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It Never Goes Away


The Berlin Antisemitism Controversy, by Frederick Beiser

“Die Juden sind unser Unglück” (the Jews are our misfortune), wrote the eminent German historian Heinrich von Treitschke in an essay that would spark intense debate and damage his reputation.

Love in a time of populism. Wittenbergplatz, Berlin.

Ironically, given what came later, the resulting controversy was, in most respects, a defeat for Antisemites. But it also left seeds that would bear bitter fruit.

In The Berlin Antisemitism Controversy, intellectual historian Frederick Beiser presents a thorough and compelling history of this debate, which raged from the end of 1879 to the beginning of 1881.

That remark appeared in an article titled “Unsere Aussichten” (Our Prospects), published in November 1879 in the Preussische Jahrbücher, an official journal of the National Liberal Party.

Treitschke was a National Liberal member of the Reichstag and a senior historian at the University of Berlin.

Although well-respected, Heinrich von Treitschke’s scholarship was politically engaged, sometimes evincing an almost journalistic approach.

Treitschke’s History of Germany in the 19th century was seven volumes long. Its nationalist agenda was never far from the surface.

History contains numerous dismissive judgments of other European states’ cultural and political development, such as that French literature of the 19th century never rose above the level of “bumptious platitudes”.

“Unsere Aussichten” was another matter entirely. Treitschke argued that a new public consciousness was awakening in the face of unruly masses and an extensive hardship caused by a recent stock market crash.

What was its outcome? A “passionate movement against Judaism”.

In some respects, Treitschke had the facts on his side. In 1879, Wilhelm Marr’s Der Sieg des Judenthums (The Victory of Judaism) was published, becoming one of the most popular Antisemitic books of its day.

In September, Adolf Stöcker, the official preacher of the royal court, gave a speech entitled “Unsere Forderungen an das moderne Judenthum” (Our Demands of Modern Judaism), and other signs of Antisemitism’s rise were much in evidence.

Still, Antisemitism had a savour that was frowned upon in polite society.

To be sure, there was plenty of Antisemitism in German culture, as there was throughout Europe. However, the situation of Jews in Germany was different than elsewhere on the continent.

Although Jews comprised less than 2% of the population, they were well-established in Berlin, Frankfurt, and Breslau. Germany’s Jewish communities were as thoroughly assimilated as any in Europe.

At a slightly later point, there was some worry among the community leadership that the rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews would ultimately lead to the community’s depletion.

At the time of Treitschke’s article, it had only been eight years since Kaiser Wilhelm I had decreed the abolition of religious discrimination throughout the Reich, effectively granting Jews emancipation.

Perhaps as a reaction to this, as well as to economic instability, Treitschke disclaimed having any sympathy for the “filth and crudity” of the Antisemitic agitators.

Then he proceeded to rehearse a series of more or less baseless anti-Jewish canards. Jews control the media. Jews control finance. Jews of a low cultural level are streaming in from the East.

The solution was not to rescind emancipation. One couldn’t turn the clock back. But Jews had to give up their “double nationality” and commit to further integration into German society. What precisely did this entail? Treitschke never made this clear.

Treitschke’s article spawned a wave of responses, both positive and negative. Unsurprisingly, the Jewish community responded in large numbers.

Some members argued that the call for greater integration was unwarranted, that Jews either were sufficiently committed to being Germans or that their foreignness shouldn’t be an issue.

The most powerful critical response came from the well-regarded historian Theodor Mommsen.

A student of Roman history, Mommsen sought to frame the situation of Jewish Germans in the context of Roman syncretism.

Rome was highly multiethnic and achieved greatness. Germany was also made up of many disparate peoples.

Mommsen forcefully argued that Jews could be part of the country’s rich national tapestry.

Beiser’s book has two parts. First, he analyses the main contributions to the Berlin debate, putting them in the larger context of Antisemitic agitation in the 1870s.

In the second part, he analyses the contributions of three major agitators: Wilhelm Marr, Constantine Franze, and Treitschke.

Beiser effectively illustrates the various intellectual backgrounds in Berlin’s Antisemitic movement.

Some came from the left of the Hegelian movement, following in the footsteps of Bruno Bauer, Eugen Dührung, and (viewed from a certain angle) Karl Marx.

These figures tended to be universalists for whom Judaism was a variety of particularism.

While some viewed this as parallel to German nationalism (and opposed it as well), there was a good deal of contradictory thinking.

Others who came to Treitschke’s defence took a more overtly racist tack.

Although Treitschke seemed to want to distance himself from the baser modes of Antisemitism, he showed no aversion to making arguments based on purported essential and enduring racial qualities of Jews.

Another trope employed by Treitschke is the proposition that centuries of Christian persecution prove that there must be something wrong with Jews.

Why would Christians engage in this persecution if it didn’t exist?

This illustrates one of the most persistent features of Antisemitic agitation: the attempt to deflect the failings of Christian (or “Aryan”) society onto the Jews.

According to this logic, Jewish bankers must be corrupt because they deflect attention from Christian bankers.

The conspiracy theorising is crude, but it’s typically nationalist insofar as “Germans” are always portrayed as victims of Jews.

Ultimately, the Berlin Antisemitism controversy petered out after a year due to an onslaught of criticism from both Jews and non-Jews against Treitschke and his sympathisers.

The debate had long-term personal consequences for the historian. Mommsen severed his personal and professional relations with Treitschke over it, levelling pointed criticisms.

However, as important as such criticism was, it failed to contain the damage.

Coming from such an eminent historian, Heinrich von Treitschke’s xenophobia helped make Antisemitism more salonfahig (salon-worthy).

The Berlin Antisemitism Controversy does not trace it into later eras.

Significant research (particularly by Shulamit Volkov) has been done on the translation of Antisemitism into a cultural code in the middle classes.

You don’t have to be familiar with such academic work to do the math, but it helps.

Nonetheless, it’s not hard to conjecture how high-brow figures like Treitschke helped make Germany more susceptible to the depredations of National Socialism.

Such historical examples are especially helpful at a time when the post-WWII taboos on racism and discrimination are disappearing, and far-right extremism has become mainstream.

As The Berlin Antisemitism Controversy shows, it’s possible to push back. However, we must remain vigilant about preventing normalisation.

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Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.