In the history of modern Europe the French Revolution is the great divide; together with all the other changes and movements it ushered in, it also marks the beginning of a new era in the life of the Jews. After centuries of massacres, of persecution, of social ostracism, a new and more humane approach towards the Jews began to prevail with the spread of the ideas of the Enlightenment. But it needed the shock of revolution to give official sanction to the principle of equality before the law. The time would come, Herder predicted, when no one in Europe would again ask whether someone was Jewish or Christian, ‘because the Jews, too, will live according to European laws and contribute their share to the common good’. In the French National Assembly of 1789 Clermont Tonnerre demanded that the Jews as individuals should be denied no rights. Emancipation spread rapidly: the Rome ghetto was opened and even in Germany, where the improvement in the status of the Jews had been discussed inconclusively for many years, there were at long last substantial changes. Between 1808 and 1812 the groundwork was laid for their full legal emancipation in Prussia, the leading German state.
They had waited for the day with impatience and they responded with enthusiasm. When the Prussian king called his subjects to the colours to fight Napoleon, the patriotic response of the Jews was second to none: ‘Oh, what a heavenly feeling to possess a fatherland!’ one of their manifestos proclaimed; ‘Oh what a rapturous idea to call a spot, a place, a nook one’s own upon this lovely earth.’ Until a few years before they had been treated like pariahs. Ludwig Börne, the greatest publicist of the age, has given a graphic description of their position in his native Frankfurt when he was young. They enjoyed, as he put it, the loving care of the authorities: they were forbidden to leave their street on Sundays, so that the drunks should not molest them; they were not permitted to marry before the age of twenty-five, so that their offspring should be strong and healthy; on holidays they could leave their homes only at six in the evening, so that the great heat should not cause them any harm; the public gardens and promenades outside the city were closed to them and they had to walk in the fields - to awaken their interest in agriculture; if a Jew crossed the street and a Christian citizen shouted, ‘Pay your respects, Jud’, the Jew had to remove his hat, no doubt the intention of this wise measure being to strengthen the feelings of love and respect between Christians and Jews.
European Jewry suffered setbacks on the road towards full legal emancipation: Napoleon revoked some of the rights the revolution had bestowed on them, and the Prussian king and the German princes reimposed in 1815 many of the old restrictions. Many professions were still barred to them: only one Jewish officer was retained in the Prussian army, and with the exception of a postman in the city of Breslau there were no Jewish civil servants. A decree issued in the 1820s prohibited them from acting as executioners if any of them had felt the inclination to do so. The veterans of the patriotic war, some of them bearers of the Iron Cross, complained bitterly that they were treated like step-children by their new fatherland. And yet, despite these disappointments, there was little doubt among German Jewry that these setbacks were only temporary. They firmly believed that full citizenship would soon be theirs by right and not on sufferance, and that reason and humanism would eventually prevail in the counsels of their government. The new Jewish establishment that had emerged was confident that they had already joined the mainstream of European civilisation.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the number of Jews in the world was about two and a half million; almost 90 per cent of them lived in Europe. There were roughly two hundred thousand in Germany, one-quarter of them concentrated in Posen, the eastern district recently acquired by Prussia as a result of the partition of Poland. Most of them still lived in the countryside; few had been permitted to reside in the big cities. Berlin, for instance, counted barely three thousand in 1815. The bürger, and especially the city guilds, were strongly opposed to Jews settling in their midst. During the Middle Ages many had engaged in usury and other base forms of trade. During the eighteenth century their occupational range gradually widened but most of them were still small traders, middlemen between the cities and the villages. They frequented the fairs, bought and sold meat, wool, and spirits; in Hesse they traded in cattle, in Alsace they acquired a strong position in the wine trade. In the formerly Polish territories there were many Jewish artisans but their existence was precarious; their position was as remote from the wealth and status of the members of the city guilds as that of the little Jewish hawkers from the ‘royal merchants’ of Hamburg or Lübeck. As a Jew, Moses Mendelssohn wrote to a friend, my son can become only a physician, a trader, or a beggar. True, a few Jewish bankers had become very rich, such as the Eichtals, the Speiers, the Seligmans, Oppenheims, Hirschs, and above all the Rothschilds. There were more Jewish than non-Jewish banking establishments in Berlin in 1807, and it has been said that without them no European government would have been able to float a loan during the first half of the nineteenth century. To quote but one example: more than 80 per cent of the state loans of the Bavarian government during the first decade of the century were provided by Jewish bankers. But this new aristocracy of money was numerically small; a Jewish middle class was just beginning to emerge, while the great majority were living in extreme poverty. Substantial changes in the occupational structure of German Jewry took place only in the following decades with the great influx of young Jews into the professions, wholesale and retail trade, and industry.
The beginnings of social and cultural assimilation date back to the early eighteenth century. The notion (prevalent for a long time) that the emancipation of German Jews started when Moses Mendelssohn played chess with Lessing does not stand up to investigation. Many Jews spoke and wrote in German in the first half of the eighteenth century; their common language (Yiddish, Jargon), though written in Hebrew letters, became closer and closer to the colloquial German spoken at the time. Many also had a working knowledge of other languages. While Frankfurt and other cities still kept their Jews penned together like cattle in dark overcrowded ghettoes, elsewhere they were not confined to special living quarters and social intercourse with their Christian neighbours was not uncommon. Even in their outward appearance many of them were hardly distinguishable from their neighbours: they shaved their beards and wore periwigs, while young ladies adopted the crinoline and other such fashionable garments. The rabbis complained bitterly about the new freedom in relations between the sexes and other manifestations of moral decline, but their authority and everything they stood for was rapidly declining. The knowledge of Hebrew among their congregations was usually limited to the recital (by rote) of a few prayers; observance of the religious law was, to say the least, imperfect, and the more pessimistic rabbis already lamented the impending end of traditional Judaism.
What gave Moses Mendelssohn his importance was not that he was a great philosopher, major essayist, or revolutionary theologian. His philosophical writings were quickly forgotten and his attempts to prove the existence of God were neither original nor did they have a lasting impact. His main achievement was to show, by his own example, that despite all adversity a Jew could have a thorough knowledge of modern culture and converse on equal terms with the shining lights of contemporary Europe. Born in Dessau in 1729 in abject poverty, he earned his livelihood as a private tutor and later as an accountant. Devouring the libraries to which he had access, his efforts to educate himself attracted the attention of non-Jewish well-wishers; within a few years he had published weighty studies on Leibniz’s philosophy and the problem of evidence in the metaphysical sciences. A hunchback of fascinating ugliness, he stoically bore all the chicanery and degradations to which Jews in his time were still exposed, including, for instance, the famous head tax imposed on Jews and cattle moving from town to town. In his private life - as the letters to his bride bear witness - Mendelssohn was a man of angelic patience and high idealism, a living contradiction of the clichés about the depravity, fanaticism and ignorance of Jews. His name figured prominently in the arguments of those late eighteenth-century reformers who favoured the abolition of the laws and regulations keeping the Jews in a state of semi-servitude.
Mendelssohn’s translation of the Bible into German was welcomed by many Jews in his day as a liberating act, and denounced as an act of betrayal by others. For nineteenth-century liberal Jewry he was the greatest Jew of modern times, whereas later generations have been more critical in their appraisal of his work. A typical son of the Enlightenment, Mendelssohn taught that Judaism was a Vernunftsreligion, that there was no contradiction between religious belief and critical reason. This was sweet music to the ears of all the educated Jews who were open or secret admirers of the French Enlightenment; it is said that Voltaire had more supporters in Jewish homes in Germany at the time than anywhere else. At the same time Mendelssohn’s teaching was anathema to many orthodox rabbis who suspected, not altogether wrongly, that his reforms were a half-way house on the road to apostasy. In contrast to the liberal reformers, they believed that in order to survive, Judaism needed the exclusivity of the ghetto. Admired by many, bitterly denounced by others, Moses Mendelssohn became a landmark in modern Jewish history, not so much because of what he did, as for what he was: the very symbol of Jewish emancipation.
Despite the reimposition of restrictive laws, social assimilation made rapid progress during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Many Jews moved from the villages into larger towns, where they could find better living quarters; they sent their children to non-Jewish schools and modernised their religious service. Among the intellectuals there was a growing conviction that the new Judaism, purged of medieval obscurantism, was an intermediate stage towards enlightened Christianity. They argued that the Jews were not a people; Jewish nationhood had ceased to exist two thousand years before, and now lived on only in memories. Dead bones could not be exhumed and restored to life. Jewish spokesmen claimed full equality as German citizens; they were neither strangers nor recent arrivals; they had been born in the country and had no fatherland but Germany. The messianic and national elements in Jewish religion were dropped in this rapid and radical aggiornamento. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century Gabriel Riesser, the most eloquent and courageous advocate of emancipation, suggested that a Jew who preferred a nonexistent state and nation (Israel) to Germany ought to be put under police protection not because his views were dangerous but because he was obviously insane. About the depth of patriotic feeling and of commitment of men like Riesser there could be no doubt: ‘Whoever disputes my claim to the German fatherland’, he said on one occasion, ‘disputes my right to my thoughts and feelings, to the language that I speak, the air that I breathe. He deprives me of my very right to existence and therefore I must defend myself against him as I would against a murderer.’ On another occasion he declared that the ‘forceful sounds of the German language, the poems of German writers have kindled in our breast the holy fire of freedom. We want to adhere to the German people, we shall adhere to it everywhere.’ Riesser summarised his philosophy, the spiritual marriage of Judaism and Germany, in a rhymed device: Einen Vater in den Höhen, eine Mutter haben wir, Gott ihn, aller Wesen Vater, Deutschland unsere Mutter hier. (We have one father in heaven and one mother - God the father of all beings, Germany our mother on earth.) He was by no means in favour of abandoning Judaism as he understood it; on the contrary, he never for a moment considered baptism, the easy way out chosen by so many of his contemporaries, and this despite the many bitter disappointments he suffered as a Jew. Riesser had to leave Altona because he was not permitted to pursue his professional work as a lawyer in his native town. He was refused a teaching position in Heidelberg, and in Hesse, where he went next, he was even refused citizenship. But like many other of Germany’s step-children he did not give up the struggle; the inner alliance of the liberal Jew with German civilisation (as one historian has put it) had become so firmly rooted within a few years that his instinctive answer to any setback, to him individually, or to the community, was to seek deeper and closer assimilation.
