The History of Antisemitism Part 3: From Enlightenment to Holocaust





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by J van Rooyen

During this period the Jews were targeted as being a race of conspirators and for these new reasons, were again made the scapegoat of society. Jews were not sought out for individual crimes as any other criminal would be but for the ‘crime of being Jewish’. It said to the Jew, ‘You have no right to live’.

by J van Rooyen

The following article has been adapted from Luana Fabry’s website in Australia

Medieval Jewish history ended in England in 1290, in France in 1394 and in Spain in 1492, with the expulsions of the Jews from these countries. Modern Jewish history began with Jews being readmitted in the West in the 17th century and in the East in the 18th century as the first waves of the ‘Enlightenment” breached the walls of the ghetto. As modern man sought to free itself of the old chains of monarchy, Church, feudalism and despair, the Jews emerged from the ghetto already free. The medieval period was not a useless experience in the history of the Jews – it had educated them for the Modern Age. Because the Jews were not part of the feudal system, they were not tied to institutions. The Jews became cosmopolitan in their lives, speaking the languages of the world and appreciating its cultures. They were educated outsiders, viewing societies objectively and thus assessing their weaknesses and strengths.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement which originated in 18th century France. It challenged the basic belief system which claimed that knowledge derived from religion and faith, and instead emphasised that knowledge should be the product of rational and provable observations made by individuals. This had huge implications in the areas of politics, religion and science. With the dawning of this Enlightenment, the goal of  European Jews became that of  achieving emancipation.’

With the 1789 slogan of “Liberte, Egalite, Fratenite” echoing throughout France, the question soon arose:  “Did the promise of the Declaration of the Rights of Man that all men are born, and remain, free and equal in rights…”, apply to the Jews? Although many revolutionaries argued that it could not, emancipation was finally granted.1

And so, Jews in France, for the first time, could become true Frenchmen. But this required them to give up on any vestiges of a Jewish national identity. Henceforth, Judaism was to be a religion alone, and Am Yisrael, (the Jewish people) would need to be redefined as a solely religious community of believers. The Jews agreed that they were primarily to be accepted as citizens of their countries and that religious observance was to be viewed as a private concern which did not spill over into all areas of life, but was to be restricted to the home and the synagogue. For centuries, Jews had been restricted to living in ghettos, but now the isolated Jew could be brought into harmonious relationship with his non-Jewish neighbours.

Jewish emancipation would not be confined to France. It reached most of Central Europe in the wake of Napoleanic conquests, and even though many German and Austrian principalities revoked the emancipatory decrees after Napoleon was defeated, (thus returning their Jews to the life of the ghetto), eventually Jews were to be emancipated all over Western and Central Europe in die 19th century.

The effects of emancipation on the Jews was enormous. Jews flocked to the universities, quickly becoming highly represented not only in the student bodies, but also in the faculties. Jews distinguished themselves as actors, artists, composers, musicians and writers. Unfortunately, to achieve full emancipation, the Jew had to purge his Jewish way of life and its mediaeval obscurities and westernise his religion and customs. Only then would the barriers between Jew and Gentile disappear.  Many Jews became so enthusiastic with the idea of becoming like the goyim (non-Jews), that they were ready to go all the way and become complete Goyim. As Heinrich Heine put it: “Baptism was the entrance ticket to European civilisation”.2  Since a ‘converted’ Jew could reach practically any position he aspired to, many Jews went from the ghetto to the baptismal font.

But the greater proportion of the German Jews, who numbered over 400,000, stood by Judaism, whether orthodox or, more numerously, reform. In the years between 1871 and 1933, they threw themselves heart and soul into the task of building up the Empire, which they thought had finally accepted them as its loyal sons and daughters.3  It is in this environment that the seeds of change in Jewish life begin to sprout. The best example of this involvement in German national life, lies in the life and thought of an important Jewish figure who has come to symbolise the Jewish world in transition: Moses Mendelsohn, the founder of Reform Judaism. Mendelsohn saw his task as providing the philosophic rationale whereby Jews could become full citizens of the countries in which they lives, and full participants in the general societal and cultural life of those countries, while still remaining faithful to the divinely revealed legislation of Torah. Moses Mendelsohn came to be as the first ‘modern Jew’.

