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.

Napoleon, Haiti, and the Louisiana Purchase

Between 1800 and 1801, Spain secretly returned the Louisiana Territory to French custody; Spain was ceded the Territory in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, treaty which ended the Seven Year’s War. Napoleon planned to use the Territory as his North American imperial sear.

The United States government learned of this in 1802. The knowledge caused no small amount of panic. The government which controlled the Louisiana Territory controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, and whomever controlled the mouth of the Mississippi controlled the economy of the North American continent. And indeed, the Unites States’ government’s fears came true when Napoleon closed the New Orleans port.

Map of the Louisiana Purchase; courtesy of A People and a Nation: Volume I Ninth Edition by Mary Beth Norton

But something was happening in the background of all of this which would permanently destroy Napoleon’s plans, and alter the future of the United States.

The slave revolt of St. Domingue began in 1791. It came to a close in 1804, with the complete overthrow of French colonial rule. Today, this is known today as the Haitian Revolution.

Napoleon planned to use St. Domingue as his Caribbean base from which to launch his new empire, with its enslaved labor force and the revenue he gained its work as the backbone of the infrastructure of this new empire.

Having lost that holding, that labor force, and all the money that came with it, Napoleon had to scarp his imperial plans. The Louisiana Territory no longer financially tenable for France, Napoleon sold it to the United States in 1803; Thomas Jefferson purchased it for $15 million, $233 million in today’s money. This was the Louisiana Purchase.

And just an interesting note about the Haitian Revolution: the use of the same philosophies which inspired the American Revolution by a black, enslaved population terrified people like Thomas Jefferson so much that they could barely speak of it; they had no idea how to make sense of it within their precisely constructed idea of race. So they just kind of ignored it and began and enacted a policy of brutal expansion throughout the Louisiana Purchase.

The Rosetta Stone: Contested Key to Hieroglyphic Translation

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is an Ptolemaic-era Egyptian artifact which provided the key to a modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is inscribed with a decree issued by King Ptolemy V in 196 BCE, with the decree is inscribed in three Hieroglyphs, Demotic script (a post-Late Egyptian, pre-Greek language spoken in Egypt beginning in 650 BCE), and Ancient Greek. The same text is presented in all three languages, thus scholars were able to decipher the Hieroglyph text through their knowledge of Ancient Greek.

close-up of panels inscribed in each of the three languages

As time went on, the stele, which was probably a fairly ordinary one at the time of its issue, eventually ended up in use as a building material in the construction of Fort Julien on the Nile River Delta. A French soldier found the stele in 1799, and recognized its value to Western scholarship. As it was not being used in any academic or official propensity, he took it.

Word spread quite rapidly of this find, and lithographic copies and plaster casts of the stele began to circulate around the European scholarly community.

However, as this was taking place to the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, in 1801, British troops attacked and defeated the French troops stationed in Egypt. The British took the Rosetta Stone from the French in a move sanctioned by the Treaty of Alexandria, and its subsequent removal from Egyptian soil was approved by the Ottoman government. It has been on display at the British Museum since 1802.

In July of 2003, Egypt made its first request for the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone.