History of the Jews in Germany

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Jews have lived in Germany, or "Ashkenaz", at least since the early 4th century. Today, over 200,000 Jews or persons of Jewish descent live in Germany (as of 2021), one of the largest Jewish populations in a European country.[1][2]

Jewish merchant of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages; depicted ca. 1185 in the Hortus deliciarum (Latin: Garden of Delights; German: Luftgarten) of the Abbess Herrad of Landsberg.

Early settlements

Jews (identifiable by the Judenhut (de) they were required to wear) were killed by Christian knights during the First Crusade in Francia/France and Germany. Frankish/French Bible illustration from 1250.
Etching of the exodus (Auszug) of the Jews from Frankfurt on 23 August 1614. The text says, “1,380 persons old and young were counted at the exit of the gate.”

The date of the first settlement of Jews in the regions of Germania the Romans called Germania Superior, Germania Inferior, and Germania Magna is not known. The first authentic document relating to a large and well-organized Jewish community in these regions dates from 321,[3] and refers to Cologne on the Rhine.[4] [5] [6] It indicates that the legal status of the Jews there, workers, craftsmen, merchants, was the same as elsewhere in the Roman empire. They enjoyed some civil liberties, but were restricted regarding the dissemination of their faith, the keeping of Christian slaves, and the holding of office under the government.

Jews were otherwise free to follow any occupation open to their fellow citizens, and were engaged in agriculture, trade, industry, and gradually money-lending. These conditions at first continued in the subsequently established Germanic kingdoms under the Burgundians and Franks, for ecclesiasticism took root slowly. The Merovingian rulers who succeeded to the Burgundian empire, were devoid of fanaticism, and gave scant support to the efforts of the Church to restrict the civic and social status of the Jews.

Under Charlemagne

Charlemagne readily made use of the Church for the purpose of infusing coherence into the loosely joined parts of his extensive empire, by any means a blind tool of the canonical law. He employed Jews for diplomatic purposes, sending, for instance, a Jew as interpreter and guide with his embassy to Harun al-Rashid. Yet, even then, a gradual change occurred in the lives of the Jews. Unlike the Franks, who were liable to be called to arms at any moment in those tumultuous times, the Jews were exempt from military service; hence, trade and commerce were left almost entirely in their hands, and they secured the remunerative monopoly of money-lending when the Church forbade Christians to be usurers. This decree caused a mixed reaction of people in general in the Frankish empire (including Germany) to the Jews: Jewish people were sought everywhere as well as avoided. This ambivalence about Jews occurred because their capital was indispensable while their business was viewed as disreputable. This curious combination of circumstances increased Jewish influence, and Jews went about the country freely, settling also in the eastern portions. Aside from Cologne, the earliest communities have been established in Worms and Mainz.

Up to the Crusades

A Jew of Swabia (early 17th century)
German Jews of the upper Rhine, 16th century
16th century drawing of two Jews from Worms, each wearing the required yellow ring, and the man holding a moneybag and a garlic bulb, origin of the Foetor Judaicus

The status of the German Jews remained unchanged under Charlemagne’s successor Louis the Pious. Jews were unrestricted in their commerce; however, they paid somewhat higher taxes into the state treasury than did the Christians. A special officer, the Judenmeister, was appointed by the government to protect Jewish privileges. The later Carolingians, however, followed the demands of the Church more and more. The bishops continually argued at the synods for including and enforcing anti-Semitic decrees of the canonical law, with the consequence that the majority Christian populace mistrusted the Jewish unbelievers. This feeling, among both princes and people, was further stimulated by the attacks on the civic equality of the Jews. Beginning with the 10th century, Holy Week became more and more a period of anti-Semitic activities. Yet the Saxon emperors did not treat the Jews badly, exacting from them merely the taxes levied upon all other merchants. Although they were as ignorant as their contemporaries in secular studies, they could read and understand the Hebrew prayers and the Bible in the original text. Halakhic studies began to flourish about 1000.

At that time, Rav Gershom ben Judah was teaching at Metz and Mayence, gathering about him pupils from far and near. He is described in Jewish historiography as a model of wisdom, humility, and piety, and has been praised as a “lamp of the Exile”. He first stimulated the German Jews to study the treasures of their religious literature.

This continuous study of the Torah and the Talmud produced such a devotion to Judaism that the Jews considered life without their religion not worth living; but they did not realize this clearly until the time of the Crusades, when they were often compelled to choose between life and faith.

Mainz: former capital of European Jewry

The city of Mainz was the center of Jewish life during Medieval times. The official web site for the city states, "One of the most glorious epoches in Mainz’s long history was the period from the beginning of the 900‘s and evidently much earlier. Following the barbaric Dark Ages, a relatively safe and enlightened Carolingian period brought peace and prosperity to Mainz and much of central–western Europe.

