Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction


Peter Staudenmaier

March 8, 2011

Below is an extended excerpt from a very good basic text explaining the history of antisemitism, a short and accessible book which I recommend highly to anybody interested in informing themselves about the subject. The book is Steven Beller, Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2007). I’ve chosen an excerpt that is particularly relevant to widespread anthroposophical myths about Jews. Beller writes:

The region where modern antisemitism arose, and where the plans for the Holocaust were hatched, was also the region where the ‘Jewish Question’ was both asked and yet also waited interminably for an answer: Central Europe. The ‘Jewish Question’ remained potent in German-dominated Central Europe due to the way in which the initial argument for the integration of Jews, and their emancipation from pre-modern discriminations, was framed. Whereas in Western Europe, emancipation was based mainly on the principle of individual human rights, which were deemed to be inherently due to Jews as citizens and human beings, in Central Europe Jewish emancipation came early on to be seen in terms of what David Sorkin has described as a grand quid pro quo: Jews would be given their rights once they had proven they could earn them. That is to say, Jews would have to deserve their claim to equal treatment by giving up their ‘Jewish’ ways which Christian Germans found so repellent. Indeed, the implicit bargain of Jewish emancipation, from the viewpoint of the non-Jewish, still Christian state at the turn of the 19th century, was that full Jewish integration into society would involve total assimilation. Jews would, in leaving behind their negative ‘Jewish’ particularities, leave behind all markers of Jewish difference, and become indistinguishable from their Christian German counterparts. C. W. Dohm was actually an advocate for emancipating the Jews as their right, but in describing the beneficial consequences of that action he summed up the implicit promise that was to dominate the rationale for Jewish emancipation when he declared: ‘Let them cease to be Jews!’

From the state’s viewpoint, the integration of Jews into society and the economy was justified because of the needs of the state: for administrative uniformity and to encourage economic growth. Individual Jews were to be freed from some of the most oppressive restrictions against them, but in return were expected to contribute directly to the state, in the form of military service, surrender their right to communal autonomy, and give up their separate cultural identity. Hence the most famous advance in Jewish policy in Central Europe before 1789, the set of Toleration Edicts of Emperor Joseph II for the Habsburg lands from 1781 onwards, was as much an attack on Jewish communal rights as it was an alleviation of restrictions on Jews. It was, moreover, explicitly intended ‘to make the totality of Jewry harmless, but the individual useful’. In this regard, it is important to note that many very inhumane restrictions on Jews, such as the Familiant Laws that limited marriage to the eldest sons of Jewish families in Bohemia, were not abolished by Joseph II and remained on the books until the mid-19th century. Meanwhile, the tutelary state was to remake the Jews in its own image. The new German-language schools for Jews that Joseph II’s policies instituted in Bohemia were intended to make the Jews more useful, because more easy to integrate into non-Jewish society and the economy, but they were also intended to make Jews less ‘Jewish’ and more like model, ethnically neutral, ‘Austrian’ citizens – theoretically like everyone else.

Policy in Prussia and most other German states was similar. The French revolutionary conquest and reorganization of Germany in the 1800s provided a temporary anticipation of a full, French-style emancipation of Jews on the basis of individual rights, but the expulsion of the French invader meant in the case of most German states a rescinding of newly gained Jewish rights (and an identification of the Jewish beneficiaries of French policy with the French national enemy). Prussia conferred citizenship on Prussian Jews in 1812, but this did not mean full civic equality, and the promise of full emancipation was repeatedly deferred after 1815, as the authorities remained unconvinced that Jews deserved what appeared to them the privilege of equality. Civic equality was eventually granted in Prussia in April 1848 (after the 1848 revolution) and other German states followed suit, some faster than others. It was only with the formation of the North German Confederation in 1869 and the German Empire in 1871 that German Jews gained full legal emancipation. Meanwhile, in the Habsburg Monarchy, Jews similarly gained their emancipation in the wake of the 1848 revolution, only to have it snatched away again when Emperor Francis Joseph decided not to confirm it as part of the absolutist Sylvester Patent of 1851–2. Jews had to wait until 1860 to gain such rights as the right to real property ownership, and full legal emancipation of Jews in Cisleithania (the Austrian half of the Dual Austro-Hungarian Monarchy) had to wait until 1867.

