The 19th century saw a resurgence in European anti-Semitism. Though discrimination against Jews waned during the age of liberalism and the Enlightenment (1600s) it managed to survive into the modern era. During the 1700s several European rulers imposed restrictions on Jews, their culture and language. In some parts of 18th century Europe, Jews were still subject to discriminatory laws and regulations. The Prussian king Frederick II, for example, passed laws restricting the number of Jews and banning them from marrying. In Austria, Jewish families were only permitted to have one son. In other states Jews were obligated to pay additional taxes or face expulsion; and they were banend from holding political office or entering certain professions. A few leaders were more enlightened. French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte, for instance, ordered the emancipation of the Jews in all French territories.
At the start of the 19th century, anti-Semitism seemed to be another regressive idea that was fading into history. The 1800s was a period of industrial growth, political modernisation and social reform across western Europe. It delivered legal reforms and emancipation that improved the rights and status of Jews in many parts of Europe. In France and Germany, two traditional crucibles of ‘Jew hating’, there were optimistic changes for the better. An 1830 motion by the French government recognised Judaism as an official religion, alongside Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Jews in the German-speaking states were granted economic and legal rights that exceeded those of their compatriots elsewhere. They were permitted to enter into legal contracts and purchase land and businesses. These reforms allowed German-speaking Jews to flourish: they became involved in banking and finance, law, medicine, higher education, theatre and the arts.
But despite these reforms, German anti-Semitism survived and, during the mid-1800s, began to increase. This revival was fuelled by two significant political movements: Zionism and German unification. Zionism sought the restoration of a Jewish homeland by creating a Jewish state in Palestine. As Zionist leaders, groups and texts emerged they called for greater Jewish unity and co-operation to achieve their goals. The growth of Zionism led to fanciful conspiracy theories that Jews were engaged in an underhanded plot to take over the world.
Naomi E. Pasachoff, historian
The push for German unification was another fertile ground for hateful anti-Semitism. During the mid-1800s there was no single German nation but a cluster of two dozen German-speaking kingdoms. Many nationalists wanted these kingdoms to unite to form a greater Germany, a nation that would rival the economic and military power of Britain, France and Russia. But the road to German unification was a difficult one, blocked by political obstacles and regional self-interest. Many who supported unification became frustrated by the lack of progress – and of course they blamed this on the region’s Jews. Anti-Semitic writers claimed the Jews feared a united Germany; they much preferred the status quo, with small, bickering kingdoms. In 1868 a German writer, Hermann Goedsche, wrote of a secret coven of Jewish rabbis who met at midnight in the Jewish cemetery in Prague to devise plans for world domination. Goedsche was a known forger and an agent of the Prussian government, and his ‘revelation’ about a Jewish plot was actually plagiarised from an earlier text.
Anti-Semitism also increased in France during the mid-19th century, fed by political division, instability and scapegoatism. French Jews were attacked from both sides of the political divide – by socialists, who opposed Jewish ownership of businesses and capital; and Catholic nationalists, who condemned Jews on racial and religious grounds, while claiming they undermined national unity. In some parts of France, anti-Jewish hatred had reached fever pitch by the late 1800s. The Ligue Nationale Antisemitique de France (‘French Anti-Semitic League’) was formed in 1889 and organised propaganda, riots and violent pogroms against local Jews. The group’s founder, Edouard Drumont, was a nationalist politician fond of invoking anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, including claims of corruption and bribery against other politicians and the prominent Jewish banking mogul Rothschild.
French anti-Semitism was brought to a head by the ‘Dreyfus affair’ of the 1890s. Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery officer of Jewish heritage, who was accused of leaking military secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus was sent to court martial and found guilty, more because of the intensity of French anti-Semitism than any evidence (see picture, a contemporary representation of Dreyfus). He spent two years in a notorious colonial prison before Emile Zola published his famous essay, J’accuse, which condemned the French government of running a cover-up and playing host to institutional anti-Semitism. Dreyfus was subsequently acquitted and returned to military service.
The worst anti-Semitism of the late 1800s existed in the Russian Empire. Russia had one of the world’s largest Jewish populations: around five million by 1890. As in Germany, Russian Jews benefited from new freedoms granted in the mid-1800s; they moved into middle-class occupations like business ownership, banking, teaching and manufacturing. This created some resentment among non-Jewish Russians, though not enough to provoke much violence. The situation for Russian Jews worsened considerably after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Alexander had been something of a reformist: he had abolished serfdom (bonded feudalism) in 1861 and some of his reforms had improved conditions for Russia’s Jews – but his ‘reward’ was to be blown to pieces by a bomb in the streets of St Petersburg. Though Alexander was murdered by socialist revolutionaries, many Russians considered socialism and anarchism to be Jewish inventions – so Russia’s Jews, directly or indirectly, were held responsible.
The backlash against Russian Jews was immediate. In 1882 the new tsar, Alexander III, ordered wide-ranging new restrictions for all Jews: they were prohibited from buying land or businesses, excluded from certain professions and expelled from some cities. Quotas restricted the number of Jews in state schools and universities. State-run newspapers printed anti-Jewish propaganda, while the ‘Black Hundred’, a group of reactionaries who supported the tsar, incited rumour and violence against Jewish communities. In the early 1880s, and again between 1903-5, several thousand Russian Jews were killed in pogroms (race riots targeting Jews and their property). Jews continued to serve as a scapegoat for Russia’s woes into the 20th century. Nicholas II, who took the throne as tsar in 1894, was a fervent anti-Semite who blamed almost every significant problem on the Jews and their influence. One of Nicholas’ prime ministers, Sergei Witte, wrote of the tsar:
“The Emperor was surrounded by avowed Jew-haters, such as Trepov, Plehve, Ignatiev, and the leaders of the Black Hundreds. As for his personal attitude towards the Jews, I recall that whenever I drew his attention to the fact that anti-Jewish riots could not be tolerated, he either went silent, or remarked “But it is the Jews themselves who are to blame”.”
One of the products of this poisoned environment was the notorious anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. It was constructed around 1900, probably by agents of Nicholas’ secret police force, the Okhrana, as a means of strengthening his rule. The Protocols first appeared in print in 1903 and their content contributed to another wave of violent pogroms against Russian Jews. In the end, Nicholas’ poor judgement and irrational anti-Semitism cost him both the throne and his life. As revolutionary forces were building in Russia in late 1916 and early 1917, he continued to assert that it was “all Jewish work”. Nicholas was forced to abdicate in March 1917; he and his family were murdered by communist revolutionaries in July the following year.
1. Anti-Semitic violence decreased after the Middle Ages, although prejudice against the Jews did not.
2. European Jews enjoyed some emancipation and improved rights from the early to mid-1800s.
3. The emergence of Zionism gave rise to conspiracy theories about the Jews seeking world domination.
4. Anti-Semitism increased in France and Germany, with the Jews as scapegoats for domestic problems.
5. In Russia, Jews were indirectly blamed and subject to recriminations for the assassination of Alexander II.