FICHTE & THE MODERNIZATION OF ANTISEMITISMNovember 23, 2006 at 5:14 pm | Posted in Books, Globalization, History, Judaica, Literary, Philosophy | Leave a comment
Johann Gottlieb Fichte
In 1806, in a Berlin occupied by Napoléon, Fichte gave a series of Addresses to the German Nation which became an incentive for German nationalism, and which has been cited as an example of Romantic nationalism. Here, Fichte indirectly continues his anti-Semitic
argumentation from his early works on religion and the French Revolution and speaks of the alleged superiority of German people over others. In other earlier works he called Jews a “state within a state” that would “undermine” the German nation. He openly expressed desire to expel Jews from Germany In regards to Jews getting “rights” he wrote that this would only be possible if one managed “to cut off all their heads in one night, and to set new ones on their shoulders, which should contain not a single Jewish idea”
Johann Gottlieb Fichte (May 19, 1762 – January 27, 1814) was a German philosopher.
His significance in the history of Western
philosophy has been much overlooked, yet he is one of the founding figures of the philosophical movement known as German idealism, a movement that developed from the theoretical and ethical writings of Immanuel Kant. Fichte is often perceived as figure whose philosophy forms a bridge between the ideas of Kant and the German Idealist Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Recently, philosophers and scholars have begun to appreciate Fichte as an important philosopher in his own right due to his original insights into the nature of self-consciousness or self-awareness.
Like Descartes and Kant before him, the problem of subjectivity and consciousness motivated much of his philosophical rumination. Fichte also wrote political philosophy, and is thought of by some as the father of German nationalism .
Life and work
Fichte was born in Rammenau, Upper Lusatia. In 1780, he began study at the Jena theology seminary. In 1784, without completing his degree,
Fichte ended his studies. Fichte worked as a private tutor in Zürich, and in 1790 he
became engaged to Johanna Rahn, who happened to be the niece of the famous poet F. G. Klopstock. In 1790, Fichte began to study the works
of Kant, which were to have a lasting effect on the trajectory of his life and thought.
Not long after meeting Kant in Königsberg, where he asked for Kant’s financial support,
Fichte published his first work, Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (1792),
a book that investigates the connections between divine revelation and Kant’s Critical
philosophy. For reasons that remain obscure, the book was published anonymously, and was
thus mistakenly thought to be a new work by Kant himself. Kant cleared the confusion and
openly praised the work, which greatly improved Fichte’s reputation in the philosophical
Fichte’s philosophical writings
Fichte did not endorse Kant’s argument for the existence of noumena,
of “things in themselves”, the supra-sensible reality beyond the categories of
human reason. Fichte saw the rigorous and systematic separation of “things in themselves” (noumena) and things “as they appear to us” (phenomena) as an invitation to skepticism.
Rather than invite such skepticism, Fichte made the radical suggestion that we should
throw out the notion of a noumenal world and instead accept the fact that consciousness does not have a grounding in a so-called
“real world”. In fact, Fichte achieved fame for originating the argument that
consciousness is not grounded in anything outside of itself. His student (and
critic), Schopenhauer, wrote:
…Fichte who, because the thing-in-itself had just
been discredited, at once prepared a system without any thing-in-itself. Consequently, he
rejected the assumption of anything that was not through and through merely our representation, and therefore let the knowing subject be all in all or at any rate produce everything from its
own resources. For this purpose, he at once did away with the essential and most
meritorious part of the Kantian doctrine, the distinction between
a priori and a posteriori and thus that between the phenomenon and the thing-in-itself. For he declared everything
to be a priori, naturally without any evidence for such a monstrous assertion;
instead of these, he gave sophisms and even crazy sham demonstrations whose absurdity was
concealed under the mask of profundity and of the incomprehensibility ostensibly arising
therefrom. Moreover, he appealed boldly and openly to intellectual
intuition, that is, really to inspiration.
In his famous work Foundations of Natural Right (1796), Fichte argued that self-consciousness was a social phenomenon. A necessary
condition of any subjects’ self-awareness, he argued, is the existence of other rational
subjects. These subjects influence and summons the subject or self into an awareness of itself. This idea is an elaboration and extension of his Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre (translated into English as The Science of Knowledge), where he showed that consciousness of the self depends upon resistance or a check by something that is understood as not part of the self. Fichte’s famous self/not-self (also called I/not-I) distinction derives from these points and is developed in the Science of Knowledge.
