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Siegbert Tarrasch: Chessplayer, Doctor, German, Jew by Harald E. Balló, Offenbach/Main, Germany.

Translated from the German by John van Manen , Australia with the help of Ken Whyld, England and Hanon Russell, USA.

In the life of the chess grandmaster and physician, Siegbert Tarrasch, the whole tragedy of the attempt of Jewish assimilation in Germany becomes clear, even if Tarrasch did not have to die in the gas chambers of Ausschwitz or Treblinka. On the basis of ongoing sociological research and work, the following thesis will be set forth and pleaded - that Tarrasch’s dogmatic and often hurtful way of expressing his convictions in an exaggerated pedantic method can only be understood when the special place of the Jews in the Empire and in the Weimar Republic are borne in mind. Unlike Emanuel Lasker or Savielly Tartakower, who - as we can definitely assume - must have realized sometime after the end of the First World War (which, just like Tarrasch, they endured on the side of the axis countries Germany and Austria) that an assimilation of the Jewry in Germany was impossible and who, therefore, after 1918, represented the cosmopolitan Jews from the German culture, Tarrasch reacted as chessplayer with the possibilities given to him by the anti-semitism of the Empire and by the Weimar Republic by an intensified assimilation. Still, in 1933, he completely misunderstood the anti-Jewish legislation that followed the taking of power by the National Socialists. His attitude up to his death was mainly characterized by trying to be a good German citizen and to serve his fatherland. Tarrasch’s dogmatism can quite easily be explained by his struggle for recognition as a Jew among Germans. There is much to say for the notion that Siegbert Tarrasch had an excessive need for public recognition in order to compensate for the feeling of social inferiority of the Jew. Up to now this explanation has not been sufficiently appreciated in historical chess literature. Its application, however, provides a completely new understanding of more recent chess history, with which the name of Tarrasch is closely connected.


Siegbert Tarrasch was born March 5, 1862 in Breslau (Polish Wroclaw) the capital of Silesia. Therefore, when only nine years-old in 1871, Tarrasch lived through the establishment of the German Empire, which was experienced by contemporaries as an epoch-making event. Breslau was the home of the largest Jewish community after Berlin and Hamburg. (Jaeckel, Eberhard et al. (Hrsg.), Enzyklopaedie des Holocaust, Band I, Argon Verlag, Berlin 1993, S. 240).

In particular, the established Jews of Breslau had lived in that town for two or three generations more as Prussians than Jews from other places. First of all because there prevailed in Silesia a Prussian tolerance, under which Jews, Poles, Sorbs, Roman Catholics and Protestants were relatively free within its borders as these were at that time. As a result, the Jews felt a strong bond with this state, which gave them, if not equal rights (in Prussia there was a three-class franchise that however was not specifically directed against Jews), at least freedom within their own sphere. Abraham Geiger, a liberal Jewish theologian and for a time rabbi in Breslau, described almost a hundred years earlier the attitude of the German Jews, which was connected with an almost insoluble conflict: "I love Germany, although its public organizations reject me, the Jew; does love require a reason? I feel myself, enveloped in its science, its total practice, and who would with impunity cut the nerve of his existence?"

Secondly, the established Jews tried to set themselves apart from the numerous immigrant eastern Jews in Breslau, the cultural center of the East, who were predominantly of proletarian origin. They were careful to stay to themselves in order not to upset the predominantly German character of the Jewish community of Breslau.

In Silesia, which was conquered from the Habsburgs by Frederick II of Prussia in 1741, people were proud of their German citizenship and saw themselves as spearheads against the Slavs of the East. In the center of the market place stood the monument of the honored king of Prussia. Frederick William III had taken up his quarters in Breslau during the war of liberation, had founded there the Iron Cross as a war memorial and prepared there the "Call to my People." That, before anything else, was taught as the history of Breslau to the school children. At excursions, the teachers took them to the battle fields of the Silesian wars; they visited the fortress Silberburg, built by Frederick II, admired the inns in which he had spent his nights and the tree where Frederick’s horse had stood ... . (nach Adolf-Henning Frucht und Joachim Zepelin: "Die Tragik der verschmaehten Liebe. Die Geschichte des deutsch-juedischen Physikochemikers und preussischen Patrioten Fritz Haber", in: Mannheimer Forum 94/95, Piper Muenchen 1995).

