Since World War II a number of important studies have been published in Israel, America, England, and Germany on the complex subject of the Jews who tried to leave the ghetto at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. The immense fight for emancipation of these Jews, their aspiration to enter European society on the basis of equality, economic as well as political, have been the subject of intense scholarship, much of it naturally turning on the role of Germany during this crucial period.1

The revival of interest in this subject bears on two related questions. Why did Germany, of all European countries, adopt the most anti-Semitic policy toward the Jews, one that led to the Nazi holocaust and the extermination of over six million Jews? And can the regeneration of Jewish nationalism be interpreted as the direct result of the total or partial failure of emancipation? In other words, the appearance of emancipation as a political phenomenon is considered by many scholars to be the starting point of both modern, secular anti-Semitism and of the birth of Jewish national consciousness.

Different answers were given to these questions. Sometimes these answers were diametrically opposed. The conclusion reached by each historian often reflects his national environment and its political conditions. A famous Soviet historian, M. Pokrovsky, once said that history is but a projection of present politics to the past. The saying, while largely false, contains a grain of truth.

A brief survey of the Jews in Europe on the eve of the French Revolution shows a very mixed picture. The majority of Jews, the Ashkenazim, lived in Poland, Galicia, and Russia (after the first partition of Poland, the latter acquired a large Jewish population). They were almost completely enclosed within themselves, living in compact, mainly urban Jewish communities, where they often formed the majority of the population. In these declining self-governing communities, voluntary societies—known as Hevroth—proliferated. Their social and religious purposes were various and they were riven by bitter inner religious polemics between the new group of Hasidim and their opponents—the Mithnagedim. They had minimal contact with the outside world; in the Biblical phrase: “It is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.” Like the rest of the population the Jews did not enjoy any political rights, and most were destitute.

Another large group of Jews—the Sephardim—lived in Turkey and the Balkans. Economically they were better off, but they had far less autonomy in their own communities, and were without any political rights. This vast conglomeration of Jews did not try to improve their political status. Their only wish was to be left in peace, strictly adhering to the letter of Jewish law and somehow relying on religious hope, summed up in the abstract Hebrew word Bittahon, that they could manage to eke out a living. Both groups were large, comprising nearly two million Jews. Both lived in the twilight of a slowly disintegrating medieval world.

A very different picture, again not a uniform one, prevailed in the Western and Central European countries. Here Jews were comparatively few. In Italy, the oldest Jewish community in Europe, there were about thirty thousand. In France, including Alsace where the Ashkenazim were concentrated, Bordeaux with a Sephardic component, and in Comtat Venaissin—the former Papal States, where the real French Jews lived—there were altogether forty-five thousand. In England their numbers fluctuated between twenty and twenty-five thousand. In Holland, it is estimated there were about fifty thousand. In the little kingdoms and cities of the Germanic states, up to the first partition of Poland in 1772, there were about sixty-five thousand. In Austria-Hungary their combined numbers probably did not exceed 100,000. In England, Holland, the Italian cities, and the Bordeaux area Jews were treated, economically, relatively well. Politically they were tolerated, not molested, although they had few rights. Hostility toward them was most violent in other parts of France and, particularly, in the Germanic states.

Traditional Jewish society before the French Revolution can be mainly characterized by its basic, autonomous self-governing institutions in a hierarchical order, based on a kind of alliance between the wealthy and learned Jews, who were frequently linked through marriage. Legally the Jews can be compared to a medieval corporation, which imposed its own discipline and rules on its members. Breaking the rules meant for the offender being partially or completely ostracized (Herem), a condition well described by one observer as a powerful prison without bars. Jews, whether they liked it or not, had to belong to the Jewish community. The Jew could not remain separate from the community—the Kehillah. Breaking the rules, in the Jewish legal sense, led frequently to conversion, which cut the offending Jews from the body politic. Spinoza remains the sole example of a Jew being expelled from the community who did not join a church but instead defiantly called himself just a human being, belonging to the universe—uomo universale.


The restraints imposed by the Jewish communities varied from place to place, and from country to country. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a select group of Jews—the court Jews (Hoff-Juden)—emerged in the Germanic states and in the Austrian empire, gaining influence in the various courts as government agents, factors, responsible for the financial administration, taxation, providing fodder, food, uniforms, and other needs for the army, and moreover raising loans for the monarchs. In effect they were pioneers in civil service and book-keeping, and were the forerunners of early capitalism, in the mercantile, not industrial, sense. Many of these people had to become fluent in German and French. They lived in the style of the nobility; they patronized the arts—in their case, a revival of an old Jewish art, illumination of Hebrew manuscripts, which had almost disappeared in Europe with the invention of printing, but which re-emerged in Bohemia-Moravia at the end of the seventeenth century and flourished through the eighteenth century. The children of these Jews received private instruction in European languages, culture, music, and dancing.

