German Lands Before Unification

Map of the Holy Roman Empire (962 – 1806).

Map of the Holy Roman Empire (962 – 1806).

Information about this image can be found here.

Map of the German Confederation (1815-1866).

Map of the German Confederation (1815-1866).

Information about this image can be found here.

The Holy Roman Empire

Throughout most of history, the country now known as Germany was a loose conglomeration of political entities that were bound together by a common language and culture and united into an alliance known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The size of these political units ranged from tiny villages with only fifty families to large kingdoms possessing sizable armies. There were a total of 1,800 states in the Empire, a number that included fifty-one free imperial cities and sixty-three ecclesiastical principalities. Although the Holy Roman Emperor was the supreme authority over the Empire, real power was wielded at the local level. From a legal standpoint, the Empire was a confusing mish-mash of laws, rights, and customs that often came into conflict with the wishes of the Emperor. Hence, the rights given to Jews varied depending on where they lived in the Empire.

Men in medieval Germany wearing the distinctive hats that Jews were forced to wear to distinguish them from the Christian populace.

Men in medieval Germany wearing
the distinctive hats that Jews were forced to wear to distinguish them
from Christians.

During the early sixteenth century, Jews were expelled from many territories in the Holy Roman Empire, including cities such as Mainz, Spitzer, and Cologne. However, after the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), the services provided by Jewish moneylenders and merchants were welcomed, and many began to migrate back into urban areas. It was during this period that the "court Jew" came into existence. These were elite Jews that provided goods and services to the crowned heads of Europe. Court Jews could become quite wealthy and were occasionally granted titles. They were granted privileges, such as the right to choose their own place of residence, the ability to bear arms, and the right to travel freely that were not only superior to the rights of their fellow Jews, but also to those of their Christian neighbors. Many German Christians feared and resented the influence and privileges of the court Jews, and believed that Jews as a people were exerting too much influence in royal politics. However, the number of court Jews was extremely small, while the majority of Jews were poor and obscure. As a rule, the German Jewish communities during this period allied themselves to powerful local rulers or the Emperor to protect themselves against the antisemitism of the general populace.

Sixteenth century Jewish men from the Upper Rhine region. Their cloaks have circular badges that mark them as Jewish.

Sixteenth century Jewish men from the Upper Rhine region. Their cloaks have circular badges that mark them as Jewish.

It should be noted that the Holy Roman Empire was not a nation-state; it contained many people who did not speak German (e.g, Czechs, Poles, Slovens, Italians) and excluded many who did (e.g., the Swiss, East Prussians, certain groups of Hungarians). As individual territories began asserting individual power, both internationally and domestically, it became difficult for the Empire to remain intact. Prussia and Austria were the largest and most powerful states in the Empire, and were often rivals in the battle to gain control and influence over the other Germanic states. The Holy Roman Empire eventually dissolved in 1806, following the abdication of Emperor Francis II during the Napolenoic Wars.

Sixteenth century illustration of two Jews from the German city of Worms. Each wears a yellow badge and the man carries a money bag, indicating that he is a moneylender.

Sixteenth century illustration of two Jews from the German city of Worms. Each wears a yellow badge and the man carries a money bag, indicating that he is a moneylender.

The German Confederation

The successor to the Holy Roman Empire was the German Confederation. Napoleon created a similar body in 1806 that was called the Federation of the Rhine, but it collapsed following his defeat in 1816. The German Confederation was an even looser association than the Empire, as there was no central governing authority. Although there was a legislative body, it had little importance and attempts to form a pan-Germanic army were fruitless. Even more peculiar, four of the states were ruled by foreign monarchs: Holstein (Denmark), Luxembourg (the Netherlands), and Hanover (Great Britain). The disorganized nature of the German Confederation was due in part to the rivalry between the two largest members, Prussia and Austria. The small and medium-sized states tried to ally themselves with other European countries to offset the power of Prussia and Austria.

Inspired by the liberalizing influence of the French Revolution, many countries (including the states of the German Confederation) removed some or all of the restrictions against their Jewish residents. Emancipation was based on the belief that education (specifically a classical and secular type of education) and assimilation would eliminate the differences between Jews and Christians. Many Jews enthusiastically took advantage of the new opportunities that were available to them. While this helped bring Jews out of the ghettos into mainstream German life, it also made the Jewish community more helpless; since Jews were more or less full-fledged citizens under the law, they lost their powerful royal patrons. This meant that they were more vurnerable to violent attacks from antisemitic neighbors. Emancipation also meant that the Jewish community became increasingly fragmented, as some chose to assimulate while others remained loyal to traditional Judaism. Westernized Jews tended to view unassimilated Jews as "backward" and "superstitious," while traditional Jews thought that assimulated Jews were betraying their heritage.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, Brace and Company: New York, 1951.

Blackbourn, David. The Long Nineteenth Century: A History of Germany. Oxford University Press: New York, 1998.

Kaplan, Marion. "Redefining Judaism in Imperial Germany: Practices, Mentalities, and Community." Jewish Social Studies 9.1 (Fall 2002): 1-33.

The Center for Online Judaic Studies. "Overview of German Lands." The Center for Online Judaic Studies Home Page. http://cojs.org/cojswiki/Overview:_German_Lands (accessed July 8, 2008).