Tarrasch also belonged to that upper class of the Jews of Breslau, who after the founding of the German Empire were particularly careful to be good citizens. He attended the elite school of Breslau, the Elisabeth-Gymnasium, from which Anderssen also received his education, and passed his final examinations there at Easter, 1880. It becomes clear that Tarrasch, growing up in such an environment, certainly belonged to the Jews in the German Empire of that time, who believed that an assimilation of the Jews in Germany was possible and necessary. In any case, in later years Tarrasch took the trouble to prove time and again his membership in that group, and that he was a good German. Therefore E. von Parish called him in the "Muenchener Neuesten Nachrichten" (Munich Latest News), in view of his achievements at chess, the "Praeceptor Germaniae" (Teacher of Germany). He gave his eldest son the first name Fritz, after the honored king of Prussia. This can definitely be interpreted as another visible expression of Tarrasch’s integration efforts. The latent anti-semitism in the German Empire and the Weimar Republic (not a specifically German phenomenon; see the Dreyfuss affair in France in 1894) led to additional pressure to assimilate. An example of Tarrasch’s endeavor to be recognized as a German and of his attitude that gives the impression of being sensitive, occasionally paranoid, in face of the German public, which he again and again assumed to be discriminating against him because of his Jewish origin, is given by the following words spoken on the occasion of his good result at Hamburg 1885 (Tarrasch finished only half-point behind the winner, Gunsberg, sharing second place against very strong opposition): "Without reserve the foreign press acknowledged my result, in particular Zukertort in "Chess Monthly," and Steinitz in the "International Chess Magazine"... Only the German chess press, in particular Minckwitz in the "Schachzeitung," wrapped themselves in significant silence." (Tarrasch: "Dreihundert Schachpartieen" Veit und Comp., Leipzig 1895, S. 64).

Strikingly, Minckwitz was also editor of the Hamburg 1885 tournament book, published in 1886. Again and again, it becomes clear in the books and articles written by Tarrasch, that he wished nothing more fervently than to be recognized by his fellow citizens as a German. He saw himself completely as the successor to Adolf Anderssen, and it was certainly not an empty phrase, when he wrote: "... on the contrary, I regarded it as obvious that I had to stake my glory gained in Breslau [at the tournament of the 6th Congress of the German Chess League in Breslau 1889 Tarrasch was the winner; H.E.B.] at the next opportunity, just like Anderssen, the chessplayer’s ideal, always did". ("Dreihundert Schachpartieen," Veit und Comp., Leipzig 1895, S. 291).

And when Tarrasch won the tournament in Manchester in 1890, he stressed how pleased he was to have fulfilled the heart’s desire of many German chessplayers. (Ders., a.a.O., S. 295).

The psychological position in which Tarrasch and many of his contemporary Jews found themselves, was also that of a human being, who had to always prove that he, the Jew, belonged among them. For that reason he could not get enough recognition. And even when the long-famous "Augustea" of Leipzig, the time-honored chess club of Saxony, sent him a cable after his success in Manchester 1890: "The Augustea congratulates the foremost German master," he perceived it as discriminating, that in Germany he was only seen as the foremost master in Germany, and not - as in foreign magazines - already as World Champion. (Ders., a.a.O., S. 295).

He wanted not to be the leading German, but he wanted to be World Champion for Germany!

From his first marriage Tarrasch had five children, three sons and two daughters. Within a short period, 1914-1916, his three sons died. The eldest son, Dr. phil. Fritz Tarrasch, was killed on May 14, 1915, as lieutenant in the 15th Bavarian reserve infantry regiment in the First World War. Tarrasch’s second son committed suicide, while the third son died when run over by a tram in Munich in 1916. What a strong personality Tarrasch must have had and how far his need must have been for admission and recognition by the German public, becomes clear from the defiant encouraging lines, which he wrote in the autumn 1916 in spite of these heavy personal losses: "And secondly we note that notwithstanding all the terror of the World War, this distracts us so little, that our appreciation of mental pleasures is completely normal, and that, just as for other art, we still maintain a keen interest in the art of chess. The saying ‘inter arma silent musae’ (in war Muses are silent) has no validity with us. We are even doing well!" (Der Schachwettkampf Tarrasch-Mieses im Herbst 1916. Veit und Comp., Leipzig 1916, S. 7).

