Today, over 200,000 Jews or persons of Jewish descent live in Germany, one of the largest Jewish populations in a European country.
Jews were otherwise free to follow any occupation open to their fellow citizens, and were engaged in agriculture, trade, industry, and gradually money-lending. These conditions at first continued in the subsequently established Germanic kingdoms under the Burgundians and Franks, for ecclesiasticism took root slowly. The Merovingian rulers who succeeded to the Burgundian empire, were devoid of fanaticism, and gave scant support to the efforts of the Church to restrict the civic and social status of the Jews.
This continuous study of the Torah and the Talmud produced such a devotion to Judaism that the Jews considered life without their religion not worth living; but they did not realize this clearly until the time of the Crusades, when they were often compelled to choose between life and faith.
The First Crusade began an era of massacre of Jews in Germany. The wild excitement of Crusading, to which the Germans had been driven by exhortations to take the cross, first broke upon the Jews, the nearest representatives of an execrated opposition faith. Entire communities, like those of Trier, Speyer, Worms, Mainz, and Cologne, were slain, except where the slayers were anticipated by the deliberate self-destruction of their intended victims. About 12,000 Jews are said to have perished in the Rhenish cities alone between May and July 1096. These outbreaks of popular passion during the First Crusade influenced the status of the Jews for the next few centuries, and perhaps beyond. The Christians brought accusations against the Jews to argue that the Jews had deserved their fate. Alleged crimes, like desecration of the host, ritual murder, poisoning of wells, and treason, brought hundreds to the stake and drove thousands into exile. Jews were alleged to have caused the inroads of the Mongols, even though they suffered equally with the Christians. When the Black Death swept over Europe in 1348–49, Christians accused Jews of poisoning wells. In the wake of this accusation, a general slaughter began throughout the Germanic and contiguous provinces, which triggered a massive exodus east to Poland. The Jewish immigrants to Poland were warmly greeted by the Polish King, helping to form the future foundations of the largest Jewish community in Europe.
The legal and civic status of the Jews underwent a transformation. Jewish people found a certain degree of protection with the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, who claimed the right of possession and protection of all the Jews of the empire. A justification for this claim was that the Holy Roman Emperor was the successor of the emperor Titus, who was said to have acquired the Jews as his private property. The German emperors apparently claimed this right of possession more for the sake of taxing the Jews than of protecting them.
There was a variety of such taxes. Ludwig the Bavarian was a prolific creator of new taxes. In 1342 he instituted the “golden sacrificial penny” and decreed that every year all the Jews should pay to the emperor one kreutzer in every gulden of their property in addition to the taxes they were paying to the state and municipal authorities. The emperors of the house of Luxemburg devised other means of taxation. They turned their prerogatives in regard to the Jews to further account by selling at a high price to the princes and free towns of the empire the valuable privilege of taxing and mulcting the Jews. Charles IV, via the Golden Bull, granted this privilege to the seven electors of the empire when the empire was reorganized in 1356.
From this time onward, for reasons that also apparently concerned taxes, the Jews of Germany gradually passed in increasing numbers from the authority of the emperor to that of the lesser sovereigns and of the cities. For the sake of sorely needed revenue the Jews were now invited, with the promise of full protection, to return to those districts and cities from which they had shortly before been expelled. However, as soon as Jewish people acquired some property, they were again plundered and driven away. These episodes thenceforth constituted a large portion of the medieval history of the German Jews. Emperor Wenceslaus was most expert in transferring to his own coffers gold from the pockets of rich Jews. He made compacts with many cities, estates, and princes whereby he annulled all outstanding debts to the Jews in return for a certain sum paid to him. Emperor Wenceslaus declared that anyone helping Jews with the collection their debts, in spite of this annulment, be dealt with as a robber and peacebreaker, and be forced to make restitution. This decree, which for years allegedly injured the public credit, is said to have impoverished thousands of Jewish families during the close of the 14th century.
Nor did the 15th century bring any amelioration. What happened in the time of the Crusades happened again. During the war upon the Hussite heretics became the signal for the slaughter of the unbelievers. The Jews of Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia passed through all the terrors of death, forced baptism, or voluntary immolation for the sake of their faith. When the Hussites made peace with the Church, the pope sent the Franciscan monk Capistrano to win the renegades back into the fold and inspire them with loathing for heresy and unbelief; forty-one martyrs were burned in Breslau alone, and all Jews were forever banished from Silesia. The Franciscan monk Bernardine of Feltre brought a similar fate upon the communities in southern and western Germany. As a consequence of the fictitious confessions extracted under torture from the Jews of Trent, the populace of many cities, especially of Ratisbon, fell upon the Jews and massacred them.
