Krzysztof Michalski Memorial Lecture: Read the Full Text or Watch the Recording

On 16 June 2023, Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History at Columbia University and member of the IWM Board, delivered this year's Krzysztof Michalski Memorial Lecture. Read the full text and watch the recording below.

Mahler’s Vienna and New York: Reflections on Modernism and Antisemitism

The individual whose name graces this series possessed philosophical depth, exceptional intellectual leadership, and uncommon personal charm, wit, and capacity to forge close friendships. Krzysztof Michalski was a principled pluralist. He opposed structures, ideas, and practices that turn borders into barriers. In homage, I offer this lecture that centers on what the political theorist Istvan Hont designated as “the permanent crisis of a divided mankind.

The discovery of humankind’s great social, cultural, and religious diversity by ancient empires and modern global conquests helped generate the sense of a single collective humanity, the idea that despite many differences others are more like us than not; thus we owe each other a threshold level of neighborliness.

Unfortunately, this inclusive orientation rarely has tamed divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’. When Spartans asked Athenians, “Whom do we judge worthy to be counted as one of us?,” Herodotus recorded their answer to have been, “Those who are the same as us in blood, in language, and in religion. The human community has routinely been split and apportioned, placing many persons outside the ken of respect, or, at times, the right to bare life. Even constitutional democracies distinguished by individual and public rights and the rule of law have been afflicted by partitions separating free persons from slaves, colonizers from the colonized, citizens from aliens, and, my focus tonight, Christians from Jews.

Long sharing a borderland marked by friction, the content of anti-Jewish assertiveness intensified starting in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was in 1850, a decade before Gustav Mahler was born, that Richard Wagner published, Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music). This disturbing text pushed back against the quest by emancipated Jews to join high German cultural life. The pamphlet’s ruthless attack focused especially on Felix Mendelssohn, baptized by parents who had converted. Wagner contended that although “the Jew speaks the language of the nation in whose midst he dwells from generation to generation, he always speaks to it as an alien.” There could be no solution of the Jewish Question, Wagner argued, except the disappearance of Jews from the culture of Europe, about which he used the resonant word undergang, which I understand to connote sinking, decline, downfall, destruction.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Mahler, who often conducted Wagner, led four great cultural organizations: the Court Opera and the Philharmonic in Vienna; across the Atlantic, the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic Society of New York. Mahler’s two cities were singularly multicultural. Each was a city of newcomers; each a great modernist cultural center. Each composed about 7 percent of their country’s population. Each, too, was home to significant proportions of politically emancipated Jews.

In 1900, Jews comprised some 10 percent of Vienna’s population and just over 15 percent of New York’s. Ranging from the traditional to the assimilated, they were native-born and, in larger numbers, newcomers, having arrived in New York primarily from the Pale of Settlement that held millions of Jews and to Vienna principally from Galicia, primarily eastern Galicia, and Bukovina, but also from Hungary, Bohemia, and Moravia. Vienna and New York also were home to more established Jews, principally with German and Spanish backgrounds in New York; Hungarian and Czech in Vienna. Across the class structure, they primarily dwelled in concentrated Jewish neighborhoods.

Unlike circumstances in pre-emancipation settlements, the early 20th century Jews of Vienna and New York, having emerged from rigid social and legal exclusion, could choose, or at least seem to choose, the dimensions and degree of their particularity. As unusually mobile, literate, and not bound to fixed occupations, they engaged modern urban opportunities. Not least because of their achievements, in each city Jews faced no shortage of social, economic, cultural, and theological prejudice and discrimination.

A crucial, ultimately momentous, dissimilarity distinguished these great urban centers despite their many correspondences: the near-absence, the propitious near-absence, of political antisemitism in New York, and the presence, the discomfiting presence, of political antisemitism in Vienna.

Of course, not only Vienna. Across much of Europe, liberalism had spread like wildfire in 1848. In 1860, “the liberals of Austria took their first great stride toward political power in the western portion of the Hapsburg Empire,” and liberals assumed power in Vienna. There and then, Jews experienced both liberalism and religious toleration.

Not for long. By late century, this political culture had weakened. Two quite different, even contradictory, trends intersected. Old regime institutions of monarchy, aristocracy, and church acquired fresh life, and the new dimensions of democracy based on an expanding mass franchise became a live field for demagogues. Political antisemitism—intolerant and illiberal—gained range, intensity, and force by century’s turn, a development reinforced by mobilized political parties and social movements across the ideological spectrum.

During the decades in which Jewish entry into formally equal citizenship unfolded, the spectrum they experienced broadened, ranging from once unimagined opportunity to deepened danger. As members of this once ghettoized group moved and lived more freely within majority Christian societies in Europe and North America, possibilities widened. With the pivotal role played by the existence or the suppression of political antisemitism, prospects for Jews in the West came to extend from unprecedented membership to comprehensive extrusion; ultimately, we painfully know, extrusion that encompassed mass murder.