Nevertheless, these great misfortunes and personal losses within a few years certainly could have been the main reason that he lost his match with Emanuel Lasker in November/December of the same year by the clear score of 5.5-0.5.

After the divorce from his first wife Rosa Anna Tarrasch in 1924, Tarrasch married a second time and lived in Munich. In 1932 he published his own chess magazine. In the December, 1932 issue he wrote: "Can chess not finally become the national game of Germany? And what further prospects would present themselves then? What advance of the general cultural level, even moral, if the chess board replaced the card table! A real goal, worthy of the sweat of noble people!" Again a clear declaration.

Early in 1933 the Nazis managed to install Adolf Hitler as the Reichs Chancellor in the government, although at the last free election he had not been elected by the majority of the German population. To introduce their anti-semitic demands, it had set forth in the party program of February, 1920, the first legislative measures. The "Law to reintroduce the Professional Civil Service" of April 7, 1933, decreed that all non-Aryan civil servants had to be dismissed. Those, who already were officials as of August 1, 1914, who had fought at the front in the First World War for Germany or its allies or who were officials, whose father or sons were killed in that war, were excepted. A non-Aryan was everyone who descended from Jewish parents. In the chess world, the introduction of anti-semitic regulations followed the founding of the Greater German Chess League. "The Greater German Chess League has been established December 13, 1931. Its seat is Berlin...it...takes...as members only Germans of Aryan descent." (Ranneforths Schachkalender 1933, Hedewigs Nachf., Leipzig 1933, S. 113).

The German Chess League was finally - after its longstanding leadership resigned on July 9, 1933 on the occasion of a combined top meeting in Bad Pyrmont - more or less by force, amalgamated with the Greater German one. What did Tarrasch feel, when in the August, 1933 issue of his own chess magazine with reference to the Greater German Chess League and its new regulations, he had to write: "The Aryan paragraph has to be kept" (Tarraschs Schachzeitung, 1933, S. 334)?

Tarrasch still had been silent about his Jewish descent (which, however, everybody knew about).

At the start of 1933 the position and place of Jews in Germany was by no means clear and unequivocal, in spite of these first clearly anti-semitic measures of the National Socialists. And nobody in the population, whether on one (German) or the other (Jewish) side could have realized the deadly consistency with which the Nazis would proceed. And certainly not a Jew, who like Tarrasch, was concerned about assimilation and Germanization. It seems almost tragi-comic, how from the "German" side Hermann Ranneforth, the longstanding publisher of the "Schach-Kalender" and completely nationalistically oriented, in view of the evident ambiguity and the mutually logically contradicting ways of thinking of the National Socialists (here evident service of Jewish fellow citizens to the German life, but there anti-Semitic laws incorporating their racial segregation) delivered an intellectual tight-rope act without equal. Thus, on one hand he wrote in May 1933: "In comparison, Jewish members were always strongly represented in the chess clubs, and great international masters also emerged, who made the fame of German chess art known in the world," but to write on the other hand in the next sentence: "That will probably stop now." On one hand he wrote: "Meanwhile Jewish fellow members voluntary left all leading positions," as if these resigned from their offices voluntarily and without coercion, then to continue in the same breath, that Jewish office holders "could be certain no objections could be made against their persons, their way of thinking, and their management." (Deutsche Schachzeitung Mai 1933, S. 134 ff.).

Finally, in his contribution to the "Deutsche Schachzeitung" in May, 1933, quoted here, Ranneforth appears to be certain that life would go on for Jewish citizens in Germany, but with it he here also expressed an opinion irrational for chess players: "Whoever feels and acts like a German and therefore feels internally connected with the German people, why should we not accept him as a fellow compatriot?"