"For the next 400 years, Mainz attracted many Jews as trade flourished. The greatest Jewish teachers and rabbis flocked to the Rhine. Their teachings, dialogues, decisions and influence propelled Mainz and neighboring towns along the Rhine into world-wide prominence. Their fame spread, rivaling that of other post-Diaspora cities such as Bagdhad. Western European – Ashkenazic or Germanic -- Judaism became centered in Mainz, breaking free of the Babylonian traditions. A Yeshiva was founded in the 10th century by Gershom ben Judah." [7]

According to historian John Man, "Mainz was the capital of European Jewry"; "it had its own Jewish academy for over 300 years"; "it was revered as the home of Gershom ben Judah, the 'Light of the Diaspora,' who in the eleventh century was the first to bring copies of the Talmud to Western Europe and whose directives helped Jews adapt to European practices. Gershom’s school attracted Jews from all over Europe, including the famous biblical scholar Rashi; "[8] and "in the mid-fourteenth century, it had the largest Jewish community in Europe, some 6,000 citizens."[9]:16 "In essence," states the City of Mainz web site, "this was a golden age as area bishops protected the Jews resulting in increased trade and prosperity." [7]

A period of massacres (1096–1349)

The First Crusade began an era of massacres of Jews in Germany and France. The wild excitement of Crusading, to which the Germans had been driven by exhortations to take the cross, first broke upon the Jews, the nearest representatives of an execrated opposition faith. Entire communities, like those of Trier, Speyer, Worms, Mainz, and Cologne, were slain, except where the slayers were anticipated by the deliberate self-destruction of their intended victims. About 12,000 Jews are said to have perished in the Rhenish cities alone between May and July 1096. These outbreaks of popular passion during the First Crusade influenced the status of the Jews for the next few centuries, and perhaps beyond. The Christians brought accusations against the Jews to argue that the Jews had deserved their fate. Alleged crimes, like desecration of the host, ritual murder, poisoning of wells, and treason, brought hundreds to the stake and drove thousands into exile. Jews were alleged to have caused the inroads of the Mongols, even though they suffered equally with the Christians. When the Black Death swept over Europe in 1348–49, Christians accused Jews of poisoning wells. In the wake of this accusation, a general slaughter began throughout the Germanic and contiguous provinces, which triggered a massive exodus east to Poland. The Jewish immigrants to Poland were warmly greeted by the Polish King, helping to form the future foundations of the largest Jewish community in Europe.

In the Holy Roman Empire

The legal and civic status of the Jews underwent a transformation. Jewish people found a certain degree of protection with the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, who claimed the right of possession and protection of all the Jews of the empire. A justification for this claim was that the Holy Roman Emperor was the successor of the emperor Titus, who was said to have acquired the Jews as his private property. The German emperors apparently claimed this right of possession more for the sake of taxing the Jews than of protecting them.

There was a variety of such taxes. Ludwig the Bavarian was a prolific creator of new taxes. In 1342 he instituted the “golden sacrificial penny” and decreed that every year all the Jews should pay to the emperor one kreutzer in every gulden of their property in addition to the taxes they were paying to the state and municipal authorities. The emperors of the house of Luxemburg devised other means of taxation. They turned their prerogatives in regard to the Jews to further account by selling at a high price to the princes and free towns of the empire the valuable privilege of taxing and mulcting the Jews. Charles IV, via the Golden Bull, granted this privilege to the seven electors of the empire when the empire was reorganized in 1356.

From this time onward, for reasons that also apparently concerned taxes, the Jews of Germany gradually passed in increasing numbers from the authority of the emperor to that of the lesser sovereigns and of the cities. For the sake of sorely needed revenue the Jews were now invited, with the promise of full protection, to return to those districts and cities from which they had shortly before been expelled. However, as soon as Jewish people acquired some property, they were again plundered and driven away. These episodes thenceforth constituted a large portion of the medieval history of the German Jews. Emperor Wenceslaus was most expert in transferring to his own coffers gold from the pockets of rich Jews. He made compacts with many cities, estates, and princes whereby he annulled all outstanding debts to the Jews in return for a certain sum paid to him. Emperor Wenceslaus declared that anyone helping Jews with the collection their debts, in spite of this annulment, be dealt with as a robber and peacebreaker, and be forced to make restitution. This decree, which for years allegedly injured the public credit, is said to have impoverished thousands of Jewish families during the close of the 14th century.

Nor did the 15th century bring any amelioration. What happened in the time of the Crusades happened again. During the war upon the Hussite heretics became the signal for the slaughter of the unbelievers. The Jews of Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia passed through all the terrors of death, forced baptism, or voluntary immolation for the sake of their faith. When the Hussites made peace with the Church, the pope sent the Franciscan monk Capistrano to win the renegades back into the fold and inspire them with loathing for heresy and unbelief; forty-one martyrs were burned in Breslau alone, and all Jews were forever banished from Silesia. The Franciscan monk Bernardine of Feltre brought a similar fate upon the communities in southern and western Germany. As a consequence of the fictitious confessions extracted under torture from the Jews of Trent, the populace of many cities, especially of Ratisbon, fell upon the Jews and massacred them.

The end of the 15th century, which brought a new epoch for the Christian world, brought no relief to the Jews. They remained the victims of a religious hatred that ascribed to them all possible evils. When the established Church, threatened in its spiritual power in Germany and elsewhere, prepared for its conflict with the culture of the Renaissance, one of its most convenient points of attack was rabbinic literature. At this time, as once before in France, Jewish converts spread false reports in regard to the Talmud. But an advocate of the book arose in the person of Johannes Reuchlin, the German humanist, who was the first one in Germany to include the Hebrew language among the humanities. His opinion, though strongly opposed by the Dominicans and their followers, finally prevailed when the humanistic Pope Leo X permitted the Talmud to be printed in Italy.