Fichte also developed a theory of the state based on the idea of self-sufficiency. In his mind, the state should control international relations, the value of money, and remain
Because of this necessity to have relations with other rational beings in order to achieve consciousness, Fichte writes that there must be a ‘relation of right,’ in which there is a mutual recognition of rationality by both parties.
In 1806, in a Berlin occupied by Napoléon, Fichte gave a series of Addresses to the German Nation which became an incentive for German nationalism, and which has been cited as an example of Romantic nationalism. Here, Fichte indirectly continues his anti-Semitic argumentation from his early works on religion and the French Revolution and speaks of the alleged superiority of German people over others. In other earlier works he called Jews a “state within a state” that would “undermine” the German nation. He openly expressed desire to expel Jews from Germany In regards to Jews getting “rights” he wrote that this would only be possible if one managed “to cut off all their heads in one night, and to set new ones on their shoulders, which should contain not a single Jewish idea”.
- Early Philosophical Writings
- (1793) Attempt
at a Critique of All Revelation (Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung)
- (1796) Foundations
of Transcendental Philosophy (Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo)
- (1798) The System of Ethics in accordance with the Principles of the
Wissenschaftslehre (Das System der Sittenlehre nach den Principien der Wissenschaftslehre)
- (1800) Introduction to the Wissenschaftslehre and Other Writings
- (1800) The Vocation of Man (Die Bestimmung des Menschen)
- (1807-8) Addresses to the
Secondary sources (English)
- Arash Abizadeh. “Was
Fichte an Ethnic Nationalist?” History of Political Thought 26.2 (2005):
- Daniel Breazeale. “Fichte’s ‘Aenesidemus’ Review and the Transformation of German
Idealism” The Review of Metaphysics 34 (1980/1) 545-68.
- Daniel Breazeale and Thomas Rockmore (eds) Fichte: Historical Contexts/Contemporary
Controversies. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1997.
- Franks, Paul, All or Nothing: Systematicity, Transcendental Arguments, and Skepticism
in German Idealism, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005
Henrich. “Fichte’s Original Insight” Contemporary German Philosophy 1
- T. P. Hohler. Imagination and Reflection: Intersubjectivity. Fichte’s ‘Grundlage’ of
1794. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1982.
- Wayne Martin. Idealism and Objectivity: Understanding Fichte’s Jena Project.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.
- Frederick Neuhouser.
Fichte’s Theory of Subjectivity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
- Peter Suber. “A Case Study in Ad Hominem
Arguments: Fichte’s Science of Knowledge,” Philosophy and Rhetoric,
23, 1 (1990) 12-42.
- Robert R Williams. Recognition: Fichte and Hegel on the Other. Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1992.
- Gunther Zoller. Fichte’s Transcendental Philosophy: The Original Duplicity of
Intelligence and Will. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
of the Doctrine of Knowledge
Encyclopedia of Philosophy Entry
North American Fichte Society
En Revista Observaciones Filosóficas
- Works by Johann Gottlieb
Fichte at Project Gutenberg
Comment: Fichte mentioned
in “Sophie Scholl”
DVD, “Special features.”
Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War
Against the Jews 1933-1945
Anti-Semitism in Modern Germany
A line of anti-Semitic descent from Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler is
easy to draw. Both Luther and Hitler were obsessed by a demonologized universe inhabited
by Jews. “Know, Christian,” wrote Luther, “that next to the devil thou hast
no enemy more cruel, more venomous and violent than a true Jew.” Hitler himself, in
that early dialogue with Dietrich Eckart, asserted that the later Luther-that is, the
violently anti-Semitic Luther-was the genuine Luther. Luther’s protective authority was
invoked by the Nazis when they came to power, and his anti-Semitic writings enjoyed a
reviva} of popularity. To be sure, the similarities of Luther’s anti-Jewish exhortations
with modern racial anti-Semitism and even with Hitler’s racial policies are not merely
coincidental. They all derive from a common historic tradition of Jew_hatred, whose
provenance can be traced back to Haman’s advice to Ahasuerus. [who called for the
murder of all the Jews in the ancient kingdom of Mesopotamia].