The end of the 15th century, which brought a new epoch for the Christian world, brought no relief to the Jews. They remained the victims of a religious hatred that ascribed to them all possible evils. When the established Church, threatened in its spiritual power in Germany and elsewhere, prepared for its conflict with the culture of the Renaissance, one of its most convenient points of attack was rabbinic literature. At this time, as once before in France, Jewish converts spread false reports in regard to the Talmud. But an advocate of the book arose in the person of Johannes Reuchlin, the German humanist, who was the first one in Germany to include the Hebrew language among the humanities. His opinion, though strongly opposed by the Dominicans and their followers, finally prevailed when the humanistic Pope Leo X permitted the Talmud to be printed in Italy.
The Jews had kept their piety and their intellectual activity. They were devoted to the study of the Halakah. In the 11th century Rabbi Gershom’s pupils had been the teachers of Rashi, and his commentaries on the Bible and Talmud marked out new paths for learning. The German Jews contributed much to the spread and completion of these commentaries. Beginning with the 12th century they worked independently, especially in the fields of Haggadah and ethics. R. Simon ha-Darshan’s Yalḳuṭ (c. 1150), the Book of the Pious by R. Judah ha-Ḥasid of Ratisbon (c. 1200), the Salve-Mixer (Rokeaḥ) of R. Eleasar of Worms (c. 1200), the halakic collection Or Zarua of R. Isaac of Vienna (c. 1250), the responsa of Rabbi Meïr of Rothenburg (died 1293), are enduring monuments of German Jewish industry. Even the horrors of the Black Death could not completely destroy this literary activity. Profound and wide scholarship was less common after the middle of the 14th century, which led to the institution of allowing only those scholars to become rabbis who could produce a written authorization to teach (hattarat hora’ah), issued by a recognized master. To this period of decline belong also a number of large collections of responsa and useful commentaries on earlier halakic works. The customs and ordinances relating to the form and order of worship were especially studied in this period, and were definitely fixed for the ritual of the synagogues of western and eastern Germany by Jacob Mölln (Maharil) and Isaac Tyrnau. As it was difficult to produce any new works in the field of the Halakah, and as the dry study of well-worn subjects no longer satisfied, scholars sought relief in the interpretations and traditions embodied in the Cabala. There arose a new, ascetic view of life that found literary expression in the Shene Luḥot ha-Berit by Rabbi Isaiah Horovitz of Frankfurt am Main (died 1626), and that appealed especially to the pietistic German Jews. The end and aim of existence were now sought in the aspiration of the soul toward its fountainhead, combined with the endeavor to saturate the earthly life with the spirit of God. By a continuous attitude of reverence to God, by lofty thoughts and actions, the Jew was to rise above the ordinary affairs of the day and become a worthy member of the kingdom of God. Every act of his life was to remind him of his religious duties and stimulate him to mystic contemplation.
A youthful enthusiasm for new ideals at that time pervaded the entire civilized world; all religions were recognized as equally entitled to respect, and the champions of political freedom undertook to restore the Jews to their full rights as men and citizens. The humane Austrian Emperor Joseph II was foremost in espousing these new ideals. As early as 1782 he issued the Patent of Toleration for the Jews of Lower Austria, thereby establishing the civic equality of his Jewish subjects. Prussia conferred citizenship upon the Prussian Jews in 1812, though this by no means included full equality with other citizens. The German federal edicts of 1815 merely held out the prospect of full equality; but it was not realized at that time, and even the promises that had been given were modified. In Austria many laws restricting the trade and traffic of Jewish subjects remained in force down to the middle of the 19th century, in spite of the patent of toleration. Some of the crown lands, as Styria and Upper Austria, forbade any Jews to settle within their territory; in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia many cities were closed to them. The Jews were, in addition, burdened with heavy taxes and imposts.
In the German kingdom of Prussia, also, the government modified materially the promises made in the disastrous year 1813. The promised uniform regulation of Jewish affairs was time and again postponed. In the period between 1815 and 1847 there were no less than twenty-one territorial Jews’ laws in the eight provinces of the Prussian state, each having to be observed by a part of the Jewish community. There was at that time no official authorized to speak in the name of all German Jews. Nevertheless, a few courageous men came forward to maintain their cause, foremost among them being Gabriel Riesser, a Jewish lawyer of Hamburg (died 1863), who demanded full civic equality for his race from the German princes and peoples. He aroused public opinion to such an extent that this equality was granted in Prussia on April 6, 1848, and in Hanover and Nassau on September 5 and on December 12, respectively. In Württemberg equality was conceded on December 3, 1861; in Baden on October 4, 1862; in Holstein on July 14, 1863; and in Saxony on December 3, 1868. After the establishment of the North German Confederation by the law of July 3, 1869, all statutory restrictions imposed on the followers of different religions were abolished; this decree was extended to all the states of the German empire after the events of 1870.