Political antisemitism represented a defiant refusal, an attempt to reverse the constitutional inclusion of Jews as citizens. This impulse merged older ideas about Jewish failings with eugenicist racism. Rejecting the combination of liberalism and toleration, the leaders of the new antisemitism mounted popular political appeals by generating party propaganda and mobilizing press attention. Their efforts pressured Jewish life, a reality exemplified by Mahler’s vulnerability and exit to New York; and, later, by Alma Mahler Werfel’s more urgent need to take flight from Vichy France to America, a journey she and her husband Franz managed in 1940 with the assistance of Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee, the precursor of today’s International Rescue Committee led by David Miliband.

By contrast, Gustav and Alma Mahler’s New York destination in late 1907 fused a more secure toleration for Jews with the American regime’s persistent liberalism. With this felicitous combination, political antisemitism failed to flourish. As a result, New York’s Jews, including the Mahlers, came to live on a mostly stable intermediate ground, a space flanked, on the one side, by exclusion, and, on the other, by full-scale assimilation. Though tense, this middle location impeded the many anti-Jewish pressures emanating from civil society; pressures, in truth, not very dissimilar in New York from those in Austria. The comparatively fortunate result for American Jews might be called optimal marginality.

Here, then, lies my focused subject, the contrasting status of political antisemitism experienced by Mahler in otherwise parallel Vienna and New York. This comparison invites us to consider more broadly the conditions within which frequently disliked religious, racial, national, and ethnic minorities can achieve a decent and secure status.

Four concepts—modernism, antisemitism, toleration, and liberalism—underpin my consideration. These words possess the qualities identified by the literary critic Raymond Williams in the introduction to his resonant book, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Clarifying his criteria of selection, Williams declared that “Every word which I have included has at some time, in the course of some argument, virtually forced itself on my attention because the problems of its meanings seemed to me inextricably bound up with the problems it was being used to discuss.” Terms deserve to be called keywords, he explained, when “they are significant, binding words in certain activities and their interpretation; [and] they are significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought.

By this standard, modernism, antisemitism, toleration, and liberalism qualify as keywords. I thus organize my consideration of Mahler’s Vienna and New York with these conceptual resources as guides. More precisely, I am concerned to probe two sets of contingent connections within the ambit of popular sovereignty and mass democracy: first between modernism and antisemitism, focusing principally on Vienna; and second, between toleration and liberalism, focusing mainly on New York.

Modernism and Antisemitism: Vienna

I deploy the first key word, Modernism, expansively. Life’s pace quickened. Much that was familiar destabilized. A sense of threat accompanied change. Crisis seemed perpetual. Across the half-century of Mahler’s life, the solid truly did melt into air.

Modernism’s most familiar use connotes a transformative cultural movement in art, literature, and music, associated with the deliberate shifting of artistic forms and often radical transformations to the relationship of elements and subordinating the traditional to the novel, that began in the late 19th century and flourished into the middle of the 20th. In this process of invention, Mahler, of course, was a central figure. Arriving in Vienna in 1897 at age 37 to direct the Opera, he revolutionized music, most notably by stretching the form of the symphony to open new possibilities for tonality, for contrapuntal combinations of melody, and for advancing the development, rather than the more traditional repetition, of key musical themes within the ambit of a single work.

Not limited to the realm of culture, modernism as a disruptive orientation raged dynamically across many life spheres, including architecture and the morphology of urban design; industry, with the electrification of production; state bureaucracies that professionalized and centralized, creating autonomous governing capacity that could adapt to different thrusts of ideology; theology, with attempts to connect faith to the arenas of science and reason that were unsettling spiritual certainty; warfare, with a dramatic ramping up in the scale of mobilization and the capacity for violence; and, not least, for politics, which grew noisier, more open, more mobilized, more polarized.

These massive changes were not sequential but simultaneous. Familiar interpretations no longer could make sense of the restless pace and qualities of change. Control seemed ever more elusive. We know that such conditions are ripe for ideas about conspiracy and hidden powers.

The era’s new technologies accelerated time, movement, and communication: the telegraph and the wireless radio, capable cameras and moving pictures, telephones and early automobiles and trams. These innovations facilitated great movements of people and capital, trade and ideas. Between 1890 and 1914, some 30 million left Europe, but the continent, especially its cities, grew more crowded. During this quarter-century, the continent’s population surged from 370 to 480 million, of whom approximately 9 million, just under 2 percent, were Jewish. But they became increasingly visible inside the continent’s largest urban centers, targets of anxiety, old and new, as once fixed social structures and hierarchies grew unsettled, and deference diminished.