But modern German anti-Semitism had more recent roots than Luther and
grew out of a different soil-not that German anti-Semitism was new; it drew part of its
sustenance from Christian anti-Semitism, whose foundation had been laid by the Catholic
Church and upon which Luther built. It was equally a product of German nationalism. Modern
German anti-Semitism was the bastard child of the union of Christian anti-Semitism with
German nationalism arose out of the ashes of German defeat in the Napoleonic wars.
Fragmented, without nationhood, without political definition, lacking military power and
economic vitality, the Germans searched for a shared identity that would restore the
self-esteem that the defeats by the French had shattered. Since the real world, in its
materiality, its politics, economics, and the force of arms, could give them no solace,
they turned inward for self_definition, in search of psychic and metaphysical values,
qualities of feeling and spirit. And they turned backward-to a remote past of glory and
mastery, to a past deep in the womb of historic time, where they had once been secure.
This German backward-lookingness had emerged even before the
Napoleonic wars, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century as a reaction against the
Enlightenment, especially its French and English protagonists. The Enlightenment
represented the break with the medieval world and its concepts of man’s innate sinfulness,
whose only hope of salvation was through divine providence. For this world view the
Enlightenment substituted the idea of progress, of man’s perfectibility through the
attainment of knowledge, and the theory that the universe was governed by reason. This
idea of progress was to catch hold particularly among the French and the English, not only
among the philosophers and sociologists, but in political circles as well.
In Germany these ideas spread too, but they were soon aborted by
Germany’s dominant conservative forces. The Holy Roman Empire, a paralytic, sclerotic,
thousand-year survival, managed to exist, propped up by the strength of tradition and the
inertia of apathy.’ The Germans preferred to retain their loyalties to the past and
resisted accommodation of their customs and folkways to the enormous changes of modernity.
Instead they romanticized the values and ideals of their remote past. This commitment to
the past explains the German preference for Kultur over
Civilization. Culture was for them something innate, intrinsic, inherited, a
tradition handed down from the past. Civilization was external, an artificial product of
modernity, lacking the essence of a specific people, race, or culture.
Progress and enlightenment were associated not only with the French and English, but also
with Jews. Invoking the universality of these concepts, Jews asked for emancipation,
political equality. All France was astir over the pros and cons. The Alsatian Jews asked
Moses Mendelssohn, then Europe’s most eminent Jew, to help them. Believing that a plea for
Jewish emancipation would have a better reception if presented by a Christian, Mendelssohn
asked his friend Christian Wilhelm von Dohm (1751-1820), historian,
political writer, and Prussian diplomat, to under_take the task. Dohm decided to extend
his plea also on behalf of the
German Jews. His work On the Civic Betterment of the Jews, Berlin, 1781, presented
the case for granting Jews political equality. Its basic argument was .the extraordinary
notion that “the Jew is a human being even before he is a Jew.” But the idea was
too radical for the Germans.
Most participants in the ensuing public discussion disagreed with Dohm’s belief that the
Jews would become better citizens if the conditions under which they lived were improved.
Adducing traditional medieval objections and citing Scripture or the Devil as evidence,
some maintained that the Jews were unfit for emancipation and that there was no reason to
think that things would change in the future. Others presented the argument of
“Asiatic temperament”: certain basic racial qualities inhered in Jews that were
at variance with those of Germans. This fundamental difference between German and Jew was
cited also, to the astonishment of Moses Mendelssohn, by Johann
David Michaelis (1717-1791), an aged, prestigious scholar of biblical (“Old
Testament”) and Mosaic law at the University of Gottingen. Mendelssohn replied to
Michaelis and other opponents of Jewish emancipation in classical terms: “Instead of
using the expression ‘Christians and Jews,’ Herr Michaelis is continually served by
‘Germans and Jews.’ He refuses to recognize that the difference is in religion only and
prefers to have us regarded as foreigners who must accept the conditions laid down to them
by the owners of the land.” Being himself a man of progress and enlightenment, he
could not then, in 1783, foretell that the Germans could and would indeed choose another
The German response to the Enlightenment was an intimation of the future. From 1789 to
1815, the quarter_century between the French Revolution and the Congress of Vienna, the
ethos of modern Germany took shape. The doctrines of the revolution were anathema to the
princely, priestly, and knightly rulers of the German states and principalities. But the
ideas had begun to infiltrate Germany, and within a few short years, as Napoleon’s
military success spread French influence across the face of Europe, French political
domination of the German lands converted those ideas into political realities. German
discomfiture with the new ideas of emancipation and equality turned into a deadly rancor
both for the French and for the ideas and policies they had unleashed in Europe.
