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A provocative and insightful analysis that sheds new light on one of the most puzzling and historically unsettling conundrums
Why did the Holocaust happen in Germany, of all places? How did a country known for its culture and refinement turn so rabidly anti-Semitic? Why did a nation where Jews had full civil rights and many opportunities--a place that Jews had eagerly flocked to in the early twentieth century to escape racist persecution in ...
A provocative and insightful analysis that sheds new light on one of the most puzzling and historically unsettling conundrums
Why did the Holocaust happen in Germany, of all places? How did a country known for its culture and refinement turn so rabidly anti-Semitic? Why did a nation where Jews had full civil rights and many opportunities--a place that Jews had eagerly flocked to in the early twentieth century to escape racist persecution in Poland and Russia--turn upon them so violently just a few decades later? Countless people have grappled with these questions, but few have come up with answers as original and perceptive as those of German historian Götz Aly. Tracing the prehistory of the Holocaust--from the 1800s to the Nazis' assumption of power in 1933--Aly shows that German anti-Semitism did not originate with racist ideology or religious animosity, as is often supposed. Instead, through striking statistics and economic analysis, he demonstrates that it was rooted in a more basic emotion: material envy.
Aly's groundbreaking account of this fatal social dynamic opens up a new vantage point on the greatest crime in history and is sure to prompt heated debate for years to come.
A HALFHEARTED INITIATIVE FROM ABOVE
On August 6, 1806, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation disappeared from the face of the earth. It had survived for a thousand years, but in the end it collapsed with barely a whimper under the pressure of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Goethe succinctly noted: “Despite everything, [its death] produced a sad sensation in me.” Contemporaries didn’t know it at the time, but they were standing on the threshold of a stormy epoch. Before long, people would be ripped out of the usual patterns of their lives, and age-old knowledge, artisan skills, and established customs would become worthless. Hundreds of small duchies and autonomous territories would be dissolved with the stroke of a pen. Interdependence established over generations would cease. Common people would become less and less religious, and the church’s influence on everyday society would fade.
Secularization proceeded rapidly in the south and west of German-speaking Europe. The dismantling of religious institutions such as monasteries would later be described as a “benevolent [form of] violence” and seen as part of the Enlightenment reform movement, a view that ignored the countless and sometimes crude cases of disappropriation benefiting university libraries, portrait galleries, and state coffers—as well as ordinary people. In Bavaria, tradesmen and farmers built spacious houses from the bricks of demolished convents, monastery chapels, and other buildings. At the same time, enlightened aristocrats and the bourgeois modernized legal codes and advanced economic change. The Vienna Congress of 1814–15 temporarily put the brakes on innovation, shored up traditional authorities, and protected agricultural, artisanal, and patrician conservatism in the face of Western European modernism. Yet this only delayed the Industrial Revolution in Germany, and when it did get under way, it was all the more turbulent, sealing the demise of many older traditions.
Compared with progress in the the Habsburg Empire and Russia, the emancipation of German Jews began early. Yet unlike in France, this emancipation was not enacted on a single day but rather was drawn out over the span of more than a hundred years, from 1806 to 1918. What was particularly German about this process was that Jewish emancipation remained a topic of debate for so long. German society took one step back for every two steps forward. There was also a discrepancy between the legal situation and the reality, especially when it came to government and military service. In a certain limited sense, this stop-and-go process can be compared to the emancipation of African Americans during and after the Civil War in the United States. Things were made immeasurably more complex, however, by the fact that Germany did not even exist as a nation-state until 1871. Rules and regulations governing Jews differed wildly in the thirty-seven individual states that made up the German Confederation, as well as within the (partly overlapping) Kingdom of Prussia and from city to city.
Prussia exemplifies both the drawn-out nature of Jewish emancipation and the reasons why the general population often greeted it with resistance. After Prussia came under Napoleonic domination, the Cities Ordinance of November 19, 1808, lifted guild restrictions and guaranteed all citizens the right to pursue the trades of their choice, regardless of class, birth, or religion. Laws drafted by Prussian reformer Karl August von Hardenberg and enacted on November 2, 1810, and September 7, 1811, bolstered those rights. Such laws were aimed at unleashing entrepreneurial spirit, encouraging competition, and mobilizing capital, yet according to historian Friedrich Meinecke they “were vehemently opposed by those who were supposed to benefit from them.”1 Far from welcoming the reforms, most German Christians considered them “a plague.” Jews, however, seized upon their new freedom to practice trades of their choice and to better themselves economically.
Longstanding prejudices barred Jews from running apothecaries or operating public scales, but those trades turned out to be less and less significant as time went on. Thus, even at this early stage, a peculiar situation arose. Most Jews were enthusiastic about change, while most Christians viewed it with hesitancy. Traditionally submissive to feudal lords and clergymen, German Christians were far less able to exploit the state’s encouragement of personal initiative than their Jewish peers.
The contrast between Jewish entrepreneurial spirit and Christian readiness to obey authority was similar to that between Jews’ desire for freedom and Christians’ fear of it. Taking risks is part of freedom, and precisely that frightened the Christian majority. Old certainties collapsed under the massive force of economic freedom and the Industrial Revolution, and most Germans experienced legal and material progress as personal loss. By contrast, Jews had little to lose from the dissolution of the old world of guilds and castes, pastors and patricians, the mob and the aristocracy—and everything to gain from a new, wide-open future. Despite starting from a position of material poverty, they put their faith in their intellectual assets and attained material success with admirable speed. To speak in everyday language: they got somewhere in life.