When Wagner published his severe attack at mid-nineteenth century, the number of Jews in Vienna was small. Few had been permitted to live in the city before 1848. No more than 4,000, by some estimates far fewer, resided there when “toleration” was interpreted to mean permission to live in the Haupstadt but exclusively for Jews who directly served the court and the state. Two decades later, with toleration having been extended in 1867 with formal emancipation to mean citizenship with full rights, the Viennese Jewish population grew very quickly. By 1910, just over 175,000; four years later, nearly 200,000. Roughly a third lived in the more than-half Jewish 2nd District, Leopoldstadt, the center of Jewish life. Yet even Jews from the East the majority, were not entirely a group apart. As my late colleague Istvan Deak observed, “it is not difficult to conjure an Ostjude whose mother tongue was Yiddish, his language of communication German, his education Polish and Russian, his religion Jewish, his culture European, and his political convictions internationalist proletarian. It was just this plural quality that was anathema to the antisemites.

Mahler had no choice but wrestle with the consequences of Antisemitism, my second key word. As Mahler was reaching adulthood, Wilhelm Marr, in Germany, a former Young Hegelian who personally knew Wagner, invented the term “antisemitism,” the first use of the word as a political and racial designation. By then, Marr had founded the “Antisemitic Leagues” in Berlin and Dresden, calling for a “war against the Jews. In Austria, the irredentist parliamentarian Georg von Schönerer, the founder in 1880 of the Deutsche Volkspartei, was demonstrating during Mahler’s young adulthood how to deploy anti-Jewish sentiment as a political catalyst.. Concurrently, the prominent Lutheran theologian Adolf Stöcker mobilized some 300,000 signatures on a petition in the early 1880s calling for the expulsion of Jews from “all posts of supreme authority,” and, with almost no exceptions, schools, and universities “which should remain distinctively Christian. In Vienna, these impulses took powerful form in electoral party politics that fused aspects of theological and political modernism with what then was understood as scientific racism. None of Vienna’s Jews could escape the effects of the topography of this political antisemitism, terrain traveled by the city’s immensely popular and effective Christian Social Party mayor, Karl Lueger, first elected to that office in 1897, the year Mahler ascended to the Opera’s leadership.

Lueger bonded progressive causes and a massive program of building and public works with full-throated political antisemitism. In the new age of mass democracy, a world of accelerated time and enhanced means of communication, Lueger, who had first come on the scene as a member of the City Council in 1875, and who chaired his country’s Christian Social Party from 1893 to 1910, repeatedly campaigned on a platform aiming at immigration restriction and the public extrusion of Jews. His goal, as a laudatory account by the Irish Jesuit Priest, Father P.J. Connolly put things five years after the mayor’s death, was “the reconstruction of Austria on a Christian basis,” a goal requiring his “fight against the overwhelming forces of Liberalism and Jewry.

To be sure, this was not the only popular mass impulse. Austria’s Social Democrats, led by the Prague-born Victor Adler, a convert from Judaism who denounced antisemitism, did well in the first fully universal male suffrage parliamentary elections of 1907, especially in Graz, Innsbruck, Linz, and Salzburg. But not in Vienna, due in large measure to the popularity of Lueger, who argued for restrictions on Jewish voting rights and whose persistent anti-Jewish impulses created zones of deep insecurity for the civil and political rights of Jews.

Reflecting on his own experience in this milieu, Mahler judged himself to have been three times an outsider, not just as a native of Bohemia in Austria or as an Austrian among Germans when he conducted there, but as a Jew, notwithstanding his baptism in 1897: “Everywhere,” he was said to have said by Alma Mahler, “an intruder, nowhere welcome. As a visible cultural figure within Austria’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-linguistic society—Czech-born, a German speaker, and a Jew—Mahler was perpetually suspect, an outsider even when astride the musical world.

His Fifth Symphony was composed during the summers of 1901 and 1902, five years after his conversion from Judaism to Catholicism. Without his baptism in Hamburg at St. Michael’s Church Small—“a step that cost me a great deal,” as he informed the Hungarian journalist Ludwig Karapath, despite an attraction to Catholic mysticism and ceremony—Mahler would not have qualified for his appointment as the Opera’s principal director.

Central tensions in his life as a Jewish Catholic in Austria seem manifest in the Fifth Symphony, notably the strain between the third movement’s pleasant references to dance in the Austrian countryside and to waltzes in Vienna and the somber, concentrated, even terrifying, features of the first two movements, with their opening funeral march and stormy sounds that induce anxiety and fear.

In the spirit of the third movement, Mahler’s time at the helm of the Empire’s Court Opera seemed to mark the triumph of successful assimilation within the ambit of official toleration, a history marked by the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Toleration Edict of 1782; the Fundamental Laws of December 1867 that fashioned equal civil and legal rights for Jews; and the Hapsburg statute of 1890 that made it possible to establish an official Jewish Kultusgemeinde, a form of pluralist communal recognition. It was the combination of monarchical charters with a tolerant pattern of Jewish emancipation that facilitated the entry of Jews, not least Mahler, into visible, even leading, roles in cultural, economic, journalistic, and political life, especially in Vienna.

Working at the peak of Austrian musical culture, Mahler became a great figure, widely recognized, so much so that it was said in the city that just the Emperor was more famous. With official toleration, Mahler was able to transcend his origins as part of the tight-knit small German-speaking Jewish communities in Kalischt in Bohemia, where he was born, and in Iglau, a larger town on the other side of the Bohemian-Moravian border..

