University of Virginia, April 8-10, 2024
The end of the Second World War in Europe on May 8th 1945 is sometimes referred to in German as Stunde null, the zero hour, a term that allows a sense of radical rupture and crisis, while also implying a clean slate and a new beginning. The immediate aftermath of the war and the Holocaust across the Atlantic gave rise to tectonic global changes. Some intellectuals questioned the future of humanity. Others called for a new humanism, for a “common cause” and the constitution of “one world” greater and more inclusive than the failed European tradition of nationalism. The publicly emerging details of the Holocaust added to the sense of profound rupture later expressed in Theodor Adorno’s famous epithet about the end of poetry after Auschwitz or Jean-Francois Lyotard’s declaration that Auschwitz is like an earthquake that destroyed the measuring instruments. Indeed, scholars often speak of post-Holocaust philosophy and theology, marking it as an event from which there is a clear separation of before and after. The goal of our workshop, however, is not to revisit the long trajectory of post-Holocaust thought, but to reconstruct overlooked continuities and sense of rupture in the Jewish (and general) intellectual atmosphere during the immediate aftermath—that is about the first decade—following 1945.
The profound changes were not limited to the European scene. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war also in the Pacific, while raising urgent questions about the meaning of technology and the possibility of the human to initiate global destruction. The Cold War brought with it a world under the sway of two superpowers. At the same time, the emergence of the United Nations as a world-organization allowed thinkers to imagine new world-constellations and helped give rise to the discourse of human rights. In the Jewish context, the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 brought with it a promise and many challenges.
What kind of philosophies, or theologies, informed the immediate postwar constellation? How were past and present interpreted by historians or political thinkers? What futures were envisioned and a time of radical change? How was the turning point of 1945 theorized through the perspectives of flight and refuge?
Our workshop will bring together scholars to think about 1945 and its immediate aftermath through a transnational lens of the Jewish experience. Its focus will be on voices—philosophical, theological, theoretical, or personal—reflecting on the Jewish condition at the end of the war and the beginning of a new era. This approach allows us to explore the interchange of ideas across multiple spaces and travel itineraries. We contend that such a perspective, which in this form has rarely been emphasized in the study of modern Jewish thought, can offer more complexity and nuance to the idea of a Stunde null in Jewish philosophy and theology by showing the extent to which thinkers navigated multiple international contexts before, during, and after the Holocaust and World War II. The focus on an epochal “watershed” also allows us to reflect more broadly on how intellectuals have grappled with historical discontinuities, turning points, and ideas of return and restoration.
Some of the questions this workshop will ask:
- What kind of intellectual networks—Jewish and non-Jewish—developed in the immediate postwar era?
- What continuities exist between pre- and post-Holocaust thought?
- How was the atomic bomb theorized by Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers across continents?
- How did the emergent Cold War context shape Jewish thought?
- Are there new historiographies that emerge in this period as a result of the World War and the Holocaust?
- In what way do itineraries of Jewish thinkers change the way we think about Jewish thought as often focused on the nation-state or linguistic commonality (such as German-Jewish thought)?
- What accounts for the emerging interest in the post-1945 era today?
Some of the figures of Jewish background we might discuss:
Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, Leo Baeck, Eliezer Berkovitz, Ernst Bloch, Martin Buber, Ernst Cassirer, Arthur Cohen, Lucy Dawidowicz, Isaac Deutscher, Emil Fackenheim, Erich Fromm, Nahum Glatzer, Abraham J. Heschel, Hans Jonas, Jacquline Kahanoff, Alfred Kantorowicz, Ernst Kantorowicz, Hans Kohn, Hersch Zvi Lauterpacht, Primo Levi, Karl Löwith, Ignaz Maybaum, Albert Memmi, Esther Azhari Moyal, Zalman Schachter Shalomi, Judith Shklar, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Leo Strauss, Margarete Susman, Jacob and Susan Taubes, Joel Teitelbaum, Simone Weil, Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, Arnold Zweig.
In addition, we hope to touch upon the works of other intellectuals reflecting on the Jewish and human conditions during the post-war years, including James Baldwin, G. A. Borgese, Albert Camus, W. E. B. Du Bois, Karl Jaspers, Jacques Maritain, Reinhold Niebuhr, Max Picard, Herman Rauschning, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Schweitzer, Paul Tillich, Peter Viereck, and others.
About the Workshop Organizers:
Prof. Asher Biemann teaches modern Jewish thought and intellectual history at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Inventing New Beginnings: On the Idea of Renaissance in Modern Judaism (2009) and Dreaming of Michelangelo: Jewish Variations on a Modern Theme (2012), which appeared in German as Michelangelo und die jüdische Moderne (2016). Together with Richard I. Cohen and Sarah E. Wobick-Segev he edited Spiritual Homelands: The Cultural Experience of Exile, Place and Displacement Among Jews and Others (2020). He is currently completing a book entitled Enduring Modernity: Judaism Eternal & Ephemeral.
Prof. Yaniv Feller is a scholar of modern Jewish thought and museum studies at the University of Florida. His first book, The Jewish Imperial Imagination: Leo Baeck and German-Jewish Thought will appear with Cambridge University Press in Fall 2023. He is also the co-editor of Covenantal Thinking: Essays on the Philosophy and Theology of David Novak, scheduled to appear with the University of Torontio Press in Spring 2024.
We invite proposals for short (20 minute) presentations to be sent directly to the workshop organizers by July 15, 2023. Please include a tentative title, abstract (150-250 words), and a brief bio. Graduate students and independent scholars are encouraged to apply. We seek original papers that can be published in an intended conference volume. The University of Virginia will cover up to 4 nights of accommodation. Travel stipends may be available pending on final budget approval. For inquiries please contact Asher Biemann (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Yaniv Feller (email@example.com).