Golhagen Willing Executioners, cover

The Nature of Antisemitism in Nineteenth Century Germany

by Aubrey Louise Boag
December 11, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
19th Century Germany
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2006

Prof. Marcuse's homepage
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Lindemann, Antisemitism, cover

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning
Lindemann $10
at amazon

About Aubrey Boag

I am a senior History major who has been studying modern European history, mainly Germany , during twentieth century. After I receive my B.A. in history this spring, I hope to continue my education and attend graduate school at UCSD in fall 2007. The reason I chose to write a research paper on the nature of antisemitism in nineteenth century Germany is because I am interested in the origins of antisemitism and the role it may, or may not, have played in German history.
(See also my April 2007 research paper on Jewish Emigration out of Nazi Germany.)

Abstract (back to top)

This essay is more of a research paper than a book review. I focus on a popular debate between historians, present both sides of the argument, and then choose which case better represented the argument. The debate I chose was over the nature of antisemitism in nineteenth century Germany and how, if at all, it was unique. Essentially, there are two chief responses offered by scholars in regard to the nature of German antisemitism. Daniel J. Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners argues that the idea that German antisemitism was unique, while Albert S. Lindemann’s Esau’s Tears and Antisemitism before the Holocaust refute the special nature of antisemitism in Germany . Goldhagen argues that in the nineteenth century Germany developed a virulent and violent “eliminationist” variant of antisemitism, which called for the elimination of Jews and their influence from German society. Lindemann argues that German antisemitism was similar to antisemitism in other European nations, asserting that hatred of the Jewish population was widespread throughout the continent, not just in Germany . This paper illustrates that answering the question of just how unique, if at all, German antisemitism was during the nineteenth century is a complex and daunting task, so much so that a black or white answer is not possible.

Essay (back to top)

Answering the question of how special, if at all, German antisemitism was in the nineteenth century is a complex and daunting task. Essentially, there are two chief responses offered by scholars in regard to the nature of German antisemitism. The first argues that German antisemitism in the nineteenth century was unique, stating this was the century that Germany was developing a virulent and violent "eliminationist" variant of antisemitism, which called for the elimination of Jews and their influence from German Society. The second argues that German antisemitism was similar to antisemitism in other European nations, asserting that hatred of the Jewish population was widespread throughout the continent, not just in Germany. Each of the opposing positions offers valuable evidence and insight in regard to the "special" nature of German antisemitism. However, as mentioned before, the question of just how unique, if at all, German antisemitism was in the nineteenth century is complex, so much so, that a black or white answer would never do.

Daniel J. Goldhagen is a historian who understands the intricate nature of this question, and although there are some strong arguments against his perception of German antisemitism, he does an excellent job of justly addressing the subject. Goldhagen’s main points are first, that antisemitism was extremely widespread in all social classes and sectors of Germany, and second, that it was deeply embedded in German culture, politics, and conversation, as well as woven into the moral structure of society. However, before one begins to look at the nature of antisemitism, there are a few concepts that need to be explained.

In his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners Daniel Goldhagen addresses these concepts, stating that there are "three important dimensions which must be understood and considered" before one can properly discuss antisemitism: The first captures the type of antisemitism - that is, the antisemites’ understanding of the source of the Jews’ malicious qualities, the second dimension is a latent-manifest one that simply measures how preoccupied an antisemite is with Jews, and the third dimension, which is the level or intensity of the antisemitism, is a continuum which represents the putative perniciousness of the Jews (Goldhagen, 35, 36). Any study of antisemitism needs to specify where the antisemitism falls on each of the dimensions in order to receive an answer that is representative of the truth. While this dimensional analysis can helpfully characterize all types of antisemitisms, an important distinction among antisemitisms overlays and qualifies this general scheme (Goldhagen, 37). According to one essential difference, all antisemitisms can be divided into two separate parts. The major difference between antisemitisms is that some become embedded into the moral order of society, and others do not. (Goldhagen, 37) With this in mind, Goldhagen argues that German antisemitism was unique in that it was woven into the moral order of German society in such a ubiquitous and powerful manner that it resulted in an eliminationist antisemitism, previously unknown among nineteenth century European antisemitism. According to him, the eliminationist mindset touched every aspect of German society, and was deeply embedded in German culture, politics, and conversation.