But why should Jews have wanted to remain Jews? During this second stage of transformation Judaism became a religion of universal ethics and it was not readily obvious why they should be so reluctant to give up what divided them from their Christian neighbours. Jewish spokesmen provided various explanations: some argued, in the true spirit of the Enlightenment, that religion was the individual’s private affair. Others, like Riesser, maintained that Christianity as well as Judaism was in urgent need of reform and purification; Christianity’s record in recent centuries had not exactly been that of a religion of love. It had ‘throttled generations and drowned centuries in blood’; by what moral right could it demand the baptism of the Jews? But a critique of Christianity did not necessarily involve an attachment to Judaism. Free-thinking attitudes spread among those who came after Mendelssohn, and the third generation was even more remote from established religion. A leading orthodox rabbi wrote in 1848 about the young Jews of his time, that nine-tenths of them were ashamed of their faith. Statements like these abound; they were perhaps not meant to be taken literally but they indicated a general trend. Of Mendelssohn’s children all but one changed their faith, and many of his pupils, too, converted. David Friedlaender, the most important among this group, enquired in a public manifesto published anonymously about the possibility of a mass conversion of leading Berlin Jews and their families. This overture was rejected, for Friedlaender had some mental reservations (‘Christianity without Jesus’, his critics claimed); subsequently he retreated with some of his friends into Reform Judaism. Others, less scrupulous, discarded their reservations and embraced Christianity. For baptism, as Heine said, was the entrance ticket to European civilisation, and who would let a mere formality stand between him and European civilisation?
The dilemma facing that generation of Jewish intellectuals is highlighted in the life stories of the ladies who established the great literary salons in Berlin and Vienna: Rahel Varnhagen, Henriette Herz, Dorothea Schlegel, Fanny Arnstein - to name the most prominent hostesses of the age. They entertained statesmen and generals, princes and poets, theologians and philosophers. Some of these noblemen were of doubtful provenance, and the character of some of the ladies did not always conform to the standards of the age. But the happenings in their salons were on the whole highly respectable: the aristocracy found in their houses luxury, intelligent conversation, a lively cultural interest, and above all a social and intellectual freedom unknown at the time among the German middle class. The aesthetic tea parties arranged by these ladies played an important part in German cultural history; they certainly helped to make Berlin, better known in the past for its soldiers than its poets, a cultural metropolis. There was hardly a figure of cultural eminence who did not frequent these salons at one time or another. Some talked about these occasions with derision, others wrote with genuine appreciation about the role played by the daughters of the Cohens, the Itzigs and the Efraims, who promoted the cult of Goethe and Jean Paul at a time when most Germans were still immersed in Rinaldo Rinaldini and Kotzebue. Their intellectual interests were wide-ranging: Henriette Herz studied Sanskrit, Malay and Turkish, and exchanged love letters with Wilhelm von Humboldt written in the Hebrew alphabet. The emphasis was, however, on the soul rather than the intellect. There was a great deal of affectation in the exalted conversation and in the letters exchanged, an artificial ardour, a sensibility that did not always ring true. Their libertinism struck their contemporaries and the succeeding generation as very wicked; Graetz refers to these goings-on in almost apoplectic terms. Today it all seems naïve and tedious, but at that time whoever did not possess the depth of feeling demanded by contemporary fashion tried at least to go through the right motions of sentimentality and emotional ecstasy. The platonic and not so platonic affairs of these ladies, usually with much younger men, were slightly ridiculous. There was an element of madness in the general malaise of the Romantic Age but there was nothing specifically Jewish about it.
All the great Berlin hostesses eventually became Christians. Dorothea, Mendelssohn’s daughter, converted first to Protestantism and then, following the Romantic fashion, to Catholicism. Some of them became very religious indeed; Heine poked fun at the new converts who over-adapted themselves, lifting their eyes in church higher to heaven than all others and twisting their faces into the most pious grimaces. The best thing Henriette Herz found to say of her own father, Moses Mendelssohn, and the men of their generation, was that they had possessed the virtues of Christian love and tenderness. It is easy to cast doubt on the genuineness of these conversions, but there were mitigating circumstances: they had received little Jewish education, and what they knew they loathed. Judaism as a religion was in their eyes very inferior to Christianity and made no appeal to their imagination. Such was the state of Judaism that even a good and faithful Jew like Lazarus Ben David, who was deeply saddened by the mass exodus, found it not at all surprising. How could one blame these people (he once wrote) if they preferred the joyous, well-frequented church to the sad and desolate synagogue? For Rahel Varnhagen, the most formidable of the Berlin ladies, the fact that she was born a Jewess was the great tragedy of her life; it was ‘as if a dagger had penetrated my heart at the moment of birth’. She was also the only one who had second thoughts later on; in her old age she wrote that she would not now forswear what she had once regarded as the greatest disgrace of her life, the harshest suffering and misfortune, namely to have been born a Jewess.
Latter-day Jewish thinkers have treated these apostates with contempt, but can one really betray what one does not believe in? Many of them genuinely needed a ‘religion of the heart’, something which Judaism obviously could not offer. The position of the Jewish avant-garde in the early decades of the nineteenth century was more difficult than it had been in Moses Mendelssohn’s time. Enlightenment preached a spirit of tolerance and implied a growing belief in Vernunftsreligion. But intellectual fashions had changed: Enlightenment had almost become a dirty word, and from reason and tolerance the emphasis had shifted to sentiment and tradition. Rationalism was out of date; it had become far more important to be a patriot and a gentleman than a good citizen of the world. The Romantic Age put heavy emphasis on faith and mystery and the Volksgeist; how could one belong to the German people without sharing also its religious experience?
The number of educated Jews in Germany was increasing by leaps and bounds; despite all the restrictions, Jews succeeded in entering many professions that had been closed to them before. Some became booksellers, and since bookselling and publishing were closely linked in those days, they also entered journalism in force and thus, through the backdoor, politics. German Jews could still not be judges, army officers or university professors unless they adopted Christianity. But they no longer lived in a social ghetto and this created problems which had not existed before. A hundred years earlier there had been a great deal of fraternising with the non-Jewish world at the top of the social pyramid, among the court Jews, and at the bottom, among the beggars and the underworld. Now, with the rise of a substantial Jewish middle class, the attitude towards its surroundings became a major issue. Jettchen Gebert in Georg Hermann’s novel of that name provides an illuminating account of the way of life, the beliefs and the behaviour of this new Jewish bourgeoisie in the Berlin of the 1820s and 1830s. There was still a seemingly insurmountable wall between the beautiful young heroine and her non-Jewish lover (the fact that he belonged to the bohème was an additional complication). ‘It was bound to come’, is the constant refrain: Jettchen, the family decided, had to marry the good provider, the crude, unromantic ‘typically Jewish’ cousin from the small town in Posen with whom she was not at all in love. But as the family saw it, traditional ties and social conventions had to be respected. Jason, Jettchen’s favourite uncle, is a free-thinker who does not have the courage of his convictions and who, with all his irony and criticism, does not break away from the family.
Others were less timid; this was the beginning of the period of inter-marriage as a mass phenomenon, of which Fontane wrote in 1899 that few people now remember it, because it was regarded as a perfectly natural thing - no one made any fuss about it. The Jasons of 1825 were all Hegelians, at least for a while; they were influenced by the master’s views; Judaism, Hegel wrote, was the world of the wretched, of misfortune and ugliness, a world lacking inner unity and harmony. These Jews were ashamed of their origins: a cousin wrote to Rahel Varnhagen that he liked to study in Jena because there were so few Jews around. Börne, in a letter to Henriette Herz (with whom he was in love), reported from his university that a few Jews of good family were studying there, but that it was remarkable how anxious they were to hide their origins: ‘One never sees two Jews walking together, or even just conversing.’ One of the Jewish periodicals of the day (Orient) wrote that the Berlin Jew was blissfully happy if he was told that there was nothing ‘specifically Jewish’ about him. With the growing social and cultural differentiation inside the community, the more educated were often ashamed of their less fortunate co-religionists who were less assimilated than themselves but with whom they were nevertheless identified in the public mind. ‘They are a miserable lot,’ Heine wrote about the Hamburg Jews, ‘you must be careful not to look at them if you want to take an interest in them.’ Lassalle, the future Socialist leader, who belonged to a still younger generation, put it in even stronger terms: he loathed the Jews, ‘the degenerate descendants of a great tradition who had acquired the mentality of slaves during centuries of servitude’. True, from time to time Lassalle, like the young Disraeli, had visions of grandeur, of leading the Jews towards a great future. But, unlike Disraeli, who thought that the Jews should be given full civic rights not on sufferance but because they were a superior race, Lassalle felt that they had deteriorated beyond redemption: ‘Cowardly people, you don’t deserve a better lot, you were born to be servants.’
