Jewish Emancipation in a German City: Cologne, 1798-1871

Jewish Emancipation in a German City: Cologne, 1798-1871 – Review

Michael A. Meyer

Jewish Emancipation in a German City: Cologne, 1798-1871. By Shulamit S. Magnus. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. Pp. xii, 336. $49.50.)

The long process by which Jews gained civil equality in Germany is usually portrayed in reference to principled considerations. Beginning with Christian Wilhelm Dohm toward the end of the eighteenth century and continuing with bourgeois Liberal politicians in the nineteenth century, Jewish emancipation, it is argued, was the natural concomitant of a more tolerant world view. To be sure, Jewish writers, such as Gabriel Riesser, also played some role in its achievement, but they too couched their arguments in terms of principle. In looking very carefully at the struggle for Jewish equality in one German city, Shulamit Magnus has set forth a powerful case for revising this general view.

Cologne’s Jewish community, unlike that of Frankfurt-am-Main, did not have a continuous history of settlement from medieval times. Nearly four centuries intervened from the Jews’ expulsion in 1424 until their readmission in 1798. Another 73 years elapsed until full equality was enshrined in the law of the Kaiserreich. As Magnus shows, the Cologne community, with 12,286 persons, was one of the five largest in Germany in 1850 and was no more intellectually or culturally noteworthy than was Cologne in general. Its religious life was conservative, as was that of the Catholic majority. The story of Jewish emancipation, in this instance at least, Magnus argues, must be seen fundamentally as the concomitant of economic and practical political developments. It is not a question of integration into an educated middle class (Bildungsburgertum) but into a propertied one (Besitzburgertum). The significant Jews of Cologne were not rabbis or intellectuals, but entrepreneurs, especially the wealthy Oppenheim family. Due to the persistence of the French consistorial system in the Rhineland under Prussia, the community did not even have its own rabbi until 1857.

Until the 1840s, local sentiment in Cologne ran against Jewish emancipation. Although the value of Jewish contributions to the local economy was recognized earlier, the local economy remained mired in medieval forms to which Jewish entrepreneurship represented an unwelcome challenge. Moreover, economic restrictions upon Jews through the requirement of Judenpatente became one of the ways in which Cologne could assert its resistance to Prussian overlordship after the Prussian takeover from France in 1815. By the 1840s, however, attitudes had begun to change as economic institutions in Cologne assumed a more modern capitalistic form and the value of Jewish enterprise for the city was more fully appreciated. As in the rest of Prussia, so too in Cologne, discrimination against Jews, and especially against Judaism, continued in the two decades after the 1848 revolution. A more dynamic local community in these years was, however, able to make gains, especially with regard to local public support of the Jewish school.

Magnus’s book is not the first major study of the Jews of Cologne. Among others, her work is indebted to the research of Adolf Kober, whose history, published in English in 1940, stretches from the community’s origins down to the Nazi period. But Magnus has gone far beyond Kober’s narrative account for the early nineteenth century, not only utilizing new archival sources and employing quantitative analysis, but presenting a much more integrated image of the Jewish community within its non-Jewish environment. Although she might have paid too little attention to Jewish indigence in the city, her account is, on the whole, persuasive, and her conclusion elegantly formulated.

Michael A. Meyer

Hebrew Union College

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