German antisemitism was ubiquitous throughout Germany during the nineteenth in the opinions of some. Scholars such as Goldhagen note that from "the university fraternities, to their adult analogues, the patriotic societies, to the economic associations of small businessmen and artisans, to the loci of social life, the hostelers and taverns, antisemitism formed part of the framework of social perception and discussion, and more, for it was actively preached and spread" (Goldhagen, 60). Tied together by one common feeling, disdain for Jews, Germans united across classes. The various groups and institutions dedicated to spreading antisemitism in the nineteenth century touch virtually every aspect of German culture (Goldhagen, 59). Antisemitic feelings among the populations of the countryside were kept aroused by the church and members of artisan guilds who wanted stifle Jewish acceptance throughout society. Goldhagen believes this simmering hatred of the first half of the nineteenth century was a cultural norm that was put into social expression merely as a matter of routine. Later, in the second half of the nineteenth century, he states, these groups organized into a powerful political force. Popular German culture, politics, and conversation, were the agents, Goldhagen argues, which were used to spread antisemitism throughout society in Germany during the nineteenth century.

In the nineteenth century a transformation took place in German culture which changed the way Germans interpreted the source of Jewish perniciousness. German antisemitism started to metamorphose from its medieval religious incarnation of antisemitism to its modernized racial antisemitism (Goldhagen, 53). The major shift constituted a changed conceptualization of the source of Jewish nature. Previously, religion was widely thought to be the root of Jewish perniciousness, but, as modern antisemitism gained in popularity, so did the belief that Jewish immorality was a product of race, not faith. By the end of the nineteenth century antisemitism had been given an explosive new charge via the symbolic power and metaphorical implications of the new master concept of race (Goldhagen, 59). It was within this booming antisemitic atmosphere that ideas regarding the "Jewish Problem" began to gain greater attention and severity, bringing about an eliminationist mind-set in Germany. The belief that Jews were inherently dangerous and threatening to humankind was widespread throughout Germany by the late nineteenth century.

A prime example of this cognitive transformation of the Jewish image can be seen when the two antisemitic writings of Johann A. Eisenmenger and Jakob F. Fries are compared. Eisenmenger published his piece, Judaism unmasked, in the beginning of the eighteenth century. In it, he conceived of Jews in "traditional theological terms as heretics;" their betrayal laid in their religious convictions, and their nature came from Judaism’s caustic effects upon them (Goldhagen, 54). Fries, who wrote more than one century later, had already come to adopt the new form of racial antisemitism when he published his work, On The Endangerment of the Prosperity and Character of the Germans by the Jews, in 1816. In Fries’ opinion, the Jews were fundamentally asocial and determined to undermine German society by gaining control over it. Sources such as Goldhagen believe the writings of Eisenmenger and Fries are representative of the replacement of old, theologically informed views of Jews, with the new secularized vocabulary of modern antisemitism. Unlike theologically based antisemitism, modern racial antisemitism had a social and political outlook which debased the moral character of the Jews. Essentially, the shift in the presumed source of Jewish perniciousness was what led Germans to the conviction that Jews had to be eliminated from society.

However, not all historians agree with those like Goldhagen when it comes to the question of just how deeply embedded antisemitism was in nineteenth century Germany. Contrary to Goldhagen’s claims of extreme hostilities towards Jews all across German society, historian Albert S. Lindemann asserts that friendly contacts between Jews and non-Jews were commonplace within this century. Most notably, Lindemann brings up the point that the German Chancellor himself, Otto Von Bismarck, had a Jewish lawyer, banker, and doctor. He also states that Bismarck even worked closely with a number of converted Jews and appointed other men of Jewish origin to high office (Lindemann, Antisemitism Before the Holocaust, 49).

Keeping the two contrasting arguments in mind it seems as though Goldhagen’s claim of intensely embedded cultural animosity towards Jews in Germany may have been overstated. Lindemann makes a strong point that not all men and women in Germany innately hated Jews, and that in fact a large amount of admiration for Jews could be found among the common people as well. However, Goldhagen’s next main point regarding popular German politics as an agent for spreading antisemitism is much stronger, one which Lindemann himself can even agree on to some degree.

Goldhagen states that during the nineteenth century the centrality of antisemitism as a model for political ideology grew tremendously. With the cultural transformation of antisemitism now asserting that the source of Jewish perniciousness was race and not religion, society’s perception of Jews as a whole shifted. Jews were now conceived foremost as a nation and a political group (Goldhagen, 54). Religious descriptions of Jews began to hold less sway at this time, and notions of Jews as a "nation" or another corporately motivated group were popular with antisemitic writers (Goldhagen, 55). Goldhagen claims that the underlying cultural model of "the Jew" was composed of three notions: that "the Jew" was different from "the German," that the he was binary opposite of "the German," and that "he" was not just benignly different but malevolent and corrosive (Goldhagen, 55). Regardless of whether or not one believes Goldhagen was exaggerating his cultural point, it is clear, that whether conceived as "religion, nation, political group, or race, the Jew was always an alien body within Germany." (Goldhagen, 55)

