Antisemitism is often thought of today as an invention from the Nazi period. General hostility towards Jews can actually be traced much further back. Historian Manfred Hanisch regularly attracts a large amount of interest in his lectures and presentations on this subject.
200 to 250 participants often sign up to the professor's face-to-face or virtual talks on "Antisemitism before 1933". Many of the participants are older people from Kiel University's adult education courses, but plenty of younger students also attend. What concerns all participants alike, however, is something Hanisch notices time and again: that there is only a moderate general awareness of the long history of antisemitism.
There is no shortage of evidence of this inglorious tradition. Extremely derogatory images and sculptures have been found in many German and European churches, especially since the 14th and 15th century. This is the case in Wittenberg, for example, where Martin Luther initiated the Reformation, but also brought many antisemitic expressions into circulation. According to Hanisch, Luther wrote "terrible things" in his treatise "On the Jews and Their Lies", published in 1543. In another treatise he specifically establishes a connection between members of this religion and pigs. The evangelical church still struggles with these statements, which it tends to relate to the accepted worldview at that time. "This cannot be accepted," stressed the Kiel-based historian: "No-one was forced to say such antisemitic things at that time."
These types of defamatory statements were also made generations before Luther. A climate of intolerance emerged with the crusades, which began in the late 11th century. Both Muslims and Jews were seen as enemies. "This was against everything that was not Christian," explained the historian. And the hostilities were by no means limited to words. There were pogroms, meaning violent attacks against Jews, throughout the Middle Ages.
These were primarily justified on religious grounds up until around 1800. Anyone who converted from Judaism to Christianity and was baptised immediately became a fully-fledged member of the Christian community. This changed, however, in the period that followed and in particular with the nationalism that emerged in the 19th century. "Woe betide the Jews who hold on to their Judaism," chanted students in 1817 at the Wartburg Festival, as they burned books by Jewish authors. Being Jewish now referred less to religion and more to the whole individual and ultimately to an artificially constructed "race".
"The Jews are our misfortune!" said historian Heinrich Gotthard von Treitschke at the end of the 19th century, insisting that baptism could do nothing to change that: "A Jew is always a Jew." The Berlin debate on antisemitism evolved from 1879 to 1881, with ancient historian Theodor Mommsen representing the opposing view.
We are now familiar with the cruel excesses triggered by the theories of Treitschke and the like between 1933 and 1945. What this highlighted for Hanisch was that the difference between the rejection of the Jewish faith and the rejection of an invented "Jewish race" is practically irrelevant. "Without hatred of the Jews motivated by Christianity in earlier centuries, there would be no antisemitism," he concluded.
The current increase in antisemitic acts of violence in Germany shows how deeply embedded hatred of Jews still is in today’s society. According to Hanisch, antisemitic tendencies are present even in the middle classes: "It is not said out loud or is formulated so that the speaker is not antisemitic but against Israel’s politics." The boundaries of antisemitism are blurred by common statements like these for those further right or even further left of the centre.
Author: Martin Geist
The lecture series "Antisemitism before 1933" by Professor Manfred Hanisch will be held from 21 April to 7 July on Wednesdays from 4 to 6pm.
Contact: Michael Vesper
"1700 Jahre jüdisches Leben in Deutschland"
Schleswig-Holstein is hosting numerous events to mark the nationwide celebration of "1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany". The State Government has listed all relevant events on its website at bit.ly/juedleben-veranstaltungen. Alongside seminars and exercises for students at Kiel University, there are plans to hold public lectures and presentations on all aspects of this subject. The above-mentioned lecture series by Professor Manfred Hanisch is one such event, as is the lecture series "Prägende Persönlichkeiten des Judentums in Deutschland" (influential Jewish personalities in Germany), which will be hosted from 4 November to 9 December by the Department of Philosophy in collaboration with the Gesellschaft für christlich-jüdische Zusammenarbeit (society for Christian-Jewish cooperation) and the Institute of Systematic Theology. (cb)