Why German Jewry did not Leave in 1933 Pt. 3: Unification, Emancipation, and Assimilation

“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.

Why German Jewry did not Leave in 1933 Pt. 1: The Enlightenment and Napoleon

“They bind our hands and then complain that we do not make use of them.” –Moses Mendelssohn

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, anti-Semitic violence in the German-speaking lands (there were over 300 at the time) was the exception, not the rule. However, when popular violence did erupt, it stemmed from long-held superstitions (such as blood libel), occupational immobility (money-lending was one of the few occupational niches Jews were allowed to inhabit as the Church forbade Christians from money-lending, leading non-Jewish society to cast Jews as greedy money-grubbers), and foundational Christian myths (“the Jews killed Jesus,” basically). It was not until much later that biological constructions of “Jewishness” as an inherent, racial state would come into play.

In this period, German Jewry existed in self-sustained communities. The German governments did not deal with individual Jews, but with the leaders of the Jewish community: rabbis, rabbinic judges, cantors, and teachers. These communal authorities were responsible for governing the individuals, which included levying taxes, maintaining social order, imposing legal recourse on offenders, and handling all litigation between Jews in accordance with Talmudic law. German Jews did not live in total isolation from Christian populations, often living among and coming into frequent contact with them through business dealings. However, the separation was enough that, when combined with the myths and stereotypes described above, it enabled non-Jewish German society to form deep-seated understandings of the Jew as the mysterious and predatory Other.

By 1780, the Jewish community structure began to lose ground to the allure of the Enlightenment. A series of Jewish reformers, the most prominent of whom was Moses Mendelssohn, began to argue that Judaism must adapt to and become part of German civil society as envisioned by Enlightenment thinkers. At the same time, liberal non-Jewish German thinkers began to argue for the emancipation of (the extension of equal rights to) German Jewry, hoping that it would lead to the dissolution of the Jewish communities, and eventual mass conversions to Christianity.

The first step to the achievement of these goals, on the part of both the Jewish and the non-Jewish thinkers, was to abolish the power of the Jewish communities. And this abolition came in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Napoleonic Wars swept through Europe between 1803 and 1815. In July, 1806, Napoleon began to bring portions of the Rhineland and West Germany under French control. On October 1, 1806, King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, angered by French interference in the Prussian sphere of influence, declared war on Napoleon. In less than two weeks, Napoleon emerged victorious.

During the years of Napoleonic rule in the German states, he and his subsidiary governments abolished the rabbinic courts, revoked the authority of the Jewish community, and emancipated the Jews of the German states, granting them the full rights extended to all inhabitants of French vassal states. He remained in control of the German states until the disastrous 1812 Russia campaign. In 1813, Prussia joined with Austria, Russia, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Sweden, Spain, and a number of other German states (the “Sixth Coalition”) to fight against Napoleon and French continental hegemony. In the War of the Sixth Coalition (1812-1814), the Coalition defeated France, and Napoleon went into exile.

Prussia regained most of its pre-1806 territory, and the other German states regained their independence after some reorganization. One of the first steps the German states took after winning independence was the repeal of some of the changes made under Napoleonic rule. German Jewish emancipation suffered severe setbacks, with several states annulling their Edicts of Emancipation and expelling their Jewish populations.

With the new spirit of German nationalism which took hold in the immediate post-Napoleonic years came a new type of anti-Jewish hatred, one which seamlessly blended religious hatred with anti-modern, anti-French, and anti-capitalist sentiments. For example, in August, 1819, widespread unrest resulting from unemployment and food shortages came together with the post-Napoleonic breed of anti-Semitism in a swell of violent anti-Jewish riots.

These riots, known as the “Hep! Hep! Riots,” broke out on the Bavarian city of Wurzburg. What began as a university riot quickly spread throughout the city. Mobs ran through the streets looting and demolishing Jewish homes and businesses while shouting “Hep! Hep! Jude verreck,” which translates to “Death to all Jews.” While the origins of “Hep! Hep!” are obscure, historians theorize that it was an acronym of the Crusader chant “Hierosolyma est perdita,” Latin for “Jerusalem is lost.” The riots swept through Bavarian towns and villages to central and southwest Germany.

However, the riots died down as quickly as they began, and relations between Jews and non-Jews calmed. Indeed, Jewish memoirists born in the 1820s compared the more tolerant and accepting atmosphere of their youths to the anti-Semitic atmosphere of the later decades of the nineteenth century.

