Skip to main content

Dubnow, Simon

DUBNOW, SIMON

DUBNOW, SIMON (1860–1941), historian and political ideologist. Born in Mstislavl, Belorussia, Dubnow received a traditional Jewish education from his grandfather, but early in his life ceased to observe religious practices. He was self-taught, having achieved his general education at "the home university," as he put it. Between 1880 and 1906 Dubnow lived, first illegally, in St. Petersburg; in his home town; in Odessa, where he joined the *Aḥad Ha-Am circle; and Vilna, writing all the time for the Jewish press. He finally settled in St. Petersburg, this time legally, teaching Jewish history, which from then on became his dominating interest; from 1908 at the Institute of Jewish Studies (established by Baron David *Guenzburg); and from 1919 at the government-supported "Jewish People's University." Dubnow was one of the founders and directors of the Jewish Historico-Ethnographical Society and from 1909 to 1918 editor of its quarterly Yevreyskaya Starina. When the Bolsheviks came to power, Dubnow was asked to participate in the work of various committees appointed to prepare publications on Jewish themes; none of this work was ever published.

In 1922 he left Russia. A proposal for him to become professor of Jewish history at the University of Kovno met with the opposition of the Lithuanian professors, and Dubnow settled in Berlin, where he stayed until 1933. When Hitler came to power, Dubnow found refuge in Riga, the capital of Latvia. There the aged scholar continued his work in solitude, but with undiminished vigor. Riga was captured by the Germans in July 1941, and in a night of terror, on December 8, 1941, when the Jewish community was deported to a death camp, Dubnow was murdered by a Gestapo officer, a former pupil of his.

Dubnow's lifework was the study of Jewish history, of the relevant source material, and its "sociological" interpretation. He began with the evaluation of such men as I.B. *Levinsohn, *Shabbetai Ẓevi, and Jacob *Frank and his sect (Razsvet, 1881; Voskhod, 1882). This he followed by a study of *Ḥasidism (Voskhod, 1888–93; Ha-Pardes, 1894; Ha-Shilo ʾaḥ, 1901). Dubnow then published a series of documents and studies on Jewish life in Eastern Europe (Voskhod, 1893–95). He translated H. Graetz's Volkstuemliche Geschichte der Juden (1881) into Russian, with an introduction on the philosophy of Jewish history. When the censor prohibited the publication of the translation, Dubnow published his introduction separately (Voskhod, 1893; also in German, 1897, 19212; in English, Jewish History, translated by Henrietta Szold, 1903; and Hebrew, 1953). In 1896, he published in two volumes an adaptation in Russian of S. Baeck's Geschichte des juedischen Volkes und seiner Literatur (1878), and of M. Brann's book of the same title (1893), adding a chapter on the history of the Jews in Poland and Russia. In his introduction, for the first time, Dubnow stated his main thesis of Jewish history as a succession of "centers" and their "hegemony" (see below).

In 1898, he began writing his series of works on Jewish history, based on the works of Baeck and Brann: An Outline of Jewish History (3 vols., 1925–29; Russian, 1901–05, 19102, and translated into many languages); History of the Jews in Russia and Poland (3 vols., 1916–20; Russ., 1914, and translated into several languages); and finally his world history of the Jewish people, first published in German (Die Weltgeschichte des juedischen Volkes, 10 vols., 1925–29), then in Hebrew (1923–38) and Yiddish (1948–58). A version in the Russian original was published between 1934 and 1938. In 1940 an 11th volume was published in Hebrew, updating the work to World War ii. An English translation by M. Spiegel began to appear in 1967. Although engaged in the writing of general Jewish history, Dubnow did not neglect research into its details. Thus, in 1922, he published the pinkas of the Council of Lithuania for the years 1623–1761. At the age of 70 Dubnow summarized his lifelong study of Hasidism in his history of Hasidism (Hebrew, 1930–32, many reprints; German, 2 vols., 1931). He also served as an editor of the Russian and English Jewish encyclopedias. Dubnow's activities in the field of journalism began with the foreign editorship of Razsvet (1881–83), and from 1883 to 1908 he was the literary critic of Voskhod.