Moses Mendelssohn, the leader in Berlin of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, had initially argued for Jewish equality as a matter of right and, while advocating acculturation and integration into German culture and society, was wary of more comprehensive assimilation. His successors in the leadership of the emancipation movement in German Central Europe, however, appeared, on one level, to accept the states’ quid pro quo of emancipation in return for total assimilation and the disappearance of Jewish difference. David Friedländer explicitly argued that emancipation would lead to the regeneration of German Jewry, and their speedy integration into German society. Disappointed at the failure of Prussia to grant immediate emancipation, Friedländer even proposed in 1799 that the family heads of Berlin Jewry give up their separate Jewish faith and convert to Protestantism, albeit with the proviso that the Protestants not insist on the irrational belief in the Trinity.

This radical measure was rejected out of hand, by Jew and Christian alike, and would be a mere historical oddity if it did not reveal the gulf that remained between the Jewish and Christian perspectives of what emancipation and integration, even assimilation, entailed. Both Mendelssohn and Friedländer continued to insist on Jews having a prior right to emancipation, and saw integration as a two-way process, in which Jews and Christians could share values common to both religions. Later ideologues of emancipation, ever more desperate to achieve equal civil rights for Jews, did come to accept the quid pro quo set by the German states. Campaigners such as Gabriel Riesser, intent on disarming non-Jews’ suspicions that Jews still constituted a ‘state within a state’, proclaimed any separate Jewish national identity long deceased, and argued for rights for Jews as patriotic Germans who differed from their co-nationals only in the private matter of religious confession. The leadership of German Central Europe’s Jewish communities established many organizations to achieve the cultural and moral regeneration of Jews through the tenets of German humanist Bildung (roughly translatable as ‘educative development of the self ’). Societies were established to persuade Jews to follow ‘respectable’ trades, and even engage in agriculture. The clear assumption was that by Jews fulfilling their side of the bargain by acculturating and assimilating into German society, they would eventually be rewarded by being officially accepted as full citizens, because they had in reality become fully German, indistinguishable in manner, culture, and appearance from other Germans. Yet Jews remained different, they remained an identifiable group within German society, and this was partly because of the very effort, sustained for almost a century, to overcome their difference.

In many respects, the drive for emancipation and the ideology of self-improvement that informed it were remarkably successful. Jews in Germany in 1780, apart from the group of wealthy financiers and war contractors, went from being a mainly economically deprived and culturally isolated set of outcasts, to by 1880, apart from the group of very wealthy financiers and industrialists, consisting mainly of a respectable and prosperous bourgeoisie, with a far higher degree of education than the general German populace. In Austria-Hungary it is arguable that the social transformation was not quite so radical, given the Galician circumstances, and there appears to have been many poor, even destitute Jews in Vienna around 1900, for instance. At the same time, a large sector of Austrian Jewry had also made remarkable social and economic strides, which the family history of Sigmund Freud exemplifies. German Central European Jewry espoused the apparent social values of the rest of the German propertied and educated middle classes (Bildungs- und Besitzbürgertum) and were ardent patriots of their respective states (the German Empire and Austria-Hungary), albeit under a liberal, constitutional interpretation. In other words, the social and economic identity of German Central European Jewry changed radically, and in many ways there was a large degree of successful integration. Yet Jews did not cease to be different as the advocates of emancipation had predicted.