Religio-philosophical literature was also assiduously cultivated, and the original Arabic texts of Jewish religious philosophers were made accessible. M.H. Landauer issued Saadia Gaon’s works, and H. Hirschfeld the works of Judah ha-Levi. M. Joel and I. Guttmann investigated the works of Jewish thinkers and their influence on the general development of philosophy, while S. Hirsch attempted to develop the philosophy of religion along the lines laid down by Hegel, and Solomon Steinheim propounded a new theory of revelation in accordance with the system of the synagogue.
In general, it was easier to agree upon the means of training children for the Reformed worship and awakening the interest of adults in Jewish affairs. The religious schools were an outcome of the desire to add religious instruction to the secular education of Jewish children prescribed by the state. As the Talmudic schools, still existing in Germany in the first third of the 19th century, were gradually deserted; rabbinical seminaries were founded, in which Talmudic instruction followed the methods introduced by Zacharias Frankel in the Jewish Theological Seminary opened at Breslau in 1854. Since then special attention has been devoted to religious literature. Textbooks on religion and specifically on Biblical and Jewish history, as well as aids to the translation and explanation of the Bible and the prayer-books, were compiled to meet the demands of modern pedagogics. Pulpit oratory began to flourish as never before, foremost among the great German preachers being M. Sachs and M. Joël. Nor was synagogal music neglected, Louis Lewandowski especially contributing to its development.
The public institutions of the Jewish communities served to supplement the work of teachers and leaders, and to promote Jewish solidarity. This was the primary object of the Jewish press, created by Ludwig Philippson. In 1837 he founded the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums, which has been followed by a number of similar periodicals. They had succeeded in preserving a certain unity of religious opinion and conviction among the Jews, with the gratifying result of unity of action for the common good. Societies for the cultivation of Jewish literature were founded, as well as associations of teachers, rabbis, and leaders of congregations.
Napoleon emancipated the Jews across Europe, but with Napoleon’s fall in 1815, growing nationalism resulted in increasing repression. In 1819, Hep-Hep riots—according to one interpretation from the Latin Hierosolyma est perdita (Jerusalem is lost), the rallying cry of the Crusaders, but more likely derived from the traditional herding cries of the German Folk—destroyed Jewish property and killed many Jews. The Revolution of 1848 swung the pendulum back towards freedom for the Jews, and in 1871, with he unification of Germany by Bismarck, came their emancipation, but the financial crisis of 1873 created another era of repression. Starting in the 1870s, anti-Semites of the völkisch movement were the first to describe themselves as such, because they viewed Jews as part of a Semitic race that could never be properly assimilated into German society. Such was the ferocity of the anti-Jewish feeling of the völkisch movement that by 1900, anti-Semitic had entered English to describe anyone who had anti-Jewish feelings. However, despite massive protests and petitions, the völkisch movement failed to persuade the government to revoke Jewish emancipation, and in the 1912 Reichstag elections, the parties with völkisch-movement sympathies suffered a temporary defeat.
Jews experienced a period of ostensible legal equality from 1848 until the rise of Nazi Germany. In the opinion of historian Fritz Stern, by the end of the 19th century, what had emerged was a Jewish-German symbiosis, where German Jews had merged elements of German and Jewish culture into a unique new one. However, statutory equality and actual practice did not coincide. As Walter Rathenau found out, even in 1905 there was hardly any chance of a Jew receiving a judgeship, and even then only if the Jewish candidate renounced his faith and converted to Christianity.
A higher percentage of German Jews fought in World War I than that of any other ethnic, religious or political group in Germany—in fact, some 12,000 died for their country. Ironically, it was a Jewish lieutenant, Hugo Gutmann, who awarded the Iron Cross, First Class, to a 29-year-old corporal named Adolf Hitler. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Gutmann left Germany and escaped to the United States.
In October 1916, the German Military High Command administered Judenzählung (census of Jews). Designed to confirm accusations of the lack of patriotism among German Jews, the census disproved the charges, but its results were not made public. Denounced as a “statistical monstrosity”, the census was a catalyst to intensified antisemitism and social myths such as the “stab-in-the-back legend” (Dolchstosslegende).
