Jews in Prewar Germany Jews have lived in Germany since the Middle Ages. And, as in much of Europe, they faced widespread persecution there for many centuries. It was not until the 19th century that Jews in Germany were given the same rights as Christian Germans. By 1933, when the Nazis came to power, Germany’s Jews were well integrated and even assimilated into German society. Despite their integration, Germany’s Jews still maintained a discernible identity and culture. 

In 1933, the Jewish population of Germany numbered about 525,000. This was less than one percent of the total German population at the time. 

Most Jews in Germany (about 400,000 people) held German citizenship. Many of these Jews came from families who had been in Germany for centuries. These families spoke German as their primary language. Most considered themselves German. In some cases, they had intermarried with non-Jews.

In addition, there were about 100,000 Jews without German citizenship. These were Jews whose families had immigrated to Germany over recent decades. Most had come from eastern Europe. Some of these Jews were also well integrated into German society. Others lived in distinct immigrant communities with their own traditions. Jews in these communities primarily spoke Yiddish, a language used among Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. 

While not all Jews in Germany had the same background, German Jews still had a lot in common with each other. Certain characteristics tended to define German-Jewish life. These set the Jewish population slightly apart from the rest of German society. 

What was Jewish life like in Germany right before the Nazis came to power? 

  • The majority of Jews (approximately 70%) lived in large cities with populations over 100,000. In comparison, about 50% of non-Jewish Germans lived in towns with fewer than 10,000 people. Nonetheless, some Jews did live in smaller towns and rural areas. 
  • Many Jews rarely or never attended a synagogue. But, most continued to celebrate Jewish holidays. A minority of Jews in Germany strictly observed Jewish religious practices. 
  • Some Jews were poor, while most Jews were middle class. Many worked in or owned small businesses. Jews also worked as tailors, civil servants, doctors, lawyers, journalists, bank clerks, factory workers, professors, and teachers. A few were wealthy business owners.
  • Many Jews saw themselves as a religious group. They were Germans who practiced Judaism. Others saw themselves as an ethnic group. They were Jews who lived in Germany. 

Despite being integrated into German society, Jews faced discrimination in Germany. For example, not all Germans believed that Jews could be German. Some groups, including many university student clubs, banned Jews from membership. Some political parties, including the Nazi Party, were openly anti-Jewish. Negative stereotypes of Jews appeared in the press. 

Key Dates

Jewish Emancipation

By the time Germany is unified as a nation in 1871, Jews living throughout Germany gain full rights of citizenship. This is called Jewish Emancipation. For Jews in Germany, this means that they become equal citizens before the law. For example, there are no more legal restrictions on where Jews can live and what jobs they can hold. Jewish emancipation is part of a broader set of changes to political life and society across Europe. In the 19th century, more and more Europeans embrace freedom of religion and other rights. This leads to a new, more inclusive, understanding of what it means to be a citizen. Despite their new legal equality, Jews still face prejudice and discrimination across Europe. 

Jews Fight in World War I 

In the summer of 1914, Germany enters World War I. At least 100,000 German-Jewish soldiers serve in this war. The majority of these Jews fight on the front lines. By the end of the war, 12,000 of them lose their lives. 

Despite this, some Germans claim that Jews are cowards. They falsely claim that Jews are neglecting their military duty. When Germany loses World War I in November 1918, many Germans are shocked. Some refuse to believe that Germany has really lost the war. Instead, they believe a conspiracy theory. People who accept this theory claim that Germany had not been militarily defeated. Instead, they insist that Germany had been betrayed by internal enemies, including Jews. They refer to this theory as the “stab-in-the-back.” Like other negative stereotypes about Jews, the stab-in-the-back myth is entirely untrue.

Albert Einstein Receives Nobel Prize 

German Jewish physicist Albert Einstein is awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics. He officially receives the award in 1922. Einstein is just one of many successful German Jewish scientists. Others include Richard Martin Willstätter, who wins the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1915, and James Franck, who wins the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1925.