What is more revealing is that many people belonging to this group of nouveaux riches became lax in their religious observances, even though they continued to live amid their brethren. During the day they mixed with the local patricians and government administrators, but in the evening they had to return to the ghetto. Their importance in the courts of the Central European monarchies made them immune to the restrictions demanded by the leaders of the Jewish communities. They were free from the Herem. Furthermore, through their government connections the court Jews frequently became spokesmen for the Jews. They were not elected by the communities. Their economic activities made them self-appointed intermediaries between the Jews and the various kings. They frequently tried to help Jews who were threatened with expulsion, heavy fines, and other forms of punishment. Their courtly business made them indispensable to the rest of the Jews. Paradoxically they were, unknown to themselves, the pioneers of Jewish emancipation. They were the first to loosen the bonds of the Jewish corporate existence, and by opening a window in traditional Jewish life to secular elements they thereby undermined its structure.

Curiously enough the second group to become largely indifferent to religious observances was the large number of Jewish vagabonds, shady characters, and petty criminals, who frequently formed gangs with gentiles from the underworld. They were an acute embarrassment to the Jewish communities, and many local leaders were only too glad to see these people leaving the Jewish fold and joining the Church. The mission to the Jews established in Halle in 1724 mostly attracted people from these circles who got into trouble with the authorities, Jewish and non-Jewish. Not all of these Jews converted, but those who remained Jews showed that the leaders of the Jewish communities were losing their grip on their members, and that traditional Jewish society was in a state of crisis, if not inner disintegration.

The outside world presented no less complex a picture. On the one hand, the rise of the absolute monarchy showed favor toward some entrepreneurial Jews and gave them many privileges if they helped to develop certain branches of the economy. On the other hand the mass of Jews suffered from humiliating disabilities, which included a poll tax for each Jew, limited rights of residence, threats of imminent expulsions, and restrictions on their numbers. Jews were the only segment of the population that was required by law to remain stationary, and forbidden to increase its numbers.

These and other vital issues form the center of the very important book by Professor Jacob Katz, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 1770-1870. Jacob Katz has devoted over forty years of research to the topics of emancipation, assimilation, and the relations of Jews with gentiles. He has published books and articles in German, Hebrew, and English. His earlier books Exclusiveness and Tolerance and Tradition and Crisis are recognized as standard works; his lecture to the Israel Academy of Science, “A State within a State,” is accepted as a minor classic. He is an elegant writer, managing to express complex sociological formulations lucidly. His learning is wide, yet his work is not overwhelmed by masses of footnotes. His mastery of the subject makes his book a pleasure to read. It is essentially a synthesis, and a brilliant one, of some of the specialized studies Professor Katz has published in the last twenty-five years.

Like many other historians he devotes much attention to Moses Mendelssohn, the immensely influential German-Jewish philosopher, writer, and bookkeeper who died in 1786. He sees the ideas and lives of Mendelssohn and his circle as the center from which sprang the diverse movements to improve the position of the Jews and pave their way later to full emancipation. Though the title is very broad, Out of the Ghetto is primarily a study of Germany, or more correctly Prussia. It devotes relatively little attention to other countries, though some pertinent remarks are made concerning French Alsatian Jews. This has advantages, but regrettably the book stops, almost abruptly, with 1812, the year when the Edict of Emancipation was promulgated by Prussia, although the title mentions a terminal date of 1870.


The University of Alabama has recently published a monumental study of Mendelssohn by Professor Alexander Altmann of Brandeis University.2 In many respects the two books overlap, and in some they complement each other. For some historians, like Yitzchak Baer, Selma Stern, and Azriel Shohet, Mendelssohn represents the climax of a period which began with the new attitude toward Jews by some of the leading mercantilists, and particularly the enormously important role performed by the court Jews. In this view Mendelssohn belongs to the later circles of the Berlin court Jews: he himself worked as a bookkeeper for one of them. To other historians, including Katz, Mendelssohn was the first modern Jew—the real champion of emancipation and rights of Jews. Though in his personal life Mendelssohn remained an observant Jew, his teachings contain all the destructive elements that subsequently led to the near-collapse of traditional Judaism. He was the extreme exponent of Locke’s theory of the separation of church from state, and of the right of the individual to be treated as a human being held as a universal truth. For Mendelssohn to remain a Jew was purely voluntary. He was not to be coerced by Jewish or other institutional constraints.

