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Germans, Jews, and Antisemites

Germans, Jews, and Antisemites
We have seen how the major changes and developments that swept across Europe in the Modern Age, led to the formulation of modern forms of antisemitism. Let’s further examine this by focusing on three specific areas - Germany, France and the Russian Empire. By doing so, we will see how the revolutionary changes of this time period along with the specific circumstances of each region, affected the way the Jews of Europe were treated and perceived. These three cases were chosen because of the distinct and important role each one of them played, in the way attitudes towards the Jews crystallized during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Let’s first turn to the German case.
We have already come across several antisemitic German thinkers such as Treitschke and Wagner. To them we can add the publicist and agitator Wilhelm Marr, who popularized the term antisemitism. During the 19th century, Germany had gone through major geopolitical and economic changes. Following the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and 1815, which restructured Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, a confederation of 39 states emerged in Germany. In 1871, the majority of these states were unified to form the German nation-state, known as the German Empire, led by the Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck. At the same time, the German region was also experiencing the accelerated industrialization and urbanization processes that characterized the rest of Europe at the time.
These changes led to discussions about the nation and its nature as well as the rapid changes happening in the world, especially economically and socially. These discussions were intertwined with questions about the place of the Jews in Germany. Perhaps the best point to begin the story of the 19th century anti-Jewish activities is immediately after the Congress of Vienna and the restructuring of Europe under these circumstances. At that time we also see a beginning of some forms of early industrialism. It’s not very noticeable in Germany at the time, but it begins to be ever more present during the first half of the 19th century, and then after the middle of the century takes on really with great dynamism and effectiveness.
Parallel to this, you see in Germany, from that point on, something that one can call ‘a German question’. That is, What is Germany? What would it be? And how would Germans make themselves into one single country in parallel to France and England in this respect? These countries had a national state, a nation-state but Germany did not. And so you have a process in which both industrialization and the growth of nationalism go hand in hand. And in this respect, the Jews and the anti-Jewish feelings have all kinds of functions. For instance, they play a role in a way as enemies to the basic German identity.
So if you need to define yourself, you can define yourself with the help of such an enemy. In Germany, for instance, the French played the role of the outside enemies and the Jews played the role of the inside enemy. And so you see repeated attempts to attack them as elements that undermine the unity of the German nation. And this kind of attack, this sort of anti-Jewish feelings, become ever more noticeable as we proceed with the 19th century. And after the unification of Germany by Bismarck in the 1870-71, this becomes ever more necessary to define this new country from within as a strong unified element. We may think that it’s not necessary to be so unified.
But if you’ve been for so long divided and ununified, then unification has a special meaning. And so Jews were the anti-unification element, so to speak, although, in personal terms, many of them of course were for unification just as their German neighbors. But as a unity, as an entity, they seem to be an ungerman element within this German society. So you have first of all this line but you also have the Jews as representing the modernity, the new, the changes, the industrialization, as representing the dynamism of the modern world that so many were afraid of - still are, that so many see as danger - still many do.
It seems to be a long process in which modernization in all its various forms arouses a great deal of fear and hatred. And this was channeled into anti-Jewish feelings in many ways. You notice that we are talking more about the function of antisemitism than about the content of antisemitism. It seems to be repetitious what people said against the Jews but the function that it played is unique for each period.
So in Germany you can see, for instance, the prophet of antisemitism in the 70s, late 70s, and beginning of the 80s in Germany, was also the prophet of national unification and unity a la Bismarck - Heinrich von Treitschke, the historian, or for instance the people on the other side, the side of industrialization and anti-industrialization, and men like Otto
Glogau who coined the term: “The Jewish question is the social question.” That is, he identified between his anti-Jewish position and his anti-industrialization position. He was addressing people who felt that they are ‘underdogs’ in the process of industrialization. And all these various forms of anti-Jewish thinking grew together. Into it comes of course the racial antisemitism, comes more from the intellectual side, more from the theories about racism or race that have developed at this period. And all these are overloaded upon the ancient traditional kind of Jewish hatred and create some new mixture.

Prof. Shulamit Volkov

Jews held an important and prominent place in 19th century Germany. Yet it is from this sphere that the term “antisemitism” emerges in the second half of the century.

How were the Jews perceived and treated in 19th century Germany?


  • Rose, Paul Lawrence, German Question/Jewish Question: Revolutionary Antisemitism from Kant to Wagner ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).

  • Volkov, Shulamit, Germans, Jews, and Antisemites: Trials in Emancipation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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