During the 16th and 17th centuries

The feeling against the Jews themselves, however, remained the same. During the 16th and 17th centuries they were still subject to the will of the princes and free cities, both in Catholic and in Protestant countries. The German emperors were not always able to protect them, even when they desired to do so, as did the chivalrous Emperor Maximilian I; they could not prevent the accusations of ritual murder and desecration of the host. The unending religious controversies that rent the empire and finally led to the Thirty Years’ War further aggravated the position of the Jews, who were made the prey of each party in turn. The emperors even occasionally expelled their kammerknechte from their crown lands, although they still assumed the office of protector. Ferdinand I expelled the Jews from Lower Austria and Görz, and would have carried out his vow to banish them also from Bohemia had not the noble Mordecai Ẓemaḥ Cohen of Prague induced the pope to absolve the emperor from this vow. Emperor Leopold I expelled them in 1670 from Vienna and the Archduchy of Austria, in spite of their vested rights and the intercession of princes and ecclesiastics; the exiles were received in the Margraviate of Brandenburg. The Great Elector Frederick William (1620–1688), deciding to tolerate all religious beliefs impartially, protected his new subjects against oppression and slander. In spite of the civic and religious restrictions to which they were subjected even here, the Jews of this flourishing community gradually attained to a wider outlook, although their one-sided education, the result of centuries of oppression, restricted them in European culture and kept them in intellectual bondage.

Migration of Jews from Poland and Lithuania to Germany

Claimed atrocities of Chmielnicki and his Cossacks drove the Polish Jews back into western Germany. This trend accelerated throughout the 18th century as parts of Germany began to readmit Jews, and with the worsening conditions in Poland after the Partition of Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795 between Prussia, Austria, and Russia.

Jewish life through the Holy Roman Empire

The Jews had kept their "piety" and their intellectual activity. They were devoted to the study of the Halakah. In the 11th century Rabbi Gershom’s pupils had been the teachers of Rashi, and his commentaries on the Bible and Talmud marked out new paths for learning. The German Jews contributed much to the spread and completion of these commentaries. Beginning with the 12th century they worked independently, especially in the fields of Haggadah and ethics. R. Simon ha-Darshan’s Yalḳuṭ (c. 1150), the Book of the Pious by R. Judah ha-Ḥasid of Ratisbon (c. 1200), the Salve-Mixer (Rokeaḥ) of R. Eleasar of Worms (c. 1200), the halakic collection Or Zarua of R. Isaac of Vienna (c. 1250), the responsa of Rabbi Meïr of Rothenburg (died 1293), are enduring monuments of German Jewish industry. Even the horrors of the Black Death could not completely destroy this literary activity. Profound and wide scholarship was less common after the middle of the 14th century, which led to the institution of allowing only those scholars to become rabbis who could produce a written authorization to teach (hattarat hora’ah), issued by a recognized master. To this period of decline belong also a number of large collections of responsa and useful commentaries on earlier halakic works. The customs and ordinances relating to the form and order of worship were especially studied in this period, and were definitely fixed for the ritual of the synagogues of western and eastern Germany by Jacob Mölln (Maharil) and Isaac Tyrnau. As it was difficult to produce any new works in the field of the Halakah, and as the dry study of well-worn subjects no longer satisfied, scholars sought relief in the interpretations and traditions embodied in the Cabala. There arose a new, ascetic view of life that found literary expression in the Shene Luḥot ha-Berit by Rabbi Isaiah Horovitz of Frankfurt am Main (died 1626), and that appealed especially to the pietistic German Jews. The end and aim of existence were now sought in the aspiration of the soul toward its fountainhead, combined with the endeavor to saturate the earthly life with the spirit of God. By a continuous attitude of reverence to God, by lofty thoughts and actions, the Jew was to rise above the ordinary affairs of the day and become a worthy member of the kingdom of God. Every act of his life was to remind him of his religious duties and stimulate him to mystic contemplation.

Separation from the world

The oppressions under which the Jews suffered encouraged an austere view of life. They lived in fear in their Jews’ streets, subsisting on what they could earn as peddlers and as dealers in old clothes. Cut off from all participation in public and municipal life, they had to seek in their homes compensation for the things denied them outside. Their family life was intimate, beautified by faith, industry, and temperance. They were loyal to their community. In consequence of their complete segregation from their Christian fellow citizens, the German speech of the ghetto was interladen with Hebraisms, and also with Slavonic elements since the seventeenth century, when the atrocities of Chmielnicki and his Cossacks drove the Polish Jews back into western Germany. As the common people understood only the books written in this peculiar dialect and printed in Hebrew characters, a voluminous literature of edifying, devotional, and belletristic works sprang up in Judæo-German to satisfy the needs of these readers. Although this output was one-sided, presupposing almost no secular knowledge, its importance in the history of Jewish culture must not be underestimated. The study of the Bible, Talmud, and halakic legal works, with their voluminous commentaries, preserved the plasticity of the Jewish mind, until a new Moses came to lead his coreligionists out of intellectual bondage toward modern culture.

From Moses Mendelssohn (1778) to the National socialists (1933)

Moses Mendelssohn

Moses Mendelssohn thought that the Middle Ages, which could take from the Jews neither their faith nor their past intellectual achievements, had yet deprived them of the chief means (namely, the vernacular) of comprehending the intellectual labors of others. The chasm that in consequence separated them from their educated fellow citizens was bridged by Mendelssohn’s translation of the Torah into German. This book became the manual of the German Jews, teaching them to write and speak the German language, and preparing them for participation in German culture and secular science. Mendelssohn lived to see the first fruits of his endeavors. In 1778 his friend David Friedländer founded the Jewish free school in Berlin, this being the first Jewish educational institution in Germany in which instruction, in scripture as well as in general science, was carried on in German only. Similar schools were founded later in the German towns of Breslau (1792), Seesen (1801), Frankfurt (1804), and Wolfenbüttel (1807), and the Galician towns of Brody and Tarnopol (1815). In 1783 the periodical Der Sammler was issued with the view of providing general information for adults and enabling them to express themselves in pure, harmonious German.