At first Mendelssohn and his gentile friend the jurist Christian Wilhelm Dohm advocated “amelioration” (the German word Verbesserung is more precise) of the Jewish position. This meant the removal by the government of certain disabilities from the Jews while the Jews on their side were to introduce their own reforms, such as mastering the German language and culture, becoming familiar with the sciences, customs, and manners of the non-Jewish culture, and aspiring to leave the traditional Jewish occupations of money-lending, peddling in secondhand clothes and antiquated crafts, and engage in more productive work. This two-way traffic was to facilitate the transition to full citizenship. The non-Jewish Dohm wished to retain Jewish autonomy, at least in the first phase, while Mendelssohn himself was for its abolition. Both agreed that the government should try to reduce, or weaken, the self-governing character of the Jewish community.

This ideal was partly embodied in legislation by the Emperor Josef II of Austria in January, 1782. His Toleranz Patent, a landmark in modern legislation relating to Jews, both made important concessions and retained old restrictions, but it certainly weakened Jewish autonomy drastically, bringing Jews a step nearer to acculturation. From then on the state intervened regularly, forcefully more than before, in the inner affairs of the Jewish communities. For Mendelssohn, as well as for Josef II, the spread of a controlled, state-inspired education was to be the universal panacea to the Jewish problem.

Mendelssohn’s ideas were part and parcel of the liberal ideas of the European Enlightenment; influenced by Leibnitz, he shared the political ideas of the conservative-liberal Montesquieu and the aesthetic views on the wholeness of man of his friend Lessing. Other ideas of the European Enlightenment, however, were violently anti-Jewish, and among those who held these views were Voltaire and Holbach in France, Frederick the Great in Prussia, and Catherine II in Russia. Toward the end of the eighteenth century new winds began to blow across Germany that drastically changed the earlier philosophic views of Leibnitz-Wolf. They produced the Kantian revolution in philosophy and ushered in the new wave of Sturm und Drang. Herder, Goethe, and others helped to bury the Schiller-Beethoven ideals of “Alle Menschen Würden Brüder.” The Romantics were knocking at the door, and they, more than any other group, are the first German nationalists.

The new ideas posed new challenges to the Jews not foreseen by Mendelssohn and his circle, who tried to reconcile the ideas of the Enlightenment with Judaism at a time when “the rays of Enlightenment were already dimmed by a turbulently onrushing romanticism, and when Judaism was being declared an historical anachronism.”3

The rise of romanticism and nationalism sharpened the hostility to the Jews. Within a generation after Mendelssohn, a large number of German Jews (by that time the Jewish population in Germany trebled because of the second and third partition of Poland) forgot Hebrew and fully mastered the German language and culture. Religious links with communal life became very weak and large sections of Jews rushed to convert, not out of conviction, but simply, in Heine’s words, “to obtain an entrance ticket into Western Society.”

This phenomenon the great nineteenth-century German-Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz termed “mass conversion.” According to Katz’s account over 12 percent of Prussian Jews converted; in an earlier study the late Abraham Menes argued that well over 20 percent of German Jews converted. Among the converts were the children of Mendelssohn himself and the cream of the Jewish intelligentsia. The philosopher Schleiermacher was right in stating in 1799 that “the converts no longer stemmed from the margin of Jewish society but from its very core.” Henriette Herz, who kept a fashionable Berlin literary salon, summed up the feelings of many Jews when she declared that Judaism could only be seen “as a dull practice of mechanical observations,” while emotion and romanticism are to be found only in Christianity. The converts were accepted by society so long as they were in accord with the conservative ideas of the society they lived in, and here lay, hidden but soon to be exposed, a bitter snag.

One of the weaknesses in Professor Katz’s excellent book is that he ignores the impact on German history of the French Revolution and the German defeat by Napoleon in 1806. Emancipation was first granted to Jews as a result of the French Revolution. It was inevitable that, sooner or later, the political ideals of the Rights of Man would apply to Jews too. The champion of Jewish rights in the French National Assembly was the aristocrat turned Jacobin, Count Clermont-Tonnerre, who gave the strongest expression to the ideals of the French Revolution by declaring: “To the Jews as a nation we give nothing, but to the Jews as individuals we give everything.” But in the German states emancipation came as a direct sequel to the Napoleonic invasion of German territory and a series of humiliating defeats. In the eyes of a large number of Germans, emancipation was thus a foreign product. The French occupation of portions of Germany prompted the resurgence of an extreme German nationalism on one side, and on the other it contributed to the development of revolutionary ideas among a minority of Germans, many of whom were Jews, some of them from the confines of the ghetto.