Wherever the French occupied German lands, Jews were the
beneficiaries of the Rights of Man, winning emancipation in most of southern and western
Germany. In some places under French command, the obligatory extension of equality to Jews
enraged the Germans even more than French domination.
Nevertheless, the trend toward emancipation reached
even into the stronghold of Prussia. In 1812, as part of a sweeping program of legislative
and economic reform, Minister Karl August von Hardenberg, himself under the influence of
the ideas of 1789, persuaded the reluctant Frederick William III to grant the Jews
citizenship and political rights.
Napoleon destroyed the Holy Roman Empire, that is, the shadow of it
that had persisted. After Jena, in 1806, he reorganized the German lands, secularizing the
ecclesiastical states and incorporating most of the free cities into territorial states.
He hastened the demise of the medieval order of Free Imperial Knights, reorganized the six
hundred myriad political units in a manageable number of middlesized states, and formed a
confederation of German states under French protection. (Ironically, that confederation
would later provide a basis for German unification.) The formal bonds of historic empire
that had linked the Germans to their Teutonic past had been destroyed. To compensate for
the loss, for the humiliations at the hands of the French, for the fragmentation, the
Germans began to forge a new nationalism that transcended the boundaries of the German
states and the realities of their contemporary political life. That quarter_century,
inaugurated by the French Revolution and closed by the Congress of Vienna, was the
formative period in shaping German national character. From it emerged a national ethos
that was to animate German cultural, social, and political life for well over a century.
To begin with, at the simplest and most obvious level, the Germans
defined themselves in contrast to the French. What was French was unGerman. Ernst Moritz Arndt (1769-1860), poet and pamphleteer, wrote of the
war winter of 1812 that the German fatherland was located “where every Frenchman is
called foe, and every German is called friend.”2 The great liberal ideas of the
time-liberty, equality, fraternity – were French ideas, and Germans of that generation
denounced liberal ideas as unGerman. That outlook proved to be a durable one.
The philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte
(1762-1814), in his Reden an die deutsche Nation (1808), admonished Germans
to “have character and be German” (“Charakter haben and Deutsch sein“).
His Gallophobia was equal to that of his contemporaries, but he excelled in his exaltation
of Germanness. At a time when the Germans had been abjectly defeated, he consoled them
with a messianic future: “… Among all modern peoples it is you in whom the seed of
human perfection most decidedly lies, and you who are charged with progress in human
development. If you perish in this your essential nature, then there perishes
together with you every hope of the whole human race for salvation from the depths of its
Called the father of German nationalism, Fichte has also been called
the father of modern German anti-Semitism. His celebration of German nationalism was
matched by his denigration of Jews. In 1793 he had argued against Jewish emancipation,
characterizing the Jews as a state within a state that would undermine the German nation.
Jewish ideas were as obnoxious as French ideas. The only way in which he could concede
giving rights to Jews, he said, would be “to cut off all their heads in one night,
and to set new ones on their shoulders, which should contain not a single Jewish
Similarly, Arndt, who had defined German specificity by
distinguishing the Germans from their external enemy, the French, refined that uniqueness
by further distinguishing the Germans from an internal enemy-the Jews. The Jews,
beneficiaries of political emancipation that the French had thrust upon the unprepared and
unwilling Germans, became identified in the German mind with the ideas and values of
revolutionary France. They were not seen as true insiders. In Christian feudal Germany,
the Jews had been outsiders, and in the newly emergent idea of an ethnic, national
Germany, the Jews continued to be outsiders.