Antisemites came to identify the ills of German society with Jews. This "symbolic understanding of the Jew could be summed up by the notion that the Jew was everything that was awry," and that he was naturally so because of his race. (Goldhagen, 55) Consequently, the "Jewish Problem" took center stage and became a particular concern to nineteenth century theologians and politicians. These two groups inflated the significance of the nature of the "Jewish Problem" to such an extent that they even claimed it was a problem that touched the entire globe (Goldhagen, 63). In Goldhagen’s opinion, the eliminationist mind-set entered the political agenda in the nineteenth century because the "Jewish Problem" was written about so voluminously and passionately. He claims that in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, no political subject matched the frequency with which the Jewish subject was published. To Goldhagen, no other conclusion can be met other than that German society was zeroed in on an "urgent mortal threat of the first order," the Jews. (Goldhagen, 64) At this time, exactly what "elimination" meant regarding Jews, especially in the manner in which is was to be executed, was unclear and found no general consensus during this period of modern antisemitism. However, the necessity for the elimination of Jews had become clear to all. (Goldhagen, 69)

In Germany, the "Jewish Problem" was primarily "considered to be a political issue which required a political response." (Goldhagen, 75) Antisemitism took shape in politics through various levels, from demands for the rescission of Jewish emancipation, and the expulsion of Jews, all the way to radical calls for Jewish extermination. However, because the state would have to be primary agent of change, no significant harm came to Jews at this time. But, with this knowledge, it is no surprise that antisemitism became central to German politics, both electoral and parliamentary. (Goldhagen, 75) Goldhagen states that rise, and even the decline, of antisemitism in politics provides evidence of two things. First, that antisemitism was broadly a part of German and Austrian societies during the nineteenth century, and second, that it was constitutive of their political cultures.

Most sources agree with Goldhagen that political agents in Germany both were used by antisemites to spread the hatred of Jews, and used by individual antisemites themselves for their own political benefit during the nineteenth century. Lindemann agrees to a generous extent with Goldhagen on this specific element of antisemitism in Germany, stating that political movements did take place within the society that were marked by considerable antisemitism. However, he also remarks that these same political agents, such as the Berlin movement in 1881, did not attract as much of a following as one may think. So, once again as with German culture, the political agent was there, but probably not the extent to which Goldhagen describes it to be.

The final place that Goldhagen describes as deeply embedded with antisemitism is German conversation. German conversation, Goldhagen claimed, made the deadly image of Jews an axiom in German society. Popular thoughts of antisemitism circulated widely in the nineteenth century in Goldhagen’s opinion, adding to cultural tensions. A society’s conversation informs its people’s thinking about the social and political world. In Germany’s case it informed the population particularly about Jews. Goldhagen believes that the chance of Germans being able to diverge these common thoughts in their society was highly improbable, and that since cognitive models are among the individual’s building blocks of comprehension, they are incorporated into a person’s mind in a similar way as language and grammar are (Goldhagen, 46). In all societies, the most important bearers of the common conversation are its institutions, the family being especially crucial as well. The preaching of antisemitism through social organizations, the church, and the family unit all helped to deeply embed Jew hatred in German society, according to Goldhagen.

The conversation agent is the weakest of Goldhagen’s main points in his argument. As Lindemann points out, antisemitism was widely spread throughout Europe through institutions like government, church, and family. When Goldhagen argues that the conversation of German antisemitism was particularly "powerful and potentially violent" during the nineteenth century, he is implying that it was more so in Germany than in other European nations (Goldhagen, 72). However, research shows that in the 1900s Germany actually seemed to most observers, including German Jews themselves, decidedly less antisemitic than France or Britain, and certainly far less antisemitic than Russia or Romania (Lindemann, 58). It is a common assumption, in Lindemann’s veiw, that the relations between Jews and non-Jews in Germany were ominously different from those of other nations (Lindemann, 104). There was just as much antisemitism throughout Europe as there was in Germany, and even more telling, there was more violence executed against Jews in these other nations than there was within Germany. Two prominent examples provide counterevidence to Goldhagen’s view including the Dreyfus Affair in France, and the Pogroms in Russia. These events lend sufficient support to the argument that antisemitism was widely spread throughout Europe, and furthermore show that it was possibly far worse in places other than Germany.

As mentioned before, answering the question of just how unique, if at all, German antisemitism was in the nineteenth century is a complex and daunting task. There are two main arguments which surround this debate, those such as Daniel J. Goldhagen who believe German antisemitism was unique, and those such as Albert S. Lindemann who argue German antisemitism was similar to antisemitism in other European countries during the nineteenth century. Goldhagen argues first, that antisemitism was extremely widespread in all social classes and sectors of Germany, and second, that it was deeply embedded in German culture, politics, and conversation, as well as woven into the moral structure of society. He provides evidence of German literature, political movements, and institutions to support his argument that antisemitism was woven deeply within the moral structure of German society. However, Lindemann offers valuable counterarguments to Goldhagen’s idea, stating that relations between Jews and non-Jews were not as hostile as Goldhagen exaggerates them to be, as well as pointing out that antisemitic political movements were not as successful as Goldhagen suggests in Germany. Most significantly, Lindemann discredits Goldhagen’s claim that in Germany antisemitic conversation was inherently worse than other European countries. Through research and convincing examples of strong antisemitism elsewhere, such as the Dreyfus affair in France and the pogroms in Russia, Lindemann proves antisemitic feelings were not just ubiquitous throughout Germany, but on the entire European continent.

Conclusion (back to top)

Both historians offer valid points, but it is ultimately Lindemann’s case which represents the better argument. Goldhagen argues his theory in an emotional way which lacks factual evidence. Although his ideas are new, his supporting evidence is not. Lindemann provides facts, and from those he draws more convincing conclusions. In conclusion, there is no right or wrong, black or white answer to a question as complex as this. However between the two debates, the stronger argument supports that German antisemitism during the nineteenth century was similar to antisemitism in other European nations in this period.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/23/06)


  • Daniel Johan Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996), 612 pages. ($5 at amazon)
  • Albert S. Lindemann, Antisemitism before the Holocaust. (New York: Pearson Education Limited, 2000), 144 pages. ($10 at amazon)
  • Albert S. Lindemann, Esau’s Tears: Modern Antisemitism and the Rise of Jews. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 568 pages. UCSB: DS145.L594 1997 ($15 aqnd searchable at amazon)

Reviews of Goldhagen

  • David North, "A Critical Review of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners," World Socialist Web Site (ICFI) 4/17/97  
    This review critiques Goldhagen's main argument and subject points. It focuses on the  Goldhagen's methodology, the rise of modern political antisemitism, antisemitism in Europe, antisemitism and the Social Democratic Party, antisemitism in Russia, the revival of political antisemitism in Germany, and the crisis of the German labor movement. North points out Goldhagen's most solid points while still poking holes through his weaker arguments. 
  • Norman Finkelstein, interviewed by Kevin Ovenden, "Where Goldhagen goes wrong," Socialist Review (Issue 212) October 1997.
    Finkelstein is one of Goldhagen’s most stringent critics. He states that the basic problem with this thesis is that there is no evidence for it. He does not think there is anything intrinsically racist or necessarily implausible about Goldhagen's thesis.
  • Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and Josef Joffe, "Hitler's Willing Executioners: An Exchange," New York Times 44:2(February 6, 1997)
    Debate between the author and one of his critics.
  • Henry Maitles, "Never Again! A review of David Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners," Socialist Review, issue 77(December 1997).
    Maitles is very critical of Goldhagen and particularly upset about the exaggerations he feels Goldhagen makes. Maitles says of Goldhagen's work, "Like all good half truths there are elements, but only elements, of truth in some of his assertions." Maitles argues that the overall work of some 800 pages "hides and distorts more than it outlines."


  • www.Goldhagen.com
    This website was developed by Goldhagen himself in December 1998. It was his personal website but he is in the process of making it into something more. However, it has only a limited amount of content right now. The last updates to the site were in May 2005 and April 2006.
  • www.H-Net.Org
    Humanities and Social Sciences Online is a great resource for students looking up nearly any historical topic. It has links for discussion networks, reviews, and even a job guide. On home page under “Discussion Networks” visitors can access a number of discussion topic and sources available on that subject. Here one can find an excellent selection of written literature on antisemitism throughout German history, as well as resources of German history in general. This is helpful in relating past historical events to issues of the present. The website was created in July 2003 and was last updated in May of 2006.
  • www.ushmm.org
    The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website is great resource for general background information about Germany before, during, and after the Holocaust. It has a lot of information about antisemitism that offers not only the history of Germany , but also offers links that can help with various topics concerning the Holocaust. A great portion of it is dedicated to genocide. This website was created in December 1996 and was last updated in April 2006.
  • [added 11/6/08] Article on antisemitism vs. anti-Semitism in Haaretz, Nov. 6, 2008

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/15/06; last updated: 6/15/07)
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