Börne was baptised after having prepared for the Frankfurt Jewish community a long and detailed memorandum about the discrimination to which his co-religionists in his native city were subjected; Heine converted after writing to one of his closest friends that it was beneath his honour and dignity to become a Christian just in order to enter the state service in Prussia. Times are bad, he added ominously - honest men have to become scoundrels. A few weeks after his baptism he wrote to the same friend: ‘I am now hated by Christian and Jew alike; I very much regret my baptism, nothing but misfortune has occurred to me since.’ And he was at his most sarcastic in a pun about those shamefacedly embracing Christianity:
Und Du bist zu Kreuz gekrochen
Zu dem Kreuz, das Du verachtest
Das Du noch vor wenigen Wochen
In den Staub zu treten dachtest!
(So you have repented,
crawling towards the very
cross which you derided
only a few weeks ago!)
Heine’s conversion has remained something of a mystery. Only a little while before he had written to another friend, Moritz Embden, that he was indifferent in matters of religion and that his attachment to Judaism had its roots in his deep antipathy to Christianity.
Heine made a great many contradictory statements about Judaism, as he did about Germany and the future of Socialism; it is rarely profitable to search for ideological consistency in the work of a poet, nor is its presence necessarily a virtue. Börne, his contemporary, was more of a politician, and his strength too was the literary essay, not politico-economic analysis. But precisely because Börne and Heine, unlike Marx, did not try to develop a scientific Weltanschauung, they were better able to understand the essence of the Jewish question; they felt in their bones that there was no breaking out of what Börne once called the ‘magic Jewish circle’. Everyone spoke about the Jews; he had experienced this a thousand times and yet it remained forever new: ‘Some accuse me of being a Jew, others forgive me for being a Jew, still others even praise me for it. But all of them reflect on it.’ Both Börne and Heine were more concerned with Jewish topics after their conversion than before; Heine announced towards the end of his life that he felt no need to return to Judaism because he had never really left it. Börne, too, took a more positive view in his later years. The Jews had more spirit than the non-Jews, he noted; they had passions - but only great ones (which recalls Heine’s saying that the Greeks had always been no more than handsome youths, whereas the Jews were always men). Börne defended the Jews against their detractors in the same way as he used his pen on behalf of other just causes; like Heine he felt no link with any positive religion. Judaism had no deeper meaning for the modern Jew of which these two writers were the first perfect specimens. It was the family disease that had followed them for thousands of years, the plague that had been carried forth from Pharaonic days, as Heine wrote in a poem dedicated to the new Jewish hospital in Hamburg; it was an incurable illness - no steam bath, modern drugs, or other appliances or medicines could heal it. Would it disappear, perhaps, in that future, better, world order, the vision of which intrigued Heine in his more optimistic moments? Was there any point in reflecting about the future of Judaism and the Jews? The narrow limits of intellectual analysis were acutely stated in a private letter of Moritz Abraham Stern, a mathematician and one of the first Jewish professors in Germany, to his friend Gabriel Riesser:
I am as remote from Judaism as from Christianity. What binds me to Judaism is a feeling of duty, of reverence. I am tied to this religious party in the same way as I am bound to my mother, my family, my fatherland. Such feelings should not be dissected with the anatomical knife; one should not trace the deeper underlying motives, it does not help us to become better men.
There are no exact statistics about Jewish conversions; Rahel’s statement in 1819 that half of the Berlin community had converted during the last three decades was no doubt exaggerated.* But equally there is no doubt that in Germany at the time, the most gifted in every walk of life, and above all the leaders, were affected: the intelligentsia in fact, those who had attained social, economic or political status and prominence. In some communities almost all the leading families converted; frequently the parents hesitated to take the fateful step but had their children baptised at birth. It was not a totally unprecedented phenomenon in Jewish history; it had happened before in Spain in the Middle Ages, and Jewish communities in some countries had vanished altogether. With the disappearance of the intellectual elite and social establishment it seemed that only the downtrodden and uneducated, the backward elements in the community, would remain. The theologian Schleiermacher, Rahel’s friend, announced that Judaism was dead; von Schroetter, the Prussian minister, took a more cautious view: he gave it another twenty years. Few Jewish intellectuals of that generation did not on one occasion or another play with the idea of baptism. They established sundry cultural and social circles ‘to search after truth, to love beauty, to do good’. But what was specifically Jewish in this praiseworthy endeavour? All of them wanted to Europeanise Judaism, to purge it of its archaisms; ‘Away from Asia’ was one of their main slogans. There were suggestions to ban Hebrew and the Talmud. The introduction of the German language into the synagogue became fairly general. Ben Seev, one of Mendelssohn’s pupils and close collaborators, complained of the gradual disappearance of Hebrew and put equal blame on enlightened parents and conservative rabbis. The parents wanted their children to learn only subjects that would assist them in their professional career: languages, mathematics, the sciences. The orthodox rabbis on the other hand banned worldly subjects altogether, opposing religion to science. Thus different sections of the Jewish people were gradually drifting apart; some were still devoting their best years to the study of Hebrew, but Hebrew for them was mainly a tool for the study of the Talmud. David Friedlaender, another of Mendelssohn’s pupils, came out squarely against traditional Jewish education. Writing to his brother-in-law, in a little Silesian town, who had asked for advice concerning the education of his son, he stated flatly that there was no room for half measures and compromise. The son would become a yeshiva bocher, convinced of the exclusivity of the Jewish people and of the great superiority of his studies over all other kinds of human endeavour. He would not touch any book in German but he would know the answers to all sorts of questions - whether, for instance, the daughter of a high priest who had been whoring should be stoned or burned. A compromise was not possible - a man wearing on one foot a riding boot and on the other a dancing shoe would be able neither to dance nor to ride.
In Mendelssohn’s days Jews were still Jews and everyone referred to a Jewish nation. But in 1810 Sulamit, the leading German-Jewish periodical, changed its subtitle to Israelit, and a few years later many Jews began to refer to themselves as of the ‘Mosaic confession’. By the 1830s the Me’assef, the Hebrew journal established by Mendelssohn’s pupils, had ceased to appear. The knowledge of Hebrew among the general public was by then restricted to a few prayers and some colloquial phrases; even the Jewish scholars used the language only sparingly. Luzzatto, the great Italian-Jewish thinker, said in a letter to Graetz, the historian of the Jewish people, that he regretted very much that neither Graetz nor Zacharias Frankel (the director of the leading Jewish theological seminary) liked to write Hebrew: ‘What will your pupils do, where will the language find a home after the demise of the present generation?’ The complaint was all the more poignant since Graetz and Frankel were fervently opposed to attempts to de-Judaise Judaism.
The religious reform movement gathered momentum throughout the first half of the century; prayers were translated and abridged, those of national rather than religious content or referring to the coming of the Messiah were deleted. Organs and mixed choirs appeared in the synagogues (or ‘temples’, as they were now called). Girls as well as boys went through the ritual of confirmation. The reform rabbis, to the horror of their orthodox colleagues, dropped the provision for the ritual bath and the elaborate mourning and funeral rites; some even introduced religious services on Sunday and left it to the discretion of the parents whether their new-born sons should be circumcised. The curriculum of the Jewish schools changed out of recognition, and it was alleged that in some of them children were singing Christian hymns such as ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’; they were lighting the candles of both the menora (the Chanukka candelabra) and the Christmas tree.
A powerful impetus to reform Judaism had been given by Moses Mendelssohn, who saw no contradiction between the essentials of a Jewish religion and his own moral maxims such as ‘Love truth, love peace’ (Jerusalem). At the same time the scientific study of Judaism (Wissenschaft des Judentums) began to prosper, reawakening interest in the Jewish poetry of the Middle Ages, and retracing the development of Jewish prayers and ritual customs. But even those who were deeply convinced of the values of Judaism, its tradition and its contribution to civilisation, regarded it more as an impressive fossil than a living faith. When towards the end of the nineteenth century Steinschneider, a leader of this school, was told by one of his students about early Zionist activities, he looked longingly and sadly at his great collection of Jewish books and said: ‘My dear fellow, it is too late. All that remains for us to do is to provide a decent funeral.’
The German-Jewish Haskala (enlightenment) led many Jews away from Judaism and it has come in for bitter attacks from both the orthodox and the latter-day Jewish national movement. Mendelssohn and his pupils had paved the way for de-Judaisation, the argument ran, for the apostasy of individuals, and ultimately for the disappearance of the faith altogether. But such attacks ignore the historical context and therefore usually miss the point. The great decline in faith had set in well before the turn of the century. Judaism had been undermined from inside; the Haskala was not the cause of this crisis but its consequence. Orthodox Jews naturally expressed their horror at the progressive Christianisation of the synagogue, for this, not to mince words, is what it amounted to. But the reform movement was only the reaction to the chaotic state of religious life. The Haskala did not kill religious piety; on the contrary it tried, even if not successfully, to restore dignity to rabbis and synagogues, whose prestige, according to eighteenth-century witnesses, had fallen to an all-time low. Prayers, mechanically recited, were interrupted by social conversation, the exchange of business information, and even occasional brawls and fisticuffs. Such a religion had little attraction for a new generation of educated men and women.
