The Road to Holocaust: Emancipation and Reaction

Hating the Jew was too much an integral part of western culture and tradition and was not to be exorcised.”

Background to future discussions: Until now the process of transmission of anti-Judaism and Judeophobia across the theological/rational boundary has been limited to the uncritical acceptance of past events and attitudes across generational boundaries. Let’s call this “tradition,” something familiar to all. It is instructive and cautionary to recognize that even so “radical” a break with the past as that represented by the Enlightenment had doubts regarding freedom for the Jews. But beginning in the 19th century the ambiguous place of Jews living in Christendom underwent abrupt and radical changes. So before turning to “emancipation and reaction,” the transformation of religious persecution to secular industrial murder, some grounding in the process involved between 19th century exclusion and 20th century extermination is necessary.


A cautionary note: I am neither well versed in science nor philosophy and am about to apply my creative ignorance to a book that discusses the philosophy of science.


In 1962 Stephen Kuhn published a small book in the philosophy of science that may have represented a case study for his own thesis. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions he argues that science is not simply the accumulation of facts, but a series of crises, points at which the paradigm representing those facts is inadequate to explain current “events (phenomena).” In physics, for example, Einstein represents such a “paradigm shift.” In the “human” sciences I suggest an imprecise but similar phenomenon exists which, in anthropology, is termed “cultural florescence.” The “abrupt” appearance of architecture and astronomy of the Mayans might represent such a “paradigm shift” as on a lesser scale the recently discussed Enlightenment. Since the 18th century developments in both science and technology have been rapid, radical and socially transformative (agrarian/urban). Social dislocation feeds insecurity which, in turn, seeks an outlet for anxiety. It is in response to these factors, fed by inherited and often unconscious prejudice that serves as background to all future discussions in this forum, represents the social mechanism for the West’s Final Solution, past and future.



As described earlier, Diderot and Voltaire demonstrated the ease with which antisemitism crossed from religious to secular society. While Enlightenment thinkers were ruthlessly critical of all areas of inherited thought and tradition, when it came to “the Jews” these “anti-Christianity” revolutionaries were content to accept traditional anti-Jewish stereotypes intact, even extend the “reason” implied in the Age of Reason to provide a “modern” face to the traditional hate.

Whatever prejudices the Philosophes carried forward in their writings, their application of reason to society brought about a revolution that birthed the secular nation-state. But nation-states were geographically home to national groups identifiable by a common language, culture and history. Where did the Jews fit?

According to Voltaire, et al, the Jews too were a “nation,” but their dispersion among the other nations identified them as “a nation apart.” For 1800 years despised, persecuted based on religion; in the brave new world of secularism Jewish exclusion found a new justification in the guise of “science.” And the threat to the Jews, previously dire, would grow far more dangerous.



An 1806 French print depicts Napoleon Bonaparte emancipating the Jews. (Wikipedia)


In his History of Anti-Semitism, Leon Poliakov quotes Napoleon,


“I do not intend to rescue that race, which seems to have been the only one excluded from redemption, from the curse with which it is smitten, but I would like to put it in a position where it is unable to propagate the evil,” (volume III, p.226).


Still, Napoleon’s commitment to French revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité meant extending the same to the Jews, which he did, but at a price: But that price, the “Napoleonic Bargain,” was little different from that of Martin Luther three hundred years earlier. For Luther the price of acceptance was that “the Jews” abandon their religion; To Napoleon the price was abandoning their identity.


In effect both demanded assimilation, that Jews abandon Judaism:


"Napoleon''s outward tolerance and fairness toward Jews was actually based upon his grand plan to have them disappear entirely by means of total assimilation, intermarriage, and conversion."

Napoleon heralded the process which would be called Emancipation; he promoted laws governing the inclusion of Jews as relative equals and citizens. But freeing the Jews from centuries of serfdom had many opponents supported by traditional cultural resistance. Even within revolutionary France many preferred an “exclusionary solution” to the problem of the Jews. According to Jacob Katz, “The possible expulsion of Jews from France had been mentioned in the National Assembly debate… as the unreasonable and unthinkable alternative to the obvious solution, the radical integration of the Jews into the newly created body politic,” (From Prejudice to Destruction, Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933, p. 109).

The Napoleonic conquests extended Jewish emancipation across a generally reluctant Europe. And following his defeat in 1814 emancipation was withdrawn as quickly as it had been imposed. Napoleon’s defeat also saw a return by many Jews to “‘son of’ names like Mendelssohn, Jacobson, Levinson, etc.” And perhaps this reversion to tradition throws another light on the need for security Jews unreflectively carry forward from a threatening history. Emancipation “égalité“ suffered a reversal after Napoleon but eventually, if haltingly, revived. In the 1830’s Greece, Canada and Sweden freed their Jews; Denmark in 1849, the United Kingdom in 1858 and Germany in 1871. The United States followed Germany in 1877.


Felix Mendelssohn monument, Leipzig Gewandhaus, photographed in 1900 (removed in 1936), Wikipedia

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy exemplifies German Jewry’s desire to assimilate. A convert to Lutheranism his grandfather, philosopher and trained Orthodox rabbi Moses Mendelssohn, is credited as the father of Haskalah, and he movement to adapt Judaism to modern society later called Reformism.


In his antisemitic diatribe “Das Judentum,” or Jewishness in Music, Richard Wagner, formerly friend and admirer of Mendelssohn’s music, turned on his former friend. Although Mendelssohn’s father converted before his birth Wagner decided that conversion, that “holy water does not wash away Judaism,”, attacked his former friend as an alien influence on real German music. According to The Causes and Effects of anti-Semitism, (Grosser and Halperin, 1978, pps. 208-9),

“Jewish success following their emancipation caused resentment on the part of many Christians… The scientific age and mindset gave anti-Semitism a new respectability. As religion lost ground to science, anti-Semitism became in part scientific. No longer based solely on religious belief, this new version of [Jew hatred] became respectable and acceptable to the modernist.”



The term “anti-Semitism” first appeared in the 1870’s. Coined by the journalist Wilhelm Marr it provided the old hate a scientific respectability. The term defined Jews outside the Christian community, classified Jewry according to rational theories of race and history.

“[F]or a time, during the first half of the century, it seemed that anti-Semitism would disappear as nations became more secular and the last vestiges of feudalism and privilege fell to political liberalism and scientific and economic progress. This optimism was mistaken. Hating the Jew was too much an integral part of western culture and tradition and was not to be exorcised,” (Grosser and Halperin, 1978, p. 207).


Very soon Jewish emancipation would inspire the rise of organized antisemitic movements, the emergence of political parties based on antisemitism, and the march towards the Holocaust would intensify.