Arndt and his disciple, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852),
are credited with developing that particular concept of German nationalism associated with
the word “Volk.” It is a word that has come to mean more than simply “a
people,” more than the usual idea of a people united by common traditions and
cultural heritage, language, territory, values, and morality. “Volk,” according
to George Mosse, signified the union of a group of people
with a transcendental “essence,” never specified, sometimes called
“nature,” “cosmos,” “mythos.” This essence, Mosse says,
“was fused to man’s innermost nature, and represented the source of his creativity,
his depth of feeling, his individuality, and his unity with other members of the
Jahn, a fiery German patriot who fought in the
wars of liberation against Napoleon, in his book Deutsches Volkstum (German Volkdom),
published in 1810, elaborated on the concept of Volk: “A state without Volk is
nothing, a soulless artifice; a Volk without a state is nothing, a bodiless airy phantom,
like the Gypsies and the Jews. Only state and Volk together can form a Reich, and such a
Reich cannot be preserved without Volkdom.” (Is it mere coincidence that the two
wandering peoples, Gypsies and Jews, against whom Jahn contrasted the “rooted”
Germans, were precisely the two ethnic groups that Hitler consigned to the gas chambers?)
In this work Jahn used the word Volksthuemlichkeit
(literally, “quality of Volkdom”) to express his glorification of the simple
people, the little folk, and the qualities associated with them-simplicity, naturalness,
homespunness unspoiled by education and civilization.
According to Jahn, the Volk needed a state to house its soul and pro_vide the means for
its preservation. The German state was to serve some “larger” purpose – the
preservation of the Volk and vehicle through which it could exercise its will. It was a
Volkist idea that was to persist in Germany down to Hitler, who incorporated it into his
ideology. The state was conceived as a kind of metahistorical entity that was identical
with national spirit.
The “Christian” state had once been meant to serve “Christian”
purposes, that is, the expansion of Christianity. The Volkist state appropriated that
purpose. The Jew, by definition an outsider in the “Christian” state, remained
an outsider in the Volkist conception of the state. Indeed, the idea of a
“Christian” country of which Jews were outsiders served as a transition to the
idea of the Volkist state. Thus Christian Friedrich Ruhs
(1781-1820), who held the chair for history at the University of Berlin, denied the
claims of the Jews to the rights of German citizenship, because “a foreign people
cannot obtain the rights which Germans enjoy partly through being Christians. . . .
Everything should be done to induce [the Jews] … to accept Christianity and through it
to be led to a true acquisition of German ethnic characteristics and thus to effect the
destruction of the Jewish people.”
Because Jews were loyal to their own “state within the state,” Ruhs said they
could not be loyal to the Christian state. They could, therefore, be only its subjects,
but not its citizens. (That distinction was to be made by Hitler- at first, with regard to
the Jews, but later, when in his scheme of things they were not even entitled to the
status of subjects, it was a distinction made between the Czechs in the Protectorate, who
were subjects, in contrast to the Sudeten Germans, who were citizens.) The Jews, Ruhs
believed, as a tolerated alien group, should be excluded from holding public office, from
the army, and from the guilds and corporations, that is, from institutions representing
the economic as well as public and national life of the country. To identify this alien
and hostile group within the German midst, Ruhs proposed reviving the medieval yellow
Emancipation was the consequence of revolution and of the political realization that all
men, even Jews, were equal, but the concept of Volk was the consequence of
counterrevolution and of a belief in superiority and inferiority among peoples, of
difference and inequality. Out of the defeat inflicted upon them by the French, the
Germans devised a notion
of national, Volkist superiority to redeem their self-image. That self-image could not
have been drawn without the Jew as antagonist.
The glorification of the natural man, the simple life, uncontaminated by the
artificialities of civilization and the fetters of organized society, was a Romantic
Rousseauist idea. The romanticization of the peasant as the natural man turned him into a
receptacle of certain mystic qualities in his relationship to the land. The Volkist
conception turned these universal qualities into specifically German ones. The peasant, by
virtue of his descent from Germanic-Teutonic stock and by virtue of the mysterious
qualities of Germanness in the very soil he worked, became the embodiment not merely of
natural man, but of Germanic man. The antagonist of Germanic man
became the Jew, the embodiment of the urban man, the man of civilization. A money economy,
for example, as the product of disintegrative civilization, was associated with Jews, who
were buyers, sellers, and lenders. Whereas rootedness was an essential element of Volk,
the Wandering Jew became the symbol of the flesh-and-blood Jews, condemned to eternal
homelessness for having rejected the Messiah, whose fathers or forefathers had lived
outside Germany, in other lands.
