The Jewish Emancipation in 19th century Germany

Essay add: 28-03-2016, 13:32   /   Views: 268
“[quote:9ac110ab46]Even more so will you have to ensure that in the midst of a tautly educated and bred race you won’t make yourself a laughing stock through walking about scruffily crooked and lop-sided? When, at last, you recognise your unconstructive build, the high shoulders, the clumsy feet, and the soft round overall build as signs of bodily ruin, you will for a few generations toil towards your outward rebirth.”# [/quote:9ac110ab46]Any reader of this text will automatically believe these are the words of an anti-Semite. They would be far wrong for this is taken from an article written by Walter Rathenau, a Jew, and later foreign minister of Germany during the Weimar Republic, who was assassinated in 1922 by anti-Semites. Walter Rathenau’s essay “Hoere Israel” is a good indicator of the problems of the integration of Jews into the German society, which was understood by many liberal Jews as the complete assimilation of Jews to the German way of life. This pursuit of assimilation is probably the most tragic event of Judaeo-German history after the holocaust. It goes hand in hand with the tragedy of the German Enlightenment which led to two world wars and the attempted annihilation of the European Jews. I will show in this essay how close German Enlightenment and the emancipation of the Jews are connected and how this led to severe problems in the Jewish population of Germany. Further I will try to evaluate the effect this had on post WW I Germany and the rise of national socialism.

The German Enlightenment and the emancipation of the German Jews

Already chronologically, there is a tight connection to the emergence of the German Enlightenment with figures like G.E. Lessing and Immanuel Kant and the emancipation movement of Jews with its archetype and figurehead Moses Mendelssohn, who was a contemporary of the above named. The 18th century saw a rise of rationalism which was the basis of the industrial revolution and civil revolutions in America and France. A strong emphasis was laid on the ability of the conscience to pursue moral integrity consequently moving away from any external moral authority. This sparked wishes for an enlightened emancipation of the lower classes from authoritarian rule across Europe, hence the French and American Revolutions and other uprisings of smaller scale.# This change of thought did not stop at the gates of the Jewish ghettoes and especially the higher strata of Jewish society believed that the right of full citizenship, which at last were granted to many parts of 18th century Christian society, should also be granted to Jews. The shift from the rigid “God-given” hierarchy to a belief in the equality of all human beings brought an awareness in society that all people are worthy of the same protection no matter what their ethnicity or religion may be. This insight, however, came at a cost. Lessing’s ring parable in his play “Nathan der Weise” was the first to express this new understanding of religious tolerance, with the three rings in the parable symbolising Christianity, Judaism and Islam of which none could be discerned as the true ring. It was further not clear if the true ring was even among them. The main character of the play was a Jew and it was “Moses Mendelssohn, of Dessau, whom Lessing immortalized in the figure of Nathan the Wise.”# The argument for tolerance sprung up from the concept that no religion had the complete truth, possibly even no truth at all, effectively reducing religion to the aesthetic.
For Christian Europeans this meant only losing part of their identity. Christians were the society; their rituals, festivals, legends and symbols were not only Christian but also German, French or English. The feeling of belonging of most Europeans was not bound to religion anymore, but bound to nationality. This was especially true for Germans, who were still fighting for a unified national state. Germans became foremost German with a history an ethnicity, and a religion uniting them. Their religion was only part of the picture and more and more felt that it was becoming redundant. Losing religion as a main factor of identity was therefore not a major blow to Christians, they had many other things to identify with.
This, however, was totally different for Jews. They had been denied becoming part of the German society and although they lived in Europe they had not been part of the process of building up a secular identity which was unconnected from religion. Their religion was their identity, mainly because the core of being Jewish is not having taken on any belief but being born into a people that are in a special relation, in a covenant with God. Further, the Jews had never been allowed to identify themselves with Europeans through constant persecution from the 12th century onwards#. The segregation from the rest of Europe meant that Jews had no other place to search for their identity but their religion and so this became the sole source and root of their identity. Adler writes that “Many Jewish emancipationists … were ready for the most far-reaching and rapid kind of accommodation: they were prepared to jettison everything- except their religion.”# Through the reformation of Jewish thought in liberal circles, though, Jews did just that and Walter Rathenau’s “Hoere Israel” is as a good as any proof. Therefore, through the new idea of tolerance and a new belief in equality through citizenship of a national state, Jews were in danger of losing this only source of their identity. This was to prove disastrous for the German Jews. Adler is quite right then to say that [quote:9ac110ab46]their religion, even if it were to become voluntary and profoundly reformed, could not be abandoned altogether if Jews were to remain Jews.[/quote:9ac110ab46] And if one takes Rathenau as an example for the emancipated Jews it is questionable if Jews had retained their religion. A further quote from “Hoere Israel” confirms this: “There is no distinction between the deism of a liberal protestant clergy and an enlightened Rabbi”#

