The Lion and the Star: Gentile-Jewish Relations in Three Hessian Communities 1919-1945

By M, Sidney | Shofar, July 31, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Lion and the Star: Gentile-Jewish Relations in Three Hessian Communities 1919-1945


M, Sidney, Shofar


The Lion and the Star: Gentile-Jewish Relations in Three Hessian Communities, 1919-1945

Jewish history is sprinkled with examples of intense assimilation, perhaps beginning with the Babylonian captivity and including the interaction between Jews and non-Jews in Spain before 1492. None of them seems to rival the "symbiosis" of Germans and Jews in the modern era. German Jews themselves touted their identification as Germans. Non-Jews like Gotthold Lessing and even Goethe wrote and spoke about their colleagues of "the Mosaic persuasion," and that identification has come under considerable scrutiny by historians, fascinated by the irony of that presumed bond occurring in the country that produced the Holocaust. In The Lion and the Star: Gentile-Jewish Relations in Three Hessian Communities, 1919-1945, Jonathan C. Friedman joins German historians known as Alltaghistoriker, historians of everyday life, and focuses a microscopic look on the relationships between Jews and non-Jews in the German communities of Frankfurt am Main, Gießen, and Geisenheim, symbolized by the Hessian heraldic lion. He judiciously incorporates traditional archival sources, memoirs, church and synagogue records, a plethora of secondary works, and what appear to be carefully selected oral histories (he is an historian on the staff of the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation). Friedman at his best provides an intimate and sensitive analysis of varieties of Jewish life in those three places.

There is no mystery to the major motif of the book: non-Jewish indifference and apathy allowed antisemitism and then genocide to take their courses and facilitated their growth into increasingly violent measures. Friedman traces the socio-economic and demographic history of the Jews of the three cities from 1919 to the end of World War II, finding that German-Jewish history conforms to a rhythm composed of German-Jewish belief in the realization of their socio-cultural acceptance by German non-Jews, followed by the gradual and reluctant realization that Germans had essentially ignored them as antisemitism increased. Friedman reviews the literature on German-Jewish identity and the so-called symbiosis between Deutschtum and Judentum. The failure to break that pattern during the Weimar Republic established the basis for popular acquiescence to an increasingly vindictive and violent antisemitism. That palpable apathy seemed to be a critical component needed to activate the decision for the "Final Solution," the annihilation of the Jews of Europe.

At the start of each chapter Friedman offers a synoptic assessment of the literature on the particular questions he raises. His discussion of the vicissitudes of Jewish life during the Weimar Republic includes an account of the history of that tragic epoch and the events that determined the courses of Jewish lives. His comparative analysis of the three communities reveals that Frankfurt, with the second largest Jewish population in Germany, more readily tended to adopt antisemitic rhetoric and behaviors and more rigorously enforced racist laws. Geisenheim seems to have had the least rancorous population and remained the most liberal of the three. Relationships between Jews and non-Jews remained essentially shallow, in the main, not out of deep-seated antisemitism, but from a lack of interest. In the end, Friedman argues, Nazi success derived in part from their ability to exploit first widespread indifference and then the deeply disturbing popular unrest accompanying the Great Depression and its antisemitic backlash.

As he completes the chapter on the history of anti-Jewish politics, Friedman states clearly his position on historical determinism in German history: "it is clear that National Socialism emerged in the context of a particular time and place." Drawing upon socio-political works, he concludes that Nazism attracted Germans in Hessen for a variety of reasons, one of which may have been antisemitism. Contributing factors to the rise of Nazi electoral success, then, included the Depression, unemployment, and the pervasive diffidence among a Gentile populace who cared essentially not at all for the plight of their Jewish neighbors. …

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