After Napoleon’s defeat and the Congress of Vienna, the Germans took their revenge on the
French and the Jews. The Congress of Vienna had provided for full civil and political
rights “to differing parties of the Christian religion,” but the “civil
betterment” of the Jews was put off for further study. The Congress stated that Jews
could retain such rights as they already had, but nearly everywhere in Germany the rights
that the Jews had won were disavowed and rescinded. (Prussia was an exception: only some
Jewish rights were abolished; most were retained.) A period of reaction set in, in which
anti-Semitism was a major component.
A cyclical pattern in German political life began to emerge. The Congress of Vienna marked
the first of four such cycles in subsequent German history that were to appear with
startling regularity every two decades – long periods of reaction, repression,
conservatism, and anti_Semitism following brief spells of liberalism and the expansion of
rights. In all cycles the position of the Jews gradually improved, economically and
educationally, even if their political rights were curtailed or denied. The changes in
Jewish occupational or educational status did not appreciably decrease the deep hostility
to them. The changes merely served to alter the specific arguments of anti-Semitic
The second cycle was defined by the short-lived Revolution of 1848 and the subsequent
decade of reaction. The third cycle opened with the
unification of Germany as a triumph of German liberalism that began to turn conservative,
reactionary, and anti-Semitic in 1873. The fourth cycle, beginning after World War I, was
marked by the simultaneity of both its liberal and its reactionary phases.
Not only did the German states abrogate Jewish rights from 1813 on, but the furor
teutonicus that had found no satisfaction in the Congress of Vienna expressed itself
in violent attacks and pogroms against the Jews. Peasants and burghers demonstrated and
rioted in Bavaria, Wurttemberg, and elsewhere against Jewish rights. Some cities even
attempted to banish the Jews altogether. But the most violent pogroms, whose like had not
been witnessed in Europe since the Middle Ages, came with the “Hep! Hep!”
movement, first erupting in Wurzburg in 1819 and rapidly spreading throughout Germany. The
origin of this movement was obscure, but it is generally conceded to have been an outburst
of resentment against Metternich’s repression of German nationalistic propaganda and
activities. The movement called for “revenge” against the Jews, “who are
living among us and who are increasing like locusts…. Our battlecry will be ‘Hep! Hep!
Hep! Death and destruction to all the Jews!’ ” It was the first major chapter in the
history of German nationalism in which the Jews were marked as the enemy.
Meanwhile, hostility to the Jews began to emerge from the newly developing socialist movement. That anti-Jewish outlook had two sources: first, the atheist, anti-Christian bias condemning Judaism as the antecedent of Christianity, and second, the anti-capitalist
ideology that depicted the Jew as the embodiment of capitalism, the banker, the middleman,
the parasitic profiteer.
First to articulate this leftist anti-Semitism was
Bruno Bauer (1809-1882), who in 1842 published an article on the Jewish question, which he
supplemented and issued the following year as a separate book, Die Judenfrage. In
this work he argued against political equality for the Jews. Orthodox Judaism was, in his
view, an anachronistic phenomenon, whereas Reform Judaism was worthless; the Jews had
never contributed to the civilization of the world-arguments that were later to become the
stock-in-trade of the anti-Semitic right. Marx disputed Bauer’s ideas on the ground that
his view of the Jews as a religious group was distorted. The true Jewish religion, Marx argued, was Schacher (haggling, huckstering) and their god was money. Jews would first have to emancipate themselves from this “religion” of theirs; then their religious consciousness would disappear and human emancipation would be possible.
But despite the opposition to Jewish emancipation and the antipathy
to Jews, the oncoming Revolution of 1848 heralded a growing liberalization in public
opinion. When the National Assembly convened in
Frankfurt and formulated a constitution, it included a section on “the fundamental
rights of the German people,” which declared that “the enjoyment of civil and
political rights is neither depenjlent upon, nor restricted by, religious creed.”
There was no question here of a bountiful bestowal of rights upon Jews by a graciously
consenting ruler. The Jews were here equal beneficiaries of rights granted to all. The
accomplishment was due to the overwhelmingly liberal character of the body. It was also
the achievement of Gabriel Riesser (1806-1863), the notable
advocate of Jewish emancipation during the previous two decades, who had been elected to
the Frankfurt parliament. But within a year reaction set in. Bismarck was later to say
that the great mistake of 1848-1849 was to think that the great questions of the day would
be settled by “resolutions and majorities” rather than by “blood and
iron.” It was a judgment that bespoke the spirit that would later dominate German
politics, where blood would erase resolutions and iron crush majorities.