On March 11, 1812, as Prussia was preparing to enter the military coalition that would eventually throw off the yoke of Napoleon, King Friedrich Wilhelm III signed an edict, drawn up by Enlightenment intellectual Wilhelm von Humboldt, entitled “Concerning the Civic Relations of Jews.” Against “the stubborn resistance of the monarch,” his chancellor of state, Karl August von Hardenberg, pushed through the reform and was “pleased” to announce it to the Jews of Prussia. They, in turn, somewhat optimistically saw the new law as “a complete declaration of liberty” and celebrated it “with ceaseless jubilation.”2 The edict granted Jews citizenship and the right to serve in Prussia’s armed forces. It also reaffirmed that they could work in trades of their choosing and could own property. But Jews remained excluded from the officer ranks in the military and were restricted in the governmental and electoral functions they could perform. Paragraph 3 of the law also mandated that they adopt last names. Some chose traditional Jewish tribal and caste names (Levi, Cohn); other used the places from which they hailed (Bamberger, Sinzheimer); others were simply given animal designations (Wolf, Katz, Kuh) by Prussian bureaucrats with a fondness for the “cruel popular humor of the Germanic tribes.” No small number of Jews followed romantic fashion and took names that paid tribute to the beauties of nature (Feilchenfeld, Silberklang, Rosenzweig, Lichtblau, or Blumenthal).3
If we compare Jewish emancipation in Germany not with France but with neighboring Russia, which encompassed much of what is today Poland, progress was quick. For Jews living in the Russian Empire, who were restricted in their freedom of movement and subject to recurring pogroms, post-1812 Prussia was a near paradise of legal guarantees and social opportunity—even though advances there were not without setbacks. During the post-Napoleonic Restoration, starting with the Congress of Vienna in 1814, the Prussian government retightened some of the restrictions. In 1822, for example, Jewish citizens were prohibited from teaching school “because of the infelicities that have been shown when they do so.”4 Still, in the unrest from 1830 to 1849, Prussia again reversed course and loosened some of the constraints.
In some German-speaking states, the first steps toward full equality for Jews under the law began only after 1860. On July 3, 1869, the Alliance of Northern German States adopted the Law concerning the Equality of Confessions, and it was binding for the united German nation created in 1871. Its two key sentences read: “All still-existing restrictions on civic and citizenship rights based on differences of religious creed are hereby revoked. In particular, eligibility for participating in local and national political representation and holding public office is declared to be independent of religious creed.”5
Consequently, the 1870s saw some movement toward accepting Jews into public service and the higher ranks of the military, though it diminished by 1880. Ten years later, Paul Nathan—one of the leading Jewish political activists in the late Wilhelmine period—determined that most government administrations no longer had any Jewish members. In 1901, Prussian minister of justice Karl Heinrich Schönstedt was called before parliament to explain why he had yielded to conservative pressure and was no longer appointing any Jewish notary publics. He justified himself by claiming the judicial administration was “the only one that hired Jewish assessors at all.” “All other state administrations,” he said, “refuse to take on Jewish gentlemen.” At that juncture, there was not a single Jewish career officer in the Prussian military, nor had any Jew been promoted to officer rank in the reserves since 1886. In 1911, the secretary-general of the Association of German Jews, Max Loewenthal, again tried in vain to find a single Jewish officer in the Prussian army. A scandal comparable to France’s Dreyfus affair was impossible in Germany. There were no such Jewish officers whom German anti-Semites could have denounced, degraded, and hounded from the service.6
As documents from the various parliaments and governmental administrations amply demonstrate, tacit discrimination had become part of the German civil service, even though it officially contradicted the letter of the law. Those in power during the Wilhelmine era (1870–1918) publicly denied discriminating against Jews, even as they encouraged the practice everywhere in the everyday running of government offices. Here and there, they may have tolerated a “concessional Jew”—a term that was actually used. But as a rule, they behaved as the city fathers in the town of Ueckermünde did in 1904, when they failed to fill a vacant teaching spot. In the words of the town chronicle: “No appropriate candidate answered the announcement, only a Jew. As this was not desired, the town faced a desperate situation.”7
Still, as hesitant as Christians were to accept Jews as full-fledged fellow Germans, Jews were protected from violence and economic discrimination. That aided their rise between 1810 and 1870 from underprivileged subjects to active and successful citizens. One powerful symbol of Jews’ increasing status was the New Synagogue in the central part of Berlin. The building was completed well before full legal emancipation was achieved, and its golden dome complemented those of the royal palace and the still rather modest Protestant cathedral. No other major European metropolis featured a comparable architectural expression of Jewish self-confidence. (“The biggest and most splendid ‘church’ in the German capital is a synagogue!” hissed Heinrich von Treitschke in 1870.) The royally appointed architect August Stiller had overseen the beginning of its construction in 1859, and the opening ceremony on September 5, 1866, was attended by city and state elites, including Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck. It was an uplifting and inspiring ceremony, with only one prominent, and telling, absence: His Christian Majesty King Wilhelm I. Judaism was not deemed equal to the Christian faiths, as it was, for example, in the Netherlands. Nor would it be granted the status of a Religionsgemeinschaft—a kind of state sanction for religions deemed to be legitimate—until after 1918. From 1871, German legislation guaranteed individual Jews equality before the law. But as a group bound by their religion, they were still only tolerated.
SELF-EMANCIPATION VIA EDUCATION
The start-and-stop emancipation of Germany’s Jewish minority matched the sluggishness of German reforms in general. Yet in contrast to the majority of Christians, who tended toward passivity, German Jews actively emancipated themselves, and they did so with remarkable speed, identifying and using what opportunities there were as they became available. With its halfhearted reforms, its slow economic growth before 1870, and its strong legal protections, Germany was a place that rewarded individual initiative and the spirit of entrepreneurship.