Within the Dual Monarchy’s vibrant and attractive capital, the range of opportunities, including prominent roles in culture, journalism, and medicine beckoned. For Jews, Vienna also was the home of the Liberalism that had freed the group from its long-standing civic disabilities. We all recognize the names, reputations, and achievements of Arthur Schnitzler, Elias Canetti, Stephan Zweig, Sigmund Freud, Karl Kraus and Arnold Schoenberg (like Mahler, the latter two opted for baptism), each, among others, having taken hold of the more open qualities of Vienna, which gave them reason to believe they could be integrated as Austrians well before they might be welcomed as genuinely Polish or Czech.

Mahler’s Vienna, in short, did not lack for official toleration, but it was national and monarchical. Locally, political antisemitism dominated. Nationally and locally, regime liberalism at century’s turn was virtually absent, defeated.

Mahler lived this reality and these contradictions. Like other Viennese Jews, he was trapped within the tensions and strains generated by two sets of tense realities: first, a protective monarchical toleration that coexisted with an often fierce local political antisemitism; and, second, essentialist versus multicultural understandings of what it meant to be Austrian.

Shielded by the Empire’s toleration, Mahler integrated into the majority culture, albeit never escaping outsider status. Notwithstanding that he had effectively abandoned Judaism in his teen years before entering the Vienna Conservatory in 1875; and notwithstanding his Catholicism, Lueger’s Vienna proved inhospitable for a Jew who held Central Europe’s most prestigious classical music posts. His circumstance was not very different from that identified in Schnitzler’s memoirs: “It was not possible,” he wrote, “especially not for a Jew in public life, to ignore the fact that he was a Jew; nobody else was doing so.

Mahler’s energetic and passionate conducting and challenging music often were roundly criticized as excessively Jewish, and not merely in the openly antisemitic press. Critics writing for mainstream newspapers adopted Wagner’s distinction between German and Jewish music. Mahler’s symphonies were judged to be restless and cold, the very traits Wagner had identified with music composed by Jews, music that, on this view, imitated and deceived, even when it dazzled. Though called symphonies, these works were assessed as merely programmatic, their borrowings from local cultures insufficiently rooted, superficial. Further, overtly antisemitic critics routinely caricatured Mahler as inherently distinctive physically, a person embodying racial group attributes, including a nervous disposition and anxious gesturing. Cartoons even depicted Wagner as morphing into a Jew when his operas were conducted by Mahler.

Toleration and Liberalism: New York

Following negotiations with the Metropolitan Opera, Mahler announced in May 1907 that he planned to move, at least temporarily, to New York. Finding he could not escape the new antisemitism, and motivated as well by the tragic death of his oldest daughter and emerging heart problems, he decided, not without sorrow, to leave the city where he had transformed the staging of opera and opened music to new compositions including his own path-breaking symphonies.

Mahler conducted his final Viennese concert, his own Second Symphony, six months later, in November. He then opened the 1908 season at the Metropolitan Opera on New Year’s Day with Wagner’s Tristan, perhaps an implicit statement of enduring love for German culture combined with a deeply ironic sensibility. This inaugural performance was well received with the exception of the émigré Austrian and German press. “I hope,” Mahler wrote, “I shall here find fertile ground for my works and thus a spiritual home, something that, for all the sensationalism, I should never be able to achieve in Europe.

New York indeed offered Mahler a rather different climate, if not, as it turned out, marked entirely by the absence of anti-Jewish speech and action. His stay at the Met was cut short when the board decided to dismiss the manager who had hired Mahler and, instead, as the board chair put things, “work away from the German atmosphere and the Jew, turning to the director of La Scala and, as conductor, to Arturo Toscanini. After an awkward period of transition, Mahler moved to Carnegie Hall to conduct the Philharmonic. In his brief period as principal conductor, he imposed his will on the orchestra’s structure and content.

Mahler’s cross-Atlantic journey was a quest for Toleration, my third key word. Toleration is calculated restraint. A condition of toleration is the existence of persons who elicit more than mild discomfort, but antipathy. Toleration suspends negative judgment. It curbs behavior by those capable of repression, insisting that those who have the ability to curb others should voluntarily refrain even when they are convinced that such actions would be just and means of repression are at hand. This is not passive endurance, but willful omission, a willingness to share space, geographic and political, with others who deviate from true belief, correct values, or proper behavior. The absence of political antisemitism in New York was both an indicator and a result of toleration.

In New York, toleration was tightly bound up with Liberalism, this evening’s fourth key word, the constellation of political ideas and institutional arrangements geared to restrict the predatory behavior by public authorities. As a recipe for regimes, liberalism’s central ideas and mechanisms advance popular sovereignty and government by consent, the rule of law, the separation of powers, and, most significantly, the existence of individual and collective rights, guarantees of diversity for persons inside the state’s constitutional ambit. Rights underscore that citizens, irrespective of differences, are equal members of the polity.

