Lessing, Theodor

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LESSING, THEODOR (1872–1933), German philosopher. Lessing was born in Hanover as the son of a prosperous physician and read history, philosophy, and medicine at Bonn and Munich. He converted to Lutheranism in 1895 as a student in Freiburg. From 1898 he turned back to Judaism, from 1900 to Zionism, criticizing the politics of assimilation. After a journey to Galicia in 1906 he also discovered East European Judaism (Eindruecke aus Galizien, 1906), following the Zionist discourse. After his doctorate in 1899, he was appointed professor of philosophy at the Technische Hochschule in Hanover in 1907. In 1906 he published his first philosophical work (Schopenhauer, Wagner, Nietzsche), criticizing the loss of values. His main philosophical works are Geschichte als Sinngebung des Sinnlosen (1919) and Europa und Asien (1918, enlarged 1924), a critique of the war, which was banned by the military authorities before being published. On the basis of the opposition of Europe (i.e., culture, "Gesellschaft") and Asia (i.e., nature, "Gemeinschaft") he clarified also his Zionist program. He followed this line of reasoning in his most famous book, Der juedische Selbsthass (1930, published by the Juedische Verlag), a historical-psychological study of Judaism as a minority in the Diaspora. He understood "self-hatred" as a "life killing malady" which psychologically consisted of adapting to the negative image of Judaism held by non-Jews. Lessing saw in the Jews an Asiatic people forced upon the European scene, and made to occupy a position between the cultures of two continents. He discovered the strength of the Jews in their closeness to nature and life's elemental roots: it was their tragedy that against their earthbound instincts history had cut them off from the soil, eventually causing a people of peasants to become overspiritualized and decadent. In the minority that had begun to trickle back to the eroded soil of Palestine, he saw the eventual recovery of both land and people. A member of Po'alei Zion, Lessing envisaged this recovery as a synthesis of Socialism and Zionism. Already in 1925 Lessing was subjected to antisemitic attacks, when he expressed opposition to Hindenburg's election as president of the Weimar Republic. In 1933 he flew first to Prague, then to Marienbad, where he was assassinated as one of the first victims of the Nazis. His memoirs, Einmal und nie wieder, were published in 1935 in Prague. His writings were reprinted after the war, among others the collection Ausgewaehlte Schriften (1995ff.).


E. Hieronimus, Theodor Lessing, Otto Meyerhof, Leonard Nelson, bedeutende Juden in Niedersachsen (1964), 9–57. add. bibliography: R. Marwedel, Theodor Lessing (1987); Zeitschrift fuer Religions- und Geistesgeschichte, 50 (1998); A. Boelke-Fabian, in: A. Kilcher (ed.), Metzler Lexikon juedischer Philosophen (2003), 321–24; J. Henrich, Friedrich Nietzsche und Theodor Lessing (2004).

[Sol Liptzin /

Andreas Kilcher (2nd ed.)]