Moses Mendelssohn the “archetype” of the assimilated German Jew

As said above there was a chronological link between the German Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation. Both fully emerged around the end of the 18th century, about 100 years later than the Enlightenment in Britain and America. This link was forged in the field of literature above all other between the great literati of the late 18th early 19th centuries; to name here, particularly, are Lessing and Mendelssohn, who had a deep friendship from about 1756#. This leads Altmann to write, “[quote:9ac110ab46]In many ways Mendelssohn was the first modern Jew, the prototype of what the world came to recognize as the specific character, for better or worse, of German Jewry.[/quote:9ac110ab46]”# Altmann recognises four areas in which Mendelssohn was the father modern Judaism.
The first is literature. Altmann argues that Mendelssohn rose to become one of the most elegant writers of the late 18th century, his “contemporaries , including Immanuel Kant and Johann Wolfgang von Goehte, admired his style.”# The new style created by him and the others named made it possible to put down a new legislative corpus by Frederick II.# Mendelssohn was very fond of the “sweet sound” of the German language and believed that he could only express his deepest thoughts in German. He even went so far as to portray Yiddish as [quote:9ac110ab46]a language of stammerers, corrupt and deformed repulsive to those who are able to speak in a correct and elegant manner[/quote:9ac110ab46]#, i.e. German. This attitude was in sync with the emphasis he put on good humanistic education (Bildung).# This was common with virtually all Enlightenment thinkers, and particularly German writers of the time. Mendelssohn dreamt the dream of [quote:9ac110ab46]the amalgamation of Judaism and the German spirit.[/quote:9ac110ab46]# Already his “Philosophical Dialogues” (1755) was a masterpiece of literature. Written under a pseudonym, it often was ascribed to Lessing until the real author, Mendelssohn, became widely recognised. He was the first in the line of great German-Jewish writers from him to Franz Kafka and Leo Baeck in the 1930’s.
Secondly, according to Altmann, Mendelssohn remained deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition. He was, though, not so much the Martin Luther but the Schleiermacher of Judaism. He remained with the faith of his fathers and gave it its modern face, critically redefining what he believed was a Judaism that had not changed since the Middle Ages while the rest of the world had moved on. He [quote:9ac110ab46]rejected mere reliance on authority and applied rational standards to the interpretation of biblical and rabbinic theology. [/quote:9ac110ab46]Mendelssohn’s turn to rationalism was in sync with much of protestant theology of his time, especially Schleiermacher. And just as many theologians of Christianity he wanted to speak of God in modern terms and on the basis of modern philosophy.
Further Altmann portrays Mendelssohn as the first great Jewish philosopher after Maimonides and the first fighter for Jewish civil rights in the context of the liberation of the European middle class, which started with Locke and Rousseau a hundred years earlier and his effect on philosophers of the next generation, like Kant#. The significance of Mendelssohn was that for the first time since the early Middle Ages a Jewish philosopher became a major influence on mainstream philosophy in Europe and particularly in Germany. Mendelssohn’s importance made possible a new dialogue between the Christian and the Jewish world in Germany, and although Jewish civil rights were not fully granted until 1871 in Germany, Mendelssohn enabled 19th century Jews and Christians to narrow the gap between them, in respect to civil rights.