Unlike in the agrarian past, when people’s social status usually remained constant, modern men needed curiosity, inventiveness, cleverness, adaptability, social intelligence—and, above all, education. From the very beginning of the nineteenth century, it was obvious that Jewish pupils had a relatively easy time acquiring the skills that would be necessary in the new culture: reading, writing, and mathematics. Unlike most Christians their age, Jewish boys learned to read early on, even if it was usually religious texts in Hebrew. They were born, so to speak, not with a silver spoon in their mouths but with an intellectual legacy. “A village without a school should be abolished,” reads the Talmud. Thus, in 1911, Arthur Ruppin could write of impoverished Eastern European Jews: “Even among the poorest classes in Eastern Europe, the necessity of learning and knowledge, at least for a family’s sons, is so accepted that there are thousands of poor artisans and merchants in Galicia who spend one-tenth to one-sixth of their weekly income (from one to six guilders) on the melamed (teacher of Hebrew and other basics).”8
The thirst for knowledge was a by-product of the Jewish religion and a response to centuries of legal disempowerment. Young Jews learned how to think abstractly, pose critical questions, and ponder various possibilities. They honed their intellects on books, by communally reading, interpreting, and debating Holy Scripture. The practice of their religion was a form of mental exercise, and thus they became mature in Kant’s political sense. In addition, most Jews could speak two or three different languages with various forms of grammar and expressive subtleties, and they frequently used both the Hebrew and the Latin alphabets. Young men who had been schooled this rigorously possessed a broad, expandable intellectual basis that allowed them to use education to climb the social ladder. In 1743, as a fourteen-year-old boy growing up in the city of Dessau, the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn not only knew how to read and write but was fluent in Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, and German. In the fall of that year, Mendelssohn moved to Berlin, following his beloved teacher, Rabbi David Fränkel. Legend has it that when the watchman who admitted him to the city asked what he intended to do in Berlin, his reply was: “Learn.” (The watchman, for his part, noted: “Today six oxen, seven pigs, and a Jew passed through Rosenthal Gate.”) Mendelssohn went on to achieve wealth as a silk manufacturer and fame as a man of letters.9
Representatives of the Jewish community were quick to realize how important systematic instruction would be for future generations. They placed great emphasis on Jewish children’s learning good German and founded commercially oriented Jewish schools in cities like Berlin, Breslau, Hamburg, Dessau, Seesen, and Frankfurt am Main. These institutions shared the main goal of “reducing the misery and contempt under which we suffer and sigh.”10
The attitude of Christian clergymen was very different. They emphasized rote memorization of canonical beliefs, dismissed debate as Satan’s work from which they had to protect laymen, and rarely showed much interest in the systematic education of members of their flocks. A Christian family of peasants, in which few members could read and write, would typically need two or three generations of elementary education before the first member would succeed in gaining an academic degree, and even then it would be decades before that person and his offspring would feel comfortable with their new social position. As late as the twentieth century, it was still common for Christian parents to warn their offspring: “Reading is bad for your eyes!”
In contrast to Jewish educational institutions, German public schools long lacked a solid material and intellectual foundation. Friedrich Wilhelm I may have introduced compulsory education in Prussia in 1717, but the initiative, underfunded, would not bear any real fruit until the second half of the nineteenth century. Classrooms were overcrowded, and incompetent teachers were interested more in pocketing school fees than in passing on knowledge. Decommissioned and invalid soldiers, building superintendents, aging carriage drivers, and failed artisans often took up “the career of the beater,” as it was known, enforcing their wills with cane blows and boxed ears. Instruction under such headmasters in the countryside, as one contemporary observed, “rarely went beyond learning how to spell.”11
At the First General German Teachers’ Conference, held in Erfurt in 1876, the chairman, Julius Berger, called for universal corporal punishment. Punitive pedagogy, he argued, was necessary to overcome “roughness and wild spirits, laziness and dissipation, the presumptuousness of adolescents and their precocious maturity.” A contemporary critic noted: “I knew that the pedagogy of school beatings had many advocates in Germany. But only in Erfurt did I realize that almost everyone supported it. Children are educated not to be free but to submit.”12
Many Christian parents, together with leading clergymen in both of the main Christian denominations, rejected the idea of children’s receiving public education. Aristocrats feared that it might prompt their subjects to rebel. Community mayors opposed compulsory education “partly because of poverty, partly because of greed, and partly because of their own crude intellects.” Never a great friend of public education, King Friedrich II decided in 1779 that Berlin should import some dedicated schoolmasters from abroad, as long as they weren’t “too expensive.” In the countryside, though, it was enough for children to be able to read and write a bit. “If they know a lot,” the king reasoned, “they will run to the cities and want to become state secretaries or something.”
Friedrich soon sacrificed his subjects’ public education in favor of building up Prussia’s military might. A series of educational initiatives were launched in Prussia at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but they were restricted to universities and university-track academies (Gymnasien). Expansion of public schools and systematic training for teachers never got beyond the initial stages, and as of 1840, Prussia once again began to sink in a reactionary swamp. A few statistics suffice to illustrate the state of education in Christian Prussia in 1870. Of thirty-six thousand school teaching positions, three thousand were unoccupied, and twenty thousand were paid worse than those of court bailiffs or train station attendants. Meanwhile, the average class size was eighty pupils per teacher, twice what it was in Switzerland.
In 1848, delegates to the Frankfurt Assembly—the constitutional gathering at which representatives from the various German states had tried and failed to unify Germany as a democratic nation—made a series of educational demands. “Knowledge and its teaching are free,” one statement had read. “Instruction and education are the province of the state and are, with the exception of religious instruction, to be raised above the supervision of clergymen. No fees should be levied for instruction in public schools.”13 But it took several decades for actions to be taken toward realizing this ideal; the expansion of the public education system began to slowly make progress only in 1872, as Prussia tripled its expenditures for schools, teacher salaries, and training seminars. And it took even more time for the belated state initiative to produce concrete results. In 1886, educational reformer Eduard Sack determined that 14 percent of Prussians over the age of ten had never seen the inside of a classroom. And most of those who had received instruction, he claimed, “could only read and write at remedial levels.” Basing his findings on official sources from 1876, Sack estimated the percentage of pupils capable of basic mathematics and elementary reading and writing skills as “20 percent at the most.”14
Even at a glance, school statistics highlight the contrast between Christian neglect of education and the energetic, even aggressive Jewish approach to learning. In 1905, the edition of a journal put out by the newly founded Office of Jewish Statistics in Berlin was titled The Role of Jews in the Instructional System in Prussia. One of the authors was Arthur Ruppin, who in 1904 founded the Association for Jewish Statistics and published a number of studies about the demographic and social life of German Jews. He continued to explore the theme in the second edition of his book Jews Today (Die Juden der Gegenwart), published in 1911.
The statistics concerning Prussian schools and universities that Ruppin collected and analyzed in the early twentieth century yield a clear picture of the differing speeds at which German Christians and Jews took advantage of education. In 1869, 14.8 percent of pupils at university-track secondary schools came from Jewish families, while 4 percent of the population said they were of Jewish faith. In 1886, 46.5 percent of Jewish pupils in Prussia earned degrees above those of simple trade schools. By 1905, that number rose to 56.3 percent. The comparable figures for Christian pupils in the same period were just 6.3 and 7.3 percent, respectively. Thus, compared with their Christian peers, Jewish pupils were around eight times more likely to earn a better class of secondary-school degree. Gentile pedagogical reformers like Friedrich Dittes praised Jews’ “excellent talent and lively interest in intellectual work” and their “extremely enthusiastic” participation in educational issues: “Parents stress the importance of learning to their children and carefully monitor their progress. Not infrequently, those children are well ahead of their Christian schoolmates in terms of intellectual curiosity and persistent diligence.”15
What also clearly emerges from the statistics is how concerned Jewish parents were that their daughters be educated as well. In 1901, in terms of their proportion of the overall population, 11.5 times as many Jewish girls went on to higher grades as their Christian counterparts. Depending on their ages, the former often behaved in “unruly and precocious fashion” and received middling marks for diligence and conduct. Many teachers complained that their Jewish pupils were too interested in “social diversions.” But they studied hard and ended up with excellent marks.