If Jews went from being beggars and pedlars to being merchants and businessmen, itinerant Talmudic scholars to journalists and writers, this represented an increase in respectability and integration, perhaps, but it still left the Jewish occupational structure, and hence its socio-economic ‘identity’, looking quite different from that of society at large. Partly this was because of continuing de facto limits on Jewish career options, most notoriously an informal bar on the higher posts within the various state bureaucracies without the ‘necessary’ baptismal certificate. Efforts to create a large cadre of Jewish artisans also petered out due to resistance from the Christian artisans and their guild organizations, and efforts to attract Jews to agrarian pursuits were also largely fruitless. Jewish traditions and attitudes, however, also played a large role, especially the traditional stress among Jewish families on the importance of education. The new modern Jewish dispensation simply transferred this high valuation from the religious to the secular sphere. The result was that there was a large ‘over-representation’ of Jews in finance, commerce, many export-oriented and innovation-based branches of industry, the professions, modern literature, and modern culture generally.

Moreover, Jews continued to maintain their own religious identity, and the newly prosperous, integrated, and acculturated modern Jewish communities, in Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Breslau, and elsewhere reconfirmed this religious identity in dramatic, concrete terms, in majestic ‘temples’, often in ‘Orientalist’ Moorish style that looked back to the idyllic age of medieval Sephardic Jewry, that dominated their immediate urban landscape. Religious identity was thus not merely a ‘private’ matter, and even if Jews were attending services reformed along Protestant lines, as good German bourgeois, they were attending their own separate and different ‘church’. This was a quite dramatically different outcome from that envisaged by many non-Jewish advocates of emancipation, at its inception and also much later in the century, who had assumed that Jewish acculturation and integration would inevitably lead also to a giving up of the ‘atavistic’ Jewish religion in favour of modern Christianity, in Germany especially the ‘cultural Protestantism’ of the academic elite. There were many conversions away from Judaism, and especially in the elite economic and cultural circles, with figures such as Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Heinrich Heine leading a stellar cast of such Jewish converts in German and Austrian culture, yet the vast bulk of Central European Jewry did not convert and remained Jews in whatever form, even if it was, as in Sigmund Freud’s case, as a ‘godless Jew’.

To some extent a distinct politico-cultural Jewish identity also persisted. The very struggle for emancipation, over almost a century, had created a large panoply of organizations to ‘reform’ Jewish society, and these social bodies and networks continued to exist after emancipation was achieved, producing a Jewish form of civil society and hence a Jewish social identity. The long fight for emancipation had also produced its own ideology, centred on the concept of Bildung, both as a form of intellectual and moral development. It also, logically, held a faith in the universal benefit of emancipation, of liberation of the individual human being from the constraints of irrational past oppression and superstition. Jews in Germany and Austria therefore tended very much to vote for the upholders of ‘emancipation’, whether Jewish or otherwise, which usually meant the progressive Left, in other words usually the Liberals or their equivalent, and later the Social Democrats. Culturally and politically, this emancipatory tradition provided Jews with an overall profile that differed quite markedly from the non-Jewish part of German and Austrian society, and produced an identifiable Jewish ‘sub-culture’ in German Central European society. Jews did not ‘disappear’ into German and Austrian society as had been predicted.

In retrospect, this Jewish ‘difference’, socially, culturally, and economically, might have been expected, and somewhat similar social and economic patterns were evident in Western European countries as well. Yet in Central Europe the emancipation of Jews had come to be predicated on the promise of total absorption of those Jews into the larger society. When the persistence of Jewish difference showed that the promise had not been met, this allowed the liberal project of Jewish emancipation to be labelled a failure by conservatives. The perpetuation of this mindset of having total assimilation of Jews, their effective disappearance, as the ultimate goal of their emancipation, also led to a continued insistence by emancipation’s defenders, whether liberals, progressives, or socialists, Jews or non-Jews, on the idea that Jews were no different from other Germans and Austrians. Jews were not defended for what they were, but for what they were not. This defence on the basis of denial drastically hobbled attempts to combat antisemitism, for conservatives, and antisemites could point very persuasively to evidence that Jews were in fact different in many ways, despite what Jews and their emancipationist allies might claim. The irony was that the very ideology of emancipation, with its claims to a universal humanity, was a major reason why emancipatory Jews, seeing themselves in those universalist terms, could not see, or admit, their own difference.