For Jews 1848 was two-faced. The liberal
constitution enacted a great principle that remained barely fulfilled, for its
implementation depended on the individual states. In the very heat of revolutionary ardor counter-emancipatory trends came alive, and their pressure on the
state governments was irresistible. When news of the revolution in Paris reached the
peasants in the Rhineland, they too revolted, seizing land, destroying tax and tithe
records, burning castles, and pogromizing Jews. Revolutionary propaganda called for wiping
out the nobility, assassinating the officials, establishing a republic, and expelling the
Jews from Germany. The popular agitation in many states brought about restrictions of
Jewish rights or failure even to grant them. In Bavaria, for example, petitions with
eighty thousand signatures submitted to the Chamber of Reich Counselors opposing Jewish
emancipation succeeded in their purpose.
The liberals were too weak and too indecisive to withstand the reaction of the next
decade. (Weakness and indecisiveness became hallmarks of German liberal politics-in the
late 1870s vis-a-vis Bismarck and, still later, in the Weimar regime.) The Conservative
party was founded in 1848 as a vehicle for the counterrevolution, and the 1850s witnessed
the expansion and elaboration of an anti-Semitism that was not only political, but also
Volkist and racist. Then Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl (1823-1897),
historian and novelist, began publishing his massive The Natural
History of the Volk as the Foundation of a Germanic Sociopolitical System,
idealizing precapitalist German society, condemning contemporary commercial and industrial
developments. Then Paul de Lagarde (1827-1891), later the
Volkist patron saint of the anti-Semitic movement, began his career with an attack on
Christianity and contemporary theology.
Eventually Lagarde would call for an expurgation of the Jewish
elements from Christianity and for its transformation into a Christian-Germanic faith. The
Germans, he believed, were too soft for the Jews to be allowed to live together with them:
“Every Jew is proof of the enfeeblement of our national life and of the worthlessness
of what we call the Christian religion.”
Lagarde, in another essay, was to write of Jews
One would need a heart as hard as crocodile hide not to feel sorry
for the poor exploited Germans and-which is identical-not to hate the Jews and despise
those who-out of humanity! -defend these Jews or who are too cowardly to trample this
usurious vermin to death. With trichinae and bacilli one does not negotiate, nor are
trichinae and bacilli to be educated; they are exterminated as quickly and thoroughly as
That imagery was to be repeated time and again until Hitler appropriated it and applied it
with terrible literalness.
Meanwhile, the new “science” of race was developing, under the impetus of
advances in anthropology and philology. Christian Lassen (1802-1871),
a learned professor of ancient civilizations at the University of Bonn, in his Indische
Alterturnskunde (Indian Antiquities), argued that among the Caucasians, only Semites and
Aryans built up human civilizations. He counterposed one against the other: “History proves that Semites do not possess the harmony of psychical forces that distinguishes the Aryans.” But the Semite has other qualities: he is “selfish and exclusive.”
Then Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) became convinced that “the racial question overshadows all other problems
of history, that it holds the key to them all, and that the inequality of the races from whose fusion a people is formed is enough to explain the whole course of its destiny.” Though Gobineau’s Essay on the inequality of races, published in Paris 1853-1855, was not to be translated into German for another forty years, the idea of race as the determinant of the rise and fall of civilizations appeared among the German philologists and ethnologists and philosophers. Social degeneration, they believed, was caused by racial degeneration. Racial mixture, the dissipation of the pure racial blood, brought mediocrity and decline. Gobineau’s basic scheme was to serve as a framework for the refinements of Chamberlain and other epigoni who saw the rise and fall of civilization as dependent on the preservation of the racial purity of the Germanic or Aryan race.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883), in his specifically
Teutonic racialism and ferocious hatred of Jews, surpassed earlier Volkist anti-Semites.
“Emancipation from the yoke of Judaism appears to us the foremost necessity,” he wrote. He was to develop, in his music and journalism, the idea of a de-Judaized, hence de-Christianized, Germanic religion, in which the pagan Teutonic elements merged with, or displaced, the Christian ones.