Antisemitism is a starting place for trying to understand the tragedy that would befall countless numbers of people during the Holocaust.
Throughout history Jews have faced prejudice and discrimination, known as antisemitism. Driven nearly two thousand years ago by the Romans from the land now called Israel, they spread throughout the globe and tried to retain their unique beliefs and culture while living as a minority. In some countries Jews were welcomed, and they enjoyed long periods of peace with their neighbors. In European societies where the population was primarily Christian, Jews found themselves increasingly isolated as outsiders. Jews do not share the Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God, and many Christians considered this refusal to accept Jesus' divinity as arrogant. For centuries the Church taught that Jews were responsible for Jesus' death, not recognizing, as most historians do today, that Jesus was executed by the Roman government because officials viewed him as a political threat to their rule. Added to religious conflicts were economic ones. Rulers placed restrictions on Jews, barring them from holding certain jobs and from owning land.
At the same time, since the early Church did not permit usury (lending money at interest), Jews came to fill the vital (but unpopular) role of moneylenders for the Christian majority. In more desperate times, Jews became scapegoats for many problems people suffered. For example, they were blamed for causing the "Black Death," the plague that killed thousands of people throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. In Spain in the 1400s, Jews were forced to convert to Christianity, leave the country, or be executed. In Russia and Poland in the late 1800s the government organized or did not prevent violent attacks on Jewish neighborhoods, called pogroms, in which mobs murdered Jews and looted their homes and stores.
As ideas of political equality and freedom spread in western Europe during the 1800s, Jews became almost equal citizens under the law. At the same time, however, new forms of antisemitism emerged. European leaders who wanted to establish colonies in Africa and Asia argued that whites were superior to other races and therefore had to spread and take over the "weaker" and "less civilized" races. Some writers applied this argument to Jews, too, mistakenly defining Jews as a race of people called Semites who shared common blood and physical features.
This kind of racial antisemitism meant that Jews remained Jews by race even if they converted to Christianity. Some politicians began using the idea of racial superiority in their campaigns as a way to get votes. Karl Lueger (1844-1910) was one such politician. He became Mayor of Vienna, Austria, at the end of the century through the use of antisemitism -- he appealed to voters by blaming Jews for bad economic times. Lueger was a hero to a young man named Adolf Hitler, who was born in Austria in 1889. Hitler's ideas, including his views of Jews, were shaped during the years he lived in Vienna, where he studied Lueger's tactics and the antisemitic newspapers and pamphlets that multiplied during Lueger's long rule.
A concocted Jewish conspiracy
In France, a member of the Russian secret police concocts the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols promote claims that there exists a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. These forged documents are presented as the minutes of a supposed meeting of world Jewish leaders in which they finalized plans to dominate the world, and suggest that Jews have formed secret organizations and agencies through which they aim to control and manipulate political parties, the economy, the press, and public opinion. The Protocols are published in countries throughout the world, including the United States, and used by antisemites to reinforce claims of a Jewish conspiracy. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Protocols are used to gain support for Nazi party antisemitic ideology and policies.
Dreyfus Affair divides France
Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, is arrested and falsely accused of handing over to Germany documents involving the national defense of France. After a summary trial before a military court, Dreyfus is found guilty of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island, located off the coast of French Guiana. This case divides the French nation into two opposing groups: those who insist that Dreyfus is guilty (conservatives, nationalists, and antisemitic groups), and those who insist that Dreyfus should receive a fair trial (liberals and intellectuals). In 1899, Dreyfus receives a new trial, but is again found guilty by a military court. However, the president of the French Republic intervenes, granting him a pardon. Shortly before World War I, Dreyfus is fully vindicated by a civilian court. The controversy surrounding the Dreyfus affair reflects latent antisemitism in the French officer corps and other conservative French groups.
Karl Lueger, antisemitic mayor of Vienna
Karl Lueger is elected mayor of Vienna. He holds this position for 13 years, until his death in 1910. Lueger, co-founder of the Christian Socialist party, uses economic antisemitism to gain support from the small businessmen and artisans who are suffering after the surge of capitalism during the industrial revolution in Austria. He claims that Jews have a monopoly on capitalism and that they thus compete unfairly in the economic arena. This form of antisemitism is used by other right-wing parties in Austria and Germany in the early twentieth century as a means to broaden their popular appeal. Adolf Hitler, a resident of Vienna during Lueger's mayoral reign, is greatly influenced both by Lueger's antisemitism and by his ability to rally public support. Lueger's ideas are reflected in the Nazi party platform in 1920s Germany.
Series: Jews in Prewar Germany
Critical Thinking Questions
- Jews were less than 1 percent of the population in Germany in 1933. How and why was antisemitism so important to the Nazi platform and its eventual success?
- How can deep-seated hatreds be countered?