A youthful enthusiasm for new ideals at that time pervaded the entire so called civilized world; all religions were recognized as equally entitled to respect, and the champions of political freedom undertook to restore the Jews to their full rights as men and citizens. The humane Austrian Emperor Joseph II was foremost in espousing these new ideals. As early as 1782 he issued the Patent of Toleration for the Jews of Lower Austria, thereby establishing the civic equality of his Jewish subjects. Prussia conferred citizenship upon the Prussian Jews in 1812, though this by no means included full equality with other citizens. The German federal edicts of 1815 merely held out the prospect of full equality; but it was not realized at that time, and even the promises that had been given were modified. In Austria many laws restricting the trade and traffic of Jewish subjects remained in force down to the middle of the 19th century, in spite of the patent of toleration. Some of the crown lands, as Styria and Upper Austria, forbade any Jews to settle within their territory; in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia many cities were closed to them. The Jews were, in addition, burdened with heavy taxes and imposts.

In the German kingdom of Prussia, also, the government modified materially the promises made in the disastrous year 1813. The promised uniform regulation of Jewish affairs was time and again postponed. In the period between 1815 and 1847 there were no less than twenty-one territorial Jews’ laws in the eight provinces of the Prussian state, each having to be observed by a part of the Jewish community. There was at that time no official authorized to speak in the name of all German Jews. Nevertheless, a few courageous men came forward to maintain their cause, foremost among them being Gabriel Riesser, a Jewish lawyer of Hamburg (died 1863), who demanded full civic equality for his race from the German princes and peoples. He aroused public opinion to such an extent that this equality was granted in Prussia on April 6, 1848, and in Hanover and Nassau on September 5 and on December 12, respectively. In Württemberg equality was conceded on December 3, 1861; in Baden on October 4, 1862; in Holstein on July 14, 1863; and in Saxony on December 3, 1868. After the establishment of the North German Confederation by the law of July 3, 1869, all statutory restrictions imposed on the followers of different religions were abolished; this decree was extended to all the states of the German empire after the events of 1870.

The Jewish enlightenment in Germany

The intellectual development of the Jews kept pace with their civic enfranchisement. Recognizing that pursuit of modern culture would not at once assure them the civic status they desired, their leaders set themselves to reawaken Jewish self-consciousness by applying the methods of modern scholarship to the study of Jewish sources, and to stimulate the rising generation by familiarizing them with the intellectual achievements of their ancestors, which had been accumulating for thousands of years; and at the same time they sought to rehabilitate Judaism in the eyes of the world. The leader of this new movement and the founder of modern Jewish science was Leopold Zunz (1794–1886), who united broad general scholarship with a thorough knowledge of the entire Jewish literature and who, with his contemporary Solomon Judah Löb Rapoport of Galicia (1790–1867), especially aroused their coreligionists in Germany, Austria, and Italy. The German scholars who cooperated in the work of these two men may be noted here. H. Arnheim wrote a scholarly manual of the Hebrew language; Julius Fürst and David Cassel compiled Hebrew dictionaries; Fürst and Bernhard Bär compiled concordances to the entire Bible; Wolf Heidenheim and Seligmann Baer edited correct Masoretic texts of the Bible; Solomon Frensdorff subjected the history of the Masorah to a thoroughly scientific investigation; the Bible was translated into German under the direction of Zunz and Salomon; Ludwig Philippson, Solomon Hirschheimer, and Julius Fürst wrote complete Biblical commentaries; H. Grätz and S.R. Hirsch dealt with some of the Biblical books; Zacharias Frankel and Abraham Geiger investigated the Aramaic and Greek translations. Nor was the traditional law neglected. Jacob Levy compiled lexicographical works to the Talmud and Midrashim. Michael Sachs and Joseph Perles investigated the foreign elements found in the language of the Talmud. Numerous and, on the whole, excellent editions of halakic and haggadic midrashim were issued—for instance, Zuckermandel’s edition of the Tosefta and Theodor’s edition of Midrash Rabbah to Genesis. Zacharias Frankel wrote an introduction to the Mishnah and to the Jerusalem Talmud, and David Hoffmann and Israel Lewy investigated the origin and development of the Halakah.

Religio-philosophical literature was also assiduously cultivated, and the original Arabic texts of Jewish religious philosophers were made accessible. M.H. Landauer issued Saadia Gaon’s works, and H. Hirschfeld the works of Judah ha-Levi. M. Joel and I. Guttmann investigated the works of Jewish thinkers and their influence on the general development of philosophy, while S. Hirsch attempted to develop the philosophy of religion along the lines laid down by Hegel, and Solomon Steinheim propounded a new theory of revelation in accordance with the system of the synagogue.

Reorganization of the German Jewish community

The enfranchisement of the Jews and the reflorescence of Jewish science led to a reorganization of their institutions with a view to transmitting the ancient traditions intact with the new generations. Opinions differed widely as to the best methods of accomplishing this object. While Geiger and Holdheim were ready to meet the modern spirit of liberalism, Samson Raphael Hirsch defended the customs handed down by the fathers. And as neither of these two tendencies was followed by the mass of the faithful, Zacharias Frankel initiated a moderate Reform movement on a historical basis, in agreement with which the larger German communities reorganized their public worship by reducing the medieval payyeṭanic additions to the prayers, introducing congregational singing and regular sermons, and requiring scientifically trained rabbis.

In general, it was easier to agree upon the means of training children for the Reformed worship and awakening the interest of adults in Jewish affairs. The religious schools were an outcome of the desire to add religious instruction to the secular education of Jewish children prescribed by the state. As the Talmudic schools, still existing in Germany in the first third of the 19th century, were gradually deserted; rabbinical seminaries were founded, in which Talmudic instruction followed the methods introduced by Zacharias Frankel in the Jewish Theological Seminary opened at Breslau in 1854. Since then special attention has been devoted to religious literature. Textbooks on religion and specifically on Biblical and Jewish history, as well as aids to the translation and explanation of the Bible and the prayer-books, were compiled to meet the demands of modern pedagogics. Pulpit oratory began to flourish as never before, foremost among the great German preachers being M. Sachs and M. Joël. Nor was synagogal music neglected, Louis Lewandowski especially contributing to its development.