The framing of emancipation as a quid pro quo with total assimilation, and the persistence of the ‘Jewish Question’ for almost a century, clearly paved the way for the effectiveness of antisemitic counter-arguments against Jewish emancipation. In effect, the framing of the ‘Question’ meant that even one of the most successful and productive integrations of an ethno-religious minority in all of history could nevertheless be labelled a dismal failure, and believed to have been as such. In itself, however, the persistence of Jewish difference, and the recognition of this, even in the form of ethnic hostility, does not necessarily explain the flourishing of antisemitism as a political force. It helps to explain, but it is not sufficient. It also does not explain why Jewish difference was still seen as quite so deleterious and even threatening by so many Germans and Central Europeans. Perhaps if we look at what the protagonists of emancipation were up against in terms of Central European society and culture, we will get a stage further.

Chapter 4: The culture of irrationalism

Antisemitism has been defined by many scholars as irrational hostility to Jews. This definition’s adequacy is debatable, but it is quite clear that antisemitism has usually been seen as linked to the irrational, non-rational, or anti-rational in some way. The emergence of political and ideological antisemitism in German Central Europe in the late 19th century has often been linked by historians to the culture of ‘irrationalism’. This cultural approach was not in itself irrational, rather it was a reaction against the rationalist claim that all of human experience and endeavour could be reduced to rational, calculable objects and relations, and should be. Irrationalists, in contrast, asserted that there was a place for ‘irrational’ emotions and imagination in art and life, that these indeed were part of a realm superior to mere reason. Starting with Romanticism, the ‘irrationalist’ revolt against rationalist modernity was influential throughout European culture and thought from the late 18th century onwards. In Britain, William Blake, in his hatred of unfeeling ‘Urizen’, the god of abstract reason, was clearly part of this cultural movement, and even an august liberal such as John Stuart Mill rebelled against the equating of poetry and pushpin, as rationalist utilitarianism prescribed; but irrationalism was particularly influential in German culture.

There was a quite strong link between German cultural ‘irrationalism’ and antisemitism. Many of the representative figures of cultural ‘irrationalism’ in Germany, such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner, disliked Jews, and many antisemites were followers of ‘irrationalist’ culture. In retrospect, it is quite easy to see how this linkage developed, and how it became so effective: it originated from the view that Jews were connected to detested rationalist modernity, and there was plenty of evidence for this idea. As we have seen, the movement for Jewish emancipation, in itself a response to the rationalization and modernization of European states, meant that Jews in German Central Europe did indeed become closely allied to the goals of rationalist modernity; but not in the way in which antisemites claimed.

Jews had accepted the quid pro quo of integration into the rational modern state in return for emancipation, and had therefore striven to become rationally ‘useful’ members of society. Their support for rationalist modernity was thus based on the acceptance of their side of the bargain with the non-Jewish state and, they thought, society. Once the new, modernized Jewish identity had been formed, however, German society had moved on from the Enlightened model of the rational state, and many Germans had indeed revolted against this ‘soulless’ version of social organization. Antisemites and ‘irrationalists’ thus came to assert, with some foundation, that there was still a Jewish ‘difference’, and they characterized this by emphasizing the Jews’ continued allegiance to rationalist modernity. Some saw the irony of this as a result of the Jews’ very attempt to integrate into German society; however, many antisemites attributed rationalist modernity itself to the Jews, seeing it as the product of an essentially rational and abstract ‘Jewishness’ (Judentum) that was, in its analytically critical approach, undermining and destroying traditional, ‘organic’ native (i.e. national) society. From being prompted, even coerced, into becoming part of rational, modern society and state in Central Europe, Jews came, partly as a result of their very success in this effort at modernizing, to be regarded as in the ‘vanguard’ of rationalist modernity; and then, when this ceased to be a popular cause, as the instigators of that rationalist modernity.

