Antisemitism – Some Background


Peter Hays’ new book, Why? Explaining the Holocaust is a worthy read.   In it, he asks a series of questions:

  • Why the Jews?
  • Why the Germans?
  • Why Murder?
  • Why This Swift and Sweeping?
  • Why Didn’t More Jews Fight Back More Often?
  • Why Did Survival Rates Diverge?
  • Why Such Limited Help form Outside?
  • What Legacies, What Lessons?

In 343 pages, he attempts to answer these questions.  In doing so, he puts together many pieces of the Holocaust puzzle in a coherent way.

In the first section – Why the Jews?, he reviews some of the factors that pre-dated antisemitism (please note – no hyphen).

He begins with a problem that arose for the new Christians.  Because the Jews rejected Christ, they had to suffer as a “physical representation of the consequence.”[1]   But at the same time, Jesus was a Jew and was God’s chosen one.  “Indeed,” states Hays, the Jews “had to be allowed to live, albeit in misery, until the wondrous day when they saw the light and converted, for that development would herald the Last Judgment and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Hays states that the Jews were the only religious minority who remained legal under Christian rule.  Their “adherents were not automatically and always slaughtered,” he continues, “as the Cathars, Lolards, and other dissenters were.”[2]

The contradictory positions that Jews must suffer, but that no harm should come to them, created an impossible situation and the people couldn’t live in that tension.   In response to a crisis that they could not control, the Christians blamed the Jews.  Mob violence erupted against Jews, culminating in the blood libels.  A Jew or Jews were accused of murdering a Christian to take his blood to make matza needed for Passover.  These charges became opportunities for massacres, at first in England, in the 12th century, and later in other parts of Europe.[3]  Hays points out that the charge of taking a Christian’s blood to make matza was a “projection of a corrupted form of the Catholic belief in transubstantiation – the creed that the communion wafer and wine becomes the real flesh and blood of Christ during the Mass.”[4]  This association between crisis and massacre of Jews can be seen in the massacres that came after the Italian famine of 1315-1317 and the outbreak of the Black Death in the Rhineland in 1347.[5]

The Christians separated themselves from the Jews and forced the Jews to be restricted in their professions.  The Jews were stuck with “despised or dangerous activities, such as moneylending or leather tanning.”[6]   Negative images of Jews became part of the landscape.  For example, at Easter time, people put on Passion Plays, which showed the Jews as the murderers of Christ.

Before the reformation, in the 16th century, the hatred of Jews centered on the idea that Jews were parasites who would  take Christian wealth.  It also rested on the idea that Satan sent the Jews to serve his purpose and to cause problems for pious Christians.[7]

The era of Enlightenment arrived in Europe in the 18th Century and this changed the attitude of many Christians and the lives of many Jews.   The problem of the Jew could now be solved, with “kindness and opportunity” rather than “cruelty and suffering.”[8]  Hays states that Emancipation attempted to make the Jews more like Christians and with the Declaration of Rights of Man on August 26, 1789, all people were considered free and equal.   To this end, in the 1780’s the Austrian Emperor Joseph II abolished residential and occupational restrictions on Jews and opened universities and schools to them. Later, Napoleon Bonaparte did the same in France.[9]

Jews took advantage of their new access to education, moving to the cities in droves.  Industrialization and advancements in transportation created more competition and opened markets.  Hays cites some statistics from 1880-1910 that blew me away:

  • Austria – Jews were 3-4% of population, but 17% of the university students. In Vienna – Jews made up 62% of the lawyers, 50% of the doctors and dentist, 45% of the university medical faculty, and 25% of the total faculty, 55% of the professional journalists, 40% of the directors of publicly traded banks, and 70% of the board members of the Vienna stock exchange.
  • Hungary – Jews were 5% of the population, but 25% of the university students & 43% of those at leading technological universities; Jews accounted for 34% of the lawyers and 48% of the doctors.
  • Prussia (one part of Germany)- Jews were less than 1% of the population, but 5.4% of the university students, and 17% of those at the University of Berlin; in 1912, 20% of the millionaires in Prussia were Jews.
  • Germany as a whole – Jews were 0.95% of the population, but accounted for 31% of the wealthiest families.[10]

Hayes argues that the era of antisemitism, beginning about 1880, was not religious, but rather, a political movement.  It was a reaction to the era of Enlightenment and the visible upward mobility of the Jews and the new competition the Christians had from this newly liberated group.

The science of evolution and biology led to a study of skulls and facial features that indicate intelligence and superiority.  And the idea that Jews were “like” Christians was rejected.  Julius Langbehn, “a widely read German antisemite, put the matter: ‘A Jew can no more become a German than a plum can turn into an apple.’”[11]  Once Jews were identified with undesirable physical characteristics, their extraction was “justified as a form of racial hygiene.”[12]  Antisemitism did not focus on how a Jew behaved, but rather on “what they intrinsically and unchangeable supposedly are. . .. Jews could not be changed, but only contained and then eliminated.”[13]

This new political idea called antisemitism was not the reason the Holocaust happened, but it laid groundwork for Hitler’s rise to power.

Figurines at Randi's house


[1] Why at 9.

[2] Id. at 10.

[3] Id. at 12.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 14.

[9] Id. at 14-15.

[10] Id. at 28-29.

[11] Id. at 16.

[12] Id. at 19.

[13] Id. at 15.


One thought on “Antisemitism – Some Background”

  1. This is a fascinating sum of what sounds like an important book/. B

    On Thu, Jun 15, 2017 at 12:42 PM, So You Want To Write A Holocaust Book? wrote:

    > karentreiger posted: ” Peter Hays’ new book, Why? Explaining the Holocaust > is a worthy read. In it, he asks a series of questions: Why the Jews? Why > the Germans? Why Murder? Why This Swift and Sweeping? Why Didn’t More Jews > Fight Back More Often? Why Did Survival Rat” >


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