Those who left Judaism have been harshly judged by later generations for the lack of dignity they displayed and their craving for recognition by the outside world; they were dying to become the monkeys of European civilisation (as Luzzatto put it), aping all the intellectual fashions of a rotten age. The resentment is only too intelligible; deserters from a fortress under siege - and the Jews were still subject to discrimination and even persecution - are never looked upon with favour. Of those at the time who chose baptism, many did so no doubt in the hope of material gain or social recognition; others simply grew away. But it is doubtful whether those who accepted Christianity did so only for material advantage. The sad truth which most defenders of traditional Judaism have always been reluctant to face was that it had become meaningless for many people. This was the age of the decline of traditional religion; with the disappearance of this common tie many educated Jews no longer felt any obligation, moral or other, to their community. These lapsed Jews admitted to a common ancestry and tradition. But what did this tradition amount to when compared with the overwhelming attractions of European civilisation, the Enlightenment, the classic and Romantic Movement, the unprecedented flowering of philosophy and literature, music and the arts? The crisis of religion was less acutely felt in the non-Jewish world, for both Catholicism and Protestantism showed themselves far more adaptable than orthodox Judaism to the winds of change. Even if a German ceased to believe in Christian dogma he still remained a German, whereas a non-believing Jew had no such anchor. It was not just that Judaism had nothing to put against the powerful influence of the Encyclopedists, of Kant and Hegel, Goethe and Beethoven. These, it could be argued, belonged to all mankind. The real problem was that Judaism as a religion (and few at the time regarded it as anything else) had little if any attraction for western-educated people. The last movement that had stirred the Jewish world, the messianism of Shabtai Zvi and his pupils, had long ago petered out; some of its offshoots, such as the Dönmeh in Turkey and the Frankists in Galicia, had ended up by adopting Islam and Christianity respectively. Throughout the eighteenth century the leading German rabbis had been engaged in perpetual internal strife, suspecting each other of various heresies. Rabbi Emden of Altona claimed that the amulets sold by Rabbi Eybeschütz of Hamburg to pregnant women (they were supposed to have a magic effect) included a reference to Shabtai Zvi; this was the great confrontation shaking central European Judaism for many years. With the keepers of the faith engaged in disputations of this kind, was it surprising that the Jewish readers of Voltaire had little but derision for what they regarded as the forces of obscurantism? Much of the influence of the Enlightenment was shallow and its fallacies were demonstrated only too clearly in subsequent decades. But in the clash between secularism and an ossified religion based largely on a senseless collection of prohibitions and equally inexplicable customs elaborated by various rabbis in the distant past, there was not the slightest doubt which would prevail. It was a conflict between a modern philosophy and a moribund religion.
Both the apostates and the advocates of assimilation were later accused of seeking to emancipate themselves as individuals instead of fighting for the emancipation of their people. German Jews in particular have been severely criticised for their pusillanimity. But those who opted out (it cannot be emphasised too often) did not feel themselves at all members of a people; at most they sensed that they were members of a community of fate whose destiny had been fulfilled. Nor was assimilation confined to Germany; the idea that the Jews were no longer a people had been given official sanction by the Sanhedrin convened by Napoleon in 1807. What happened in Germany during the first half of the nineteenth century was by no means unique; it simply predated developments elsewhere in Europe by several decades.
And yet, of those who opted for conversion, some took the decision with a heavy heart. They had ceased to believe in Judaism but they still felt that open dissociation from the ancestral faith was a cowardly act. Shortly after he was baptised Heine wrote to a close friend referring to the members of their own circle - the Association for Culture and Science among the Jews - that no one should be called an honest man before his death: ‘I am glad that Friedlaender and Ben David are now old, and they at least are safe, and no one will reproach our age that we did not have a single one among us who was without blame.’
For the majority of Jews there was less temptation. The orthodox, the many small-town Jews, and those who did not have constant professional or social contact with the gentile world, were held together by tradition and inertia. Their family ties had always been closer than was customary among the surrounding gentile world. They were distinguished by certain common traits of mentality and character, often but not always by their looks, by a certain affinity they felt for each other, by memories and traditions which went far back. They were not always aware of these common traits; the outside world frequently saw them much more clearly. Marx felt himself anything but a Jew; so did Lassalle whom he loathed. Marx’s exchange of letters with Engels is replete with references to the ‘Jewish Nigger’ Lassalle, his lack of tact, his vanity, impatience, and other ‘typically Jewish’ traits of character. But to the outside world men like Marx and Lassalle remained Jews, however ostentatiously they dissociated themselves from Judaism, however much they felt themselves Germans or citizens of the world. Well-wishers saw in Marx a descendant of the Jewish prophets and commented on the messianic element in Marxism; enemies dwelt upon the Talmudic craftiness of the Red Rabbi; there was no getting out of Börne’s ‘magic circle’. It was above all this hostility on the part of the outside world, and in particular Christian opposition to emancipation and later on the antisemitic movement, that prevented the total disintegration of the Jews as a group.
The demand for emancipation had been first advanced by a few humanists; the majority were either indifferent or actively hostile. Contemporary sources relate that peasants who had killed a Jew near Elmsbeck were most indignant when arrested and brought to trial; after all the victim was only a Jew. The inhabitants of Sachsenhausen (a suburb of Frankfurt) threatened revolt when one of them who had killed a Jew was about to be executed. Many leading spirits of the age were anything but philosemites. Goethe said the Jews could not be given a part in a civilisation whose very origins they negated. Fichte was against making Jews fully fledged citizens because they constituted a state within the state, and because they were permeated with burning hatred of all other people. He would much rather have them sent back to Palestine or, as he once wrote, cut off their heads overnight and replace them with non-Jewish heads. According to official Christian theology, Jews as individuals could be redeemed if they wholeheartedly embraced Christianity, shedding their superstitions and improving themselves morally and culturally. But in practice this positive approach was by no means generally accepted, whether by the state or even within the Church. It was argued both that the Jews had sunk so low that they were incapable of moral improvement, and that while cultural assimilation was possible it was by no means desirable. Sulamit, the leading Jewish journal, wrote in 1807 that even the more sympathetic gentile preferred the ‘real Jew’ to the westernised Jew whom he loathed: ‘the average Christian prefers the dirtiest orthodox to the cultured man’. Grattenauer, a leading antisemitic pamphleteer, jeered in 1803 at those Jews who, to demonstrate their cultural level, publicly ate pork on the Sabbath, promenading noisily in the city streets, reciting aloud Kiesewetter’s ‘Logic’ and singing arias from ‘Herodias before Bethlehem’ (a contemporary opera). Grattenauer much regretted that honest Christians were no longer permitted to kill Jews; Hundt-Radowski, his most widely read successor, argued in 1816 that the murder of Jews was neither a sin nor a crime but at most a disturbance of public order. Since, however, public order was not to be disturbed, he proposed the castration of all male Jews, the sale of females to bordellos, and the disposal of the rest as slaves to the British for work in their overseas plantations.
These were extreme voices but they were by no means uninfluential, and some of these pamphlets were frequently reprinted. A slightly more moderate form of antisemitism found expression in the writings of university professors such as Rühs and Fries. They argued that Judaism was odium generis humani, a pest that should be exterminated though not necessarily by fire and sword; it was not just a confession but a nation and a state within the state. Jews should not be given equal rights; on the contrary, they should be compelled to wear certain distinguishing marks so that the unsuspecting gentile would be able to recognise the enemy without difficulty. These writers usually struck a note of alarm: half of the wealth of Frankfurt was already in Jewish hands; in another forty years the children of the leading Christian families would be reduced to the status of servants in Jewish houses unless drastic measures were taken in time.
These attacks created deep consternation among German Jewry and produced a sizable counter-literature. The Jews had been oppressed for many centuries, the apologists argued; but given a few decades of unfettered development they would be indistinguishable from the rest of the people - honest, industrious, good citizens making their full contribution to society. They explained that the antisemitic pamphleteers were wholly ignorant of the facts of Jewish history; Spain had not been ruined by the Jews, but on the contrary by their expulsion. They also stressed that the recent antisemitic writings were simply a rehash of the literature of bygone centuries which had been frequently and conclusively refuted. Such well-meaning defence of Judaism and the Jews was bound to be ineffective because it ignored the irrational origin of the attacks. Rational arguments, however logically marshalled, were bound to make no impact in these conditions. How could Fries be refuted when he said: ‘Go out and ask anyone, peasants as well as townspeople, whether they do not hate the Jews who take away their livelihood and corrupt the German people’. With all the exaggeration in statements of this kind there was this kernel of truth: Jews were disliked. Individual Jews could pass and were occasionally accepted and respected, but there was a deep-seated feeling that as a whole they were undesirable, a danger to the German people and its development.
On the intellectual level this backlash against the Enlightenment has to be viewed in the general context of the times. The Romantic Movement rediscovered the beauty of the Middle Ages and preached the ideal of a Christian-German state; the war against Napoleon produced a wave of xenophobia and gave a powerful impetus to Teutomania (Teutschtümelei). The new patriotism, the precursor of the völkisch-racial movement of the latter part of the century, was a reaction to the humanitarian-cosmopolitan movement of the century before; it stressed national exclusivity and was soon to insist on the inferiority of other races.