The unemancipated Jews of Eastern Europe, created a culture known as the ‘Haskala’ (Jewish Enlightenment or understanding).4  The Haskala identified with Jewish values but did not produce scientists, musicians or writers. However, the Haskala produced a humanistic literature in Hebrew and Jewish values with which the Eastern European Jews could identify. The Haskala produced the great Yeshivot of Poland and developed particularly among Polish Jews a unique culture like nowhere else in the world. This Eastern Jewish humanism was far more important for Jewish survival as there were not lines of Jews standing at the baptismal fonts in Russian and Polish Churches.

Regardless of how ‘enlightened’ and ‘emancipated’ Jews became, ultimately they remained Jews. Eventually, the Jew was seen as the enemy of the modern secular state. Because societies’ mistrust of the Jew was so deep-rooted, not being able to distinguish the Jew from anyone else became a problem. The new ideologies of the enlightenment and the ‘right to be the same’ were short lived and once again the Jews became the ‘other in our midst’. Soon the Jews were living on the margins of society again. Though as citizens the Jews were to receive full rights, as Jews they counted for nothing. The speed and intensity of the transition from ghetto to emancipation and the way in which the Jews excelled given these new opportunities, created a new wave of Judeophobia.

The Jew hatred of the Middle Ages was refurbished and set on a new path. The anti-Semitism of the  modern era was not so much religious in nature as it had been in the Middle Ages, but became racial and biological. It was a new phenomenon (or an old one with a new face) which was based on ‘scientific theories of race’ and it changed the course of Jewish history. The Jew of the Middle Ages was depicted as stupid and abhorrent. Modern Anti-semitism portrayed the Jew as having superior intellect and a great capacity to excel. He was diabolical and cunning. The Jews were targeted as being a race of conspirators and for these new reasons, were again made the scapegoat of society. Jews were not sought out for individual crimes as any other criminal would be but for the ‘crime of being Jewish’.  This meant total rejection of the Jew and therefore assimilation would never be possible. Judah Pinsker, a Haskala intellectual, stated that this Anti-semitism was ‘a psychological disease.’5

In the second half of the 19th century, modern Anti-semitism reared up its ugly head of hatred and fear. In the spring and summer of 1881, large anti-Jewish riots,  known as pogroms sprung out in many locations throughout the Ukraine and southern Russia. These were based on the theory that there was an ‘international Jewish conspiracy’ against Russia. While these appeared to be ‘spontaneous’ popular outbreaks, in fact many of them were organised by the Tsarist government itself. Alexander III was heavily influenced by his ‘right hand man’, the Procurator of the Holy Synod (the chief lay official of the Orthodox Church in Russia) and a notorious anti-Semite. Tales were spread against the Jews by the Greek Orthodox Church, accusing them of being crucifiers of Christ and users of human blood.6

In the 1881 pogroms, several hundred Jews were murdered and tens of thousands saw their property destroyed. Although there were floods of protest from many parts of the civilised world, the Russian government replied that the pogroms were the spontaneous expression of the population’s protest against the exploitation by the Jews.7

In 1901, the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion were published by Sergius Nilus. These were supposed to be a document which revealed a Zionist conspiracy to rule the world. The impact of the publication of these protocols went as far as America. In Henry Ford’s paper concerning he ‘protocols’ and the ‘Jewish Question’, he wrote:

Whether you go to Rumania, Russia, Austria or Germany, or anywhere else that the Jewish question has come to the forefront as a vital issue, you will discover that the principal cause is the outworking of the Jewish genius to achieve the power to control…

There is no other racial nor national type which puts forth this kind of person (the International Jew). It is not merely that there are a few Jews among international financial controllers: it is that these world controllers are exclusively Jews.

