Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947

Here are some excerpts from this 2017 book by Christopher Clark:

* The Prussian government continued to discriminate against Jewish applicants to public office. Jews found it extremely difficult to achieve promotion into the upper ranks of the judiciary, for example, despite the disproportionate presence of Jews among lawyers, court clerks and assistant judges and the strong performance of Jewish candidates in the key state examinations. The same applied to most branches of the senior civil service, as well as other important state-funded institutions of cultural significance such as primary schools, the secondary Gymnasien and the universities. Between 1885 and the outbreak of the First World War, moreover, no Jew was promoted to reserve officer status in Prussia, nor in the other German states whose military contingents were subordinate to the Prussian army (Bavaria retained a measure of military autonomy and operated a more open promotions policy). 48
This discrimination by the state authority was all the more conspicuous for the fact that it represented something of an anomaly within the Prussian political landscape. Jews had no difficulty in being elected to important political and administrative posts in many large Prussian cities, where as high taxpayers they benefited from restrictive franchises. Jews held a substantial proportion (as many as a quarter) of council seats in the city of Breslau and could hold any position in the city administration except those of mayor and deputy, which were in the gift of the central state authorities in Berlin. 49 In Königsberg, Jewish residents flourished in an urban environment marked by easy inter-communal relations and ‘cultural pluralism’. In many of the larger Prussian cities, Jews became core constituents of the urban Bürgertum , participating fully in its political and cultural life. 50
The inequitable handling of appointments in the state sector generated a deep sense of grievance among politically aware and active Jews in Prussia. 51 The process of emancipation had always been intimately bound up with the state. To be emancipated was to ‘enter into the life of the state’, as Christian Wilhelm von Dohm had put it in his influential tract of 1781. Moreover, the constitutional position was clear: imperial law stipulated that any discrimination on faith grounds was illegal. The Prussian constitution stated (art. 12) that all Prussians were equal before the law and (art. 4) that public offices were equally accessible to all equally qualified persons. Only in the case of public offices involving religious observance was it admissible to favour Christian candidates. The surest way for the Jewish minority to safeguard its rights was thus to hold the state authority to the letter and spirit of its own law. 52
Pressed by left-liberal parliamentary deputies to give an account of themselves, Prussian ministers either denied that such discrimination took place, or sought to justify it. They argued, for example, that the government must take into account the mood of the population when making sensitive public appointments. In a Landtag debate over judicial appointments in 1901, the Prussian minister of justice, Karl Heinrich von Schönstedt, declared that he could not ‘when appointing notaries, simply treat Jewish advocates on the same basis as Christian ones, since the broadest strata of the population are not willing to have their affairs managed by Jewish notaries’. 53 The Prussian minister of war, von Heeringen, made a veiled appeal to the same logic when he replied to a Reichstag enquiry of February 1910 concerning the exclusion of Jewish volunteers from reserve officer promotions. In appointing a commanding officer, he declared, the army must look to more than simply ‘ability, knowledge and character’. Other ‘imponderable’ factors were also in play:
The entire personality of the man concerned, the way he stands in front of the troops, must inspire respect. Now far be it from me to claim [… ] that this is missing in our Jewish fellow citizens. But on the other hand, we cannot deny that a different view prevails among the lower orders. 54
This readiness to accommodate ‘public opinion’ also left its mark in other areas. In the early 1880s, for example, the Prussian ministry of the interior intervened in support of anti-Semitic student associations, undercutting the predominantly liberal university administrations that were trying to suppress them. 55 At around the same time, the Prussian administration also began to tighten its policy on the naturalization of foreign Jews: this was the background to the extraordinary expulsion of over 30,000 non-naturalized Poles and Jews in 1885.
Under pressure from anti-Semitic agitation and petitions, the Prussian government even began during the 1890s to prevent Jewish citizens from adopting Christian family names. Anti-Semites objected to Jewish name-changing on the racist grounds that it created confusion about who was Jewish and who was not. The Prussian state authorities (especially the conservative minister of the interior Botho von Eulenburg) adopted the anti-Semitic viewpoint, departing from established policy to discriminate specifically against Jewish applicants.
The same logic was at work in the ‘Jew Count’ ( Judenzählung ) ordered by the Prussian ministry of war in October 1916 with a view to establishing how many Jews were in active service on the front line. 57 National anti-Semitic organizations such as the Reichshammerbund (founded in 1912) had long been propagating the claim that the German Jews were war profiteers who were not pulling their weight in the defence of the fatherland. From the outbreak of the war and particularly from the end of 1915, they bombarded the Prussian ministry of war with anonymous denunciations and complaints.
Having for some time disregarded these protests, the Prussian minister of war, Wild von Hohenborn, decided to mount a statistical survey of Jews in the armed forces. In a decree of 11 October 1916 announcing the survey, the minister referred to allegations that the majority of Jewish servicemen had managed to avoid combat by securing posts well behind the front line. Although the results confirmed that Jews were in fact well represented in front-line units, the decree dismayed Jewish contemporaries, especially those whose relatives or comrades were at that moment fighting in the German trenches. It was, as one Jewish writer recalled at the end of the war, ‘the most indelibly shameful insult that has dishonoured our community since its emancipation’. 58
There were, of course, limits to the state’s tolerance of anti-Semitism. In 1900, an anti-Jewish riot broke out in the West Prussian town of Konitz after the discovery of a macabrely dismembered corpse near the house of a Jewish butcher. Anti-Semitic journalists (mainly from Berlin) lost no time in levelling charges of ‘ritual murder’ against the butcher, and they were followed in this by a number of credulous townsfolk, most of them Poles. However, none of the Prussian judges or investigating police involved in the case ever placed any credence in the allegation, and the authorities lost no time in suppressing the unrest and punishing the main offenders. 59 Emancipation was treated as an accomplished fact by official Prussia and no serious attention was ever given to the idea – much urged by the anti-Semites – of returning to the era of legal discrimination. Jews continued to play prominent roles in Prussian public life, as parliamentarians, journalists, entrepreneurs, theatre directors, municipal officials, as personal associates of the Emperor and even as ministers and members of the upper house of the Prussian Landtag.
Yet the Jews were surely right to view with alarm the state’s reluctance to enforce more energetically the letter of the constitution. It was one thing for the traditional Protestant agrarian oligarchies to cling to their accustomed share of government patronage (which of course they did); it was another somewhat more ominous thing for the state authorities to invoke the ‘mood of the population’ as grounds for departing from constitutional practice or the principle of equitable administration. In doing so, they allowed the anti-Semites to set the terms of the debate. There was an irony here, because whereas the Jews were among the foremost friends of the state, the anti-Semites were without question among its most implacable enemies. For them, the very word ‘state’ possessed connotations of artificiality and machine-like impersonality, in contrast to the organic, natural attributes associated with the Volk . The only acceptable form of state organization was that which demoted the apparatus of the state to an instrument for the self-empowerment of the Volk – an ethnic, not a political, entity. 60 Herein lies the parallel with Polish policy. Poles and Jews were fundamentally different social groups in almost every conceivable way, but they both presented the conservative elites that ran Prussia with policy domains in which the political logic of the modern state, conceived as a zone of undifferentiated legal authority, conflicted with the ethnic logic of the nation. In both cases, it was the idea of the (Prussian) state that gave way and the ideology of the (German) nation that prevailed.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
This entry was posted in Germany, Jews. Bookmark the permalink.