From then on Jews were seen by leading members of German and particularly Prussian society as subversive, undermining the foundations of society, potential conspirators in a world Jewish plot to dominate the world. The German romantic philosopher Fichte gave the classic expression to this new, secular, anti-Semitic mood. In 1791, a few months after the French National Assembly declared that the French Jews were to be full citizens, Fichte delivered a series of lectures at Berlin University which were actually in sympathy with some of the ideals of the French Revolution, but which issued a warning about the danger the Jews presented: “A mighty State stretches across almost all the countries of Europe, hostile in intent and engaged in constant strife with everyone else…this is Jewry.”

The Jewish belief in the Messiah suggested that their loyalties were not to the state. Those Jews who observed their religion were unfit to serve in the army, for they would be unwilling to desecrate the Sabbath and break their dietary laws. The fact that Jews kept associations, or links, with fellow Jews in other countries made them suspect as foreign agents, unpatriotic, sinister schemers. It is not surprising that Fichte in the same lecture advanced the idea of a compulsory return of the Jews to Palestine:

In order to protect ourselves in front of them, I cannot see any other way, except by conquering their destined country and to deport them all there.

Here we no longer find the old anti-Semitism which held that the Jews, having rejected Christianity, should therefore be eternally punished. Instead we have purely political, national, and racial arguments against them. Ironically Fichte is an important early precursor of political Zionism. History makes strange bedfellows, indeed.

The new attitude, a fear by society of an imaginary enemy—the Jews—so sharply expressed by Fichte gained great momentum after the defeat of Prussia in 1806. To borrow an expression of Mao Tse-tung’s, the Jewish emancipation in Germany came from the barrels of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic guns—and was implemented under military occupation. From that time emancipation remained a thorn inside Germany. All of this is, unfortunately, omitted in Katz’s account.

Another important factor left out in Katz’s analysis is the appearance of a rabid nationalism which spread across Germany. Unable to create a united Germany, the Germans resorted to creating an imaginary and idealized united Germany of culture and race. Germans are those whose ancestors went back to the Goths, to the tribal forests. Professor Hans Liebeschütz summed up Ludwig Börne’s reaction to the rising tide of German nationalism:

This excluded the Jews, who did not originate in the forests of Tacitus and have no blue eyes; their traditional education, being complete in itself, did not fit in with the ideal of German unity.4

Among certain Jews this mood created in its turn a rebellious demand for a radical, universal, revolutionary solution not only for Jews but for Germany as a whole, and for the world. This was clearly stated by Heinrich Heine (in words that are strikingly reminiscent of what Marx later, in 1864, wrote in his “Inaugural Address”):

What is the great assignment of our times? It is the emancipation, not only of the people of Ireland, of the Greeks, the Jews of Frankfurt, the blacks of West India and similar depressed people, but of the whole World, especially Europe.5

During the early nineteenth century most Germans looked upon the Jews as a revolutionary ferment, troublemakers agitating for the overthrow of the existing regimes. Even the leader of the ultra-orthodox Jews in Germany, Rabbi Moses Sofer, saw the demand for emancipation originating not from Mendelssohn but from the French Revolution. In 1819, at the time of the start of the German Jewish reform movement, he wrote,

And it is almost thirty years [i.e., ca. 1789] since the pestilence has spread through those who break the fences.6

We can hear here the voice of Metternich and the Holy Alliance. Only those Jews who were conservative, willing to convert and accept the existing state as it was—reactionary and stifling—were welcomed by the leading circles in German society. The classic examples were Friedrich Julius Stahl and August Neander; the first became the theorist of political conservatism, and the latter the theologian of pietistic Protestantism, while Börne, Heine, Hess, and Marx became political outcasts.

That capitalism came very late to Germany, and that it came first to the Catholic regions, helped to create a weak liberal middle class. Hence the Jews lacked organized support in Germany. Later, when capitalism became a powerful force, some radical Germans, under the influence of nationalism, saw Jews only as the bearers of the evils of the capitalist system, the exploiters of the German people. They looked upon the Jews as the corrupters of German morals, the most depraved elements in German cities, the importers of shoddy, foreign products, ready to sell Germany for a pound of flesh. So both conservative and radical sections of the population viewed them as not part of Germany.

The unification of Germany was imposed from above, as a result of Bismarck’s policies and of the increasing dominance of Prussia. Democratic processes became irrelevant. Bismarck and Ferdinand Lassalle were the victors. Marx and Wilhelm Liebknecht were the losers. The central state was the supreme, decisive element in Germany. When the state wished to remain neutral on the Jewish question, it did, and Bismarck ignored the plea to annul Jewish emancipation. When the state decided to embark on an official policy of anti-Semitism, as it did under Hitler, the way was clear and all opposition was brushed ruthlessly aside, with the most tragic consequences.

These remarks are not intended to detract from the great value of Katz’s brilliant new book, which will remain a standard work for years to come.

This Issue

December 12, 1974