Romanticism in Germany was a revolt against what was seen as the immorality, superficiality, and lack of profundity of the (French) Enlightenment, and a protest against the soulless and Nature-destroying character of (English) industrialization. From early on it was also closely linked with German nationalism, and this relationship became even closer in the wake of the French Revolution and the French invasion and conquest of the German states in the early 19th century. The traumatic collapse of the German states system of the Holy Roman Empire and radical French-induced reform did not last long. Napoleon’s defeat meant that by 1815 a quasi-traditional states system, the German Confederation, had substituted for the pre-revolutionary German polity. Yet the intervening years had a substantial effect on the character of Romantic German nationalism, making it both much more radically anti-French, and, because Jews had been one of the most prominent beneficiaries of French liberalization, more anti-Jewish. Moses Mendelssohn and the Berlin Jewish elite had initially succeeded at being accepted by the Prussian cultural elite, on rationalist lines, as civilized human beings and German civic ‘patriots’. This was undermined by the Romantic notion that Jews, not being part of the German national body, could never become fully German, and would always, therefore, be a foreign entity within the nation. A notorious instance of this kind of thought was that of the idealist philosopher, and German nationalist, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and his hostility to Jews as an alien entity was shared by the father of multiculturalism, Johann Gottlieb von Herder, although in a milder form.

The main German advance in thought, the idealism founded by Immanuel Kant, also developed in ways deleterious to full acceptance of Jews. Kant himself had displayed his own prejudiced understanding of the Jewish religion by classifying it as a heteronomous religion, which consisted of the individual only obeying laws imposed on him, not those he recognized by the light of his own reason through the categorical imperative. Yet many Jewish thinkers dismissed this as a travesty of Jewish religion and ethics, based on Kant’s ignorance of Judaism. They concentrated instead on the great similarities between Kantian and Jewish thought, and the possibilities that the idea of an ethics of the autonomous will opened up for a rational organization of society, in which Jewish individuals would be equal with all other autonomous individual citizens. Kant became a guiding light for many of the greatest German Jewish thinkers, including Hermann Cohen.

Yet philosophical idealism after Kant left its Enlightened, rationalist moorings and developed in parallel to Romanticism’s emphasis on the irrational and the emotional, on the concept of the will, first in figures such as Fichte and later in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer’s pessimism set the world of cause and effect, and of the purposive pursuit of self-interest, the world of mere empirical ‘representation’, against the noumenal world of pure will. He identified the latter with the purely spiritual, the real natural world beyond the perverse perspective of rationalism. The noumenal world could only be realized by self-abnegation in the sordid world of empirical reality and an ethics of compassion. As with Kant, Schopenhauer saw Judaism as an example of the heteronomous obedience to external entities, the reverse of his ideal of compassion, and as indeed the prime cause for the artificial division between Man and Nature that he saw as the fundamental, tragic dichotomy in the Western view of reality. Apart from holding a host of traditional prejudices against Jews, Schopenhauer thus held to a strong theoretical anti-Judaism, as he understood Jewish religion. In many ways, as with Kant and Fichte, Schopenhauer’s hostility to Jews derived from the Christian doctrine of Jewish blindness in the face of Christ’s divinity and the traditional theological concept of Judaism being a religion of mere obedience to law, lacking Christian ‘love’, but it was also a protest against both the results of economic and social modernization and a rejection of traditional Christianity.

The ultimate figure of mid-to-late 19th-century German culture, of a nationalist, irrationalist, neo-Romantic kind, but also simultaneously ‘modern’ and antisemitic, was Richard Wagner. It is clear that Wagner was antisemitic in his thought. As early as 1850 he anonymously published a long pamphlet, Das Judentum in der Musik, in which he attacked the artificiality of the music of successful Jewish composers of the time such as Giacomo Meyerbeer. Wagner claimed that Jews, born outside the German nation, could never learn to express themselves authentically, either linguistically or musically, because art was not something that could be learned mechanically, but came from the national spirit. He also bewailed the commercialization of the modern German music world, and attributed this to both the sickness of modern German culture and society, and the materialistic nature of Jews, who were simply interested in selling their ‘artistic wares’ rather than expressing true art.