Some more on the WWII Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai…

A month or two ago I made a post about the “Shanghai Ghetto,” the probable topic of my Master’s thesis. Since making that post I’ve done a large amount of research and spent about a month writing a research paper about a subset of life for the Jewish refugees in Shanghai. So, in light of that, I want to clear up a few things I got wrong, or over-simplified in my last post on the subject.

-German and Austrian Jews fleeing Germany first took a train from Germany to either Naples or Genoa. There, they would sail through the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, into the Indian Ocean, and all the way to the coast of China. Their ship would then make its way down the Whangpoo River until it docked at the Bund (Shanghai’s harbor-side financial district).

Jewish refugees flooded into Shanghai via this route from 1938 until it was closed upon Italy’s entrance into the war on June 10, 1940. After this closure, Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai via the trans-Siberian Railroad. This route took them across Russia through to Manchuria, at which point the majority boarded a ship for Shanghai. This route was open until December 7, 1941. After that date, all escape routes to Shanghai were closed to Jews.

And now we can celebrate the return of my mildly inaccurate MS Paint maps (both courtesy of Google Maps)! The first map shows the Italy-Shanghai route in use from 1938-1940, and the second shows the overland train route in use from 1940-1941. Obviously the ships did not sail over India or Japan; that is just me being incapable of drawing accurate lines on MS Paint.

-Also in Shanghai were Sephardic and Russian communities. The Sephardic Jewish community was generally Baghdadi in origin, and traveled to Shanghai as businessmen under the auspices of the British Empire. Members of this community—specifically the Kadoorie and Sassoon families—gave great sums of money to the Jewish refugee community. The Russian Jewish community had fled to Shanghai from Russia in the midst of the Russian Civil War; they were fleeing from the violently anti-Semitic White Russian forces.

When the refugees—many newly destitute as Nazi policy forbade them from taking many valuables or more than about fifteen American dollars out of the country—arrived in Shanghai, their impoverished status embarrassed the pre-existing Jewish communities who feared that the presence of these impoverished (white) Jews would take away from their own status within Shanghai.

-The “Shanghai Ghetto” moniker is a misleading one. The Hongkew District of Shanghai was home to the city’s poorest Chinese inhabitants. It was partially destroyed in 1937 by hostilities in the Sino-Japanese War, and had not been rebuilt when the refugees began to arrive in 1938. Jewish relief organizations in Allied and neutral countries along with the Sephardic and Russian communities in Shanghai set up refugee homes based in Hongkew for the newly arrived refugees, as structures were inexpensive in that location. These homes (Heime), though obviously better than nothing, were crowded, unsanitary, and the time spent there was extremely distressing for the formerly upper middle class refugees*.

Though some refugees received money from relations in Allied or neutral countries, had smuggled money and/or valuables out of Germany, or had been able to quickly find gainful employment and relocate to the French or International Concessions, many were never able to secure enough money to get out of Hongkew. Some, so traumatized by Kristallnacht, leaving Germany, and arriving with nothing to the Heime—so traumatized by their loss of identity—became depressed and never left their Heim.

In February 1943, the Japanese rulers of Shanghai announced that all “Stateless Persons” who had arrived in Shanghai after 1937 had to relocate to Hongkew by May 1943. Though it was not specified in the language of the proclamation, it was taken to be directed at the Jewish refugees, and was directed at them as an attempt on the part of the Japanese to appease their German allies. Thus, it was only a “Ghetto” for the Jews in the last two years of the war.

-Many dates are attributed to the time at which this refugee community was in Shanghai, a popular one being 1938-1945, but I prefer 1938-1949 because it was in 1949 that Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China, and it was by 1949 that most of the refugee community had fled to the United States, Australia, or Israel. By 1957, only 100 Jews were left in Shanghai.

*I could tell you more about the conditions within the Heime and Hongkew as a whole which caused these refugees such existential distress, but I am not sure if you want a post about toilets, sewage, sanitation, etc. I personally find history relating to sewage and sanitation to be really interesting (if not gross) but I don’t know if you want to read about such things. Let me know if you do.

The Shanghai Ghetto

Welcome to one of those posts that is secretly derived from my thesis research. Contains mention of the Holocaust.

My research is still in its early stages, so this breakdown of its background may contain some vaguaries, and some theories which have not yet been thoroughly researched. These will be clearly marked.

My inquiry starts in the early years of the Third Reich. It’s easy to look at these years and wonder why German Jews didn’t start to get their emigration papers in order when Hitler implemented the 1933 boycott of Jewish businesses, but in asking this, we are ignoring the fact that these German Jews saw themselves as 100% German. They fought for Germany in WWI, read and valued and prized German art and literature and philosophy; the idea that their country would turn against them was inconceivable.