How does the Jew so habitually and so restlessly gravitate to the highest places? What puts him there?  Why is he put there? What does he do there? What does the fact of his being there mean to the world? 8

That is the Jewish question in its origin. Considering that the Jewish people had not long been out of the ghetto after centuries of persecution and slaughter, one would wonder how and when these Jews found the time to become ‘International Controllers.?

In Germany, a number of important German intellectuals, such as Hermann von Treitschke, Wilhelm Marr and the great German composer, Richard Wagner (with whom Hitler was obsessed), began to write of the conspiracy of the Jews to take over German political, economic, social and cultural life. The movement was not religious in nature, rather, it spoke of the Jews as a racial threat. The Jews were supposedly among the lowest representatives of the ‘Semitic race’, while the Germans were the purest manifestations of the ‘Aryan race’.9  It was the mission of the Jews, supposedly, to corrupt the Aryan race. Since their complaint was not with Jewish religion per se, the term ‘Anti-semitism’ was coined rather than ‘anti-Judaism’. This term was first coined by Wilhelm Marr.

With the rise of Nazism in Germany, the Jews of Germany were shocked, as were Jews everywhere. After  so many years of living under relatively peaceful and prosperous conditions, they found it hard to believe that their position and lifestyle could be threatened. The Jews did not see themselves as a separate national minority within the countries in which they lived. They claimed to differ from other citizens only in respect of their religion. Their desire was always for the same full and equal rights as the rest of the populations. They felt they were an integral part of each country in terms of nationality. In Germany nearly two- thirds of the 500,000 Jews were engaged in trade and commerce; one quarter worked in industry and about one-eight were in public service professions, mainly law and medicine. The Jews of Germany had deep ties to the Fatherland. They had lived there for centuries.

Due to the economic depression, social antagonisms, and inferior status of Jews that already existed in Eastern Europe, Anti-semitism was much more apparent. In German occupied Poland, where unemployment was a major problem, it was claimed that the Jews were a foreign element in the population who occupied positions that by right, belonged to the majority population. So when in 1940, the Hitler solution decreed that all the Jews in Germany or German-occupied territory were to be left to die of starvation or disease, the majority of Poles didn’t bat an eyelid.

Hitler’s Anti-semitism did not operate in a vacuum. Neither did the response of the German people. Hitler simply made the most of an already existing anti-Jewish theology which had been deeply rooted in the people of Europe for sixteen centuries. This theology had become the norm for most Christian societies (whether they realised it or not), which during the Nazi regime produced in them practically no objections at all.

In Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners – ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, he sets out to show that Hitler did not create German hatred toward Jews, but merely marshalled the existing hatred. German hatred of Jews were centuries old when Hitler came to power, especially after World War I, when the Jews were vilified as the personification of evil, the agent of the devil, the enemy of the people and the ruination of the beloved Fatherland. Goldhagen says:

For hundreds of years, Anti-semitism had lent coherence and esteem to the self-image of the the Christian world;  as many of the old certitudes about the world eroded in 19th century Germany, the centrality of Anti-semitism as a model of cultural coherence and eventually as a political ideology, grew tremendously.10

Just as the Jews of the Middle Ages were always an alien body within Christendom, representing everything that was awry, so the Jews of Germany were an alien body, representing everything awry in society, and that they were intentionally so. For sixteen centuries, the same slogan was preached that was now shouted from every rooftop in Germany: ‘Jews are our misfortune’.12

As Goldhagen points out, the Holocaust was not just a few SS men following orders for fear of what would happen if they disobeyed, or the result of peer pressure to conform, but that it was the work of ‘perfectly ordinary’ Germans from all walks of life. How is it possible that in civilised, Christian Europe, only fifty years ago, tens of thousands of Jews were shot in the neck by German policemen who apparently came from respectable social backgrounds and were family men?  How did they lead whimpering twelve year olds and sobbing elderly women from their villages in eastern Poland into the surrounding forests and murdered them on by one before tossing them into makeshift mass graves? Somehow, these ordinary people had concluded ‘that the Jews ought to die’. Their execution, therefore, was considered lawful.13

