Thoughts on peasant-Jewish relations in Germany in the last decades of the German Empire

Paper presented in December 2006 at the Association for Jewish Studies conference at Washington, D.C.

[paper]        [Powerpoint presentation]        [maps]

     Given the diversity of Jewish and German peasant lives and living conditions in the early modern and modern periods, it is perhaps inappropriate to imagine a common pattern to peasant-Jewish social and economic relations. We know, for instance from James Harris's magnificent study of peasant anti-Semitism in Bavaria during the revolution of 1848 and the work done by Dan White and David Peal in Hessen that peasants in some areas were already vehemently anti-Semitic in a "modern" way before the 1890s. Did other folkways exist and were there other areas where German peasants and Jews coexisted in a non-hateful manner? In this paper, I examined peasant-Jewish relations in three distinct areas abutting the North Sea coast stretching from the Dutch border to Hamburg on the Elbe: East Friesland, Oldenburg and the Prussian administrative district of Stade. Each area had a distinct historical identity; advanced, profitable peasant farming establishments characterized each; inhabitants in each area accepted the presence of Jews as equal citizens under the law. The port city of Emden in East Friesland had the second highest population of Jews in the province of Hanover. Oldenburg was home to a vibrant Jewish spiritual life. In all three areas, Jews living dispersed in small towns were active as livestock traders and butchers. In the Stade area, a Hamburg banking house sent representatives into village pubs to sell a wide variety of investment instruments. Prior to 1890, peasant anti-Semitism could best be described as a diminishing, vestigial cultural/religious prejudice. The groundswell of political anti-Semitism that other German areas experienced in the 1880s was much less present along the North Sea coast. In fact, anti-racism was one of only three planks in the 1893 election manifesto of the politically dominant National Liberal party. In my talk, I discussed the few successes and many failures of political anti-Semitism in the three study areas, analysed the way that these experiences differed, and delineated the response of local Jewish communities to changing circumstances. My analysis of local elections revealed that the single member majority constituencies that existed under the Bismarckian constitution forced party/political anti-Semites into a broad coalition with agrarians and conservatives of many stripes. When this coalition put forward explicitly anti-Semitic candidates, it paid an average -20% penalty at the polls. The paper closed with some thoughts on what happened after 1914, i.e., how such a formerly friendly environment turned deadly.