The public institutions of the Jewish communities served to supplement the work of teachers and leaders, and to promote Jewish solidarity. This was the primary object of the Jewish press, created by Ludwig Philippson. In 1837 he founded the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums, which has been followed by a number of similar periodicals. They had succeeded in preserving a certain unity of religious opinion and conviction among the Jews, with the gratifying result of unity of action for the common good. Societies for the cultivation of Jewish literature were founded, as well as associations of teachers, rabbis, and leaders of congregations.

Map showing the distribution of Jews in the German Empire in the 1890s

Birth of the Reform Movement

A leaflet (also as posters) published in 1920 by German Jewish veterans of the Imperial German Army from the Reichsbund in response to accusations of lack of patriotism: "To the German mothers! 12,000 Jewish soldiers died on the field of honor for the Vaterland. Christian and Jewish heroes fought together and rest together in foreign soil. 12,000 Jews fell in battle! Blind, enraged political paryt hatred does not stop at the graves of the dead. German women, do not allow that the Jewish mother be mocked in her pain!"
Walther Rathenau, Jewish industrialist and Foreign Minister of Germany, was a proponent of Jewish assimilation until his assassination by right-wing nationalists in 1922

In response to the Enlightenment and the emancipation, elements within German Jewry sought to reform Jewish belief and practice, starting the Jewish Reform Movement. In light of modern scholarship, these German Jews denied divine authorship of the Torah, declared only those biblical laws concerning ethics to be binding, and stated that the rest of halakha (Jewish law) need no longer be viewed as normative. Circumcision was abandoned, rabbis wore vestments modeled after Protestant ministers, and instrumental accompaniment—banned in Jewish Sabbath worship since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE—reappeared in Reform synagogues, most often in the form of a pipe organ. The traditional Hebrew prayer book (the Siddur) was replaced with a German text which truncated or altogether excised most parts of the traditional service. Reform synagogues began to be called temples, a term reserved in more traditional Judaism for the Temple in Jerusalem. The practice of Kashrut (keeping kosher) was abandoned as an impediment to spirituality. The early Reform movement renounced Zionism and declared Germany to be its new Zion. This anti-Zionist view is no longer held; see below. One of the most important figures in the history of Reform Judaism is the radical reformer Samuel Holdheim.

Freedom and repression (1815–1930s)

Napoleon emancipated the Jews across Europe (Judenemanzipation), but with Napoleon’s fall in 1815, growing nationalism resulted in increasing repression. In 1819, Hep-Hep riots destroyed Jewish property and killed many Jews. The Revolution of 1848 swung the pendulum back towards freedom for the Jews, and in 1871, with the unification of Germany by Bismarck, came their emancipation, but the financial crisis of 1873 created another era of repression.

Starting in the 1870s, anti-Semites of the völkisch movement were the first to describe themselves as such, because they viewed Jews as part of a Semitic race that could never be properly assimilated into German society. Such was the ferocity of the anti-Jewish feeling of the völkisch movement that by 1900, anti-Semitic had entered English to describe anyone who had anti-Jewish feelings. However, despite massive protests and petitions, the völkisch movement failed to persuade the government to revoke Jewish emancipation, and in the 1912 Reichstag elections, the parties with völkisch-movement sympathies suffered a temporary defeat.

Jews experienced a period of ostensible legal equality from 1848 until the rise of National socialist Germany. In the opinion of historian Fritz Stern, by the end of the 19th century, what had emerged was a Jewish-German symbiosis, where German Jews had merged elements of German and Jewish culture into a unique new one. However, statutory equality and actual practice did not coincide. As Walter Rathenau found out, even in 1905 there was hardly any chance of a Jew receiving a judgeship, and even then only if the Jewish candidate renounced his faith and converted to Christianity.[10]

Many German Jews received high political positions such as foreign minister and vice chancellor in the Weimar Republic. The Weimar constitution was the work of a German Jew, Hugo Preuss, who later became minister of the interior. Marriages between Jews and non-Jews became somewhat common from the 19th century; for example, the wife of German Chancellor Gustav Stresemann was Jewish.

World War I

In October 1916, the High Command of the Imperial German Army administered Judenzählung (census of Jews).[11] Designed to confirm accusations of the lack of patriotism among German Jews, the census disproved the charges, but its results were not made public.[12] Denounced as a “statistical monstrosity”,[13] the census was a catalyst to intensified antisemitism and underscored social claims such as the “stab-in-the-back theory” (Dolchstoß).[14][15]

A higher percentage of German Jews fought in World War I than that of most other ethnic, religious or political groups in Germany—in fact, some 12,000 died for their country.[16][17] Ironically, it was a Jewish Leutnant der Landwehr, regimental adjutant and Bavarian Knight of the Iron Cross (both classes), Hugo Gutmann,[18] who awarded the Iron Cross, First Class, to a 29-year-old corporal named Adolf Hitler. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Gutmann left Germany and escaped to the United States. In 1921, Dietrich Eckart promised a reward of 1,000 Reichsmarks to anyone who could name a Jewish family whose sons had been at the front as members of the German Army for more than three weeks. The Chief Rabbi Samuel Freund from Hanover named 20 Jewish families to whom this applied and sued Eckart when he refused the reward. In the process, Freund named another 50 Jewish families with up to seven veterans, including several who had lost up to three sons in the war. Eckart lost the process and had to pay.