The evidence that so many ordinary people did accept the absurd beliefs about Jews that Hitler articulated in Mein Kampf is overwhelming. The acceptance of these beliefs made ordinary people become willing executioners. But was Mein Kampf any different to Martin Luther’s The Jews and their Lies?  Or the sermons of Chrysostom? Was Eichman simply obeying orders any differently than the Inquisitor Torquemada of Spain in the 15th century? Was the brutality of Hitler’s henchmen and willing executioners any more brutal than those who carried out the orders of the Roman Church in the Middle Ages, where Jews were murdered because of the same accusations but with a different motivation?  And finally, why did the Church speak out when Hitler was ridding the Aryan race of the physically and mentally disable, but not when he began exterminating the Jews?

With the spread of Christianity, anti-Semitism became embedded into Western culture and became a cultural phenomena. The events of the Holocaust have many parallels in the Christian Church. In the early 4th century the Church began to ‘protect’ themselves from the Jews. They imposed laws that prevented Jews from ‘contaminating’ the life and faith of true believers.14  The Nazis imposed similar restrictions by forbidding non-Jews from shopping in stores owned by a Jew. In the 7th century the Church ordered the Talmud to be burned; the Nazis held public burnings of all literature by Jewish authors.15  The Church disqualified the Jews from holding public office16; the Nazis did the same.  Until 1870 much of Europe had ghettos designed to shut the Jews away from humanity for centuries17;  the Nazi did the same. In fact, every restriction imposed upon the Jews by the Nazis, short of the monstrous ‘final solution’ had an earlier counterpart in the decrees of the Roman-based Church. As late as 1941, Archbishop Grober, in a pastoral letter filled with anti-Semitic utterances, blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus, saying that the Holocaust was the “self-imposed curse of the Jews – ‘His blood be upon us and our children’ – has come true today.” (Jerusalem Post, International Edition, December 5, 1992)

Even though the Church had never before suggested killing of the Jews, the Nazi ‘final solution’ was a logical extension of the thought of those Church Fathers and the Councils who declared God was finished with the Jews. The seeds of sixteen centuries of theological anti-Semitism would no doubt continue to produce fruit. And fruit of the worst kind I did produce, with the lawful and willing slaughter of six million Jews just fifty years ago.

Regardless of emancipation and Jewish patriotism, and despite the overwhelming contributions Jewish people made to the modern world, for as long as society continued to define the Jew as the ‘other in our midst’ and for as long as there was a ‘Jewish Question’, in due time anti-Semitism’s third characteristic was defined in full fury, in what has come to be known as the tremendum: it said to the Jew, ‘You have not right to live’.


1.   Dimont, M.  Jews, God and History. Penguin, New York 1962.  p. 303
2.   Heinrich Heine as quoted by Wafter Laquer:  A History of Zionism. London 1972  p 9
3.   Addleson, A. Israel – The Epic of a People. Howard Trimmins, Cape Town, 1972 p 251
4.   Grayzel,Z.  A History of the Jews. Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1963. p 206-207
5.   Judah Leo Pinsker, quoted by D. Goldberg & J. Rayner in The Jewish People, Their History &  Their Religion UK 1987, p 165
6.   Addleson, A. op. cit., p 255-256
7.   Grayzel,Z.  op. cit. p 638-639
8.   Ford Henry, The Dearborn Independent: a selection of the articles of 1920-22, as published in the book titled The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, Part 1:  The Jewish Question, 1934, p. 7-11
9.   Addleson, A. op. cit.,  p. 293
10.  Goldhagen, D. Hitler’s Willing Executioners – Ordinary Germans & the Holocaust. Little, Brown & Co., London, 19967, p. 54
11.  Ibid. p. 55
12.  Ibid. p. 428
13.  Ibid. p. 388
14.  Glock, C.  Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism. Harper & Row. New York 1966. p 148     
15.  Stadtler B. The  Holocaust – A History of Courage and Resistance. Behrman House, New York. 1973. P 20.
16.  Glock, C. op.cit., p. 148
17.  Ibid.