Dubnow believed that his study of history gave him the key to the understanding of the past, enabled him to work for the improvement of the present, and even provided the solution for the future of the Jewish people. According to him the Jewish people in the Diaspora lost some of the attributes which normally ensure the continuous existence of a people. As a "natural" compensation it developed instead a special social system and communal ideology. Through these the Jewish people was able to exist in foreign countries in a state of judicial autonomy and spiritual independence. In every period there had been a Jewish community which had been more successful than others in maintaining self-rule and national creativity, and it was this community which became the "center" and exercised "hegemony." In the early Middle Ages it was Babylon, taking over from the Palestinian "center"; this was followed by Spain and the Rhineland; in the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Age it was the *Councils of the Lands of Poland-Lithuania. During the Middle Ages, the Jews became a "European" people, and they have remained one. Dubnow believed that not only was it possible to establish in modern times a regime of internal independence within the framework of a foreign country, but also that such a regime would rest on firmer foundations and would be more highly developed than during the Middle Ages. At this point he showed the influence of ideas, prevalent in his time, for a "State of Nationalities," which could preserve the unity of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires while satisfying the demands for self-rule of the various peoples living in them. The exceptional situation of the Jewish people during the Middle Ages could become a rule of life for many peoples and states in Europe. In this new period of Jewish history, the "center" would be Russian-Polish, with its spiritual strength and aspirations for self-rule. It was Dubnow's hope that under the new conditions Jewish creativity would lose the religious character which it had acquired in the talmudic period and the Middle Ages. Yiddish would be the language in which the new Jewish culture would express itself.

Dubnow's ideas placed him in strong opposition to both Zionism and the various forms of assimilation. In the course of time he became less outspoken in his anti-Zionist attitude but did not give up his basic stand (cf. the amended and "expurgated" Hebrew version of his "Letters on the Old and the New Judaism," 1937, with the original Russian version, 1907). In a series of articles published during World War i in Novy Voskhod, he outlined his position on the Jewish problem, demanding an international solution. In Istoriya yevreyskogo soldata ("History of a Jewish Soldier," 1918; French, 1929), he described the tragic situation of a Jew serving in a non-Jewish army.

Dubnow took an active part in a number of Jewish activities. In the Society for the Promotion of Culture he joined the Zionists in their struggle for the establishment of national Jewish schools. After the *Kishinev pogrom in 1903, he was among those who called for an active Jewish self-defense. Opposing the policy of the socialist-Marxist *Bund, he strongly supported Jewish participation in the elections to the Duma in 1905, established a Jewish section of the Constitutional Democrat party, and asked the Jewish deputies to join it. Dubnow also took part in the work of the Society for the Full and Equal Rights of the Jewish People in Russia in 1905, but later seceded and founded the Jewish People's Party in 1906. This "Folkist" party never exercised much influence and was weakened by internal dissension. It continued to exist until 1918.

The principal source on Dubnow's life is his autobiography, Kniga moey zhizni. The first two volumes appeared in Russian (1930–34; partial Heb. trans., 1936; Yid., 1962; Ger., 1937). A third volume, completed in 1940, was published in Riga shortly before the German conquest; the entire edition was destroyed by the Nazis. A single copy, however, rediscovered in 1956, made it possible to publish a new complete edition in 1957. Portions of Dubnow's private archives are in the possession of the Central *Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem. A festschrift on the occasion of his 70th birthday was published in 1930; a memorial volume appeared in 1954, edited by S. Rawidowicz; and a centenary volume, edited by A. Steinberg, appeared in 1963 (all three with bibliographies).

[Joseph Meisl]

Historian and Political Ideologist

In his youth, Dubnow was influenced by the positivism of Comte and his followers, and especially by the philosophy of J.S. Mill, the "Gospel of Individualism" and the "Absolute Freedom of Thought and Speech." For several years Dubnow remained faithful to the teachings of these masters and attacked Judaism sharply in the name of the individual, of scientific thought, and of liberty.

Subsequently he was captivated by the historical world of Judaism. In 1887, having gone through a severe physical and spiritual crisis, he began to strive for a synthesis of "my self-acquired general knowledge and my universal aims… with my inherited treasures of Jewish wisdom and national ideals." To this synthesis he added a profound knowledge of the life and history of Russia and Russian Jewry, and a tremendous capacity for the uncovering of obscure sources of Jewish history. There was, too, the influence of Renan and Taine. Like Taine – who emphasized the importance of petits faits significatifs, from which the general principles are evolved – Dubnow placed the stress upon detail, which in its true form can only be found at the source. Both historians taught Dubnow the organic concept of the nation (which they termed "race"), and from Taine, in particular, he took over the idea that the situation of a people and its aspirations are faithfully reflected in the spiritual creations of its great men. Renan's historical concepts made it easier for Dubnow to change his adverse criticism of the Jewish religion into a positive evaluation of it as the revelation of the national spirit. "A mixture of the teachings of Renan and Tolstoy" was "the main element in his state of mind" when he embarked upon the study of Hasidism and of Jesus and the Apostles. In theory Dubnow always remained a radical individualist, while as a historian, he admired the national unit and the requirements of its life, though these may put restrictions upon the individual. Again, in theory he was a confirmed rationalist, yet he valued religion and religious movements for their role in serving as the nation's shield and as the expression of its spirit. In the writing of history, Dubnow preferred describing "objective" processes and circumstances, based upon a study of detailed events, to the portrayal of personalities, their feelings, and desires; and he noted with pride that in later editions of his works "many lyrical passages were omitted."