Many German Jews received high political positions such as foreign minister and vice chancellor in the Weimar Republic. The Weimar constitution was the work of a German Jew, Hugo Preuss, who later became minister of the interior. Marriages between Jews and non-Jews became somewhat common from the 19th century; for example, the wife of German Chancellor Gustav Stresemann was Jewish.
In 1933, persecution of the Jews became active Nazi policy, but at first laws were not as rigorously obeyed or as devastating as in later years. Such clauses, known as Aryan paragraphs, had been postulated previously by antisemites and enacted in many private organizations.
On 1 April 1933, Jewish doctors, shops, lawyers and stores were boycotted. Only six days later, the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was passed, banning Jews from being employed in government. This law meant that Jews were now indirectly and directly dissuaded or banned from privileged and upper-level positions reserved for “Aryan” Germans. From then on, Jews were forced to work at more menial positions, beneath non-Jews.
On 2 August 1934, President Paul von Hindenburg died. No new president was appointed; instead the powers of the chancellor and president were combined into the office of Führer. This, and a tame government with no opposition parties, allowed Adolf Hitler totalitarian control of law making. The army also swore an oath of loyalty personally to Hitler, giving him power over the military and allowing him to easily create more pressure on the Jews than ever before.
In 1935 and 1936, persecution of the Jews increased pace. In May 1935, Jews were forbidden to join the Wehrmacht (Armed Forces), and that year, anti-Jewish propaganda appeared in Nazi German shops and restaurants. The Nuremberg Racial Purity Laws were passed around the time of the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg; On 15 September 1935, the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor was passed, preventing marriage between any Jew and non-Jew. At the same time the Reich Citizenship Law was passed and was reinforced in November by a decree, stating that all Jews, even quarter- and half-Jews, were no longer citizens (Reichsbürger) of their own country (their official status became Reichsangehöriger, “subject of the state”). This meant that they had no basic civil rights, such as that to vote. (But at this time the right to vote for the non-Jewish Germans only meant the obligation to vote for the Nazi party.) This removal of basic citizens’ rights preceded harsher laws to be passed in the future against Jews. The drafting of the Nuremberg Laws is often attributed to Hans Globke.
In 1936, Jews were banned from all professional jobs, effectively preventing them from exerting any influence in education, politics, higher education and industry. Because of this, there was nothing to stop the anti-Jewish actions that spread across the Nazi-German economy.
After the Night of the Long Knives, the Schutzstaffel (SS) became the dominant policing power in Germany. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler was eager to please Hitler and so willingly obeyed his orders. Since the SS had been Hitler’s personal bodyguard, its members were far more loyal and skilled than those of the Sturmabteilung (SA) had been. Because of this, they were also supported, though distrusted, by the army, which was now more willing to agree with Hitler’s decisions than when the SA was dominant.
All of this allowed Hitler more direct control over government and political attitude towards Jews in Nazi Germany. In 1937 and 1938, harsh new laws were implemented, and the segregation of Jews from the true “Aryan” German population was started. In particular, Jews were penalized financially for their perceived racial status.
As of 1 March 1938, government contracts could no longer be awarded to Jewish businesses. On 30 September, “Aryan” doctors could only treat “Aryan” patients. Provision of medical care to Jews was already hampered by the fact that Jews were banned from being doctors or having any professional jobs.
Beginning 17 August 1938, Jews had to add Israel (males) or Sarah (females) to their names, and a large J was to be imprinted on their passports beginning 5 October. On 15 November Jewish children were banned from going to normal schools. By April 1939, nearly all Jewish companies had either collapsed under financial pressure and declining profits, or had been persuaded to sell out to the Nazi German government. This further reduced Jews’ rights as human beings; they were in many ways officially separated from the German populace.
The increasingly totalitarian, militaristic regime that was being imposed on Germany by Hitler allowed him to control the actions of the SS and the military. On 7 November 1938, a young Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, attacked and shot two German officials in the Nazi German embassy in Paris. (Grynszpan was angry about the treatment of his parents by the Nazi Germans.) On 9 November the German Attache, vom Rath, died. Goebbels issued instructions that demonstrations against Jews be organized and undertaken in retaliation throughout Germany. The SS ordered the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) to be carried out that night, November 9–10. The storefronts of Jewish shops and offices were smashed and vandalised, and many synagogues were destroyed by fire. Approximately 100 Jews were killed, and another 20,000 arrested, some of whom were sent to the newly formed concentration camps. Many Germans were disgusted by this action when the full extent of the damage was discovered, so Hitler ordered it to be blamed on the Jews. Collectively, the Jews were made to pay back one billion Reichsmark in damages, the fine being raised by confiscating 20% of every Jewish property. The Jews also had to repair all damages at their own cost.
