To what extent can the anti-Semitism common in fin-de-siècle Continental Europe be regarded as a vehicle of social and political protest?

Although by the late nineteenth century most European countries had emancipated their Jews, legal equality did not convert into social equality. Despite religious anti-Judaism being prevalent since as early as the Middle Ages, the growth of anti-Semitism in fin-de-siècle Continental Europe occurred largely as a vehicle for social and political protest climaxing in the close to mid-twentieth century holocaust. The speed at which the world was changing in the nineteenth century was frightening and unnerving leading many people to seek an easy scapegoat; the obvious choice being history’s most infamous culprit, the Jewish. Anti-Semitism grew as a way to find blame for the negative impact of industrialisation and economic changes as well as liberalism and, most inexcusably, anti-Semitism was caused by the development of the ‘science’ of race and Jewish eviction from the new national groups. Coined by Wilhelm Marr in 1879, the term was used to provide a technical and more modern sound to the movement in order to attract an intellectual following and attempt to avoid allegations of medievalism.

One of the key ways that anti-Semitism took form as a vehicle for protest is economically. Historically, countries were founded in the countryside with agriculture being fundamental; basing their economy on fairly stable primary sector and occasionally secondary sector resources allowed for each person within that economy to find some sort of role in the land – these sectors being significantly labour intensive. However, the process of industrialisation meant that work was intensified and condensed with the development of factory machinery and reliance on increasingly industrialised work meaning that there was less and less work to be had. Capitalism had a great impact on traditional peasant towns and in Germany, the financial crash of 1873 launched a new era of anti-Semitism due to a latent resentment of economic commercialisation. Although the Jewish population of Germany was minute, their contribution to the German economy was significant as they tended to hold commercial roles in society such as retail traders. Many critics of modernity thrived on anti-Semitism because it gave them a focus. It has been extensively studied that the outbreak of intolerance in history against weaker groups is prominent mostly when internal problems become overwhelming requiring failing political figures to seek to place the blame elsewhere.[1] In this way, anti-Semitism is being used as a means for protest because there is an overflow of political anxiety that needs a way to demonstrate itself and break through to the surface of government address; often the only way to quickly gain media or government attention is by significant radicalisation of a cause, in this case by finding a scapegoat. Another example of such radicalisation, from a similar time, is the case of Emily Davison fighting for women’s suffrage by throwing herself beneath the King’s horse – an act which ultimately resulted in her death. Additionally, it is believed that economic anti-Semitism stems from an underlying religious intolerance. With Jews holding a stereotype of profiteering wage-earners, they are automatically seen as impure by defiling religion with trade, from a Christian viewpoint.[2] It is argued that this focus on ‘sordid trade’[3] may be the origin of European tendency to blame the Jewish community for financial depressions. Despite relaxing Christian ideologies, this continued abuse of stereotype leads us to believe that anti-Semitism is simply a means to an end, allowing medieval principles to lead the way to modern political stabilisation.

However, the use of anti-Semitism extends further than economic protest. At a much more basic level it can be seen as a way to voice social protest following the industrialisation of the economy. The process of the industrial revolution caused social conditions to deteriorate exponentially; crowded conditions exacerbated prevalent diseases and illnesses whilst poverty meant that food was scarce and working conditions were of a lesser concern, this contributed to the plummeting life expectancy significantly. Adolf Stoecker is discussed as being troubled by the ‘socially destructive impact of industrialisation in Germany’, believing that the only negative effects of the industrial revolution stem from Jewish participation.[4] In believing this, Stoecker insists that the only way to rid ourselves of such negative effects is to rid ourselves of the Jews. Evidently, here Stoecker insists that his anti-Semitism lies with the consequences of embracing the Jewish people into society as opposed to Jews as a people and in this way he is using the movement as a form of social protest. Albert Lindemann quotes Stoecker saying that ‘The social question is the Jewish question’, because he truly believed that it was the emancipation of the Jews and their new key role in society’s public and economic roles that was causing such social devastation.[5]

