Prophetic politics in transatlantic transfer. Discourses on prophecy in the Weimar Republic and in the USA from the 1940s to the 1960s

Organized by: Nitzan Lebovic (Lehigh University Bethlehem/USA), Daniel Weidner (ZfL)

A series of workshops will discuss the figure of the Prophet in the political theory of the 20th century. This figure attracted increasing attention in Christian and Jewish discourses around 1900. It stood for the democratic, but not liberal politics of the Weimar Republic and travelled across the Atlantic with exiles leaving German before the war. In the USA it still plays an important role in political discourses.

In his Science as a Vocation (1918) Max Weber warned of the »Kathederpropheten« [ex-cathedra prophets] who advocated a new form of sacred or healing teaching in their classes. A year later, Hermann Cohen identified the prophets as the founders of modern historical thinking, while Karl Jaspers examined prophetic philosophy as the only possible reformer of thought. Already in the early stages of the Weimar Republic one notes the barefoot prophets (Ulrich Linse), the healers and inflation-apostles. Prophecy had become an important model for different forms of intellectual politics.

The renaissance of messianism in the Weimar Republic implies also the revival of prophetic charisma. In that new reality, the figure of the prophet embodies, as a revolutionary or a reformer, the radical discourses of moral politics and shapes a whole set of related epistemological claims. The fascination with prophetic tropes goes, of course, further back. It belongs to the core differentiation between the faiths. In the context of modern Germany, it resurfaced in a powerful way with Adolf von Harnack, the Hermann Cohen and Ernst Troeltsch debate, and the rise of Cultural Zionism with Martin Buber, to name just a few obvious examples. An analysis of prophetic politics is a topical issue at a time of de-secularization of politics and of a fashionable revival of Carl Schmitt’s political theology, by both conservative and progressive thinkers. From the perspective of prophetic politics, it is not sufficient to talk about religious rhetoric in relation to concepts such as hegemony and control; it is equally as important to consider its appearance in law and different forms of popular resistance, not only as mere gesture, but in the form of specific rhetorical practices.

A first workshop was held in Berlin in June 2017 that focused mostly on references to an elitist and theoretical form of political prophecy in the Weimar Republic. A second workshop, in New York, will follow the prophetic figure across the ocean, as it moves, with A.J. Heschel, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich, to the American context. Here, historians believe, prophetic politics became more vernacular and more democratic. The second workshop will examine how and where the radical intellectual figure meets with other traditions of prophetic speech, such as the American Jeremiad, Walt Whitman’s transcendental prophetic plea, or Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s use of prophetic tropes for the sake of concrete social and political reform.
Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) to Support the Initiation of International Collaboration 2017–2018
Head researcher(s): Nitzan Lebovic (Lehigh University Bethlehem/USA), Daniel Weidner (ZfL)


Nitzan Lebovic, Daniel Weidner (ed./eds.)

Prophetic Politics

Political Theology. Special Issue. Vol. 21 (2020) Nr. 1–2
Taylor & Francis, 2020, 168 pages
ISSN: 1462-317X (Print), 1743-1719 (Online)
  • Nitzan Lebovic, Daniel Weidner: “Introduction”, in: N.L., D.W. (eds.): Prophetic Politics. Political Theology. Special Issue. Vol. 21 (2020) Nr. 1–2. Taylor & Francis 2020 (here on:
  • Nitzan Lebovic: “The Jerusalem School: The Theopolitical Hour,” in: New German Critique 105, Vol. 35, No. 3. Durham: Duke University Press 2008, 97–120

See also


13 Jul 2018 · 12.30 pm

Daniel Weidner: Prophetic Politics

Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung, Südliches Schloßrondell 23, 80638 München

read more
Workshop in Berlin
28 Jun 2018 · 9.30 am

Prophetic Politics as Alternative Political Theology. Pluralizing Horizons of Conceptualizing Religion and Politics

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Seminarraum 303

read more
Workshop in New York
13 Sep 2017 – 14 Sep 2017

The Power of the Future. Prophetic Politics between Political Crises and Civil Rights

Center for Jewish History New York, 15 West 16th Street, New York 10011 (USA)

read more
Workshop in Berlin
29 Jun 2017 – 30 Jun 2017

Ethical Idealism, Charisma, and Cultural Critique: Prophetic Politics in the Weimar Republic

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Seminarraum 303

read more