The Romantic fashion passed but it was not followed by a return to the ideals of Lessing. Antisemitic attacks did not cease, and they came from the left as well as the right: Bruno Bauer’s pamphlet on the Jewish question is now remembered mainly because it provoked Marx’s reply. Jewry could not be fully emancipated, Bauer maintained, if it refused to be liberated from its ancient particularism. Jews could be free and equal partners only in a purely secular society; all traditional religion had therefore to be abandoned. Marx’s answer moved on an even higher level of abstraction; he was not really interested in the Jewish question as such but in the social order in general which had to be overthrown; Judaism symbolised the profit motive, egoism. Marx’s aperçus, too, would hardly be remembered today but for the person of the author. There was often an extra edge of animosity in the comments of the philosophers that cannot be explained by the general aversion to religion that was fashionable in the age of the Young Hegelians and Feuerbach. Even a radical change in the political outlook of an author did not necessarily affect his attitude towards the Jews. Bruno Bauer’s essay in the 1840s was written from a left-wing position; twenty years later he had turned into a pillar of the conservative right, but his views on the Jews became even more extreme. They were the white Negroes (he wrote), lacking only the crude and uncouth nature and the capacity for physical labour of their black brethren. Some of these attacks were not devoid of real insight into the Jewish problem and the difficulties of assimilation. Constantin Frantz, writing in 1844 from a religious-conservative point of view, compared the Jewish people with the eternal Jew of the medieval folk tale: dispersed over the whole globe, they found no peace anywhere. They wanted to mingle with the people and to surrender their own national character (Volkstum), but were unable to do so; only with the coming of the Messiah would full integration be possible.
During the 1840s there was a temporary decline in antisemitism, but the revolution of 1848 was accompanied by a fresh wave of attacks all over central Europe; in some villages in south Germany the local Jews were so intimidated that they actually relinquished their newly won political rights, afraid that this would create even more ill-feeling.
The Jews were puzzled by these outbreaks of antisemitism; they regarded them as a mysterious atavism, a ghost from the Middle Ages which, with the spread of education, would gradually be laid to rest. They believed that by being exemplary citizens they would convince the antisemites of the erroneousness of their views. If they had weaknesses these were the residue of centuries of oppression and economic constraints. They angrily rejected the argument that social ostracism and persecution had left ineradicable traces in their national character. Given fifty years of educational effort and peaceful development, they would show the world how well they fitted into civil society. Heine indeed predicted that their contribution to civilisation might be greater than that of other people. Jews were indignant when an antisemite like Rühs argued that they still constituted one nation (‘they are somehow one nation from Brody to Tripoli’). They and their ancestors had been born in Germany, and they emphasised on every occasion their attachment to the country that continued to treat them like step-children. Only a few expressed doubts about the future relationship of Jews and Germans. A Jewish writer in Orient who argued in 1840 that ‘we are neither Germans nor Slavs nor French’, and that the southern Semitic original tribe (Urstamm) could never merge with the racial descendants of the north, was looked upon as an oddity. The lightning-rod theory of antisemitism was the one most commonly accepted: the Germans, being latecomers among the nations of Europe, still lacked a true national consciousness; they had to prove their patriotism by persecuting others and they blamed the Jews for the misfortune besetting them.
Börne thought that Judaeophobia was originally economic and social in character. His conclusions were pessimistic; it was pointless to try to refute antisemitism logically. All the arguments had been known for fifty years; reason apparently did not count. From the very beginning of the modern antisemitic movement Jews were in two minds whether it was wiser to reply to the attacks or to ignore them. Some Jewish periodicals decided to play down the extent and significance of the anti-Jewish riots of 1819 and again of 1848: ‘Occasional stupidities of the German Michel against the Jews must be regarded from broader vistas’, Berthold Auerbach, the novelist, wrote to a friend in 1848. Jewish apologetic literature was curiously restricted in its arguments; it defended the Jews, but counter-attacks were considered in bad taste. Saul Ascher, almost the only one who made no secret of his feelings about Teutomania, did not have the blessing of his fellows. Years later Jewish spokesmen dissociated themselves from Börne and Heine, the emigrés who had shown excessive zeal in their struggle against the ultra-nationalists. It seems unduly timid, but a good case can be made in retrospect in justification of those who counselled caution. Attacks on the incipient völkisch nationalism could not have had the slightest impact; they would have been bound to strengthen the Teutomans in their belief that Jews were the enemies of the German people. If a man was convinced that Jewish influence was corrupting, nothing a Jew said or wrote would shake him in his belief; there was no room for a dialogue, not even for polemics. Much of the apologetic literature concentrated on refuting antisemitic attacks on the Jewish religion, but in this respect the Jewish liberals were on shakier ground than they realised. The antisemites rediscovered the Talmud and the Shulkhan Arukh, whereas the Jews had just about managed to forget them. Educated Jews of that generation genuinely believed that ‘their religion had always taught universalist ethics’ (Y. Katz), and the general Jewish public was genuinely astonished and outraged when it realised that this just was not so and that the Talmud included sayings and injunctions which made strange reading in the modern context.
The anti-Jewish attacks came as a shock, but most Jews were still convinced that these were a rearguard action on the part of the forces of darkness. Despite all the restrictions still in force, between 1815 and 1848 they entered a great many professions hitherto closed to them and some of them rose to positions of prominence; the chosen people suddenly seemed omnipresent.
Wohin ihr fasst, Ihr werdet Juden fassen,
all ueberall das Lieblingsvolk des Herrn
wrote the poet Franz Dingelstedt in 1842 in his ‘Songs of a cosmopolitan night-watchman’. The Jews were reluctant to ponder the social and political implications of these changes; other than the struggle for emancipation, they seemed no longer to have common interests. True, the ritual-murder case in Damascus in 1840 gave a fresh impetus to feelings of solidarity, but it did not last; those who had shed their religious beliefs did not feel much in common with the orthodox, and the educated were ashamed of the masses in their semi-barbaric backwardness. From time to time there were complaints about the lack of Jewish dignity; even Rothschild, it was reported, had given three hundred thaler for the completion of Cologne Cathedral but only ten for the reconstruction of the Leipzig synagogue. Was this not typical of the lack of Jewish self-esteem?
With the revolution of 1848 a new era opened in the history of central European Jewry, bringing with it a wave of enthusiasm among them, both because of the revolution’s democratic character, and in connection with the great surge of the movement for German unity. The revolution was accompanied by antisemitic excesses and the constitutional achievements (such as the abolition of all discrimination on religious grounds) were again whittled down once the reactionary forces won the upper hand. Jews could still not be judges or burgomasters, for this involved administering the Christian formula of the oath. But the gains greatly outweighed the setbacks. For the Jews the 1850s and 1860s were a happy period. They attained full civil equality in Germany and Austria-Hungary, in Italy and in Scandinavia. In 1858 the first British Jew entered Parliament, and after 1870 Jews could attend English universities. On the continent there was little public antisemitism, and the spirit prevailing in the Jewish communities was one of genuine optimism. They shared in the general prosperity, and some amassed great riches. But much more significant was the emergence of a strong middle class; from hawking and other forms of small trade the Jews streamed into more substantial forms of business, industry, and banking, and above all into the free professions. In Berlin they constituted in 1905 less than 5 per cent of the population but provided 30 per cent of the municipal tax revenue; in Frankfurt on Main 63 per cent of all Jews had in 1900 an income of more than 3,000 marks; only 25 per cent of the Protestants and no more than 16 per cent of the Catholics reached that level. Jewish urbanisation continued at a rapid pace. The Berlin Jewish community, which had numbered about 3,000 in 1816, rose to 54,000 in 1854 and in 1910 to 144,000. The growth of the Vienna community was even more striking: from 6,000 in 1857 it increased to 99,000 in 1890; during the next twenty years it again almost doubled, rising to 175,000. In absolute terms the communities continued to grow almost everywhere, but relative to the general population their percentage decreased in Germany from 1.25 in 1871 to 0.9 in 1925; with growing prosperity the birth-rate declined. The number of conversions reached an all-time low in the 1870s; the outside pressure, the drawbacks and inducements which had previously driven Jews to embrace Christianity, were much weaker now. Mixed marriages on the other hand became more frequent; they occurred most often in the upper-middle class, but were also a common practice in all sections of the Jewish population. On the eve of the First World War there was one mixed marriage for every two among Jewish partners in Berlin and Hamburg; in 1915 (admittedly not a typical year) there were actually more mixed marriages in Germany than marriages between two Jewish partners. Similar trends were apparent all over central Europe; in Hungary, where mixed marriages had been officially banned up to 1895, their rate subsequently rose to almost one-third. In Copenhagen it reached 56 per cent in the 1880s and in Amsterdam 70 per cent in the 1930s. The decline and probable disappearance of west and central European Jewry figured prominently in the writings of the sociologists well before 1914.
The history of the Jews in central and western Europe during the second third of the nineteenth century was thus one of continuous political and social progress. Two Jews, Crémieux and Goudchaux, were members of the French Republican government of 1848; Achille Fould became Louis Napoleon’s minister of finance. The Frankfurt Constituent Assembly counted five Jewish deputies and several more who were of Jewish origin. Individual Jews attained cabinet rank in Holland in 1860 and in Italy in 1870; Disraeli was baptised while a youth but in the eyes of the public he remained a Jew. Jewish politicians and voters alike gravitated to the liberal, left-of-centre parties because these had led the struggle for full equality before the law. Some, however, found their field of action among the Conservatives and not a few joined the emergent Socialist parties.
