Conversions to Judaism in Prussia 1814-1843

The limits of the confessional state: conversions to Judaism in Prussia 1814-1843

Christopher Clark

In a polemical study of Jewish conversion in nineteenth-century Prussia, the Berlin author Nathan Samter distinguished between two ways of making Jews convert to Christianity: the “official” and the “officious”. The tools of “official conversion” were laws and government policy. The agents of “officious” conversion were missionaries and voluntary societies of self-styled “Friends of Israel”.(1) Jews in early nineteenth-century Prussia had reason to complain of both kinds of conversionary pressure. Official and officious forms of conversion were closely intertwined. When a mission to the Jews was set up in Berlin in 1822, the king informed its president, General Job von Witzleben, that the aims of the new foundation accorded with his “innermost wishes”.(2) The king was the foremost patron and donor of the mission, and the work of its missionaries was underwritten by a state that discriminated legally against Jews. The “emancipation” brought by the famous edict of 11 March 1812 had been incomplete. The edict freed Jews from the special taxes and restrictions on movement and marriage that had encumbered Jewish life in the kingdom of Prussia, and it stated that Jews were “nationals and citizens of Prussia” who shared the rights and obligations of their Christian fellows, but it left open the crucial issue of whether Jews should be admitted to state employments. Paragraph 9 of the edict stated: “We reserve the right to determine in the course of time the extent to which Jews can be admitted to public service and state offices”. The importance of this omission should not be underestimated. “Offentliche Bedienungen und Staatsamter” included a spectrum of employments embracing all the activities of Prussia’s large and ramified national and provincial bureaucracies, offices in local and municipal administration and teaching positions at schools and universities. More importantly, perhaps, the ethos of public service in Prussia meant that the categorical exclusion from public office carried much discriminatory symbolic weight. Prussian Jews were free to live and to conduct commerce wherever and with whatever goods they wished, but they remained excluded from positions of political authority and prestige.

If the Prussian state withheld from Jews the benefits of full political rights, it also encouraged and publicly celebrated the conversion to Christianity of Jewish citizens. Endorsement for this policy came from the sovereign himself. In the 1820s and 1830s a Prussian Jew who converted to Christianity and named the monarch, King Frederick William III, as his “godfather” was entitled to a “baptismal gift” of thirty ducats, a sum that did not fail to remind sceptical contemporaries of the “thirty pieces of silver” offered to Judas Iscariot for betraying his master. When the mathematician David Unger, a Jewish citizen of Prussia, applied for a teaching position in 1824 at the Academy of Architecture (Bauakademie) in Berlin, he was advised by Frederick William himself that his application would be reconsidered “after his conversion to the evangelical church”.(3) In the widely discussed case of the Jewish lieutenant Meno Burg, who was due in 1830 to be promoted to the rank of captain, the king issued a cabinet order in which he voiced his conviction that Burg would have the sense to come to recognize the truth and redeeming power of the Christian faith and thus “clear away any obstacle to his promotion”.(4) The continuing exclusion of Jews from the most prestigious forms of employment and the official support given by the crown to missionary societies that proselytized among the Jews lend weight to the view that the Prussian state in the Restoration period was a Missionsanstalt — a “missionary institute”, a kind of forcing-house for turning Jews into Christians.(5) To convert to Christianity was to swim with the current of Prussian legislation and administrative practice.

Here, however, I should like to consider a small group of people, nearly all of them women, who swam or tried to swim against the current by converting from Christianity to Judaism. Statistically this group was insignificant: the following discussion is based on exactly twenty-three cases of conversion or attempted conversion to Judaism by Christian women in Prussia. A few had enjoyed protracted contact with Jews, were Jewish by conviction and sought full integration into the community. Some were motivated by the desire to marry Jewish men and sought conversion as a way of by passing the prohibition against marriage between Christians and Jews. They were mirror images of those Jewish women who sought conversion to Christianity for similar reasons.(6) And others were Jewish converts to Christianity who, for one reason or another, regretted their decision and sought retroconversion to the religion of their birth.(7) Of course, the list may not be exhaustive. The Prussian authorities acknowledged that conversions to Judaism sometimes took place secretly and might escape the attention of the authorities, but they assumed — rightly, in my view — that such conversions were very rare indeed. In any case, it is clear that the phenomenon of conversion to Judaism does not deserve attention on account of its demographic effects, any more than the recent controversy over flag-burning in the United States deserves to be considered from the angle of its impact on atmospheric pollution levels. Instead I want to argue that conversions and attempted conversions to Judaism, however sporadic and rare, were test cases that touched upon central constitutional issues. Frederick William III’s efforts to prevent and prohibit an act which was legally permissible raised questions about the connections between citizenship and religious affiliation, about the limits of confessional liberty in a state committed to the “freedom of conscience” of the individual subject, and about the relationship between the authority of the monarch and that of codified law in Restoration Prussia.

In October 1814 a woman by the name of Henriette Kowalski who lived in Konigsberg, East Prussia, made known her intention to convert to Judaism. The authorities responded with a mixture of shock and indignation. The officials of the “deputation of school and religious affairs” in Konigsberg engaged a clergyman to point out to her the abhorrence of her error and the damnation that would be hers if she persisted, but to no avail. Kowalski was determined to go ahead with her plan. Having tried persuasion, the deputation assumed that it was not empowered by law to obstruct Kowalski in any way. However, it did appeal for advice to Kaspar Friedrich von Schuckmann, minister of the interior in Berlin.(8) Schuckmann took a somewhat harder view of the case. “An official permission to convert cannot be granted”, he replied. However, the Konigsberg provincial government should inform Kowalski that the state did not intend to “manacle her conscience”; it was up to her to decide whether or not she wished to remain a Christian or to become a Jew. “In the latter case”, he announced, “she would be regarded [by the authorities] as an unregistered Jewess and treated as such”. This is the corrected version of Schuckmann’s letter. The meaning of his closing phrase is clarified by the wording of the original: “she will be regarded as an unaccompanied Jewess and escorted across the border”.(9) In other words, the state would not actually prevent Kowalski from converting, but it would punish her act with banishment from the kingdom of Prussia.

