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Hess was born in Bonn, which was under French rule at the time. In his French-language birth certificate, his name is given as "Moises"; he was named after his maternal grandfather. Hess received a Jewish religious education from his grandfather, and later studied philosophy at the University of Bonn, but never graduated.
He was an early proponent of socialism, and a precursor to what would later be called Zionism. His works included Holy History of Mankind (1837), European Triarchy (1841) and Rome and Jerusalem: The Last National Question, (1862). He married a Catholic working-class woman, Sibylle Pesch, in defiance of bourgeois values. In socialist literature the idea was propagated that she was a prostitute 'redeemed' by Hess, but that notion has been refuted by Hess' biographer Silberner.
As correspondent for the "Rheinische Zeitung", a radical newspaper founded by liberal Rhenish businessmen (and for which Karl Marx also worked), he lived in Paris, fleeing to Belgium and Switzerland temporarily following the suppression of the 1848 commune and again during the Franco-Prussian war.
Hess originally advocated Jewish integration into the universalist socialist movement, and was a friend and collaborator of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Hess converted Engels to Communism, and introduced Marx to social and economic problems. He played an important role in transforming Hegelian dialectical idealism theory of history to the dialectical materialism of Marxism, by conceiving of man as the initiator of history through his active consciousness.
Hess was probably responsible for several "Marxian" slogans and ideas, including religion as the "opiate of the people." Hess became reluctant to base all history on economic causes and class struggle, and he came to see the struggle of races, or nationalities, as the prime factor of history.
After the failure of the revolutionary war in summer 1849 in Palatinate and Baden and the fall of Rastatt, the last refuge of the revolutionaries, the artillery commander Fritz Anneke (whose adjunct officer was Carl Schurz) and his wife Mathilde Franziska Anneke, who were old friends from Hess' Cologne days, close to Hess' friend Andreas Gottschalk and leading personalities of the Communist Club in Cologne, found temporary refuge in his home in Strasbourg before moving on to the United States.
From 1861 to 1863 he lived in Germany, where he became acquainted with the rising tide of German Anti-Semitism. It was then that he reverted to his Jewish name Moses in protest against assimilationism. He published Rome and Jerusalem in 1861. Hess interprets history as a circle of race and national struggles. He contemplated the rise of Italian nationalism and the German reaction to it, and from this he arrived at the idea of Jewish national revival, and at his prescient understanding that the Germans would not be tolerant of the national aspirations of others and would be particularly intolerant of the Jews. His book calls for the establishment of a Jewish socialist commonwealth in Palestine, in line with the emerging national movements in Europe and as the only way to respond to antisemitism and assert Jewish identity in the modern world.
Hess's Rome and Jerusalem: The Last National Question went unnoticed in his time, along with the rest of his writings. Most German Jews were bent on assimilation and did not heed Hess' unfashionable warnings. His work did not stimulate any political activity or discussion. Hess's contribution, like Leon Pinsker's Autoemancipation, became important only in retrospect, as the Zionist movement began to crystallize and to generate an audience in the late nineteenth century. When Theodor Herzl first read Rome and Jerusalem he wrote about Hess that "since Spinoza jewry had no bigger thinker than this forgotten Moses Hess" and that he would not have written Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) if he had known Rome and Jerusalem beforehand. Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky honored Hess in The Jewish Legion in World War as one of those people that made the Balfour declaration possible, together with Herzl, Rothschild and Pinsker.
Hess died in Paris in 1875. As he requested, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery of Cologne. In 1961 he was re-interred in the Kinneret Cemetery in Israel along with other Socialist-Zionists such as Nachman Syrkin, Ber Borochov, and Berl Katznelson. The moshav Kfar Hess was named in his honour.
- "You may don a thousand masks, change your name and your religion and your mode of life, creep through the world incognito so that nobody notices that you are a Jew yet every insult to the Jewish name will wound you more than a man of honour who remains loyal to his family and defends his good name."
- "Even an act of conversion cannot relieve the Jew of the enormous pressure of German anti-Semitism. The Germans hate the religion of the Jews less than they hate their race - they hate the peculiar faith of the Jews, less than their peculiar noses."
- "The race struggle is the primal one, and the class struggle secondary. The last dominating race is the German."
- "Yet it seems that a final race struggle is unavoidable"
- "The Messianic era is the present age, which began to germinate with the teachings of Spinoza, and finally came into historical existence with the great French Revolution."
- "To this coming cult, Judaism alone holds the key. This "religion of the future" of which the eighteenth century philosophers, as well as their recent followers, dreamed [...] Each nation will have to create its own historical cult; each people must become like the Jewish people, a people of God."
(Quotes from Rome and Jerusalem by Moses Hess)
- "The Christian... imagines the better future of the human species... in the image of heavenly joy... We, on the other hand, will have this heaven on earth."
- On Karl Marx: "Here is a phenomenon who has made an enormous impression on me although I work in the same field. In short prepare to meet the greatest, perhaps the only genuine philosopher now living who will soon have the eyes of all Germany upon him wherever he may appear in public, whether in print or on the rostrum. Dr. Marx, as my idol is called, is still quite a young man (aged about 24 at most) and it is he who will give medieval religion and politics their coup de grace, he combines a biting wit with deeply serious philosophical thinking. Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine and Hegel combined into one person—and I say combined, not blended—and there you have Dr. Marx."
Works by Hess
- Holy History of Mankind (1837)
- European Triarchy (1841)
- On the Monetary System (1845) could this title be "On the Essence of Money [Über das Geldwesen] see art and English trans in: Julius Kovesi, "Values and Evaluations", (Peter Lang, New York, 1998, American University Studies, ser V, vol 183) p. 127-207}
- Communist Confession of Faith (1846), London (do not confuse with Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith authored mainly by Engels and with minor help of League of the Just/Communist League leaders Wilhelm Wolff and Karl Schapper)
- Consequences of a Revolution of the Proletariat (1847)
- Rome and Jerusalem Leipzig: Eduard Mengler (1862)
- Letters on the Mission of Israel (1864)
- High Finance and the Empire (1869)
- Les Collectivistes et les Communistes (1869)
- The Dynamic Theory of Matter (1877)
- The Holy History and Mankind and Other Writings. ed. Shlomo Avineri (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
- The History of the Jews, Volume III, Graetz (1866 - 1867, into French)
- Edmund Silberer, Moses Hess. Geschichte seines Lebens (Leiden 1966), (in German)
- Shlomo Na'aman, Emanzipation und Messianismus. Leben und Werk des Moses Heß (Frankfurt a.M./New York,1982)(in German)
- Shlomo Avineri, Moses Hess: Prophet of Communism and Zionism (New York, 1985).
- Kay Schweigmann-Greve, Jüdische Nationalität aus verweigerter Assimilation. Biographische Parallelen bei Moses Hess und Chajm Zhitlowsky und ihre ideologische Verarbeitung. In: Trumah, Journal of the Hochschule for Jewish Studies Heidelberg, Vol 17, 2007 p. 91-116 (in German)
- Hess: The Holy History of Mankind and Other Writings (Frontmater of the book), ed. & trans by Shlomo Avineri (2004)
- Moses Hess (1812-1875), from the Jewish Agency for Israel
- http://www.steinheim-institut.de/edocs/kalonymos/kalonymos_2002_3.pdf#page=1 Kalonymos, Gregor Pelger: About the restoration of the Jewish state. Moses Heß (1812-1875)] Kalonymos, Gregor Pelger: "Zur Restauration des jüdischen Staates. Moses Heß (1812-1875)"(ger.)
- Jabotinsky: „The Jewish Legion in World War” (ger.)
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