The Weimar Republic’s relation with Jews was contradictory at best. On the one hand, the republic was a first time of full citizenship for the German Jewish people, who became a driving force in the political and cultural life of Weimar. But on the other, it was during the republic’s time that antisemitism rose to upsetting levels.
It was after the Protestant Reform that Jews in the German-speaking countries started to acculturate into the respective nations, but it was only with the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic rules that they started seeing real emancipatory progress. By the mid-1800s, almost all European nations had met the demand for full Jewish emancipation. As the German Empire and a pan-German nation took form, German Jews started to identify themselves with German culture.
But in the wake of the stock market crash of 1873, the social climate changed dramatically. It was in Berlin, in the fall of 1879, that the term “antisemitism” emerged and the concept took up a distinct shape. It became a very recognizable and characterized social and political movement that reached out of the German Empire’s borders and spread all over Europe.
As the twentieth century opened, a new epochal changed occurred. Among the many dramatic changes World War I brought about, one was a new perception non-Jews had about the Jewish community.
German Jews had mostly acculturated, many had taken pride in being German. They considered their nationality and the language they spoke as part of their identity. When World War I broke out, they volunteered in the army in great numbers, happy for the opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism.
But far from being an opportunity, the war became everyone’s doom. As it stretched over the months, circumstances worsened for the soldiers at the front as for the population behind it. In Germany, as the supply situation worsened on the home front in 1915, antisemitic agitation by right-wing extremists and völkisch organizations rose. The winter 1916-17 (the Turnip Winter) was particularly harsh, with German people starving for food. Talk of Jewish “racketeers” and “war profiteers” started and created a sense of antisemitism that was never really extinguished.
Jews and the Weimar Republic
The Weimar Republic was to many German Jews a promise to complete the century-long progress of emancipation. Its liberal regime allowed for the full participation of Jews in its cultural, social and political life. But it was exactly this that made the Jewish community more apparent, spurring unfounded fears of a Jewish domination.
It was right before the birth of the republic that a strong community of Eastern Jews fled Russia and other Eastern European countries, arriving in Berlin, sometimes to stay, some en route for other destinations. This influx of scholars and intellectuals caused a revival of interest in young Jews for their roots and their Jewish identity, which they never considered to be in contradiction to their German identity.
This revival, together with strong participation of Jews in the cultural and political life of the republic (Jews normally aligned with the SPD), created the impression in the larger German population that the Jewish community was growing exceedingly and was taking hold of German culture.
According to the 1925 census, Jews represented only .9 percent of the German population. Not a big number. But they have mostly concentrated in six big cities, and one-third of them lived in Berlin alone, which created an overrepresentation of them in the heart of the republic.
Most Jews belonged to the middle class and were self-employed in different branches of business and the professions. As economic crises follow economic crises in the Weimar Republic, Germans started to resent Jews as economic rivals. Whether they were doctors or lawyers in the upper segment of society, or shopkeepers and merchants in the lower middle class — the two social segments most sensitive to the perils of economic fluctuation — they became the enemy.
Here’s were antisemitism took hold, and the Nazi party was one that more sensitively exploited this fear. Historians have pointed out that the Nazi party wasn’t especially antisemitic. Antisemitic language and slogans were common to all right-wing entities — and there were many in the Weimar Republic.
But the Nazis were particularly effective in the message, touching on the fears raised by the political and economic insecurity and the perception that an excessive number of Jews were involved in German cultural life at large. It has been speculated that they raised antisemitic ideas even in those members of the lower middle class who had formerly be neutral or impervious.
In the general climate of hyper-nationalism that losing the war had created, Germans were willing to believe the “old” assertion propaganda that solving the “Jewish question” would solve all their problems.
This story was originally published at The Old Shelter as part of an A-to-Z challenge about the history of Weimar Germany, April 11, 2018.