The elaboration of toleration, and, with it, the absence of political antisemitism, allowed the New York’s conspicuous Jewish minority to achieve secure civic attachment and wide political, economic, and cultural opportunity, arguably more so than at any other location in the globe.

At just the moment the mayor of Vienna was fulminating against his city’s Jews, New York’s Democratic Party mayor, George McClellan, Jr. (whose father was the Civil War general who opposed Abraham Lincoln during the wartime 1864 presidential election as the Democratic Party candidate) joined a remarkable celebration of American Jewry at Carnegie Hall, then merely fifteen years old. There, some 5,000 persons gathered on Thanksgiving Day, 30 November 1905, to mark the quarter-millennium since the formal settlement of Jews in New Amsterdam. The program began with the speakers marching in to Mendelssohn’s “March of the Priests” from Athalie, the occasional music of 1845 loathed by Wagner. In addition to the New York event, Jewish leaders mounted proud and open commemorations in Albany, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati. Philadelphia, Saint Louis, and San Francisco.

Like Mayor Lueger, McClellan was immensely popular. He was a national as well as local figure, having served in Congress from 1895 until his years as mayor from the start of 1904 to the end of 1909. “It is fitting,” he told the Carnegie Hall audience, “that, as the mayor of the largest single municipality on earth, and especially as the chief magistrate of the largest Jewish community that the world has ever seen, I [want] to express to you….satisfaction for what you have accomplished in the past and are accomplishing in the present.

McClellan was joined at the rostrum of this glittering gathering by New York State’s Republican governor Francis Wayland Higgins who saluted “the services rendered to civilization by the American Jew.” Another speaker was the Right Reverend David Hummell Greer, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, who denounced the “shame” of Christian prejudice and saluted “religious toleration” as “an art, a fine and high art, difficult to learn.”

Even more notable was the presence of a former president of the United States, the Democrat Grover Cleveland, who had served in the White House from 1885 to 1889 and again from 1893 to 1897. President Cleveland compared the “foothold gained” for his country’s Jews, “a home and peaceful security” to “centuries of [European] homelessness and ruthless persecution.” He saluted the group for “giving shape and direction to the country’s “patriotic aspirations and exalting traditions…under the kindly influence of toleration and equality.”

The sitting president, Republican Theodore Roosevelt, also was heard from, if by letter, to acclaim how, in America, Jews as citizens “advanced the nation” while enjoying “the benefits of free institutions and equal treatment before the law,” which he contrasted with the “terrible suffering to which many of the Jewish people in other lands have been subjected.” There also was a missive from Vice President Charles Warren Fairbanks, formerly a Republican senator from Indiana, who underscored opposition to “the master crime of modern times…the atrocities inflicted upon the Jews of Russia,” while stressing “gratitude in this hour of national thanksgiving that Jew and Gentile enjoy absolute political equality throughout the limits of the United States

Four days earlier, on November 26, some 100,000 Jews had participated in the New York funeral of the period’s most prolific Hebrew and Yiddish writer, Nahum Meyer Shaikevich, a playwright and author of more than 200 popular sentimental novels who had arrived in the United States from Pinsk, then part of Belarus, in 1889. Organized by the Yiddish press in conjunction with leading figures in the Yiddish theatre, the procession stopped at many synagogues. The New York Times took note, observing how, at each, along the way, “the procession stopped, and the rabbis and congregants came out and sang a hymn for the dead.

An even larger group, principally Jewish and estimated at 125,000, filled the city’s streets on December 4, five days after the Carnegie Hall celebration, to protest the wave of pogroms underway in the Pale of Settlement, “the greatest catastrophe in Jewish history,” said the Yiddish Forward’s editorial. Strikingly, the Jewish unions, lodges, landmanshaftn associations, and synagogues—in all approximately 800 organizations—were joined by leaders of the city’s political parties. There were red banners and black, masses of American flags and the banner of Zion, with the six pointed star of David. And uptown, in the decorous synagogues of those who had organized the Carnegie Hall event, memorial services for the dead of Russia’s Jewry also were convened.

These three events of 1905—each was assertive, public, and political—testified to Jewish belonging, a significant “degree of collective self-assurance. Certainly, nothing like such confident assertiveness in the public sphere could have been imagined in Mahler’s Vienna.


Mass democracies face endemic questions of membership and differentiated citizenship. Rule of and by the people requires peoplehood whose contours are susceptible to strategies of collective extrusion, peaceful and violent. “We the people” can be shaped by subtraction. That is what the political sociologist Michael Mann calls the dark side of democracy.

Under the anxious and uncertain conditions of modernism, political antisemitism met its match when toleration and liberalism coalesced to confine mass democracy. Only when liberalism and toleration function collaboratively can conditions be created within which not always admired minorities can join together with the collective majority to fashion what John Rawls designated as an overlapping consensus that can serve as the foundation of common citizenship.

