Jews in the Eyes of the Germans Analysis

Alfred D. Low

Jews in the Eyes of the Germans

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

A vast and illuminating historical literature on anti-Semitism in Germany has emerged in recent years, occasioned mainly by the need to examine the background of the twentieth century Holocaust. With the exception of some fine works of Friedrich Heer and George Mosse, most of the studies of relations between Germans and Jews have dealt with the twentieth century. Alfred D. Low’s Jews in the Eyes of the Germans fills an important gap in the study of anti-Semitism, for it deals with the period from the mid-eighteenth century to the last decade of the nineteenth century.

Unlike recent works on German anti-Semitism which were conceived in the past few years, Low began his study as a student in the Vienna of the 1930’s. His manuscript was ready for the printer at the very moment in March of 1938 that Nazi Germany invaded Austria. The author rushed to the printing shop to withdraw the book from publication. The book was rewritten in its entirety a full forty years later. Low’s initial intent in 1938 was to question the prevailing assumption that all great Germans were hostile toward Jews. He revised his somewhat optimistic thesis after the Holocaust to show that, despite the fluctuations and contradictions of German anti-Semitism, German hostility toward Jews persisted and even increased by the end of the nineteenth century.

Low acknowledges that his work is not a pioneering one. In addition to Mosse and Heer, Klaus Epstein and Leon Poliakov have already investigated important aspects of German anti-Semitism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Low’s thesis is also not new. What is important about Low’s study is the expansion of our knowledge of the subject. The author examines in detail the attitudes toward Jews of important German statesmen, writers, and philosophers. The views of such influential Germans as writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and socialist Friedrich Engels have never been dealt with in so systematic and illuminating a fashion as by Low. Low’s field of investigation, however, is limited to the attitude toward Jews of the social, political, and cultural elites of Germany. He often refers to the negative attitudes of the German masses toward the Jews, but he does not provide any detail on their ideas.

This book provides some scattered insights into why anti-Semitism in Germany persisted rather than weakened in the period 1750-1890. Why was anti-Semitism weaker in England, France, and America than in Germany? First, the Germans had been divided for centuries into myriad territorial, political, economic, and religious entities. It was perhaps inevitable that when the German national unification movement began, the Germans would develop an obsession with cultural, linguistic, and even racial purity and homogeneity. The Jews became convenient scapegoats for the divisions and problems of Germany both before and after 1890. The attempt of German Jews to assimilate into German society and culture often exacerbated anti-Semitism, for the Jews were the “most favored, most proximate, and most vulnerable target.” Second, the Jewish struggle for emancipation was part of a general attempt to liberalize and modernize German society. The reactionary forces in Germany, such as the aristocracy, the churches, and the academics, waged a generally successful battle against the forces of liberty and social justice. Since the degree of emancipation of the Jews was a yardstick for the modernization of Germany, the reactionary elites of Germany not only opposed Jewish emancipation, but also pilloried the Jews in general as the enemies of the true Germany. Low does well to point out that the German liberals and socialists themselves were ambivalent in their view of the Jews, which illustrates the existence of weaknesses, divisions, and fears of liberalism and socialism in modern Germany. In their drive for support, liberals and socialists did not wish to offend the elites and masses by a pro-Semitic program.

In great detail, Low proves that because of the unique cultural and political makeup of Germany, many Germans displayed contradictory attitudes toward the Jews. Some Germans, like socialist Friedrich Engels, showed a development in attitude from initial disdain for the Jews to positive attitudes of liberation. Others, like the fanatical nationalist Wolfgang Menzel, became Jew-haters after an initial period of friendliness. Still others, such as the philosphers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, entertained both positive and negative attitudes toward the Jews. The result was never a mainly tolerant attitude as in England or the United States or a general repression as in Russia; Germany shared political and cultural traits of both East and West. This might explain the vacillation in the attitudes of both Germans and Jews: in times of stability German anti-Semitism abated; in times of crisis the hatred of Jews intensified.

As in France and England, the eighteenth century Enlightenment in Germany and Austria took up the cause of the social and religious emancipation of the Jews....

(The entire section is 2092 words.)