Tarrasch certainly also still believed in such a possibility of living together. Nothing indicates that he wanted to leave Germany. Undoubtedly he would have had the possibility to do so in view of his connections. For the time being he had of course nothing to fear, as he fell into the group of Jews whose nearest relations had fought at the front in the First World War. Perhaps he had a presentiment of evil, but nevertheless he, a German patriot of Jewish descent from Breslau, could not believe that Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich had already planned a long time ago the murder of the European Jews. In a note to a contribution by the veterinary surgeon, Dr. Kiok of Magdeburg, who for a time ran the business of the German Chess League, stating that "Chess, due to its high mental and cultural significance, could be made the national game of the united German people," Tarrasch refers in April 1933, almost imploring appealingly, to his own article in December, 1932, in which he had already advocated exactly the same idea ("Could Chess not finally become the national game of the German people?"). (Tarraschs Schachzeitung 1933, S. 223).

Therefore, as if he wanted to call himself and the others "Aryan" Germans, once more: "Look, I belong among You, don’t I? We want all the same, don’t we?". Another two years would still pass, until Sunday the 15th of September 1935, before laws were passed at Nuremberg under which the German Jews lost their political rights. The previous exceptions, applying to veterans of the First World War, and to civil servants, who had taken their jobs before 1914, were also cancelled. Tarrasch fortunately did not live to see this happen. He died February 17, 1934.

Ranneforth published an obituary in the "Deutsche Schachzeitung," in which yet again the strangely split attitude of that time with regard to Jews found expression, and in which Ranneforth broke the law of "Nihil nisi bene" (nothing but good ...), as everybody certainly would agree. Here the appreciation of the great chess player Tarrasch, there the almost obligatory need to discover in the deceased characteristic weaknesses from the point of view of the Nazi-ideology. "In the early hours of 17 February, shortly before the end of his 72nd year of life, Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch died...Friends...and some representatives of chess clubs in Munich attended the funeral service; the clergy was absent...This was the man, who, after Anderssen’s death, enhanced again and increased Germany’s chess reputation in the entire world to an undreamed-of high level and who by his literary work became the teacher of all, who played a role in international tournaments, even if they in due course went their own way...Intolerant and quite often unjust to critics, who did not permit him to silence them, but was himself a touchy person." (Deutsche Schachzeitung März 1934, S. 66 ff.).

Ranneforth, although appreciating quite well Tarrasch’s efforts on behalf of chess in Germany, still did not understand that Tarrasch during his life wanted to be German like the Germans.

Tarrasch’s road to assimilation and his strategy to withdraw from reverses and repeated disappointments by especially and conspicuously "being German" (as if anti-semitism was something rational, which could be refuted by clear explanation) led - in a socio-political retrospective view - not to a solution. However, it almost certainly led to Tarrasch becoming - in the current view - the "Praeceptor Mundi" (teacher of the world) of chess, more so than Nimzowitsch, Reti, Lasker or Steinitz ever could be. In the form of dogmatic rules, which he formulated for the whole world, he sublimated his need to be a German among the Germans (not a Jew among the Germans).

Fritz Haber, the founder of the Haber-Bosch procedure for ammonia synthesis, developer and organizer of the chemical war in the First World War, and inventor of the method to combat pests by using Prussic acid gas, was also a Jew from Breslau, belonging to the same generation as Tarrasch, and passed his final exams at the same gymnasium as he. About Fritz Haber, Albert Einstein wrote something that could be equally applicable to Tarrasch: "It was the tragedy of the German Jews, the tragedy of scorned love."

Siegbert Tarrasch was a German Jew, just as Wilhelm Steinitz was a Jew who grew up in the German culture sphere, to whom the chess world is much indebted! The persecution and murder of the European Jews, guided by the National Socialists and racists in Germany and elsewhere, can not dispute the fact of German-Jewish culture of that time. That was then certainly the second war aim of the Second World War that Adolf Hitler still could achieve. The complex connections of German Jewish history, not just in Silesia, deserve to be saved from oblivion for the sake of chess. From today’s viewpoint, chess history shows clearly that the development of „modern chess", starting in 1851 with Adolf Anderssen, can not adequately be described without mentioning the achievements of the German Jews Wilhelm Steinitz, Siegbert Tarrasch and Emanuel Lasker, in its at least until 1945 Central European, and with that principally as German characterized, context. This people can surely see now, in May 1996, 51 years after the capitulation of Nazi Germany.

And Siegbert Tarrasch from Breslau, truly "Praeceptor Mundi" of chess, would surely also have seen it that way.

© Harald E. Balló