Jews under the National socialists (1933–1939)

See aslo National Socialist Germany - The Jewish Question.
The boycott of 1 April 1933
Synagogue at Nuremberg, c. 1890–1900. The structure was destroyed in 1938.

In 1933, the NSDAP gained power and implemented anti-Semitic policies. "Point 4 of the National Socialist Party program stated: "None but members of the nation may be citizens of the State. None but those of German blood, whatever their creed, may be members of the nation. No Jew, therefore, may be a member of the nation." At that time there were 503,720 Jews in Germany[19], a third of whom lived in Berlin.

Before and after The Great War, the Jewish community in Germany not only amassed wealth as bankers and financiers, but the Jewish influence was very large in the professions, medicine, the law, the theatre, the press and the creative arts. After the war the eastern German frontier remained open for some months to Jewish immigration, and by 1925 the presence of some 10,000 immigrant Jews in Berlin had aroused serious misgivings. A number of financial-political scandals increased public support for the view that Marxism, Judaism and corruption were synonymous terms, and from 1930 the National Socialist Party found a ready response to their anti-Jewish campaign.

"A few figures will show the preponderance of non-Aryans in certain professions. In 1931 out of 3,450 lawyers in Berlin, 1,925 were Jews. In Breslau the numbers were 285 and 192, and in Frankfurt 659 and 432 respectively. In Berlin the number of Jewish doctors was 52% while in most towns the average was 30%. Fifteen Jewish bankers are stated to have held 718 directorships in banks and commercial undertakings. Of theatre directors 50.4% were Jews. Although Jews formed only about 1 per cent of the total population, there was a widespread feeling that they blocked the approaches to all the leading positions in the State, monopolising them for themselves."[20]

New laws were not as rigorously obeyed or as devastating as in later years. These laws had been postulated previously and enacted in many private organizations. However, on 1 April, 1933, Jewish doctors, shops, lawyers and stores were to a large extent boycotted. Only six days later, the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was passed, banning Jews from being employed in government positions.

On 2 August, 1934, President Paul von Hindenburg died. The offices of the President and Chancellor were combined into the latter single office. In May 1935, Jews were forbidden to join the Wehrmacht (Armed Forces), and that year, anti-Jewish propaganda appeared in German shops and restaurants. The Nuremberg Racial Purity Laws were passed around the time of the NSDAP rallies at Nuremberg[21]; on 15 September, 1935, the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor was passed, preventing marriages between Jews and non-Jews. At the same time the Reich Citizenship Law was passed and was reinforced in November by a decree, stating that all Jews, even quarter and half-Jews, were no longer citizens (Reichsbürger) of Germany (their official status became Reichsangehöriger) but subjects of the state.

In 1936, Jews were banned from all professional jobs, effectively preventing them from exerting any influence in education, politics, higher education and industry. Because of this, there was nothing to stop the anti-Jewish actions that spread across the German economy. All of this allowed the government more direct control over government and political attitudes towards Jews in Germany. In 1937 and 1938, new laws were implemented, and the segregation of Jews from the Aryan German population commenced.

On 4 June, 1937, a young Jew, Helmut Hirsch, was executed for being involved in a plot to kill the National socialist leadership — including Hitler.

As of 1 March, 1938, government contracts could no longer be awarded to Jewish businesses. 30 September 30, Aryan doctors could only treat Aryan patients. Provision of medical care to Jews was already hampered by the fact that Jews were banned from being doctors or having any professional jobs.

From the 17 August, 1938 Jews had to add Israel (males) or Sarah (females) to their names, and a large J was to be imprinted on their passports beginning 5 October. On November 15 Jewish children were banned from going to normal schools.

By April 1939, nearly all Jewish companies had either collapsed under financial pressure and declining profits, or had been persuaded to sell out to the German government.

On 7 November 1938, a young Polish speaking Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, attacked and shot an official in the German embassy in Paris. The Kristallnacht was a reaction to that.

More than half of the 500,000 Jews in Germany in 1933 had emigrated by 1940

The Holocaust (1940–1945)

Regarding the Holocaust, see the many articles specifically on this topic. On May 19 1943, Germany was declared judenrein (clean of Jews; also judenfrei: free of Jews).

An American historian Bryan Mark Rigg argues that approximately 150,000 German Jews had served in the German Wehrmacht, including decorated veterans and high-ranking officers, even generals and admirals. A great many of these men did not even consider themselves Jewish and had embraced the military as a way of life and as devoted patriots eager to serve a revived German nation. In turn, they had been embraced by the Wehrmacht, which prior to Hitler had given little thought to the race of these men but which was now forced to look deeply into the ancestry of its soldiers.[22]

Jews in Germany from 1945 to the reunification

Most German Jews who survived the war in exile decided to remain abroad; however, a small number returned to Germany. Some returned only temporarily, such as to be part of the prosecution staff during the Nuremberg trials. Additionally, approximately 15,000 German Jews survived the concentration camps or survived by going into hiding. These German Jews were joined by approximately 200,000 displaced persons (DPs), eastern European Jewish Holocaust survivors. They came to Allied-occupied western Germany after finding no homes left for them in eastern Europe (especially in Poland) or after having been liberated on German soil. The overwhelming majority of the DPs wished to emigrate to Palestine and lived in Allied- and U.N.-administered refugee camps, remaining isolated from German society. After Israeli independence in 1948, most left Germany; however, 10,000 to 15,000 remained. Despite hesitations and a long history of antagonism between German Jews (Yekkes) and eastern European Jews (Ostjuden), the two disparate groups united to form the basis of a new Jewish community. In 1950 they founded their unitary representative organization, the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Although often disputed[who?][vague], the Central Council continues to be the most important Jewish organization in Germany.