The statistics cited above reflect average differences in education among Christians and Jews in German society. In some districts of Berlin, the provinces of East Prussia, Posen, and Silesia, and in the Prussian part of Saxony, the percentages of Jewish and Christian students at Gymnasien and university diverged much more widely. For instance, in 1910, the vast majority of sixth-grade pupils at the Mommsen Gymnasium in Berlin were of the Jewish faith. “Intellectual arrogance was not entirely absent, but there was good camaraderie,” philosopher Rudolf Schottlaender recalled. “The teachers, too, avoided any anti-Jewish remarks, although almost all of them were Gentiles.”16
* * *
Naturally, pupils who did well at Gymnasien often continued to have success at university. In 1886–87, Jews accounted for 10 percent of Prussia’s university students, although by then Jews made up only around 1 percent of the total population. Official statistics also showed that Jewish students had the lowest average age, while Catholic students had the highest, with Protestants in the middle. Prussian statisticians did not comment on this striking finding other than to note: “Jewish students seem on average to have better abilities and develop more diligence than Christians.”17
In 1902, the confessional makeup of Prussia’s students also attracted the attention of the educational reformer and philosopher Friedrich Paulsen. In terms of educational zeal, Paulsen determined, Catholics lagged more than 50 percent behind their Protestant peers, and Jews were far ahead of both. “The causes for the disproportional participation of the Jewish population at university are obvious,” Paulsen wrote. Among Jews, he said,
there is a strong urge to improve one’s social position, and a university education is the most readily available, indeed the only way forward, since careers in the army are forbidden. One should also not overlook the fact that the Jewish population possesses intellectual curiosity and excellent strength of will, paired with a talent for accepting sacrifices in pursuit of a goal. Thus it is that they send a disproportionate contingent to secondary schools and universities, even though they subsequently encounter difficult and sometimes insurmountable obstacles in their chosen careers, particular in the civil service. As a consequence, those who are rejected push their way into the careers that are open to them, becoming doctors, lawyers, and academics.18
Jewish enthusiasm for education was noticeable not only in Germany. The picture was similar at Gymnasien in Prague. There, too, even relatively impoverished Jewish merchants strove to give “the best possible education to their sons.” This, recalled philosopher Hans Kohn in his memoirs, was “characteristic of Jewish parents and indicative of their respect for learning.”19 The same hunger for knowledge could be observed in Vienna, Kaunas, Budapest, and the parts of Russia in which Jews were allowed to settle. In 1870, when the first classical academy opened in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, 38 Christian and 105 Jewish pupils passed the entrance examinations. Around the same time, it was reported from Odessa: “All the schools are full, bottom to top, with Jewish pupils, and to be honest, the Jews are always the best in their class.”20
Thinking back on his adolescence in the town of Motol, near the Belarusian city of Pinsk, the first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, recalled that education was not compulsory for the children of Russian peasants around 1880. Some attended school every once in a while, while others didn’t go at all. Jews, however, sent all of their sons to school so that they “achieved a high level of formal education.” Weizmann concluded: “The non-Jewish population simply didn’t possess the overwhelming thirst for knowledge that made Jews constantly pound on schoolhouse doors.”21 Weizmann himself, who came from a desperately poor family, got his secondary school degree in Pinsk, before studying chemistry at the University of Darmstadt in Germany.
Around 1900, the Russian Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem had one of his most well-loved heroes, Tevye the Milkman, say of his daughter Hodel: “She gleams like a piece of gold, and to my misfortune, she also has a keen mind. She writes and reads Yiddish and Russian and consumes books as though they were dumplings. You’ll be asking yourself: How does Tevye’s daughter get hold of books, when her father deals in butter and cheese?” Tevye also relates anecdotes about other young people, the children of tailors and cobblers, who attend Gymnasium and university: “You should see the endurance and diligence they display when studying.… They live in attics, eat pestilence and bad luck for lunch, and then have sickness for dessert. They don’t see a scrap of meat for months. And if there’s a party, six of them will chip in and share a roll and a herring.”22
During the 1913–14 school year, a Viennese teacher named Ottokar Nemecek looked into the relative educational success of Christian and Jewish students. He didn’t investigate what percent of each group went on to study at the next level—the trend was too obvious. Instead, he looked into what specific areas each group excelled in. He evaluated the grades received by 1,539 male and female students at three Vienna secondary schools. In addition, he conducted various tests with several hundred pupils to determine their cognitive abilities, in particular their verbal skills, memory, and the speed with which they could draw associations and put them into writing.
Jewish students excelled at the tests, while their marks for conduct were below average. The reason for this, Nemecek concluded, resided in “the greater liveliness of Jews, who, as every teacher will attest, are much more prone than Christian pupils to chatter and cause disturbances.” Likewise, the marks Jewish students received for diligence were significantly worse than those given to their Christian classmates, and yet there was a higher percentage of Jews than Christians (26 to 16) among those who had received an overall grade of “very good” or “good.” Jews were hardly represented (4 versus 23 percent) among students who had been deemed merely “passable.” Jewish pupils consistently achieved better results in German, French, English, and history, and that pattern was the same in math, chemistry, and physics, as well as commercial and legal subjects.