Dubnow viewed Jewish history on the assumption that a people is an organism whose life and development depend upon its environment, the conditions under which it lives, and upon the manner in which it chooses to react to them. "In the course of the centuries, the nation passed from the embryonic stage and achieved its own identity… assumed a certain national form, created a state and forfeited it…, the form of the national type reached its perfection when and, perhaps, because its first statehood was destroyed." Diaspora, as it were, is a fate preordained for the Jewish people, from the moment it entered Erez Israel. Even toward the end of his life – on the eve of the destruction of European Jewry in 1939 – Dubnow restated in precise terms his conviction that "in the view of historism, as opposed to dogmatism, the diaspora was not only a possibility, but a necessity. A people small in numbers but great in quality, situated on the crossroads of the giant nations of Asia and Africa, could not preserve both its state and its nationality, and had perforce to break the barrel in order to preserve the wine – and this was the great miracle in the history of mankind." From this follows his definition of the Jewish people as "a people whose home is the entire world"; and his belief that what is known as Jewry is the result of the growth of a people and its adaptation to the conditions under which it lived; though of a special nature, these do not transcend the general laws of history. "… Ancient tribes combine to form a national entity, a state or kingdom. The kingdom is destroyed and the national entity splits into parts, which reconstitute as the communities." Here lies the source of the "unbroken chain of autonomy… of Jewish communities everywhere." Dubnow was convinced that in this respect the Jewish people was a pioneer of national development far wider in scope and much earlier in time than many nations of the 20th century.

As for the religion of Israel, Dubnow held that until the 19th century it was part of Jewish nationalism, a means of selfdefense used by a people which possessed none of the normal defenses of other nations. When the Jewish people, by virtue of its belief in monotheism, became a special group within the pagan (and later Christian) world, having to fight against assimilation, its leaders were forced to make use of religion for the defense of its existence. In the 19th century, however, a Jewish "renaissance" set in, in which, on the one hand, the individual was liberated, and, on the other hand, there arose a new secular interest in the national life. In the development of the Wissenschaft des Judentums in Germany in the 19th century, Dubnow saw one of the manifestations of the Jewish renaissance. He went so far as to try to justify the Jewish converts in the period of the *salons (an observation not included in the Hebrew version of the "World History"). Religion was a discipline imposed upon the national organism, necessary only so long as Jewish culture stood isolated, unrelated to the culture of other peoples, i.e., to the time of *Emancipation. Once Emancipation had taken place, this discipline was no longer desirable. In Hasidism Dubnow saw a fresh manifestation of the creative power of Jewish religion among East European Jewry, which had preserved tradition and had not yet entered the era of cooperation with the nations of the world. Such cooperation would enable Jewry to exist as a European people with a secular culture, a people destined to remain a permanent minority in the countries of Europe. Basing his work upon such a concept of history, Dubnow regarded the attempts of Zionism to renew the Jewish State in its ancient land as a pseudo-messianic adventure. He put forth a program for the Jews' future based on these theories which he called *autonomism.

[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]

bibliography:

A.S. Steinberg (ed.), Simon Dubnow, the Man and His Work (1963), 225–51, 254–5 (autobiography); S.W. Baron, History and Jewish Historians (1964), index; I. Friedlaender, Dubnow's Theory of Jewish Nationalism (1905); J. Fraenkel, Dubnow, Herzl, and Ahad Ha-am (1963); Pinson, in: S. Dubnow, Nationalism and History (19612), 1–65; J. Meisl, in: Soncino-Blaetter, 1 (1925/26), 223–47; idem, in: Festschrift zum siebzigsten Geburtstag (1930), 266–95; S. Brieman, Ha-Pulmos bein Lilienblum le-vein Aḥad Ha-Am ve-Dubnow ve-ha-Reka shello (1951); B.Z. Dinaburg-Dinur, in: Zion, 1 (1936), 95–128; E.R. Malachi, in: Sefer Shimon Dubnow (1954); S. Niger, in: yivoa, 1 (1946), 305–17; S. Goodman, in: Commentary, 30 (1960), 511–5.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Dubnow, Simon." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. 14 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Dubnow, Simon." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 14, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dubnow-simon

"Dubnow, Simon." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved August 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dubnow-simon

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.