Jews of West Germany

The Jewish community in West Germany from the 1950s to the 1970s was characterized by its social conservatism and generally private nature. Although there were Jewish elementary schools in West Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich, the community had a very high average age. Few young adults chose to remain in Germany, and many of those who did married non-Jews. Many critics of the community and its leadership accused it of ossification. In the 1980s, a college for Jewish studies was established in Heidelberg; however, a disproportionate number of its students were not Jewish. By 1990, the community numbered between 30,000 and 40,000. Although the Jewish community of Germany did not have the same impact as the pre-1933 community, some Jews were prominent in German public life, including Hamburg mayor Herbert Weichmann; Schleswig-Holstein Minister of Justice (and Deputy Chief Justice of the Federal Constitutional Court) Rudolf Katz; Hesse Attorney General Fritz Bauer; former Hesse Minister of Economics Heinz-Herbert Karry; West Berlin politician Jeanette Wolff; television personalities Hugo Egon Balder, Hans Rosenthal, Ilja Richter, Inge Meysel, and Michel Friedman; Jewish communal leaders Heinz Galinski, Ignatz Bubis, Paul Spiegel, and Charlotte Knobloch (see: Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland); and Germany’s most influential literary critic, Marcel Reich-Ranicki.

Jews of East Germany

The Jewish community of East Germany, a Communist country, numbered only a few hundred active members, however the bloody-handed leaders like Hilde Benjamin, Markus Wold, Gregor Gysi or Egon Krenz. Most Jews who settled in the Soviet occupation zone or the German Democratic Republic did so either because their pre-1933 homes had been in eastern Germany or because they had been politically leftist before the National socialist seizure of power and, after 1945, wished to build an antifascist, socialist Germany. Most such politically engaged Jews were not religious or active in the official Jewish community. They included writers Anna Seghers, Stefan Heym, Jurek Becker, and composer Hanns Eisler.

Jews in the reunited Germany (post-1990)

Public Hanukkah celebrations are held at Karlsruhe, with represantatives of the Federal Constitutional Court

The end of the Cold War contributed to a growth in the Jewish people of Germany. Today, Germany is home to a nominal Jewish population of more than 200,000; 108,000 are officially registered with Jewish religious communities.[23] Most Jews in Germany are recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. There is also a handful of Jewish families from Muslim countries, including Iran, Turkey, Morocco, and Afghanistan. Germany has the third-largest Jewish population in Western Europe after France (600,000) and Great Britain (300,000).[24] and the fastest-growing Jewish population in Europe in recent years. The influx of refugees, many of them seeking renewed contact with their Jewish heritage, has led to a renaissance of Jewish life on German soil. In 1996, Chabad-Lubavitch of Berlin opened a center. In 2003, Chabad-Lubavitch of Berlin ordained 10 rabbis, the first rabbis to be ordained in Germany since World War II[25]. In 2002 a Reform rabbinical seminary, Abraham Geiger College, was established in Potsdam. In 2006, the college announced that it would be ordaining three new rabbis, the first Reform rabbis to be ordained in Germany since 1942.[26]

Partly owing to the deep similarities between Yiddish and German, Jewish studies has become a very popular subject for academic study, and many German universities have departments or institutes of Jewish studies, culture, or history. Active Jewish religious communities have sprung up across Germany, including in many cities where the previous communities were no longer extant or were moribund. Several cities in Germany have Jewish day schools, kosher facilities, and other Jewish institutions beyond synagogues. Additionally, many of the Russian Jews were alienated from their Jewish heritage and unfamiliar or uncomfortable with Orthodox Judaism. Thus American-style Reform Judaism, led by the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany, has emerged as a powerful and popular force in Germany, even though the Central Council of Jews in Germany and most local Jewish communities officially adhere to Orthodoxy. The unresolved tension between the re-emerging Reform movement in Germany and the official Orthodoxy is one of the most pressing issues facing the community at present.

An important step for the renaissance of Jewish life in Germany occurred when on January 27 2003 German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder signed the first-ever agreement on a federal level with the Central Council, so that Judaism was granted the same elevated, semi-established legal status in Germany as the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Church in Germany, at least since the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany of 1949.

In Germany, "Holocaust denial" is illegal (§130 StGB); violations can be punished with up to five years of prison.[27] The Interior Minister of Germany, Wolfgang Schaeuble, points out the official policy of Germany: “We will not tolerate any form of extremism, xenophobia or anti-Semitism.”[28] Although the number of right-wing groups and organisations grew from 141 (2001)[29] to 182 (2006),[30] especially in the formerly communist East Germany,[28][31][32] Germany’s measures against right- wing groups and antisemitism are effective: according to the annual reports of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution the overall number of far-right extremists in Germany has dropped in recent years from 49,700 (2001),[29] 45,000 (2002),[29] 41,500 (2003),[29] 40,700 (2004),[30] 39,000 (2005),[30] to 38,600 in 2006[30]. Germany provided several million euros to fund “nationwide programs aimed at fighting far-right extremism, including teams of traveling consultants, and victims’ groups”.[33] Despite these facts, Israeli Ambassador Shimon Stein warned in October 2006 that Jews in Germany feel increasingly unsafe, stating that they “are not able to live a normal Jewish life” and that heavy security surrounds most synagogues or Jewish community centers.[33] Yosef Havlin, Rabbi at the Chabad Lubavitch in Frankfurt, does not agree with the Israeli Ambassador and states in an interview with Der Spiegel in September 2007 that the German public does not support far-right groups; instead, he has personally experienced the support of Germans, and as a Jew and rabbi he “feels welcome in his (hometown) Frankfurt, he is not afraid, the city is not a no-go-area”.[34]