As many as half of the 500,000 Jews in Germany in 1933 fled before the Holocaust.
The Nazi persecution of the Jews culminated in the Holocaust, in which approximately 6 million European Jews were deported and murdered during the Second World War. On May 19 1943, Germany was declared judenrein (clean of Jews; also judenfrei: free of Jews). It is believed that between 170,000 and 200,000 German Jews were killed. Many Jews were shielded from the death camps by Germans unsympathetic to the Nazis and their policies.
An American historian Bryan Mark Rigg argues that approximately 150,000 German Jews had served in the German Wehrmacht, including decorated veterans and high-ranking officers, even generals and admirals. A great many of these men did not even consider themselves Jewish and had embraced the military as a way of life and as devoted patriots eager to serve a revived German nation. In turn, they had been embraced by the Wehrmacht, which prior to Hitler had given little thought to the race of these men but which was now forced to look deeply into the ancestry of its soldiers.
Partly owing to the deep similarities between Yiddish and German, Jewish studies has become a very popular subject for academic study, and many German universities have departments or institutes of Jewish studies, culture, or history. Active Jewish religious communities have sprung up across Germany, including in many cities where the previous communities were no longer extant or were moribund. Several cities in Germany have Jewish day schools, kosher facilities, and other Jewish institutions beyond synagogues. Additionally, many of the Russian Jews were alienated from their Jewish heritage and unfamiliar or uncomfortable with Orthodox Judaism. Thus American-style Reform Judaism, led by the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany, has emerged as a powerful and popular force in Germany, even though the Central Council of Jews in Germany and most local Jewish communities officially adhere to Orthodoxy. The unresolved tension between the re-emerging Reform movement in Germany and the official Orthodoxy is one of the most pressing issues facing the community at present.
An important step for the renaissance of Jewish life in Germany occurred when on January 27 2003 German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder signed the first-ever agreement on a federal level with the Central Council, so that Judaism was granted the same elevated, semi-established legal status in Germany as the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Church in Germany, at least since the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany of 1949.
In Germany it is a criminal act to deny the Holocaust or that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust (§130 StGB); violations can be punished with up to five years of prison. The Interior Minister of Germany, Wolfgang Schaeuble, points out the official policy of Germany: “We will not tolerate any form of extremism, xenophobia or anti-Semitism.” Although the number of right-wing groups and organisations grew from 141 (2001) to 182 (2006), especially in the formerly communist East Germany, Germany’s measures against right- wing groups and antisemitism are effective: according to the annual reports of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution the overall number of far-right extremists in Germany has dropped in recent years from 49,700 (2001), 45,000 (2002), 41,500 (2003), 40,700 (2004), 39,000 (2005), to 38,600 in 2006. Germany provided several million euros to fund “nationwide programs aimed at fighting far-right extremism, including teams of traveling consultants, and victims’ groups”. Despite these facts, Israeli Ambassador Shimon Stein warned in October 2006 that Jews in Germany feel increasingly unsafe, stating that they “are not able to live a normal Jewish life” and that heavy security surrounds most synagogues or Jewish community centers. Yosef Havlin, Rabbi at the Chabad Lubavitch in Frankfurt, does not agree with the Israeli Ambassador and states in an interview with Der Spiegel in September 2007 that the German public does not support far-right groups; instead, he has personally experienced the support of Germans, and as a Jew and rabbi he “feels welcome in his (hometown) Frankfurt, he is not afraid, the city is not a no-go-area”.
A flagship moment for the burgeoning Jewish community in modern Germany occurred on 9 November 2006 (the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht), when the newly constructed Ohel Jakob synagogue was dedicated in Munich, Germany. This is particularly crucial given the fact that Munich was once at the ideological heart of Nazi Germany. Jewish life in the capital Berlin is prospering, the Jewish community is growing, the Centrum Judaicum and several synagogues—including the largest in Germany—have been renovated and opened, and Berlin’s annual week of Jewish culture and the Jewish Cultural Festival in Berlin, held for the 21st time, featuring concerts, exhibitions, public readings and discussions can only partially explain why Rabbi Yitzhak Ehrenberg of the orthodox Jewish community in Berlin states: “Orthodox Jewish life is alive in Berlin again. ... Germany is the only European country with a growing Jewish community.”