Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Turning Point in German-Jewish Relations?

Medieval Europe was rarely kind to its Jewish inhabitants whenever war, plague, or economic downturn loomed. True, some crises or epochs generated more violence and hate than others. One thinks of the massive pogroms against Ashkenazi communities along the Rhine during the Crusades and the Black Death.

For their part, Nazi jurists and propagandists knew their history. They appropriated it, learned from it, and of course distorted it. As far as the last of these goes, I think of the Nazi movie “Jud Süss” (1940), which is a rabidly anti-Semitic retelling of an unfortunate episode in early modern Germany. In 1738 the duchy of Württemberg executed its “court Jew” Joseph Süß Oppenheimer on a host of charges. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which restricted Jews in business and relations with Aryans, had precedents in church decrees of medieval Christendom. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, for instance, issued a canon that required Jews to distinguish themselves from Christians by their dress and thereby prevent miscegenation.  For the moment, let's pretend we don't know what happens in the early 20th century.

As Europe inched ever closer to the Enlightenment, mass attacks on Jews in Western and Central Europe gradually diminished. I’d like to focus on one would-be massacre of the seventeenth century. In 1614 an artisan named Vinzenz Fettmilch led a mob of shopkeepers to attack and loot the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt am Main, the largest Jewish community in Germany at the time. The artisan guilds of the city had complained about high interest rates from Jewish bankers, but the burgomaster and wealthy elite dismissed their complaint as unjustified. Fortunately, only a few people died in the melee. More significantly, the outcome of the anti-Semitic riot was not business as usual. Instead of rounding up the hapless Jews and burning them, rather than spreading the pogrom to other Jewish communities in the region, the burgomaster sent in armed troops and escorted the Jews safely out of the city. Then, the emperor had Fettmilch and the other rabble-rousers arrested and executed. The city received the returning Jews with fanfare and an imperial safeguard. Moreover, the “media coverage” of the riot, if you will, did not include the usual rants against Jews. Nachum Gidal, in his book Jews in Germany, also points out that visual representations of the riot, such as the one above, did not portray Jews in typical fashion as ugly and grotesque. Was this a turning point? Well, for a time. Alas! We know what would happen three centuries later.