There was no guarantee, truly none, that Jews in America would not suffer the wounds of marginalized or excluded groups. At the start of the 20th century, the United States, after all, housed strong official as well as societal racism, hierarchy inscribed in law that was validated by leading biologists, historians, and social scientists. The country allowed, even facilitated, civil violence directed against black Americans, and it deployed official Army and unofficial settler violence to continue to make war on Native Americans. Further, America shared many qualities and feature of modern uncertainty that fashioned a conducive climate for political antisemitism in Europe. Immigration statutes denied entry to groups, principally Asian and African, deemed undesirable. Cultural, civil, economic, and theological antisemitism were rife. Leading press barons, industrialists, social movement activists, and cultural elites were openly anti-Jewish. Discrimination against Jews was commonplace across a wide range of institutions, including firms and clubs, residences, hotels, and universities. It does not take much imagination to conjure counterfactual circumstances in which enterprising politicians might have mobilized in ways similar to Karl Lueger.

Strikingly, that did not happen. Why not? Why, to be more precise, did toleration and liberalism successfully combine to block the new political antisemitism?

Four elements entwined to produce this comparatively fortunate outcome:

First, America’s unprecedented degree of Protestant diversity generated institutional arrangements regarding religion and the absence of political disabilities for faith communities that benefited Catholic as well as Jewish minorities, though not by widely-shared intent. Even as early as the mid-18th century, as an illustration, there lived in the Hudson Valley of the British colony of New York Anglicans associated with the Church of England together with Puritans, Sabbatarians, anti-Sabbatarians, singing Quakers and ranting Quakers, Anabaptists, including Mennonites and Amish, together with some Catholics and a few Jews. With the birth of the United States, the new country’s Constitution stipulated that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” a formula based on a separation of church and state. Equally important the Constitution offered no religious tests for office. Thus the United States was the first predominantly Protestant nation to simultaneously admit Catholics and Jews to full citizenship. With these institutional designs, it became possible to manage religious incommensurability while establishing expectations for how a decent overlapping consensus about how to conduct a liberal and democratic public life could develop across spiritual boundaries.

Second, and less appealing, America’s racial ethos and a legal order based on the binary assignment of the population to black or white categories facilitated the often reluctant appraisal of Jews as white. At the 1905 Thanksgiving Day celebration at Carnegie Hall, Mayor McClellan declared that “We members of the Caucasian family are very much like one another without regard to which branch of that family we belong. This assignment conferring Jewish membership came at the very moment formal legal racial segregation, lynching, and black disenfranchisement were proceeding in the southern American states where the great majority of African Americans lived. The Carnegie Hall gathering also followed the last phase in the violent and unremitting displacement of Native Americans.

Third, the existence of political liberalism as the boundary condition of party competition made it difficult for a range of alternative ideological formations to win public majorities. This, the historical theorist Louis Hartz famously argued, was the source of what he identified as moral political unanimity, the broad basis of a polity that took shape in a country that had developed “a self-completing mechanism, which insures the universality of the liberal idea.” This hegemony, based, he argued, on the absence of a heritage of feudalism, framed the American experience, and set limits to its various internal conflicts.

Fourth, the politics of the country was organized not in a multiparty system that counts votes by proportional representation, the kind of arrangement found in Austria that facilitated intense ideological mobilization. Rather, in each geographic district there could be just one winner, an arrangement that privileges two dominant political parties who compete to mobilize absolute majorities. It was Hannah Arendt in Origins of Totalitarianism who emphasized the causal importance of this institutional difference for mass politics. Writing about the relationship of political antisemitism to the party system, she observed that this electoral effort succeeded in countries with one or another version of a multiparty system.

As these features of American politics entwined, they reduced the likelihood that members of America’s extended political class of journalists and political activists, aspirants and office holders could gain traction by opposing Jewish voting and office holding, certainly not in in New York, where Jews, as situational voters, potentially could determine the outcome of elections.

There was one significant exception, the arena of debate about immigration restriction where anti-Jewish designations were robust. Ultimately, in the early 1920s, Congress passed legislation that severely restricted the entry of new Americans who were not northern European, not Protestant, and not white.

A closing thought. It has become fashionable to demean toleration as unappealing and inadequate. By contrast, I believe it to be an indispensable virtue, especially when tightly bound to political liberalism.

With the human community divided by color and faith, gender and geography, no idea, no social practice, no ethical virtue is more important than toleration. The word, the idea, and the practice matter. Whereas tolerance connotes broad-mindedness, appreciation, and regard for human pluralism, a quest frequently more utopian than achieved, toleration refers to situations characterized by inequality, jeopardy, and official permission. To tolerate, as I have noted, is a choice, a decision by the powerful not to act despite having the capacity to restrict or harm persons and groups disliked for who they are and how they look; how they think, worship, and behave.