A flagship moment for the burgeoning Jewish community in modern Germany occurred on 9 November 2006 (the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht), when the newly constructed Ohel Jakob synagogue was dedicated in Munich, Germany.[35][36] This is particularly crucial given the fact that Munich was once at the ideological heart of Germany. Jewish life in the capital Berlin is prospering, the Jewish community is growing, the Centrum Judaicum and several synagogues—including the largest in Germany[37]—have been renovated and opened, and Berlin’s annual week of Jewish culture and the Jewish Cultural Festival in Berlin, held for the 21st time, featuring concerts, exhibitions, public readings and discussions[38][39] can only partially explain why Rabbi Yitzhak Ehrenberg of the orthodox Jewish community in Berlin states: “Orthodox Jewish life is alive in Berlin again. ... Germany is the only European country with a growing Jewish community.”[40]

See also


  1. Statistisches Bundesamt (Federal Statistics Office)
  2. Central Council of Jews in Germany: “Migration to Germany
  3. W. D. Davies, Louis Finkelstein (1984). The Cambridge History of Judaism. Cambridge University Press, 1042. ISBN 1397805218. 
  4. Cologne, City of the Arts '07. Retrieved on 2008-02-29.
  5. JEWISH CEMETERIES IN GERMANY: Cologne - Bocklemuend.. Retrieved on 2008-02-29.
  6. Medieval Sourcebook Legislation Affecting the Jews from 300 to 800 CE. Retrieved on 2008-02-29.
  7. 7.0 7.1 City of Mainz Online
  8. Jewish Virtual Library [1]Early history to 1095
  9. Man, John, The Gutenberg Revolution, (2002) Headline Book Publishing
  10. Rink, p.48
  11. Judenzählung (Jewish Census)
  12. Deutsche Jüdische Soldaten” (German Jewish soldiers) Bavarian National Exhibition
  13. Bajohr, Frank: The “Folk Community” and the Persecution of the Jews: German Society under National Socialist Dictatorship, 1933–1945. Holocaust Genocide Studies, Fall 2006; 20: 183–206.
  14. Antisemitism in Germany Post World War 1. The Florida Holocaust Museum
  15. S. Friedländer, Redemptive Anti-Semitism Source: S. Friedländer, Chapter 3 in: National socialist Germany and the Jews, Vol. I: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939, (New York 1997), p. 73–112. (Yad Vashem History of the Holocaust, a collaboration between the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem and Drew University, Madison New Jersey.
  16. “Die Judischen Gefallenen” (The Jewish war dead) A roll of honor commemorating the 12,000 German Jews who died for their fatherland in World War I.
  17. “About 10,000 volunteered for duty, and over 100,000 out of a total German-Jewish population of 550,000 served during World War One. Some 78 % saw front-line duty, 12,000 died in battle, over 30,000 received decorations, and 19,000 were promoted. Approximately 2,000 Jews became military officers and 1,200 became medical officers Sanitätsoffiziere.” (Rigg, Bryan: Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers, p.72)
  18. Hugo Gutmann, Nürnberg
  19. Encyclopaedia Britannica Book of the Year 1938, London, 1938, p.354
  20. Medlicott, W.N., Dakin, Douglas, & Bennett Gillian, editors, Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939, Second Series, vol.xvii, Her Majesty's Stationary Office, London, 1979, A British Embassy in Berlin 'Memorandum' on The Jewish Question in Germany dated August 26, 1936.p.174-9.
  21. The drafting of the Nuremberg Laws is often attributed to Hans Globke (de).
  22. Hitler's Jewish Soldiers
  23. Central Council of Jews in Germany
  24. Die Welt: “Oberrabbiner tagen erstmals in Berlin.” November 17, 2004
  25. Yeshiva Trains Rabbis In Berlin
  26. German Jewish community to ordain three new rabbis, first since 1942
  27. No Room for Holocaust Denial in Germany, Deutsche Welle.
  28. 28.0 28.1 BBC NEWS. Retrieved on 2007-06-06.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz. Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Verfassungsschutzbericht 2003. Annual Report. 2003, Page 29
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 30.3 Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz. Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Verfassungsschutzbericht 2006. Annual Report. 2006, Page 51
  31. German Jewish Leader Says Right-wing Violence Recalls 1930s, Deutsche Welle.
  32. Jewish leader: Attacks just like Hitler era
  33. 33.0 33.1 The Associated Press. “Berlin police say 16 arrested during nationalist demonstration.International Herald Tribune. October 22, 2006
  34. Der Spiegel: Wir dürfen uns auf keinen Fall verstecken. September 12, 2007
  35. New Munich Synagogue Opens on National socialist Persecution Anniversary, Deutsche Welle, 2006-11-09.
  36. New Munich synagogue symbolizes German Jew's growing presence, confidence
  37. BBC NEWS | World | Europe | Major German synagogue reopened
  38. Die Bundesregierung (Federal government of Germany): “Germany’s largest synagogue officially reopened.” August 31, 2007
  39. Axelrod, Toby. “Cantor who led Berlin’s Jews for past 50 years dies.” j.. January 21, 2000
  40. Schoelkopf, Katrin. “Rabbiner Ehrenberg: Orthodoxes jüdisches Leben ist wieder lebendig in Berlin” (Rabbi Ehrenberg: Orthodox Jewish life is alive again in Berlin). Die Welt. November 18, 2004