For Nemecek, these were the subjects that primarily tested pupils’ intelligence, and he saw as the explanation for the divergence “the greater maturity of Jewish pupils’ ability to think abstractly” together with their quickness of wit, speed in writing, larger vocabularies, and greater emotional alertness. The only subjects in which Christian pupils did better than their Jewish peers were drawing, penmanship, and gymnastics. Nemecek was interested more in collecting data than in investigating the reasons behind them. But he did note what he felt were the main possibilities suggested by his findings: “It cannot be determined here whether we are dealing with an innate proclivity or the product of a milieu in which some children are from an early age witness to and participants in a more lively intellectual exchange.”23
No matter what experts saw as the root cause of Jews’ educational advantage, non-Jews sensed the difference and reacted with displeasure. In 1880, liberal Reichstag deputy Ludwig Bamberger noted Jews’ “unusual thirst for learning” and “obvious haste” to catch up on what had long been forbidden to them and concluded: “It is certain that the revival of hateful behavior toward them is closely connected to these things.”24
We can get an idea of how that connection played out in everyday school life from an anecdote related by writer (and later Nobel Peace Prize laureate) Bertha von Suttner in 1893. In an open letter, she described an incident she witnessed at a family friend’s house: Leopold—a pupil in a comprehensive secondary school—comes home with his report card, telling his parents, “Oh, I’m so happy.” They ask why, and he says, “Because I’m alive in the world, and the world is lovely, and I’ll go far. I’m top of my class again.” Some time later, Leopold comes home with a long face, sobbing. It isn’t that he has gotten bad marks—on the contrary. But a lazy bully, the son of an ox-headed anti-Semite, got hold of his cleverer classmate and said: “Hey, Jew boy, why are you working so hard? You’ll never get anywhere. You’re just another lousy Jew!”25
* * *
Although it never completely disappeared, the old-fashioned religious idea of Christian-Jewish rivalry faded significantly over the course of the nineteenth century. Rationalism gained the upper hand, and not just as an intellectual ideal but as a real product of the triumph of empirical sciences. Jews began to adapt their appearance and dress to the societies in which they lived. Some married Christians, converted, or became atheists, although among the converts there were those who changed religion only nominally so as to be able to “remain Jews in peace.”26 More and more frequently a Samuel Kohn would become a Siegfried Konitz, a Baruch a Bernhard, or an Esther an Else. New bourgeois social conventions, rapid economic mobility, and gradual legal emancipation broke down the boundaries of traditional religious segregation.
Jews had neither invented the mechanical loom nor sparked the French Revolution nor thought up the code civil, but they identified with progress, industrialization, and the idea of liberalism. For Jews, such things meant economic and political liberty both for themselves and for Christians. In premodern Christian Europe, as nineteenth-century historian Isaak Markus Jost characterized the situation up until 1800, Jews had been able to hope for little more than “protection from violence and permission to live.” In return, they had to provide the entity that granted those with “money and gifts” and beseech to be allowed to perform “pathetic forms of trade,” a concession that their Christian masters could always revoke on a whim.27
In 1832, the German Jewish political writer and democratic activist Ludwig Börne quipped that for centuries Christians had kept Jews in a hole in a cellar, which was full of dung but warm, while they themselves, “freely exposed to the frost,” had practically frozen in place. Amid an emancipatory thaw, Börne looked forward to the coming competition with confidence: “When spring is here, we shall see who blossoms first, Jew or Christian.” Jews would have to overcome no small number of hurdles and obstacles. Stubborn trade masters and professors, many of whom in Germany, sadly, “clung all the harder to their prejudices,” rejected Jewish legal equality. But Börne was sure that such opposition would not deter “talented young men” but rather would spur them on “to do everything to pass every test.” In fact, young Jews did begin to climb the social ladder at above-average speed. In 1808, Jews in Prussia had almost nothing. By 1834, 13 percent of them were part of the nascent upper middle class, while more than 50 percent were firmly middle class.28
Jewish Germans proved to be less cautious, stolid, and obedient than Christians. They were bolder and more flexible, and, statistically speaking, the average Jewish family led an easier and healthier existence than the typical Christian one. In 1840, twenty-one of every hundred newborn Christian infants died within a year, compared with only fifteen of every hundred Jewish babies. The Royal Prussian Office of Statistics attributed the discrepancy to the fact that “the Jewish wife does not have to do heavy labor outside her home, better preserves her energy when pregnant and while breast-feeding, and can keep a closer eye on her child.” Jews also outlived Christians—a fact that statisticians attributed to unhealthy Christian eating habits as well as to Jewish temperance “in the enjoyment of spirits.”29
As Jews rose in society, the walls of their “inner ghettos” began to fall. The man who personified the enlightened reform of Jewish religious rituals and rules was David Friedländer. A silk manufacturer in Berlin and a friend of Moses Mendelssohn’s, Friedländer encouraged Jews to use the German language. He published a German reader for Jewish children and established the liberal-progressive movement within German Judaism. One of its aims was to ensure that “excessive religion” no longer hindered Jews’ opportunities to demonstrate their abilities in art and science. The constant questioning of what was and wasn’t allowed within Orthodox Judaism, which insisted on the maintenance of 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, had kept Jews from applying the intellectual abilities they acquired through religious study to the secular world. Arthur Ruppin illustrated this idea with an anecdote about a young Jewish fellow from Galicia who sees a man looking in utter rapture at the full moon. Instead of joining in admiration of nature’s beauty, the youth, who had been given a strict religious upbringing, asks: “Are we allowed to stare at the moon?”30
Freed from external and internal constraint, the Jews of Western and Central Europe gladly embarked on the journey into modernity. Thanks to their qualitative and quantitative educational head start, more and more Jews turned toward well-paying forms of intellectual labor or seized the entrepreneurial initiative. By 1895, half of all working Jews were self-employed, twice the percentage of their Christian peers. Statistics of this nature in rural areas are misleading since farmers were also classed as self-employed, but data about trade and commerce in cities yield striking insights into the connections between work and religion. In 1907, only 4.5 percent of Protestants working in these areas were self-employed. Among Catholics it was only 3 percent, compared with 37 percent for Jews.
The increased division of labor and the global expansion of trade also created the need for office and administrative workers, logistics experts, departmental directors, and financial comptrollers. Around 1900, only 3 percent of Christians belonged to the new social class of office workers, compared with 11 percent of Jews. Conversely, 25 percent of Christians earned their keep as uneducated laborers, in contrast to only 3 percent of Jews.31
Jews were often pioneers who put their faith in the future. “In contrast to the Christian,” observed one contemporary, “the Jewish entrepreneur represents progress in the area of social life.” Jews recognized the advantages of innovations more quickly and made them accessible to their customers.32 Tax records show this difference quite clearly. In Frankfurt in the early twentieth century, the average Jew paid four times as much in taxes as the average Protestant and eight times as much as the average Catholic. In Berlin, Jews accounted for 30 percent of city tax revenues, although Jews constituted only 15 percent of the tax-paying population and only 5 percent of the population as a whole. In the economically backward region of Posen, the 4.2 percent of the population that was Jewish paid 24 percent of the taxes. The picture was similar in the towns of Beuthen, Gleiwitz, Magdeburg, Breslau, and Bromberg as well as in the Grand Duchy of Baden, Denmark, Hungary, and Italy. In Prussia in 1852, 22.5 percent of door-to-door salesmen were Jewish. By 1895, that figure had dropped to 8.8 percent, and by 1925 it was only 4.7 percent. In 1934, sociologist Jakob Lestschinsky noted that “the golden times of the first blossoming of capitalism” had brought to German Jews “more advantages than the comparable classes in the non-Jewish population.” There have been some disagreements about statistics concerning income and wealth. Nonetheless, critical studies have concluded that prior to World War I, German Jews earned five times the income of the average Christian.33
The discrepancies may not have been equally obvious throughout the country, but they were registered everywhere. In 1894, historian Theodor Mommsen wrote that the root cause of the anti-Semitic “affliction” was “envy and the basest instincts,… a barbaric hatred for education, freedom, and humanism.” In 1918, looking back on twenty-five years of activity, the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith summed things up with these words: “Political and scientific anti-Semitism would have remained insignificant without economic anti-Semitism. The economic rise of Jews was the main reason that hatred for Jews became part of the culture of the broad masses.”34
Such transformations were particularly striking in rural parts of Germany. One remarkable example was the southern German town of Gailingen, which had an unusual but telling situation. In 1875, seven hundred of the seventeen hundred inhabitants were Jewish, and the town also had a Jewish mayor, Leopold Guggenheim, from 1870 to 1884. An inspection report filed with the regional office of the Grand Duchy of Baden on September 12, 1878, found: “Whereas forty or fifty years ago, the vast majority of the Israelites belonged to the poorer segments of the population, they now significantly overshadow Christian citizens in terms of income.” The report also analyzed the causes of the divergent social fortunes of Jewish and Gentile inhabitants: “Almost all of [the Jews] live off trade (primarily the trade in livestock) while the Christian residents are almost exclusively dependent on agriculture and day labor. Almost all the larger houses are owned by Israelites.” The local hospital in the region was built as an Israelite institution and paid for with money from Jewish citizens. The hospital, of course, also admitted Christians, and the inspector noted that “Israelite generosity also attracts a lot of people who simply exploit it.” Summarizing the state of affairs in Gailingen, he wrote: “Because of this gradually growing inequality in wealth, it is no wonder that there is a certain palpable tension between the two confessions.”35
THE POWER OF FEAR
In the nineteenth century, the Christian majority may still have used the word Jewish pejoratively, but its connotation was different from what it had been before. Now it stood for quickness and eagerness for change. The accusation implicit in this usage reflected the unease with which Christians reacted to the dissolution of their comfortably familiar world order. Retreating into smug provincialism, Germans began to accuse Jews of rootless cosmopolitanism and a desire to destroy venerable traditions.
Reactionaries Karl Graf Finckenstein and Ludwig von der Marwitz had made such accusations as early as 1811, denouncing Hardenberg’s reforms as an attempt to make “a new-fangled Jew state out of honorable old Brandenburg Prussia.” A year later, political scientist Adam Müller painted a dark picture of what could come of the general desire for reform: “The aristocracy and the peasant class will fall, and in the end, there will only be merchants, artisans, and Jews.”36 Even Wilhelm von Humboldt, who otherwise vigorously supported Jewish emancipation and defended the cause against his hatefully anti-Jewish wife, Caroline, wrote that he was not fond of “new-fangled Jews.”37 In a similar instance of neurotic association, Friedrich Wilhelm IV dismissed Schiller’s drama William Tell as “a play for Jews and revolutionaries.”
The French Revolution made the masses a factor in politics. Henceforth, regardless of whether citizens had the right to elect parliaments, the populace influenced the course of events. In Germany, the innovative ideas emerging from France as of 1789 had strengthened elites’ commitment to reform, including the integration of Jews into society. On the other hand, the same democratic element that brought about revolutionary change in other areas was skeptical of practical measures aimed at giving Jews equal legal rights. Enlightened statesmen and princes were forced to institute Jewish emancipation from above, often acting against the popular will. For reasons already described, most of society did not want emancipated Jews. The foundation of the emancipation movement thus remained weak.
At the Congress of Vienna, the representatives of the burgher-run cities of Frankfurt, Hamburg, Bremen, and Lübeck, together with many representatives from southern German cities, faced off against the aristocratic advocates of Jewish emancipation. “People fought for equality before the law and for human dignity,” historian Fritz Schnabel wrote about the stunted ideas of freedom and equality in German culture. “They wanted to remove the barriers that restricted people’s freedom to practice the trades of their choice. But they also attacked door-to-door merchants, tried to keep Jews in their place, and thought corporal punishment was an essential part of the legal system.”38 As soon as French influence started to wane, Jews were expelled from Bremen and Lübeck and excluded from all the important social associations in Frankfurt, be it the Scholars’ Association, the Society for Museums of Art and Science, the doctors’ and lawyers’ trade associations, the Reading Society, or the Society for the Promotion of Practical Arts.39
The people who fueled the anti-Semitic “Hep, Hep” riots in southern Germany in 1819 and 1820 feared for their positions in society. They were craftsmen, students, small shop owners, and merchants. Philologists have never definitively determined the origins of the slogan “Hep, Hep” as an anti-Semitic rallying cry—some say it was short for Hierosolyma est perdita, “Jerusalem is lost”—but its practical meaning is beyond question. It was an insult and a threat. In his 1819 hate pamphlet Der Judenspiegel (“The Jew Mirror”), writer Hartwig von Hundt-Radowsky laid out the rationale behind the anti-Jewish actions: “With the rights granted to Israelites in many states, their duty toward Christian citizens has been violated. Those rights lead to the poverty and malnourishment that prevails in many regions since Jews choke off all the trade and industry of the Christian populace.” The chamber of commerce in the city of Cologne described Jews collectively around this time as “winding weeds that latch on everywhere.”40 Hundt-Radowsky suggested that Jews should be “driven out,” after first being stripped of their possessions: “We Christians are fully entitled to do this. Everything the Hebrews possess they have grabbed from us and other peoples.” Hundt-Radowsky railed against the success that Jews recorded “in all profitable businesses ever since several states, guided by a misunderstood humanism, accorded them the freedom to choose their own trades, which is also a license to plunge Christians into misery.” The situation was getting worse and worse, Hundt-Radowsky argued, since Israelites possessed a “boundless rabbitlike drive to reproduce themselves.”41
Most Christian Germans of the time were less extreme than Hundt-Radowsky and worried primarily about Jewish competition. The nationalist economist Friedrich List typified this attitude; in 1820, he suggested keeping Jews under state control in order to soothe the Christian citizenry, who were increasingly fearful for their future. List saw national unity as “primarily a process of social integration,” and that, combined with the fact that many Christian Germans regarded Jews “as a possible threat” to their own social prospects, meant that the state had a duty to protect the Christian majority.42 In 1830, he remarked: “No community should be burdened with certain classes of people whose religion or general character is incompatible with upstanding society, i.e., Jews, separatists, etc.” With that, Jews were lumped together with evildoers, revolutionaries, and enemies of unity who conspired to sow dissent among right-minded Germans.