Wagner was, in other words, expressing Schopenhauerian, anti-Jewish thought in a social theory about music. Wagner’s antisemitism, expressed anonymously, was not immediately known to the public, and it was only when he published his antisemitic pamphlet in 1869 under his own name that his views became known as his to that public. Wagner published several subsequent articles with an antisemitic component. Today, as in his own day, many admirers of Wagner’s music insist that his great musical works, such as the Ring cycle and Parsifal, are not in themselves antisemitic. Yet figures such as Alberich, the dwarf who steals the Ring of the Nibelungs, appear to fit all too easily in the context of Wagner’s Romantic, Schopenhauerian mindset as ‘Jewish’ stereotypes. In this world view, greed and selfishness, the drive of the sub-human to dominion over the world, and a lack of understanding of higher spirituality, are all attributed to the distorted world of Western ‘representation’ that has its origins in the Old Testament and finds its modern embodiment in the profit-obsessed world of ‘Jewish’ modern capitalism. Wagner did not detest Jewish commercialization only: after a trip along the Thames between London and Greenwich, Wagner remarked that what he had seen was ‘Alberich’s dream’. The English obsession with material gain, however, was for Wagner yet another instance of the ‘Judaization’ (Verjudung) of the world.

The association of Jews with money was also of centuries-old vintage, and fitted neatly into German irrationalism’s contempt for the self-interested, materialistic values of the modern capitalist economy. Jews were thus seen as being a demoralizing, amoral group, only interested in their own advancement, regardless of the problems this might cause for the upstanding native German population, whose nation was ‘too young’ to resist this perverting, despiritualizing influence of alien Jews, ‘multitudes of assiduous pant-selling youths’ from Poland, and literary ‘Semitic hustlers’, as Heinrich Treitschke put it in 1879. A few years earlier, in 1875, another august professor, Theodor Billroth, had made a very similar argument in Vienna about the bad influence of too many alien and poor Jews flooding in from Galicia with the aim to earn money from medicine, rather than adopting medicine as a vocation. In both instances, a prime audience was the very nationalistic student body, who put the nation above the sordid reality of industrializing society and political deal-making, as something spiritually pure and beyond mere rationalist, empirical modernity, and hence as something from which Jews, as the embodiment of such things in the irrationalist canon, should be excluded.

Even irrationalist thinkers who opposed antisemitism, and nationalism, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, also contributed, almost against their will, to the antisemitic thrust of German irrationalist culture. While his real target of opprobrium was organized Christianity for perpetuating a ‘slave morality’ against the ‘natural’ value system of ancient Greece that valued strength, youth, beauty, and ‘power’, Nietzsche inevitably followed his irrationalist predecessors in seeing the origins of this ‘slave morality’ in the ‘heteronomous’ religion of Old Testament Judaism. Nietzsche often praised modern emancipated Jews as a beneficial influence on European civilization. Yet his fulminations against the originally Jewish ‘slave morality’ that was resisting his proposed transvaluation of values could easily be abused to target modern Jews as the obstacle to human liberation, a liberation that could also be seen as one from the oppressive morality of the heteronomous, rationalist modernity of capitalism’s deferred gratification and its reining in of humanity’s more ‘animal’ feelings and instincts. Whether as amoral, immoral, or too moral, Jews were despised by German irrationalist culture, because their ‘rationalism’ made them blind to the truly spiritual nature of the German essence, or so it seemed.