More significant even than the appearance of Jews on the political scene was their great cultural advance. There was a major invasion of secondary schools and universities, and within a few years the proportion of Jews in these institutions exceeded by far their proportion in the population. Out of a hundred Christian boys in Germany only three went to a gymnasium, the grammar school which was the stepping-stone to the university, but twenty-six out of a hundred Jewish boys went to these schools. This in turn resulted in a great influx of Jews into the free professions. In Prussia after the First World War every fourth lawyer and every sixth physician was a Jew; in the big centres such as Berlin and Vienna the percentage was higher still. Before 1850 few had attained any prominence in science; now, out of the sons and grandsons of the hawkers and street-traders there emerged a galaxy of chemists and physicists, mathematicians and physicians, who inscribed their names in golden letters in the annals of science. Some, such as the bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich, had almost instant success; others, such as Freud or Einstein, whose work involved a revolution in scientific thought, had to wait years for recognition. Even the antisemites grudgingly admitted that in the field of science Jews were making a contribution out of all proportion to their numbers. From the early years of the century they had shown a strong proclivity for journalism and the stage; later on they also appeared in professions that had been considered quite ‘un-Jewish’ before. Emil Rathenau became one of the pioneers of Germany’s electrical industry; Albert Ballin was head of Germany’s leading shipping company; Max Liebermann was thought to be Germany’s greatest living painter; and German musical life was unthinkable without the part played by Jews. Even the phenomenal success of Wagner would have been impossible without the support he received at every stage of his career from Jewish audiences, despite the fact that he had asserted in a famous pamphlet that the Jews lacked all creative talent.
In Germany and in France, in Holland and in Britain, Jews came to feel that they had at last found a secure haven and were accepted. Even Heinrich Graetz thought so, although his life-long study of the history of the Jewish people was not exactly conducive to optimism. When Graetz in 1870 wrote the preface to the eleventh and last volume of his great work, he noted with satisfaction that, ‘happier than any of my predecessors’, he could conclude his history with the ‘joyous feeling that in the civilised world the Jewish tribe had found at last not only justice and freedom but also a certain recognition. Now at long last it had unlimited freedom to develop its talents, not as an act of mercy but as a right acquired through thousandfold sufferings.’
The new self-confidence and prosperity were reflected in the life and activities of the communities. The newly established synagogues were substantial and impressive buildings without being ostentatious. The extreme reform movement had made little further progress, but the religious services had been streamlined and shortened, and the sermons were in German. The synagogues became much more dignified, in contrast to the noise and disorder which had characterised the traditional ‘schul’. Those who aspired to become rabbis went to study Judaism scientifically in academic seminaries; the traditional yeshivot went out of fashion and ultimately out of existence. But the gain in dignity was accompanied by a further decline in religious belief. One went to the synagogue because this was part of the Jewish way of life as much as the family reunions on Sunday afternoon or particular dishes at weddings.
The ties between the communities were no longer close. According to antisemitic folklore, the Alliance Israélite Universelle, founded in Paris in 1860, was the secret Jewish world-government; in fact its main task was the establishment of schools in Morocco and the Balkans. The task of the Anglo-Jewish Association, established in 1870, was also largely educational, while the assignment of the German Hilfsverein (1901), the Russian ORT (1899), and the Jewish Colonial Association, established in Paris in 1891, was to help the immigrants from eastern Europe on their way to a new life in America and other parts of the world. A ‘Jewish International’ existed only in the imagination of paranoid antisemites. The newly acquired patriotism of the Jews in western Europe made any closer link between the different communities impossible, nor was there any need felt for a supra-national organisation. It was a cause of great satisfaction to German Jews that the delegation which offered the German crown to the King of Prussia in Versailles in 1871 was headed by Heinrich von Simson, a politician of Jewish origin, and that the group of young maidens (Ehrenjungfrauen) who welcomed the emperor upon his return to Berlin was led by a rabbi’s daughter. German Jews who emigrated to the New World maintained not only their customs but their language and cultural links with the old country; they still read Schiller and sang Schubert’s lieder; for what had America to offer that was remotely comparable? They were annoyed by the remaining anti-Jewish restrictions, but compared with their position only a few decades earlier the progress made seemed colossal. ‘Friedenthal is a Prussian minister’, Berthold Auerbach wrote to a close friend. ‘Who would have anticipated a generation earlier that a man of Jewish origin would become a minister?’ That this was nothing out of the ordinary was in Auerbach’s view ‘perhaps the most fabulous aspect’. These feelings of satisfaction were sometimes of short duration. ‘I have lived and worked in vain’, Auerbach wrote six years later, commenting on the new antisemitic wave. ‘It is a terrible fact that such brutality, mendacity and hatred are still possible.’ The swing of the pendulum between such extremes of hope and despair was typical of the state of mind of German Jewry during the last quarter of the century. After the great boom of the early 1870s there was a major financial crisis, and individual Jews who had played a prominent part in speculation were made responsible for it. The attack on them (the ‘Gründerschwindel’), culminating in a new antisemitic wave, was part of the general onslaught on liberalism, which had never taken deep root in Germany. The anti-Jewish campaign proceeded on various levels: agitation by street-corner rabble-rousers, petitions to limit Jewish influence in public life, the appearance of fresh revelations on the Talmud, the exclusion of Jews from student organisations. Treitschke, one of the leading German historians of the day, coined the phrase which was to gain wide currency: ‘the Jews are our misfortune’. He maintained that only the most radical assimilation would solve the Jewish question; there was no room for two nationalities on German soil. Stöcker, chaplain to the Imperial Court, admonished the Jews to desist both from attacks on Christianity and from their aspirations to amass great fortunes. Wilhelm Marr, who was the first to use the term antisemitism, argued that the penetration of Jewish influence had already gone too far and too deep; the Jews had made the Germans slaves and had become the dictators of the new empire. Marr concluded his observations on a pessimistic note: ‘Let us bow to the inevitable and let us say: Finis Germaniae’. Others preached activism and demanded a variety of measures ranging from excluding the Jews from certain professions to their wholesale expulsion from Germany. Various antisemitic leagues and parties were founded, and in 1893 in the elections to the Reichstag, sixteen deputies were elected on a specifically antisemitic platform.
The German Jews were not only deeply shocked but genuinely baffled by these events. The poison they had thought dead was in fact still very much alive, and they looked desperately for an explanation. Could it be that modern antisemitism was a socio-economic phenomenon? There is, no doubt, some connection between the ups and downs of the business cycle in the German economy and the antisemitic movement, from the commercial and agrarian crisis of the post-1815 period, through the boom of the 1870s and the depression of the 1880s, to the world economic crisis and the rise of Nazism in the 1920s. Sometimes the coincidence seems striking: antisemitism sharply increased with the slump of 1873, and it fell almost equally dramatically after 1895 with the opening of a new boom. But such explanations leave many question marks, for while certain anti-Jewish attacks were triggered off by economic crises, others were of different origin; nor does this theory explain the occurrence of antisemitism in pre- and post-capitalist societies. The competitive character of capitalism provided, no doubt, an excellent breeding ground for collective dissatisfaction and insecurity, but why was it that the Jews were singled out for attack? Perhaps they were more exposed than other minorities; perhaps their influence had grown too fast? Whatever the explanation, there were two ominous aspects to the new antisemitism. While the government behaved on the whole correctly, its attitude vis-à-vis the Jews was one of icy coldness; it certainly did nothing to denounce or combat antisemitism. Very few non-Jews spoke up for their Jewish fellow citizens; there was no new Lessing to preach humanity and tolerance. More dangerous yet was the changing character of Judaeophobia, the transition from religious to racial antisemitism. Racial theories had existed in an inchoate form since the beginning of the nineteenth century, and had acquired respectability with the spread, from France, of the new, quasi-scientific doctrine of Gobineau and his disciples. In earlier times the enemies of the Jews had put the blame on their religion and on the ritual law which, they claimed, had caused the corruption of the Jewish people. Racial antisemitism rejected these arguments as irrelevant, maintaining that it had discovered the real reasons underlying the ‘Jewish danger’. The antisemitism of Stöcker was a half-way house between the old and the new antisemitism; the Jewish question, he maintained, was not only religious in character; but as a prominent churchman he could not very well accept the materialist concepts of pure racialists such as Dühring, and he referred therefore to the ‘cultural-historical aspects’ of the problem. The transition from religious to racial antisemitism was not as abrupt, and the ties between the old and the new antisemite doctrine not as tenuous, as they subsequently appeared to be. The changing argumentation merely reflected the climate of opinion of the new post-religious phase and the growth of anti-liberal and anti-humanist ideologies in general. Racial antisemitism could spread only among peoples indoctrinated for many centuries with religious anti-semitism who had been taught that the Jews had killed Christ and rejected his mission.
For the German Jews the 1880s thus constituted a turning point, even though only a few realised it at the time. Carried to its logical conclusion, the new antisemitism meant the end of assimilation, the total rejection of the Jew. The magic circle was replaced by a new ghetto whose walls could no longer be scaled. For racial characteristics, according to the new doctrine, were unchangeable; a change of religion and the rejection of his own heritage did not make a Jew into a German, any more than a dog could transform itself into a cat. The antisemitism of the last quarter of the nineteenth century did not weaken the movement for assimilation among the Jews, but its limits became much clearer and even its extreme protagonists admitted that within the foreseeable future Jews would remain distinct from Germans.
