Bernays, Marie (1883–1939)

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Bernays, Marie (1883–1939)

German Jewish social worker. Born in Munich, Germany, in 1883; died in a monastery in 1939.

Active member of the Deutsche Volkspartei; founded a school of social work in Mannheim (1919), serving as its director (1919–32); after the Nazi takeover, converted to Roman Catholicism.

From the mid-19th century until the Nazi takeover in 1933, Germany's Jewish population participated actively not only in the intellectual and cultural life of the country but also in its politics. While many were drawn to the Social Democratic and liberal parties because of their strong rejection of anti-Semitism, a smaller number of Jews were members of the major parties on the Right. A new conservative party that emerged after the German defeat of 1918 was the Deutsche Volkspartei (DVP), the German People's Party. Founded by the rising political star Gustav Stresemann, the DVP was strongly nationalistic but rejected anti-Semitism. During World War I, Stresemann had briefly appeared to be making concessions to the growing mood of anti-Semitism when he backed the idea of a census of Jews in the armed forces, a measure meant to "expose" Jewish lack of patriotic zeal. But when it became clear by the end of the war that the willingness of German Jews to die for the Fatherland was as strong as Germans of other faiths (12,000 Jews gave their lives in combat), Stresemann's new party strongly condemned anti-Semitic innuendos.

Among the Jewish members of the DVP was Marie Bernays, an exceptional personality during the brief flowering of German democracy known as the Weimar Republic. Bernays was born into a family that had converted to Protestantism and emphasized German cultural ideals. Her father taught the history of literature at the University of Munich. She chose a career in social work and together with Elisabeth Altmann-Gottheimer founded the School of Women's Social Work in Mannheim, serving as its director from 1919 to 1932. As a participant in the public life of the new German democracy that emerged after the defeat of November 1918, Bernays enjoyed sufficient status in her profession to be placed on the national list of the German People's Party in the Reichstag elections of 1920. Although she did not win a seat, her political reputation was enhanced by her spirited campaign. She did win a seat in the Landtag (Provincial Assembly) in 1921, serving until 1925.

Unafraid of controversy, Marie Bernays often appeared at debates to argue her conservative point of view. She was determined to open up dialogues with spokespersons of even the most radical viewpoints, and in April 1919 she organized a series of "sociological discussion evenings" with Eugen Leviné, a then-notorious revolutionary and one of the leaders of the short-lived Soviet Republic of Bavaria. Believing that in the long run the forces of reason and compromise would prevail over prejudice and violence, Bernays wrote countless articles and pamphlets on various contemporary themes, including the role of women in a democracy, the raising of children, and the best methods of implementing social welfare in a complex industrial society. Distressed both by the rightward drift of the DVP and the rise of Nazism, she entered a convent in 1933 and converted from Protestantism to the Roman Catholic faith. To the Nazis, Marie Bernays remained a Jew. Were it not for her death in 1939 of natural causes, we can speculate as to the unlikelihood that she would have survived the Holocaust.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia