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  • German Spirit and Holy Ghost—Treitschke's Call for Conversion of German JewryThe Debate Revisited
  • George Y. Kohler (bio)

The "great debate on antisemitism" as Michael A. Meyer called the public dispute initiated by the German historian Heinrich von Treitschke in 1879 is generally seen as a debate on nationality.1 In November of that year, Treitschke published in his own political journal, Preussische Jahrbücher, an article that deals on its very last pages with what was then seen as the "Jewish Question."2 According to Treitschke, the "deep and long lasting anger" of the German people at the Jews was justified. In reference to the Jews of the Second Reich, Treitschke explained that, "[the] instinct of the masses rightly identified a heavy danger and an alarming defect of the new German life."3 He demanded of the Jews to become German, because "we don't want millennia of Germanic civilization [Jahrtausende germanischer Gesittung] to be followed by an age of mixed German-Jewish culture."4 Brutality and venom are the "natural emotional reaction of the Germanic people [des germanischen Volksgefühls] towards a foreign element that has taken up too much space in our life."5 By granting the Jews civil emancipation, the old "inclemency" [Unbill]—meaning, in fact, pogroms—was long atoned for; if the Jews on their part now fail to "show respect for the belief, morals and feelings of the German people," this is the very reason for the fierce animosity toward them today.6 Treitschke's article features the usual examples, such as Jewish business ethics and Jewish dominance in the press, such that, as regards content, the attack was nothing new. What outraged and irritated Jewish readers of the text was that the antisemitic standards obviously had long reached academic circles and thus made their hope for an enlightened Gelehrtenrepublik an illusion: The issue for the Jews was not that Treitschke intellectualized antisemitism, but that an intellectual would repeat the same centuries-old clichés. Treitschke also chose a fellow scholar as the personal aim of his attack: the Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz, at the time the head of the Breslau Rabbinical Seminary—and thus probably the leader of a whole school of Jewish contemporary thought.7 Graetz is accused of describing [End Page 172] Christianity as the "hereditary enemy" of the Jewish people in his historical works, and Treitschke expresses his fear that Graetz's "obdurate scorn of the German goyim"8 would become the general attitude of the Jews of the Second Reich.

The Breslau school was, therefore, the first to respond to the Treitschke challenge. Already in December 1879, Manuel Joel, the rabbi of the Breslau community and himself an eminent scholar of medieval Jewish philosophy, wrote an angry Open Letter to Treitschke, while Graetz himself proudly defended Judaism and his "History of the Jews" against the accusations of bias and xenophobia in a subsequent exchange of articles with Treitschke.9 Still the same month, Moritz Lazarus, one of the lay leaders of German Jewry and a lecturer at the Berlin University, used the occasion of a public speech at the Berlin Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums to denounce Treitschke's statements and to develop his own model for the national integration of Judaism into the German Reich. Lazarus' text culminated in the provocative thesis that "Judaism is German in the very same sense as is Christianity."10

Hermann Cohen, just three years earlier appointed the first Jewish ordinarius for humanities at a German university, was much more guarded in his reaction. At the time when Joel, Lazarus, and Graetz had already taken up the cudgel, Cohen wrote two personal letters to Treitschke11—in an obvious attempt to convince the historian to change his mind at least on some points. Only when Treitschke published another article in January 1880, containing even clearer expressions of his views of Judaism, Cohen entered the debate with a pamphlet of his own, a strange document of the largely undecided religious views Cohen held at the time. At the outset, Cohen formulates his central thesis as different from Lazarus: "I confess that, as far as the academic concept of religion is...


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