The problem for Jews with this broad irrationalist critique, supported by some of the central figures of 19th-century German national culture, was twofold. First, it struck at the heart of the rationale of their emancipation. This had depended on the idea of Man as a rational, moral, and educable agent, who would act in his own self-interest and by the light of reason, hence recognizing the inherent humanity of other peoples, such as Jews. At least this viewpoint allowed those others (Jews) to improve themselves to the level of rationality and culture sufficient to merit being full members of society. Religious and ethnic differences would ultimately be ironed out by rational debate and empirical evidence, as the Ring Fable in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise suggested. In the German case, this was assumed to mean that Jews would acculturate as Germans and as such be indistinguishable from other rational, German-speaking citizens of the rational state. The irrationalist critique completely undermined this rationale, because it denied that Man was primarily a rational being, and it made full membership of society dependent on things beyond mere rational, empirical actions, such as adherence to the laws and education in the mores, language, and culture. Rather, membership now required belonging in a national community that at times took on mystical overtones, and often was defined in terms of shared ‘blood and soil’. Following Romanticism, German nationality was something inherited rather than learned, given not acquirable, a matter of feeling rather than rationality. Although the terminology came later, irrationalist culture from the early 19th century defined German nationality in terms of a ‘community’ (Gemeinschaft) rather than a ‘society’ (Gesellschaft); Jews, having been the traditional outsiders of German society for centuries, found it nigh impossible to enter the former, whereas as rational individuals their way into the latter had seemed wide open.

Second, the irrationalist critique was difficult for Jews to refute because it mirrored, albeit distortedly, enough of social and cultural reality to be at least partly credible, especially in German Central Europe. Emancipated Jews not only were identified with Enlightenment, liberalism, and the modern, rational capitalist economy by non-Jewish society; they themselves identified with these ideals. The very ideology of emancipation made such an identification virtually inevitable, given its goal of making Jews suitable for integration into modern society. Adolf Jellinek, Vienna’s leading rabbi in the Liberal Era and a prominent spokesman for emancipation, stressed in 1861 the compatibility of Jews and the Jewish religion with the ‘new time’ of modernity. He compared the Jewish character to that of the English, with a firm foundation of tradition allowing greater opportunity to change and evolve. Jellinek particularly emphasized the Jews’ combination of an analytic mind and a very purposive individualism, and asserted that modern society ought to be just to Jews because it was taking on Jewish ‘qualities’. This sort of ethnic triumphalism was perhaps understandable as an exercise in emancipationist apologetics, but it all too easily fed into anti-Jewish paranoia. One of Wagner’s most vitriolic anti-Jewish tracts, ‘Modern’, appears to have been a direct response to an article by a Jewish apologist making the same kind of positive connection between Jews and modernity. An ironic echo of this identification can be seen in Theodor Herzl’s Zionist diary, when he says that his aim is to make a ‘modern people’, the Jews, into the most modern in the world.

There was, moreover, circumstantial economic and cultural evidence that by the second half of the 19th century bolstered this claim to a special relationship of Jews to modernity. Jews were indeed very prominent in the German Central European modern economy and modern culture. The claim by many antisemites that Jews had invented this economy and culture was false. Although court Jews had played their part as financiers and war contractors in Central Europe’s early modern economy, the origins of the modern, capitalist economy lay primarily elsewhere. That Jews were so well placed and so ready to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the new economy was ironically at least partly due to their marginalization by anti-Jewish discrimination in the traditional, agrarian economy. The fact remains that for such a small minority (less than 1% of Germany’s population, and less than 5% of Austria-Hungary’s), Jews had a remarkably large role in many leading fields of the 19th century’s modern industrial economy. These included finance (a traditional area, admittedly), development of the railway system, textile manufacturing, and later electrical machinery, transatlantic shipping, and large-scale clothing retail, especially that symbol of modern commercialism, the department store. Similarly, a pantheon of cultural and intellectual figures – from Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Heinrich Heine, and Ludwig Börne at one end, to Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein at the other – provided an immense Jewish participation in modern culture in German Central Europe. A cultural irrationalist or conservative nationalist in late 19th-century Central Europe, opposed to and threatened by rationalist modernity, would easily have associated Jews with what he feared and detested, because most Jews in German Central Europe, the products of the movement for emancipation, were in reality upholders of the ideals of the Enlightenment, liberalism, and progress, in other words of rationalist modernity.

When, therefore, the protest against rationalist modernity gained momentum in the later 19th century, Jews were an obvious candidate for scapegoating.