Saturday, April 09, 2011

Some thoughts on the origins of German anti-semitism

I don't know if this is particularly original, but here it goes.

It's deceptive to read into the past the Germany of today. Today, Germany is an industrial power, modern, very developed. But up until the 19th century the territories now known as Germany and Austria were actually behind the times with regards to economic development as well as political rights and liberties. The reason appears to be fairly simple in that after being on track with the rest of Europe in development, the Thirty Years War over the Reformation stopped whatever progress was happening, profoundly setting the territories now known as Germany and Austria back a ways. England, on the other hand, never experiencing the conflict and also united in a nation-state was able to avoid many of the consequences, and leapt ahead with regards to industry and culture. Similarly, although France experienced her Wars of Religion, it wasn't as profoundly affected by them, and, having already split from the Holy Roman Empire in large part, could reconstruct itself without regards to many external factors. The Netherlands and Belgium also benefitted in that they had industry already built up, and were able to solve the problem of religion by splitting from one another without being mutually destroyed, although not without civil war. The fringe of Western Europe came out of the conflict relatively well off.

There had in fact been a very interesting growth of learning in the German territories during the Renaissance, before the wars broke out.

In any case, the 19th century found the German territories, particularly the ones less under the thumb of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, steadily modernizing and ready to make contributions to society both intellectually and physically. Isaiah Berlin, the scholar of ideas, makes a good point when he suggests that perhaps some of the philosophers in Germany in the early 19th century were trying to respond to French and English philosophy in order to basically prove themselves. Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling...

But the modernization process, something that is inherently problematic to begin with, also hit snags in that the massive dislocations that it created, with people moving to cities, leaving the countryside, and rights and liberties being authorized that weren't thinkable before, created resentment among some as well as general disorientation even among some of the hopeful beneficiaries.

Before, there were lots of medievalistic hold overs, starting with the decentralized semi-feudal life of the countryside. Now, things were changing.

The medieval world was not capitalistic, although feudalism wasn't quite a happy option either. With all the change going on, there were no doubt some in Germany who felt that what was happening was completely wrong, and that there had to be people or groups from outside of the community who were bringing these new ideas into their previously ideal lives. It didn't help that Napoleon had been one of the spurs to getting Germany up to date through the changes in the legal system wrought during the occupation of Germany in the Napoleonic Wars, changes that made the principalities much more democratic and liberal than they had previously been.

I think that it was within this context that Jews, discriminated against for centuries, started to take on in the minds of people the character of a sort of carrier of a liberal virus. Emancipation, when actual deprivations of civil liberties that jews had experienced in Germany for centuries were lifted, coincided with the increasing liberalization and capitalist industrialization of the country.

Officially, after unification under Prussia, Germany was attempting to develop without overthrowing the monarchy, and without allowing total freedom of economic activity. Much of the industrial development was state sponsored and was given over to large businesses according to a corporatist doctrine that had been developed, stemming from a medieval model, by people associated with Prince Metternich of Austria earlier in the 19th century. The state, in other words, came down somewhat on the conservative side of the spectrum.

After the First World War and the proclamation of the Weimar Republic, the old familiar guarantee, as hollow as it may have been in practice, that the state was somehow protecting some kind of traditional values was perceived to be gone. Germany went through some very hard times, and folks no doubt overreacted by thinking that the world was coming to an end, that their whole way of life was being threatened, that everything was going to hell because of all of the crass money politics, the civil liberties for things like homosexuality and sexual freedom, the new democratic politics, etc... that was going around.

Throw into the mix the old enemy of folks who are jewish, seen as being involved with money, some of whom were visibly at the forefront of different civil rights movements like Magnus Hirschfield, pioneer of the gay rights movement in Germany, and a ready made scapegoat is constructed.

People from outside the community, or people inside the community who are thought to never have really been part of the community, making money off of poor people who think of themselves as more tied to the country than they are, spreading degenerate ways of living and thinking about the world around, encouraging disobedience within the family and irreligious mockery, disrespecting time honored traditions.

Damn hippies.

They were rhetorical scapegoats who, because society was generally against them anyways, would be less likely to identify totally with the other side in order to try to clear themselves of slander.

I think that this was the climate that created the massive anti-semitism in Germany that culminated in the victory of the Nazis in the '33 elections, and that lead to the Holocaust. Not some inherent hatred of jews that's thought to be inherent in the German people, but changing social conditions that gave rise to some very flawed ways of viewing the world. Because of course, if it's jews who are responsible for all of the dislocation, no one has to actually grapple with the problems that come up regarding the trade offs between development and traditional living, or between the pros and cons of liberalization or of democracy in general.

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