As a public policy, toleration always is fragile and uncertain, often patronizing; it can accommodate misfortune and passive injustice even when it proscribes the more active kind. Toleration thus is far from perfect and full of pitfalls, yet it is indispensable. Toleration is especially valuable when joined to political liberalism because rather than existing at the wish and whim of individual rulers, liberalism grounds the recognition of human pluralism on a hard foundation of law and rights.

The relationship of liberalism and toleration, however, is not hard-wired or assured, but contingent, worth the fight. Liberalism, after all, can exist without toleration, and toleration without liberalism. It takes purposeful work to bind them together. There are no guarantees. This reality Mahler understood. So, too, did Krzysztof Michalski.

Photo Credit: Joseph Krpelan

Istvan Hont, “The Permanent Crisis of a Divided Mankind: ‘Contemporary Crisis of the Nation State’ in Historical Perspective,” Political Studies, 42 (Supplement 1, 1994), pp.166-231.

Siep Stuurman, The Invention of Humanity: Equality and Cultural Difference in World History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Herodotus, The Histories. Book 8, Chapter 144, Section 2.

Particularly instructive in this regard are Ioannis Evrigenis, Fear of Enemies and Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008; and Miri Rubin, Cities of Strangers: Making Lives in Medieval Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Richard Wagner, Judaism in Music; cited in Louis Snyder, ed., Documents of German History. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1958, pp.191-192; also see Chris Walton, Richard Wagner’s Essays on Conducting: A New Translation with Critical Commentary. Rochester, University of Rochester Press, 2021.  The literature on Wagner and antisemitism is immense and controversial.  For the diversity of views, including whether Wagner’s antisemitism was racial and whether it shaped and was expressed in his operas, see Theodor Adorno, In Search of Wagner. London: Verso Books, 2005 [first published as Versuch über Wagner. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1952); Jacob Katz, The Darker Side of Genius: Richard Wagner’s Anti-Semitism. Waltham, Massachusetts: Brandeis University Press, 1986; Paul Lawrence Rose, Wagner: Race and Revolution. London: Faber and Faber, 1992; and Marc A. Wagner, Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.  More broadly, see Ruth HaCohen, The Music Libel Against the Jews. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Henry Chalmers, “The Number of Jews in New York City,” Publications of the American Statistical Association, 14 (March 1914), pp.68-75; Marsha L. Rozenblit, The Jews of Vienna, 1867-1914: Assimilation and Identity. Albany, State University of New York Press, 1983, p.17.

Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture. Cambridge University Press, 1961, p.24.

See “Anti-Semitism,” in John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal, eds., Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019, pp.147-180; and Leonard Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp.35-77.

Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, p.13.

Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983, p.220.  This synoptic treatment better captures the tensile properties of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe and North America, I think, than any other.

Istvan Deak, “Ethnic Minorities and the Jews in Imperial Germany,” Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, 26 (1981), pp.48-49.

Moshe Zimmerman, The Patriarch of Anti-Semitism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.  Marr’s first anti-Jewish publication was “A Mirror to the Jews,” an assault on Jewish particularism published in 1862.  The statutes of “The Antisemitic League” are cited in Wolf, “A Jewish View of the Anti-Jewish Agitation,” pp.338-357.

Oscar Karbach, “The Founder of Modern Political Antisemitism: Georg von Schoenerer,” Jewish Social Studies, 7 (January 1945), p. 3.

Abbott, Israel in Europe, p.422; John C. Fout, “Adolf Stoecker's Rationale for Anti-Semitism,” Journal of Church and State, 17 (Winter 1975), pp. 47- 61; D. A. Jeremy Telman. “Adolf Stoecker: Anti-Semite with a Christian Mission,” Jewish History, 9 (Fall 1995), pp.93-112.

Robert S. Wistrich, “Karl Lueger and the Ambiguities of Viennese Antisemitism,” Jewish Social Studies, 45 (Summer//Autumn, 1983), pp. 251-262.

P.J Connolly, S.J., “Karl Lueger: Mayor of Vienna,” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 4 (June 1915), p.226.  This priest particularly approved of how Lueger, pushing back against liberal toleration, used his mayoralty to restore Catholic prayer to the schools and the Crucifix to their classrooms, inaugurate every new school with a religious ceremony, and mandate that students participate in Corpus Christi processions.

The source of the quotation is Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler: Erinnerungen und Briefe. Amsterdam: Allert de Lange, 1940), p. 135.

A significant analysis sees irony in Mahler’s use of traditional Austrian music, music he loved, arguing that he stretched and distorted this folk inheritance because of his outsider status.  Henry A. Lea, Gustav Mahler: Man on the Margin. Bonn: Bouvier, 1985, pp.54. 128.

Michael Kennedy, Mahler. Oxford: Oxford University Press, `974, p.62.

For a discussion, see Leah Bastone, “A Dance from Iglau: Gustav Mahler, Bohemia, and the Complexities of Austrian Identity,” 19th Century Music, 44 (spring 2021), pp.169-186.