Full legal emancipation had been achieved in 1869; no more than a decade later it could have been seen that assimilation would not work. To those who argued on these lines, a national revival among the Jews should have taken place there and then. But the great majority of German Jews did not see it that way, and in retrospect one can see many good reasons for not giving in to the forces of unreason. The rapprochement with German civilisation had come a long way; Ludwig Bamberger, the liberal politician, in a book published in the year of crisis stressed that the symbiosis, the identification of the Jews with the Germans, had been closer than with any other people. They had been thoroughly Germanicised well beyond Germany’s borders; through the medium of language they had accepted German culture, and through culture, the German national spirit. He and his friends thought there was obviously some affinity in the national character which attracted Jews so strongly to Germany and to the German spirit*. Raphael Loewenfels, in a pamphlet published in 1893, put the case in even blunter terms: were educated Jews not nearer to enlightened Protestants than to the fanatics who believed in the wisdom of the Talmud? Were they not closer to German Catholics than to French Jewry? Whoever still used in his prayers the old formula ‘Next year in Jerusalem’, Loewenfels maintained, should go where his heart drew him. But no educated Jew would be willing to leave his beloved fatherland for a country where in time immemorial his forefathers had lived. This was not just the belief of an individual; it expressed the convictions of a great many Jews. In the year this pamphlet was published, the Central Association (Zentralverein) of German Citizens of Jewish Persuasion was founded, to become later on by far the strongest organisation of German Jewry. The first point in its programme stressed its attachment to Germany: the ties between them and Jews abroad were similar to those between German Catholics and Protestants and their co-religionists in other countries. The Zentralverein stressed the need for Jewish pride and consciousness and rejected the extreme and undignified forms of assimilationism which had proved both ineffective and dangerous, while asserting that for German Jews there was no future but on German soil; in the modern world there were few if any totally homogeneous nations; everywhere different religions and nationalities existed side by side. Despite the particularities setting them apart from the rest, the Zentralverein thought that there was every reason to believe that there would be an honourable place for Jews in the broader framework of the German nation. It is tempting in retrospect to dismiss all this as so much wishful thinking. But the spirit of the age was still basically optimistic, and it was commonly assumed that the appeal of anti-semitism was bound to be restricted to the backward sections of society, in particular to those who had suffered from the consequences of industrialisation. The reaction against the Enlightenment and liberalism, the new cult of violence, and anti-humanism, were thought to be transient cultural maladies. Growing prosperity would help to restore both sanity and social stability. There were more than a few straws in the wind which seemed to justify such optimism: the antisemites, divided into several factions, lost much of their political influence after 1895, though they continued to exist as small sects bitterly fighting each other. The emergence of the new antisemitism had shown that there were grave problems and strains that had been ignored, or at any rate underrated, but there seemed to be no good reason to give up hope.
Nor was there any reason why German and Austrian Jews should regard their own position with special concern. In Russia and Rumania the situation was incomparably worse; from 1881 on eastern Europe was plagued by a series of pogroms. Even in France, which had a smaller Jewish community than Germany, their position was far more precarious. The French antisemitic movement predated Marr, Stöcker, and Dühring; it was more articulate and its influence more widespread. It was, in fact, the pioneer of modern anti-Jewish ideology; the German and Russian antisemites frequently imported their ideas from Paris. Later on, during the Dreyfus affair, antisemitism in France became a nation-wide issue to a far greater extent than in contemporary Germany.
The main attack on assimilation came from within the Jewish camp, from those who maintained that the perfect synthesis between Judaism and western civilisation had nowhere materialised. The assimilated German Jew, as his eastern co-religionists saw it, had lost his Jewish spontaneity and warmth and his inner peace; he had invested a great deal of effort in being like the others but had not achieved the recognition he so much desired, and as a result he was an unhappy being, suffering from a peculiarly painful and apparently incurable form of schizophrenia. This, for instance, was the impression young Chaim Weizmann gained when he came to Germany as a young teacher in the 1890s. German Jews, he found, did not believe in the existence of a Jewish people; they had no real understanding of the nature of anti-semitism; there was no real Jewish life - it was all stuffy, unreal, divorced from the people, lacking warmth, gaiety, colour, and intimacy. In one of his essays (Avdut betoch Herut - Slavery in the Midst of Freedom), Ahad Ha’am maintained that western Jews knew in their innermost heart that they were unfree because they lacked a national culture. To justify their existence they had to dispute the view that every people had an individual character and assignment.
Such criticism contained much that was true, but it was not very helpful since it ignored the essential differences between Jews in eastern Europe and their co-religionists in the west. The issue was exceedingly complex. What Weizmann wrote about German Jews is sometimes almost textually identical with the views expressed by Herzen and the Slavophiles a generation earlier about the lifeless, Philistine Germans. Could it be that Russian Jews and German Jews had been infected by the disdain their respective host nations felt for each other? Ahad Ha’am played a central role in the history of the Jewish cultural renaissance, but in his case, too, the ideas he popularised were by no means part of the Jewish tradition but had their roots in the west. Jews in eastern Europe were able to retain their national identity because there were so many of them and it was therefore much easier to preserve their way of life and a folklore of their own. Nor was there a strong temptation to accept Russian, Rumanian, or Galician culture, whereas western Jews, much fewer in numbers, had been strongly attracted by German, French or English civilisation simply because it was so much superior. We cannot and do not want to retreat from emancipation, a Zionist (F. Oppenheimer) wrote; if we analyse ourselves we find that 95 per cent of our culture is composed of western European elements. The Jewish nationalists from eastern Europe had a more acute perception of antisemitism and the limits of assimilation, but they failed to understand the problems facing Jews living in a milieu so unlike their own. Western Jewry, rootless and relatively few in numbers, could not help but be absorbed. History had shown that even big countries have found it impossible to shut themselves off from more advanced cultures and more modern ways of life. Latter-day critics have said that the process of assimilation went too fast and too far: ‘What had begun as furtive glances soon turned into a passionate involvement’ (G. Scholem). This resulted both in a great deal of newly awakened creativity and in deep insecurity. Many Jews, it was further argued, enriched German economics, philosophy, science, literature and the arts, whereas only a very few made a corresponding contribution in the Jewish field. But there was no Jewish science, philosophy, or economics, and it is more than doubtful whether there was room for a specifically Jewish literature or art in western Europe. By and large the love affair between Jews and Germans remained one-sided and unreciprocated; the Jews showed more enthusiasm and understanding for what was best in German culture than most Germans. Regrettably, no one showed much gratitude to the Jews. But assimilation was a natural process, and it was in no way limited to German Jewry.
Elsewhere in western Europe assimilation began later but went further than in Germany. The integration of Italian Jewry was more complete than in Germany, where the constant influx of Jews from the east provided a blood-transfusion - or an irritant, according to the way one saw it. The situation in Britain differed from that in the rest of Europe. There was more intermarriage, in particular with the aristocracy, than anywhere else. Emancipation came to England in the traditional way such issues are resolved in that country - piecemeal, on an empirical basis, not as the result of ideological, abstract debates. After the king had visited a London synagogue one Friday evening in 1809, following an invitation by the Goldsmid brothers, social contacts with Jews became respectable. It took until 1867 for a Jewish Member of Parliament, duly elected, to be permitted to take his seat. Lionel de Rothschild, the first Jewish Member of Parliament, did not make a notable contribution to British politics; in fact he never spoke in a debate. But the ice was broken, and a few years later a Jew became solicitor-general and the last disabilities were removed. There was no danger that Jews would reach a position of cultural pre-eminence in Britain as they had in Germany; their numbers were smaller and their contribution to cultural life much less significant. Moreover, the British did not suffer from feelings of insecurity; there was no fear of ‘racial pollution’. Full assimilation, on the other hand, was not even considered desirable. While Jews had of course to conform to the British way of life, they were at the same time expected to keep some aspects of their individuality. They were considered a race apart, and a country accustomed to ruling an empire saw in this an enrichment rather than a danger to its national existence, provided, of course, Jews did not get too numerous and powerful.
