failed to captivate the imagination of the workers of the world whom he was trying to unite, and “only an aberration saved Marx from the dustbin of history.”
That aberration was the arrival of communism in Russia, a feudal country that Marx had said must first experience capitalism before adopting his proletarian principles. The premature implementation of Marx’s ideology led to the deaths of untold millions, staining his legacy in the minds of many Westerners. “Marxism, at one time the guiding political force for more than a third of the world’s population, has been discredited by its association with communism,” Headden writes.
It is worth recalling, Anna Mulrine counters, that Marx intended not to launch genocidal dictatorships, but rather to empower working people. “The regimes were certainly far from the idyllic world that Marx had vaguely envisioned.”
While “Secrets of Genius” offers a generous evaluation of Marx’s goals, it conspicuously ignores his democratic heirs in the European social-democratic movement, who have most successfully translated his original ideals into reality by creating a humane socialism that continues to make news everywhere but the United States.
When Marxism does make headlines in the United States, it is often in reference to leftist students protesting the policies of “the American empire.” “As long as capitalism persists, argued Marx, there will be poverty and war,” Joannie Fischer writes. “Likewise, as long as poverty and war persist, it seems, there will be Marx — and young activists who hail him.”