“They bind our hands and then complain that we do not make use of them.” –Moses Mendelssohn
On July 19, 1870, Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck embarked on a successful scheme.
After the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Prussia annexed 22 independent states in the north of Germany to form the North German Confederation. This act destabilized the European balance of power as it had stood since 1815, drawing opposition from Napoleon III of the Second French Empire. Prussia drew further French ire after expressing its desire to incorporate the southern German states of Baden, Wurttemberg, Bavaria, and Hess-Darmstadt into a unified, Prussian-dominated Germany.
French opposition demonstrated to Bismarck and other Prussian officials that a war with France was both inevitable in the quest for German unification, and necessary to the arousal of enough nationalist sentiment in the southern states to make them amenable to unification. Bismarck later stated that he “did not doubt that a Franco-German war must take place before the construction of a United Germany could be realized.” When war with France was declared, the southern states sided with Prussia.
The Franco-Prussian War (July 1870-May 1871) was a remarkably quick one. After a series of swift German victories, Prussian forces marched on Paris, capturing Napoleon III and an entire French army along the way. On January 19, 1871, German princes and senior military commanders gathered in Versailles to proclaim Prussian King Wilhelm I of the House of Hohenzollern the German Emperor.
With the unification of Germany, German Jews finally won what so many of them fought for in Revolutions of 1848: legal emancipation. Unfortunately, with German unification came a level of anti-Semitism not seen since the immediate post-Napoleonic years. It was in this wave of anti-Semitism that the concept of the Jews as an inherent, racial category began to gain currency.
In 1873, a global financial crisis hit Europe and North America. In Germany, the crisis was a result of post-war inflation, speculative investments, the end of French reparation payments, and rampant industrial speculation. Though the German economy recovered quickly in comparison to other parts of the world, German investors and members of the general public blamed German Jewry for their economic losses, claiming that Jewish speculators were prominent amongst those who benefited from the boom, and among those who contributed to the economic crash. In fact, Jewish industrialists had participated in the industrial speculation which led to the crash, but to take that and use it to blame the Jews for the entire financial crisis is akin to using the actions of Bernie Madoff to blame the Jews for the entire 2008 Recession (which some people did).
A boycott of Jewish businesses followed the crash, as did a revitalized hatred of the assimilated Jewish middle class. The intensity of this wave of anti-Semitism remained high through the 1870s (indeed, it was in 1879 that Wilhelm Marr coined the term “anti-Semitism” to refer to inherent racial characteristics which separated the Jewish nation from the German nation) until it gradually subsided over the course of the 1880s.
When I speak of anti-Semitism subsiding, what I refer to is loud, violent, overt hatred. The quieter, institutional anti-Semitism wasn’t gone; it was never gone. It existed in the most important institutions of the German Empire—in the military, the universities, the civil service, the imperial court, and high society—keeping German Jews from being able to break out of the roles assigned to them by non-Jewish society. For example, institutional anti-Semitism restricted Jews to primarily business-related occupations. In 1895, 56% of German Jews worked in commerce. In 1907 that number was only one percentage point lower.
Jewish concentration in business-oriented occupations allowed non-Jewish Germans to continue to cast Jews as money-grubbers unwilling to partake in “productive” (meaning physical) labor, even as social anti-Semitism barred Jewish occupational mobility. Ultimately, social anti-Semitism affected Jewish lives more immediately and intimately than any political party.
The anti-Semitic bubble burst with the economic recovery. By 1912 anti-Semitic political parties were as good as dead, and the concept of using racial politics as political stance had fallen out of vogue. Institutional and social anti-Semitism remained, but Jewish assimilation continued on. By the final decades of the nineteenth century, even the most observant of rural German Jews had relaxed some of their practices, such as ritual purity. By 1900, only about 15% of all German Jews could be considered Orthodox.
What held true after the Revolution of 1848 remained true after German unification: legal emancipation for the Jews of Germany was only half the battle.