The parallels between assimilation in Germany and France are much closer. Almost everything that has been said about both the achievements and the shortcomings of the assimilation of the Jews in Germany applies also to France. If Mendelssohn’s children converted to Christianity, so did the children of Crémieux, the great fighter for the rights of French Jews. It was often said that Jews felt closer to the Germans than to any other European people, and that they became more deeply rooted there than anywhere else. Yet those who made such claims usually did so without much knowledge of the state of affairs of France. During the nineteenth century French Jews were integrated in the social life of their country. The younger ones, whether conservative or radical, an observer noted towards the end of the century, were totally absorbed in their non-Jewish surroundings; they had no philosophy other than that of the camp to which they belonged. To raise the Jewish question would have been considered tactless. Judaism for this generation was no longer a religious, social, or political concept (Tchernoff). Jews were second to none in their French patriotism; many of them left Strasbourg and Colmar and moved to France when these provinces became part of Germany after the defeat of 1870. The hesitancy of French Jews to take collective action during the Dreyfus trial showed that they wanted to believe that the affair had no specifically Jewish aspect. Bernard Lazare, an ardent Socialist who was in favour of full assimilation and of the eventual disappearance of the Jews as a separate people, later on became a Zionist. But he was a rare exception. On the whole the Zionist movement struck few roots in France; the great majority of French Jews always stressed their attachment to the French nation, denying that their feelings differed from those of other Frenchmen. Many a Frenchman of Jewish extraction has described how as a child he wept over French defeats and rejoiced at French victories; Jewish history and traditions had no meaning for him. It was not a question of hiding his Judaism or being ashamed of it. Marc Bloch, the great historian, was anything but a coward or a hypocrite; but he belonged to a generation for which Judaism had lost all meaning. Ahad Ha’am’s strictures against the slavery of western Jews he would have angrily rejected as the misguided, artificial construction of a man who had the misfortune to live under tsarist despotism, and who in his parochialism could not conceive how Jews elsewhere felt. ‘I have felt myself during my whole life above all and very simply - French’, he wrote. ‘I have been tied to my fatherland by a long family tradition; nourished by its spiritual heritage and its history, unable in truth to conceive of any other country where I could breathe at ease, I have loved it very much and served it with all my strength.’ ‘Being a stranger to all confessional formalism and to all racial solidarity’, Bloch requested before his execution by the Nazis that Hebrew prayers should not be said at his grave. Sometimes Judaism was projected on men of this generation from the outside, and their inner harmony and security was disturbed, but this made them at most Jews par point d’honneur; only seldom did it mean a return to ‘positive Judaism’. Raymond Aron wrote: ‘I think of myself as a Jew because the world around me wants it that way, but I do not feel that this is really a part of my existence.’ A great deal has been written about the self-hatred of individual German Jews; it is not at all difficult to find it in France; there was no case in the annals of German Jewry as strange and pathological as that of Maurice Sachs.*
The east European critics of assimilation usually forgot that there was a time when in eastern Europe, too, assimilation had been regarded as the wave of the future. It had strong support among Russian Jews during the 1860s and 1870s, and this despite the fact that the prospects for assimilation were, for obvious demographic, social, and economic reasons, far worse than in the west. The editor of the first Jewish journal in Russian, Osip Rabinovich, complained bitterly that the Jews were clinging to their poor, ugly-sounding and corrupt dialect instead of making the ‘wonderful Russian language’ their own: ‘Russia is our fatherland, and its air, its language, too, should be ours.’ The leading Jewish publicist of the period, I. Orzhansky, appealed for the full absorption of the Jews in the Russian nation, and said that they were striving with great energy to acquire the Russian national spirit, the Russian way of life, to become Russian in every respect. These views were shared by leading writers such as A.A. Aordon, who thought that Hebrew ought to be used only so long as the majority of the Jews did not have a full mastery of Russian. Lev Levanda called on Russian Jewry to ‘awake under the sceptre of Alexander II’; Emanuel Soloveichik wrote in 1869 that the fusion of Russian and Jew, the submerging of the Jews in the Russian people, was the new messianic movement awaited by educated Russian Jews with great impatience. After the pogroms of the early 1880s these hopes vanished; there was no longer any reason to assume that the tsarist régime would favour a movement for cultural or social assimilation. Political rights seemed as distant as ever; nor was there much optimism about the attitude of the Russian and Ukrainian people towards the Jews living in their midst. But a new form of assimilation appeared among the many Jews who joined the left-wing movement. For a young revolutionary such as Trotsky his Jewish origin meant nothing; his place was in the ranks of the vanguard of the Russian proletariat fighting for world revolution. There were thousands like him.
Assimilation, then, was a general problem, a historical phenomenon not confined to countries where Jews constituted a marginal group. True, it made more rapid progress the smaller and the more prosperous the Jewish minority, the higher the culture of the host country, and the closer the economic ties between Jews and non-Jews. Arthur Ruppin, who was the first to study the sociology of the Jews, noted well before the First World War that assimilation was a general process; during the Middle Ages their particular economic and social position had made assimilation well-nigh impossible, but the tremendous changes which had taken place since had weakened the ties between Jew and Jew in every respect. If some viewed this process with unease, Ruppin himself regarded it as a grave danger. Others saw it as an inevitable development to which moral and emotional judgments could not and should not be applied. The orthodox found it easier to resist because most of them were sheltered from close contact with the outside, non-Jewish world. But it was not at all unusual to see the transformation within a very short time, of an orthodox Jew who had ventured outside the ghetto, from Talmudism and strict observance to extreme assimilation. Samuel Holdheim and Moritz Lazarus, leaders of the Reform movement among German Jewry, belonged to this category. Others viewed the gradual disappearance of the Jews as regrettable but inevitable, and some even thought that the vocation of Israel was not self-realisation but self-surrender for the sake of a higher, trans-historical goal. Many liberals and Socialists felt that national distinctions were losing their importance all over the world, and that the Jews, because they had no national home, would be in the vanguard of this movement towards one global culture, one way of life. They did not share the belief that God had created peoples to exist forever and that each of them had an eternal mission. One of the heroes in Gottfried Keller’s Fähnlein der sieben Aufrechten, a stalwart Swiss patriot, raised the question in discussion with his friends:
Just as a man in the middle of his life and at the height of his strength will think of death, so he should consider in a quiet hour that his fatherland will vanish one day … because everything in this world is subject to change … is it not true that greater nations than ours have perished? Or do you want to continue existing like the Eternal Jew who cannot die, who has buried Egypt, Greece, and Rome and is still serving the newly emerged peoples?
If even a staunch Swiss patriot could doubt the mission of his people, was it not natural that many Jews, lacking most of the attributes usually marking members of one nation, should have given up the belief in the exclusive character of their group.
This, in briefest outline, was the position of Jews in central and western Europe before the national revival took place; the situation in eastern Europe, on which more below, was totally different. European Jewry west of the tsarist empire and Rumania had made tremendous progress since the beginning of the nineteenth century. The social and economic anomalies of their existence had been reduced, though they had not altogether disappeared. At the beginning of the nineteenth century there were a few very rich families while the great majority were desperately poor; three generations later the Rothschilds and the other banking families were no longer pre-eminent; the great national banks which had come into existence in Germany, France, and elsewhere dwarfed even the biggest private banking houses. Many poor Jews had risen on the social ladder and now constituted a substantial middle class. They had also produced a new elite, replacing the old Jewish establishment, which in its majority had abandoned Judaism. They entered a great many professions that had been closed to them before. Very few had taken to agriculture, and not many were employed in industry. But even so their social structure had become much more variegated than in the previous century. As a social problem the Jewish question was far less acute in 1880 than it had been generations earlier; but political and cultural tensions persisted and were the source of the new antisemitism. Zionist critics like Ahad Ha’am argued that assimilation had been pursued too quickly and too relentlessly. England in this respect was a notable exception; there emancipation had been gradual, never too far in advance of public opinion. But such criticism was largely academic. Once the walls of the spiritual ghetto had come down there was no holding back the thousands of eager young men and women who wanted to be submerged in the mainstream of European culture. Assimilation was not a conscious act; it was the inevitable fate of a people without a homeland which had been for a long time in a state of cultural decay and which to a great extent had lost its national consciousness.
The optimism of the early emancipation period had petered out by 1880 as unforeseen tensions and conflicts appeared, causing occasional pessimism and heart-searching. But only very few Jews accepted the argument of the racial antisemites that they could never be assimilated and had therefore to be ejected from the body politic of the host people. No one anticipated a relapse into barbarism, and most Jews continued their struggle for full civic rights as patriotic citizens of their respective countries of birth. A retreat from assimilation seemed altogether unthinkable, though perhaps its ultimate goals had to be redefined, perhaps the process of integration would take much longer than had been commonly believed. The rebirth of nationalist and racialist doctrines in Europe after 1870 should have been a warning, but there were a great many problems and conflicts besetting the European nations at that time and the Jewish question seemed by no means the most intricate or the least tractable. As far as western Jewry was concerned, assimilation had proceeded very far and an alternative solution seemed to most of them neither desirable nor, indeed, possible.
* According to the available evidence there were in fact fewer Jewish conversions during the nineteenth century in Germany than in England, and much fewer than in Russia and Austria-Hungary. De la Roi, Judentaufen im 19. Jahrhundert, Berlin, 1900.
* A statement like this makes strange reading in the light of the Hitlerian experience. Yet for all that it was essentially correct. The affinity between Germanism and Judaism was felt and expressed not only by assimilationists but also by many ardent Zionists. ‘No culture had such a decisive impact on the Jews as the German’, Nahum Goldmann wrote in 1916, in a pamphlet in which he maintained that in many ways the Zionists were much closer to the German national spirit than the assimilationists, who had received their inspiration from the liberal thinkers of Britain and France. ‘The young national Jewish movement, on the other hand, had made the national idea the central concept of its philosophy: Fichte, Hegel, Lagarde (sic) and the other leading spirits of the German national idea - they were also our teachers. It was no accident that Theodor Herzl, the genius who founded modern political Zionism, came from German culture to the Jewish national idea.’ (Nahum Goldmann: Von der weltkulturellen Bedeutung und Aufgabe des Judentums, Munich, 1916.) Writing in the middle of the First World War, Goldmann, in a series of propaganda leaflets, overstated his case, and it is not difficult to misconstrue statements of this kind. But there is no denying that German philosophy of the nineteenth century was a source of inspiration to modern political ideologies from the extreme left to the extreme right all over Europe, and Zionism was no exception.
* Working for the Germans during the Second World War, this homme de lettres wrote to a friend from Hamburg in September 1943 that he ‘adored this country and its national character. … The people here have a smile on their faces the like of which one does not see anywhere else in the west.’