Pressures to assimilate

Although Moses Mendelssohn chose assimilation freely, understanding himself fully a German and fully a Jew, many Jews were not so eager to give up as much of their heritage, as to better fit into German society. Many, though, chose to emancipate by assimilation, because they had no other choice to ease their fate. Jews up until the late19th century were not allowed to own land and were restricted to a certain fixed number of vocations, mainly those Christians were barred from doing due to church rulings. Often they were money lenders or merchants, occupations that did not require the ownership of land. On the basis of rights and duties of every citizen towards the state, Jews were granted more and more rights throughout the 19th century. They were allowed into the other occupations, which they had been barred from for over eight centuries. Together with the rights they received they also had to take on the duties of every citizen. The Enlightenment and its ideal of the national state based itself on Christian Europe and its institutions. Up until the late 18th centuries Jews, as long as they paid some form of tribute to the king or emperor, could handle their own communal and legal affairs. The new understanding of the national state did not have any time for an autonomous group within the state and so the minimal rights that were granted to the Jews, as an independent group within the state, were taken away. The national states, not intentionally but arising from their own tradition, were Christian and not secular. Therefore the duties that every citizen took on were basically based on Christian principles. One of the best examples is swearing exclusively on the Christian Bible in court, which was common until the beginning of the 20th century in most countries. For this reason many Jewish communities were left to decide if they would take the rights and concede many of their religious practices or if they would remain a now unwanted “state in the state” and be persecuted in the light of growing European and also German nationalism.# Weltsch discusses the intensive fight between emancipationists and anti-Semites, if Jews were there own nation or not with the anti-Semitic element persisting in the fact that that Jews were a nation to disqualify them from integration into the state. With these alternatives to choose from many Jews conceded. In 1812, the Jews were granted civil rights for the first time in Germany, precisely in Prussia.# Here Adler describes the reaction of the Jew in the following way, “the enthusiasm and gratitude of the Jews was great, and the abolition of rabbinical legislation was accepted without resistance, even of the Orthodox.
However, a larger number of Jews took assimilation even a step further. In the 19th century more and more Jews converted to Christianity. Although, they had been granted many rights, Jews were still barred from serving in the civil service. Most Germans still believed that the Jews were ethnically a nation and race. Consequently, Jews were seen as subversive and therefore were not allowed to take on state positions. This was true, even more strongly after the Napoleonic Wars, when many states revoked rights that already had been granted. Adler comments, [quote:9ac110ab46]In the military, rank above corporal was closed to Jews. Jewish eligibility for municipal or state posts was denied or revoked. [/quote:9ac110ab46]Jews who wanted to be lawyers, politicians or civil servants had to convert. Even Moses Mendelssohn’s sons converted to Christianity.

Problems Jews faced during the emancipation process

The problems the emancipation faced were twofold. The emancipation moved away from the traditionalists or orthodox, hence the gap between both grew with time. Those Jews who assimilated became more and more secular, often even forgetting their roots. They genuinely felt more German than Jewish, moving away from the ideal set by Moses Mendelssohn, an amalgamation of Jewish and German culture, towards complete identification with German values. However only the more privileged of the Jewish population took this path. The rest of Jewish society, especially in the east of Germany, did not join. Consequently, Jewish society split into two groups, now known as the Reformed and Orthodox synagogue. It was not a clear cut, but, basically, the further west Jews lived and the wealthier they were, the more likely they felt the need for emancipation by assimilation. Therefore the first problem Jews who assimilated faced was the orthodox in their own camp. The nationalism that spread through Europe did not stop at the gate of Jewish communities, and a strong nationalist movement grew out of the Jewish communities fighting for their own country, the Zionists. One of their first leaders was Hirsch; later the momentum picked up with the likes of Theodore Herzl. This, however, challenged all progress towards a full integration of Jews into German society.
Further, the integration was, factually, integration into the middle class of German society. Statistics of the beginning 20th century show a high proportion of Jews in typically middle class occupations. In 1907 over half the Jewish population worked in commerce and transport while a further 22% worked in the industry. This was out of proportion compared to the Gentile German population. Only about 30% of gentile Germans were working in commerce and transport, however again 30% in agriculture compared to 1.3% of Jews.# Jews over representation in these middle class occupations was due to the fact that they earlier had been barred from these, and hence as families, often past down the occupation from father to son, Jews never properly assimilated to German society, only to the middle class. As a result Jews could be categorized through their traditional occupations and integration never became a reality in Germany because they remained “moneylenders and capitalists” in the eyes of many Germans. This, particularly, shows the full scale of the tragedy of Jewish emancipation. As much as they tried, in the eyes of the gentiles they could never become one of them.

Overall, it can be said that the emancipation started out as a genuine attempt to leave the customs and traditions of the Middle Ages behind, in the same way as the Enlightenment from the end of the 17th century. In Germany the emancipation of the Jews took a tragic end, caught up between the orthodox Jews and anti-Semitic Germans. Many people say it was bound to fail because even if Jews would have converted they never would have been fully accepted by Germans as complete equals.


Adler, H.G., The Jews in Germany. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969
Altmann, Alexander, “Moses Mendelssohn as the Archetypal German Jew” in The Jewish Response to German Culture - J.Reinharz, W. Schatzberg (ed.). Hanover, London: New England University Press, 1985
Richarz, Monika (ed.), Juedisches Leben in Deutschland im Kaiserreich. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1979
Schulte, Christoph (ed.), Deutschtum und Judentum. Stuttgart: Reclam jun. GmbH&Co., 1993
Weltsch, Robert (ed.), Deutsches Judentum - Aufstieg und Krise. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1963
Wertheimer, Jack, Unwelcome Strangers. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987

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