“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.