Mahler even received grudging admiration from rabid antisemites. In May 1906, a seventeen-year-old Adolph Hitler, already a hater, borrowed train fare from relatives to travel from Linz to Vienna, eager to hear Mahler conduct Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and The Flying Dutchman.  As the music critic Alex Ross has written, though Hitler “became uneasy of the fact that masterpieces of Aryan culture were being performed in a city thronged with Jews,” decades later he told Goebbels, that “I did not contest” Mahler’s “abilities and merits.” Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, pp.4, 312.

See Carl Niekerk, Reading Mahler: German Culture and Jewish Identity in Fin-de-Siecle Vienna. Rochester, New York: Camden House, 2010.

Arthur Schnitzler, My Youth in Vienna. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970, pp.6-7.

Mahler's music was considered "repellent because of its basically Jewish character," and was criticized as inauthentic because of what was represented as the “unbridgeable gulf between the members of Occidental culture and Oriental race.”  Lea, Gustav Mahler, p.57.

K.M. Knittel, Seeing Mahler: Music and the Language of Antisemitism in Fin-de-Siecle Vienna. Farnham, Surrey: Aldgate, 2010; K.M. Knittel, “’Ein Hypermoderne Dirigent’: Mahler and Anti-Semitism in ‘Fin-de-siecle’ Vienna, 19th-Century Music, 18 (Spring 1995), pp.257-276.

For a consideration of the Second Symphony, see Caroline A. Kita, Jewish Difference and the Arts in Vienna: Composing Compassion in Music and Biblical Theater. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2019, Chapter 2.

Knud Martner, ed., Selected Letters of Gustav Mahler. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1979, p.319.

Cited in Theresa M. Collins, Otto Kahn: Art, Money, and Modern Times. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002, p.83.

"A person will be said to be tolerant only where he has the power not to be tolerant."  Preston King, "The Problem of Tolerance," Government and Opposition, 6 (April 1971), p.197.

The inclusion of persons is rejected by some recent theorists of toleration, who insist that toleration focuses only on behavior, not individuals or groups; others wish to restrict objects of toleration exclusively to persons.  I see no persuasive reason to make this choice a priori.  For an example of the former, see Robert Paul Churchill, “On the Difference between Non-Moral and Moral Conceptions of Toleration: The Case for Toleration as an Individual Virtue,” in Mehdi Amin Razavi and David Ambuel, eds., Philosophy, Religion, and Questions of Intolerance. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997, especially pp. 193-198l for the latter, see Heyd, “Introduction,” Toleration, p.14.

The Two Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Settlement of the Jews in the United States: Addresses Delivered at Carnegie Hall, New York, on Thanksgiving Day MCMV, Together with Other Selected Addresses and Proceedings. New York: The New York Cooperative Society, 1906, p.26.

The Two Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary, pp.18, 21.  New York’s Tageblat printed these remarks in the newspaper’s “English Section,” while reporting in Yiddish that this “Jubilee celebration was the most magnificent and radiant gathering ever held by Jews in America.”  The story conveyed how Carnegie Hall, had been filled not only by the Jewish community elite—bankers and merchants, judges and politicians, rabbis and professors—but by craftspeople and workers, “all united in giving thanks for this place of refuge for our homeless and plundered nation.”  Concurrent events also were conducted in the synagogues of recent Polish, Russian, and Romanian immigrants.  On Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side, New York’s equivalent of Leopoldstadt, festive speeches were accompanied by the march of 800 children, each carrying an American flag, led by the Hebrew Sheltering Asylum Band.  Arthur Aryeh Goren, “Pageants of Sorrow, Celebration, and Protest: The Public Culture of American Jews,” Studies of Contemporary Jewry, 12 (1996), p.211; also see, Arthur A. Goren, The Politics and Public Culture of American Jews. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

New York Times, November 27, 1905, p.9.

This mobilization underpinned a significant and unapologetic effort to persuade political leaders in Washington to lobby for sanctions and diplomatic initiatives that would punish the Czar’s regime.  Goren, “Pageants of Sorrow,” pp.211-213.

Goren, “Pageants of Sorrow,” pp.214-215.

The absence of political antisemitism did not mean that Mahler’s New York would not resist his innovations.  At the Metropolitan Opera, he altered programming, fired star singers, insisted on unaccustomed rigor in performance and enhanced attention to theatricality.  At the Philharmonic, he reorganized the ensemble, appointing a new concertmaster, insisting on major personnel changes, and changing sectional seating on the stage.  He dared to re-orchestrate passages by Beethoven and Schubert.  Not surprisingly, he made enemies.  During Mahler’s second season at the Philharmonic, the Guarantors’ formed a six-member Program Committee to oversee his selections.  Only his fatal illness in the winter of 1911 brought these organizational tensions to an end.  These, however, were not significantly about who he was but what he did as an assertive modernist.  There were no press reviews and no politicians who denounced Mahler as inauthentic, not the real thing.

Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

The Two Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary, pp.26-27.

Louis J. Hartz, Liberalism in America. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955, pp.6, 20.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1951, p.250.