At the 1848 Frankfurt Assembly, one of List’s most prominent allies, the moderately leftist delegate Moritz Mohl, urged the body to exclude Jews from a catalog of basic German civil rights it had just approved. The constitutional committee at the assembly had demanded universal equality of everyone before the law, but Mohl suggested adding a caveat: “The special situations of the Israelite tribe are subject to special legal codes and can be regulated by the empire.”43 Mohl had no success with his proposed amendment, but then again neither did the constitution proposed by the assembly.
It’s clear that fear of competition was at the root of resistance to emancipation and was present right from the beginning. In 1845, various Jewish communities throughout Prussia drafted petitions asking for full legal equality, which were then submitted to leaders on regional councils. The representatives were elected according to various class-specific rules, and when they discussed the issue of Jewish equality, a topic that had occupied them occasionally in the past, they reached divergent conclusions. In the Catholic Rhine region and in Westphalia, which were oriented toward France, the majority voted for the emancipation of the Jewish minority. But the situation was different in the Prussian province of Saxony (not to be confused with the state of the same name). People from towns there feared Jewish competition and “the influx, which is certainly not desirable, of Jews from overcrowded neighboring countries.” Only four of sixty-six representatives voted for the emancipation petitions. Petitions in eastern and western Prussia were also rejected by a margin of roughly two to one. Likewise, representatives from Silesia voted no, concluding that “the masses are by no means free-minded enough to wish for Jewish emancipation.” Representatives in Berlin and Brandenburg supported the measures out of political opportunism, while representatives from Pomerania simply ignored them.
Special circumstances applied in the provinces of the Grand Duchy of Posen, where a disproportionate number of Orthodox Jews lived. The Prussian emancipation edict of 1812 only partially applied to them, although a temporary order of June 1, 1833, had lifted some further restrictions. The political climate was complicated by quarrels with ethnic Poles, who made up more than 50 percent of the population, and the fact that the region was economically backward. A citizens’ committee on Jewish affairs opined that after the easing of restrictions in 1833, “the Jews emerged from the confines where they had been kept in our towns and villages.” Jewish “property and possessions” had dramatically increased, and it had not taken long for Jews “to take over high roads and market squares and dominate commerce and industry.” If they were given full citizenship rights, the committee argued, “almost all the towns and villages in the Grand Duchy would come under the exclusive administration of Jews.” (At the time, voting rights were tied to property ownership and membership in one of the Christian denominations; these were restrictions the petitions aimed to lift.) The chairman of the committee also pointed out what he saw as “the disproportionate wealth and power” of Jews in Posen. While the rural aristocracy was divided on the issue, the representatives of the towns unanimously rejected full emancipation. Instead, they supported a compromise that included the longest possible transitional period. The plan allowed individual Jews to achieve full citizenship if they served three years in the military or attended a secondary educational institution, including technical and trade academies, and received good marks in “mores and maturity.”44
* * *
In 1848, a year when revolution threatened to break out in most German states, a student of Jewish theology at Heidelberg University named Israel Schwarz argued that the introduction of democratic procedure was the main obstacle to long-overdue legal reforms: “Many a [German] state would have already granted Jews equal rights, if it did not fear the unenlightened, raw, fanatical masses.” The Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums (“General Jewish Newspaper”) diagnosed a similar situation in Austria a year later: “Let us not forget Tyrol, or Hungary, where the powers that be had to postpone equality because of the popular mood, or Prague and its persecution of Jews.”45
The building social unrest in the years preceding 1848 did not help the cause of emancipation, as the examples of Bavaria and Saxony show. In Bavaria, the conservative Ludwig I was forced in 1848 to abdicate in favor of his enlightened son Maximilian II. Supported by first minister Gustav von Lerchenfeld, he declared Jewish emancipation a major goal of his reign. It didn’t take long for a poster caricaturing Maximilian as the “King of the Jews” to appear on the walls of Munich’s Theatine Church, which also served as the church of the royal family. The general populace also vented their frustration with some six hundred petitions, containing nearly eighty thousand signatures.46
In the Kingdom of Saxony, too, the general populace pressured the royal family to maintain anti-Jewish restrictions. In 1840, there were only five Jews per ten thousand Christians in Saxony, or just over eight hundred in total. A small number lived in Dresden and a few more in Leipzig, where they fulfilled important roles in organizing foreign commerce and finances for the two cities’ famous trade fairs. But they were forbidden from becoming everything from booksellers to bakers. The 1838 law that regulated the status of Jews in Saxony, which had been debated and approved by the representatives of both chambers of the Saxon parliament, was full of protective clauses inserted at the insistence of representatives from merchant and trade guilds. Jews were prohibited from working in Chemnitz, which had undergone early industrialization, and in the Saxon flatlands. They were also denied the right to vote or hold public office and to become small tradesmen. Jewish master artisans were allowed to take only Jewish apprentices and to sell wares they made themselves, and their number was required to be strictly proportionate to the Jewish presence in the overall population. In Dresden and Leipzig, Jews could own only one piece of real estate; elsewhere, property ownership was completely forbidden. Moreover, Jews could sell their property only after having owned it for a minimum of ten years. Dresden allowed “at most” four Jewish merchants, lest commercial streets “swarm with Jewish salesmen and trade fall into Jewish hands.” Local civic leaders painted nightmare scenarios of “Jews inundating the entire country so that soon farmers wouldn’t be able to sell a single calf without Jewish involvement.” Reacting to a petition by local Jews to ease the discriminatory restrictions, a parliamentary representative named Dr. von Mayer simply answered: “We don’t want to.” The parliamentary expert on the issue, a man named von Gablenz, accused the petitioners of social presumption. “You’d like to be generals but not simple foot soldiers,” he wrote, adding: “There’s no such thing as Jewish common people or Jewish artisans.” That flew in the face of the facts, but such statements reflected the general population’s fears of how Jews might change society.47