Because Hitler introduced his anti-Jewish legislation slowly over the course of the 1930’s, he gave German Jewry time to rationalize and get used to each new piece; with every new law they would think to themselves “Well this must be it; it can’t get any worse than this; what more can they do to us?”

German Jews did emigrate out of Germany over the course of the 1930’s (often, as previously discussed, at the urging of women) as they lost the ability to rationalize the legislation to themselves, but some were not able to see that it was going to keep getting worse until after Kristallnacht. By then, it was too late for many of them to secure the documentation and funds they would need to emigrate (in addition to the sheer amount of time it took to get emigration papers, and the fact that prospective countries had strict emigration quotas, the Nazis charged emigrating Jews a massive exit tax).

There was, however, one place that would accept these Jews without any papers or visa requirements: Shanghai. A sizable number of German and Austrian Jews fled to Shanghai in the late 1930’s and stayed there through the course of the war as Stateless Persons. While most of the Jews who had fled to Shanghai were German or Austrian, there was also the entire student population of the famed Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland whom had been rescued by a Dutch official in Lithuania*. Also present in Shanghai, specifically in the International Concession, was a community of very wealthy Sephardic Jews, many of Iraqi descent.

When the Japanese occupied Shanghai after declaring war on the United States (and thus the Allied Powers) in 1941, they forced the Stateless Persons to move into a very small area of crowded, low standard housing in the Hongkew district of Shanghai—this area became known as the Shanghai Ghetto. Though it was officially only the Stateless Persons who were forced to move into this area, the relocation was aimed at the Jewish refugees (as they made up the majority of the Stateless Persons). This was an attempt of the Japanese to appease their German allies.

While the living conditions within Hongkew were terrible, the Japanese took no further steps against the Jews, focusing more of their direct aggression and violence towards the Chinese population of Shanghai. There are two possible reasons for this. One is that in the Japanese government was given financial assistance against the Russian tsarist government in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) by American Jewish financier Jacob Schiff. This gave the Japanese—who hadn’t had much interaction with Jews—a positive view of the Jewish people, and may have influenced their decision not to persecute the Jews in their territory.

The second possible reason is that the Japanese—in their non-experience with Jews—had been exposed to anti-Jewish propaganda of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion variety by the White Russian troops they fought alongside against the Communists in 1919 and took it seriously. They feared that if they treated the Jews poorly, the powerful Jewish financiers behind Western governments would exact revenge on Japan. It also may have been a combination of the two.

Though General Ghoya—the often violent and unpredictable Japanese officer and self-styled “King of the Jews” who had been put in charge of issuing papers allowing people in and out of the Hongkew District—made no attempt to murder these Jews, poverty, malnutrition, lack of access to health care, unclean drinking water, disease carrying insects, Allied bombing raids, and exposure to unfamiliar climates were all effective killers.

After Japan surrendered in 1945, Shanghai was occupied by American troops. Some Jews stayed around for a few years, working for the American military and saving money for an eventual emigration to New York—most of the Jews who had fled to Shanghai did aspire to live out the remainder of their lives in the United States. Some returned to Germany to register with the new government and attempt to get government restitution for their property which had been seized by the Nazi government; this was often a traumatic and unsuccessful venture. Fewer still made their way to Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Palestine/Israel (depending on what part of the 1940’s we’re talking about). The few Jews who had remained in Shanghai through the 1940’s left as the Communist regime made its way to Shanghai, and by the Cultural Revolution, none were left.

And just a note about German Jewish émigrés, not all went to Shanghai or Palestine or New York or Australia or Argentina or England. Many traveled and settled in other Eastern and Western European nations, believing that Hitler would not invade those countries, and/or underestimating Hitler’s devotion to lebensraum. Many were trapped and murdered in these countries as they were overtaken by the Third Reich. Ultimately, of the Jews who escaped from Germany, only half of them survived the Holocaust. That figure of 50% does not take into account those who died or committed suicide after arriving in their émigré countries.

*After the invasion of Poland, the student population of the Mirrer Yeshiva fled to Lithuania. Knowing that Lithuania would probably be the next to fall to Germany, one student visited the Dutch consul in Kovno, and got the official to write in his passport that no visa was needed to travel to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. The Japanese official in Kovno—Chiune Sugihara—gave the student a transit visa to cross Japan on his way to Curacao. This student’s Yeshiva colleagues were all given this allowance. Both officials knew that there was no way for these Jews to reach the Caribbean, meaning that they were implicitly and illegally smuggling these people out of soon to be conquered Lithuania into Shanghai through misuse of consular power. These students would later say that they had been saved by an angel. Both officials were later penalized by their respective governments for their actions.