Jews in Germany

The history of Jews in Germany is ancient, perhaps dating back as far as the period of Babylonian dominion over the Levant, the native region of the Jewish people. According to ancient Jewish texts, messages were sent to the exilic Jewish community of ancient Worms, now in territorial Germany, after the fall of the Babylonians.

The later Jewish community is thought to have its origins in Jews fleeing the Roman Empire, arriving in Germany via Italy from the Levant, where they migrated northward. Jewish communities in the area known today as Germany were closely linked to the communities of modern-day northern France, together constituting the original Ashkenazic community. Communities established along the Rhine River developed a particular form of Jewish religious scholarship. Few names of prominent scholars from those communities survive today, theoretically because their scholarship was not as popular or authoritative as scholars from communities in Provence and Moorish Spain.

These German communities faced tremendous upheaval during the Crusader period. During the following centuries, the Jews were heavily taxed and exploited by the elite in Germany. Often, Jews would have their property confiscated, re-instituted and again taken away. They also faced legal restrictions that limited their financial welfare and threatened the communities' educational institutions.

A period of religious instability in Christianity translated into several wars in greater Germany where local Protestant nobles were pitted against Catholics. This religious conflict exacerbated the instability of the Jews' position and subjected them regular persecution and frequent expulsion. Jews experienced mass resettlement as a result. Simultaneously, worsening political conditions in Poland at the conclusion of the Peace of Westphalia resulted in massive back immigration from Poland and Ukraine to Western Germany, creating what until recently was the modern German-Jewish community.

Increasing openness during the 18th century allowed Jews to leave their ghettos. At the same time, this new intellectual freedom challenged Jewish orthodoxy. Figures like Moses Mendelsohn advocated the use of German as the language of educational instruction and encouraged some degree of interaction between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. As a result of his positions, several new Jewish institutions began to operate in German as their main language. His work paved the way for a period of intellectual development in which many classic texts were reevaluated or retranslated; this era coincided with the rise of academic thought in Germany.

In 1812, Jews gained citizenship in Prussia, the predecessor of modern Germany. Scholarship in Hebrew and Arabic, new translations into German and reconsideration of the historiography of Jewish religion were subjected to major scrutiny. The Jewish community divided along traditional and progressive lines, creating the Reform and Orthodox Jewish movements. The Conservative Movement would later find leadership in the person of another German Jew, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

By the 20th century, Sigmund Freud's work in psychology and Albert Einstein's in physics had redefined their respective fields. But a period of political instability following World War I ushered in an era of blatant, racially based anti-Semitism. In 1933, the Nazi party won a plurality in the German elections, leading the government to adopt an official policy of anti-Semitism. Jews began to flee in large numbers, including notables like Freud and Einstein.

By 1938, violence against Jews and Nazi racial doctrine that held that Jews were racially inferior and a threat to Germany had pushed many Jews to leave and decimated the local community. With the advent of World War II, German discrimination became lethal. Jews were sent to concentration and death camps. Jews throughout the European countries conquered by Germany were deported and most were killed. By the end of World War II, roughly 6 million European Jews had been murdered, half of them from Poland. Today, these events are referred to as the Holocaust.

Survivors of the Nazi onslaught fled mainly to Israel and the United States, where German Jews often sought to deny their heritage. Germany has taken an apologetic tone toward the State of Israel and Jewish communities worldwide, many of which harbored Holocaust survivors. Germany has paid millions of dollars in reparations since 1950 to Israel and survivors elsewhere, and has made it easier for Jews to acquire Germany citizenship.

As a result of favorable political and economic conditions, many Jews from the former Soviet Union moved to Germany following the fall of Communism. Today, these Jews constitute the majority of the modern German-Jewish community. By the early 21st century, the community had built many new synagogues and museums, and ordained several rabbis.

Jews in Germany: Selected full-text books and articles

Coming Home? Refugees, Migrants, and Those Who Stayed Behind By Lynellyn D. Long; Ellen Oxfeld University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004
Antisemitism and Xenophobia in Germany after Unification By Hermann Kurthen; Werner Bergmann; Rainer Erb Oxford University Press, 1997
Jewish Daily Life in Germany, 1618-1945 By Marion A. Kaplan Oxford University Press, 2004
Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany By Marion A. Kaplan Oxford University Press, 1998
Abraham's Heirs: Jews and Christians in Medieval Europe By Leonard B. Glick Syracuse University Press, 1999
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