As soon as the revolutionary spirit of the time led to relaxed state restrictions, prejudice and often violent anger broke out toward Jews. In late February 1848, self-proclaimed representatives of the winds of freedom that had blown into Dresden from Paris decided to “let off steam.” The guild of tailors, for example, “whipped up a small mob to storm the shop of a small Jewish merchant who had attracted the ire of traditional tradesmen with his ready-made wares.”48
* * *
Among those who took to the barricades in the popular uprising in Dresden in 1849 were Mikhail Bakunin and Richard Wagner. Wagner, in particular, was a paradigmatic example of the way that resentment provoked hatred for Jews among German intellectuals and artists. In 1850, when Wagner published his polemic Judaism in Music, he had yet to achieve recognition as a composer. Wagner wrote: “In the current state of affairs in the world, the Jew is more than emancipated. He already rules and will rule as long as money remains the force in the face of which everything we do loses its strength.” Wagner called for “campaigns of liberation” against the “Jewification” of German music as a way of getting rid of competition. The composer asserted that Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who had died a few years before and was still quite popular, owed his status to “the incomprehensively barbarian confusion of the luxurious musical taste of our age.” Wagner also accused him of plagiarism. Whenever Mendelssohn wanted to put “profound and powerful sensations of the heart” into music, Wagner claimed, he had no other option than to “seize hold of the styles” of his Gentile predecessors, the “true musical heroes.”
But the main object of Wagner’s vitriol was Giacomo Meyerbeer, “a composer known far and wide today.” Wagner fumed: “With his productions, he has turned to a segment of the public whose confusion as to anything resembling musical taste he needed only to exploit.” Meyerbeer, in Wagner’s eyes, had made opera houses into mere “amusement locales” and owed his success to his ability to serve the public’s need for distraction with trivialities: “These days that’s the surest way to achieve artistic fame without becoming an actual artist.” Wagner pilloried Jews, greedy for money and hungry for fame, as an “entirely foreign element” that “with the frenetic activity of worms” had swarmed over the “decaying” corpse of German musical excellence. This behavior, Wagner claimed, was analogous to “the impious distractedness and indifference of a Jewish community in a synagogue during the musical portion of the services.”49 Still, none of Wagner’s assorted justifications could disguise the personal economic interest that clearly lay behind his animosity.
Also in 1848, the first volume in an encyclopedic series entitled The Present Day featured a lengthy article on “The Civic Circumstances of Jews in Germany,” in which the anonymous author began by discussing “the causes of the most recent persecutions of Jews” in Germany and elsewhere. The article dismissed religious fanaticism as irrelevant, stressing instead the new social tensions that had resulted from Jewish economic success: “In our age [it is] the tendency toward wealth, and Jews’ particular ambition in pursuing profitable business, that has made them a target for attacks from those classes of people that feel threatened by their ambition.” The author deemed anti-Jewish feelings of this sort “more pardonable” than religious anti-Semitism, since more than a few Jews had “elicited rage against themselves by usurious domination and exploitation of rural folk.” Christians, the author asserted, were increasingly impoverished as a result of massive economic changes, lacking orientation and often squandering their money on ill-advised investments. “By contrast,” wrote the author, citing the procurator-general in Cologne, “Jews who lugged their wares from place to place ten years ago are the owners of luxurious estates.”50
The political writer Gabriel Riesser likewise considered envy to be at the heart of Christian animosity toward Jews, arguing that anyone paying attention would perceive that “ninety-nine out of a hundred expressions of resentment against Jews have this as their basis.” Riesser went on: “The man who has to compete with Jews in his trade believes he is being treated unjustly.… Here envy, which otherwise conceals its ugly face from others’ scrutiny, is displayed nakedly and shamelessly.” Freed from their scruples, the majority of Germans were utilizing “the magnifying glass of greed” to focus attention on a few Jews, while “eagerly seizing every pretense” to conceal their own base material motivations. To this end, and in an effort to keep denying their fellow human beings full rights as citizens, they talked a lot about “public interests, nationality, and enlightenment.” Riesser cited the example of a movement in southern Germany, led by an apothecary, that made no secret of the fact that “the exclusionary laws were a means of reining in competition.”51
In 1927, the philosopher Julius Goldstein would express his bewilderment at how quickly the German middle classes were identifying with ethnically tinged Nazi collectivism. It was a mystery to him why Germans, with their “ideas of equality and freedom,” would fall under the sway of such crassly antirepublican notions. Goldstein missed the point. The German middle classes did not, as Goldstein supposed, need to “betray their own legacy” in order to follow Hitler. They had always taken an opportunistic approach to basic civil rights such as individual liberty and equality before the law. By the time of Hitler’s rise, the betrayal of the fundamental principles of liberalism had long been established as part of the unwritten political consensus among Germans.52
Copyright © 2011 by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH. Translation
Copyright © 2014 by Jefferson Chase
Acknowledgments and Translator's Note ix
Introduction: The Question of Questions 1
1. Jewish Emancipation 13?
2. The Anxiety of German Nationalism 42?
3. Anti-Semitism as a Political Force 65?
4. The Mainstream's Dangerous Indifference 86?
5. War, Defeat, and Jew Hatred 99?
6. Weak Masses, Strong Race 127?
7. The National Socialist People's Party 181?
Epilogue: A Story with No End 219