Furthermore, the coinciding of the emancipation of the Jewish people and the fast social dislocation of Europe led to a new type of political anti-Semitism. Increased Jewish equality meant that their complete integration into society was inevitable, creating resentment from those groups who felt alienated by the rapidly changing society of late nineteenth century Europe. Judaism became evident among the politically active, largely in liberal, radical and Marxist groups.[6] Subsequently, the inevitable reactionary groups broke out and although wholly anti-Semitic political parties did not make it into the twentieth century, by this point anti-Semitism had permeated politics. Particularly in Russia, the poverty of Jews forced them into revolutionary politics; as a result, they received the blame for political radicalism and revolutionary liberal movements from conservatives. 1881 saw the rise of Jewish pogroms in Russia following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, for which the Jews were held responsible. This represented a turning point for Russian Jewry as they moved westward as a result of the state-implemented programme of discrimination which aimed to remove Jews from Russian society.[7] Protests against the presence of Jews in economic and public society may have been representative more of a disapproval of the changes in these areas that conservatives were increasingly uncomfortable with; this would make anti-Semitism a vehicle for protest by utilising the Jews once again as a scapegoat as opposed to addressing the fundamental issues that these concerns stem from. If this is true, then perhaps if it were not for such rapid industrialisation and societal change in the late nineteenth century, then the Russians may have been content with continuing their lives at a level of equilibrium. Disruption of this equilibrium is what caused a need for frustrations to find a direction.  Similarly, pogroms of 1917 to 1921 were connected with the disruptions of the Eastern Europe civil war. To draw connections with older revolutions would further support the cause; the internal revolts of the 1789 French revolution were, if not caused by, exacerbated by the fragile state of the national unity given the external issues and contemporary economic traumas. This is not to say that the anti-Semitic revolts were not without other cause or meaning, but that they were used largely as a catalyst to explore the deeper issues of social and political protest at the time.

Much like the internal revolts of the French revolution of the late eighteenth century, it would be foolish to suggest that anti-Semitic protest was used wholly as a means of fighting other issues; similarly, they had unique causes. Anti-Semitism was coined as a pseudoscientific term and as such led to gaining a pseudoscientific backing with the development of racial theorising and social Darwinism. The growth of biology, psychology and a greater knowledge of human genetics added to the establishing of a racial hierarchy with the ‘white’ race reigning supreme. Houston Stewart Chamberlain, in particular, viewed the history of Western civilisation as a struggle between the races in which the Jews were overwhelmingly regarded as a mongrel race – a genetic mistake best erased from human history.[8] Belief in the idea that the human race was not one but divided into many that were genetically determined to compete against each other in order to discover a master race has never been scientifically authenticated even to this day.[9] However, this belief that Jews were innately different gave meaning to anti-Semitism. With this racial theorising, came a more sinister anti-Semitic stance that had a darker tone, one that was fundamentally more destructive than using the Jewish people as scapegoats. If there was a definite confidence in a group of radical anti-Semites that Jewish blood was a pollutant, intent on ruining the purity of the Aryan bloodline, which there was, it posed a greater threat of racial annihilation rather than simple seclusion. In this way, anti-Semitism is not just a way of voicing social and political protest to the world; it is a wholly negative and destructive force that is unjustly exclusionary for the purpose of amplifying one’s vanity and self-importance. Racial anti-Semitic movements were much more threatening because they were unforgiving, not allowing Jews any chance of religious redemption via conversion because it is their blood that is the betrayal, not their faith.

To conclude then, anti-Semitism in fin-de-siècle Continental Europe truly was used as a vehicle for political and social protest due to the conditions of the time. The dramatic change in economic environment caused by the rapid onset of the industrial revolution and urbanisation process caused great distress amongst conservative parties leading them to attempt to find a scapegoat that would grant them some focus for blame. It was also the worsening of social conditions in a time of technological development that promised better living conditions and the process of immense human suffering in between times that meant many working class individuals needed a radical alignment to vent their frustrations of the ‘new’ world. Finally, it was the integration of Jews politically and socially after hundreds of years of seclusion that caused uproar and political protest against a changing world. However, it must be taken into consideration that, though the extent to which anti-Semitism was used as a voice for public protest is great, anti-Semitism also developed in a dark and sinister world of its own. The turn of the century brought pseudoscientific developments which enabled people to protest against an enlightened life and against religious and racial freedom, arguably as some form of escapism from the daunting actuality of early twentieth century politics and life. So, it must be known that whilst secular anti-Semitism has grown as a means of targeting a weaker group as a form of accepting change, some forms of religious and racial anti-Judaism dominate the movement. It is the latter that was ultimately the beginnings of Nazi anti-Semitism and the attempt to cleanse the European bloodline for good.

[1] J. Gibson and M. Howard, ‘Russian Anti-Semitism and the Scapegoating of the Jews’,  (2007), <http://www18.georgetown.edu/data/people/mmh/publication-7909.pdf&gt; [accessed 30 October 2013]

[2] M. Perry and F. Schweitzer, Anti-Semitism: Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 119-120

[3] Ibid.

[4] A. Lindemann, Anti-semitism Before the Holocaust, (Edinburgh: Pearson Education Limited, 2000) p.62

[5] Ibid.

[6] ‘Antisemitism in History: The Era of Nationalism 1800 – 1918’, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2013),  < http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007173&gt; [accessed 31 October 2013]

[7] ‘Pogroms’, Jewish Virtual Library (2008), <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0016_0_15895.html&gt; [accessed 31 October 2013]

[8] ‘Houston Stewart Chamberlain’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/104926/Houston-Stewart-Chamberlain&gt; [accessed 31 October 2013]

[9] ‘Antisemitism in History: Racial Antisemitism, 1875 – 1945’, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, <http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007171>  [accessed 31 October 2013]

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