In mid-November 1814 King Frederick William III, who was in Vienna participating in the peace negotiations, noticed the case while perusing the official East Prussian news reports. He immediately wrote to Schuckmann in Berlin, insisting that Kowalski’s plan was impermissible: “Regardless of the law, she cannot be allowed to do this, and you will therefore proceed as necessary and also take measures for future cases of this kind”.(10) Frederick William’s meaning was clear enough: there were to be no more conversions to Judaism in the kingdom of Prussia. But how should his intentions be translated into practice? The problem was, as State Minister Hardenberg pointed out in a letter to Schuckmann, that there was no law against conversion to Judaism. The king had certainly stated that it was unacceptable, but no law against it could be found in the books. On the contrary, Prussia’s national legal code, the Allgemeines Landrecht, appeared explicitly to permit conversions to any religion by any Prussian subject over the age of fourteen. The great work of legal codification known as the Allgemeines Landrecht, published in 1794 after decades of legal labour, was arguably the profoundest legacy of Frederick the Great’s reign. It was admired in many of the German states, and throughout the early decades of the nineteenth century it enjoyed quasi-constitutional status in the kingdom of Prussia.(11) Although it was backward-looking in many respects, the A.L.R. took a generally enlightened line on religious issues. Thus, in Part II, Title 2, Paragraph 2 it guaranteed “total freedom of faith and conscience” to every “inhabitant of the state” (“Jedem Einwohner im Staate mu[beta] eine vollkommene Glaubensund Gewissensfreyheit gestattet werden”).(12) Indeed Gewissensfreyheit, freedom of conscience, was an irreduceable, inalienable right of the Prussian subject as defined in the A.L.R. It stated, for example, that it was not within the power of the individual citizen to limit or qualify his or her own Gewissensfreyheit, even by a declaration of will.(13) And one of the ramifications of this principle was the right of all persons above the age of fourteen to choose their own “religious party” (Religionsparthey), even if this should be against the will of their parents.(14)

On the face of it, then, it appeared difficult to enforce a prohibition against conversion while remaining within the framework of the Allgemeines Landrecht. In a letter to Hardenberg of 6 December 1814 Schuckmann suggested a way out of the impasse. If one held that the Jews had not been granted protected status in Prussia as members of a religious community, but rather as members of a nation, then one could surely argue that a Christian who converted to Judaism should not automatically enjoy the protected status of a Prussian Jew. The convert, after all, was a Jew by religion only, as opposed to a member by birth of the Jewish people. “The Jews still constitute . . . a state within the state. They are not so much a religion [Religionsparthey] as a foreign people taken into our midst; and their religion, in so far as it is spiritual and extends beyond natural religion, consists precisely in the fact that they are and should remain a people cut off and wish never to unite themselves with us”. This view had clear implications for the status of the convert to Judaism. A Christian who converted to Judaism would not be entitled to the citizenship rights enjoyed by Jewish inhabitants of Prussia and it would fall to the relevant government authorities to decide whether to force her to emigrate or accept her as a “new” Jewish citizen. If Judaism were defined as a foreign nationality, Schuckmann concluded, the king’s cabinet order prohibiting conversions could be made to agree with the laws of Prussia.(15)

The need for these ministerial ratiocinations, as Schuckmann and Hardenberg acknowledged, arose from a discrepancy between the law, as expressed in the published statutes of the Allgemeines Landrecht and the edict of 1812, and the will of the monarch. The codex created by the lawyers of Frederick the Great remained authoritative in early nineteenth-century Prussia, but the context in which its confessional stipulations could be applied had changed fundamentally. The absolutist state of Frederick the Great was inclined to place religious practice within the private sphere of conscience. With regard to the various Christian communities, Frederick’s state was, in theory at least, confessionally neutral. His citizens were invited to become holy “each in his own fashion”; Frederick dismayed many of his Protestant subjects by building a splendid Catholic cathedral in Berlin and even jested that he would build a mosque in the capital if he could be persuaded that Muslims made valuable citizens. But the Prussia of Frederick William III neither practiced nor aspired to confessional neutrality. Frederick William’s reign between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and his death in 1840 was characterized by the willingness to apply monarchical initiative and coercion to religious issues. The king was closely involved in the design and allocation of new churches; he helped to create the United Church of Prussia through the forced union of the Calvinist and Lutheran confessions and was the co-author of its liturgy; he ordered the imprisonment of the archbishop of Cologne during a dispute over the issue of Protestant-Catholic mixed marriages. Indeed religion was arguably the most dynamic facet of Frederick William’s kingship in a period otherwise marked by political stasis and reaction.

Schuckmann tried to solve the problem of converts to Judaism by arguing that freedom of conscience was not at issue, since the Jews were not a Religionsparthey but the tolerated fragment of a foreign people. He was helped by the fact that contemporary German usage obscured the distinction between confessional and ethnic definitions by employing one word, Judentum, to denote both “Judaism” and “Jewry”. Schuckmann’s ploy might have worked quite well, were it not for the edict of 1812. It might have been possible to argue that the A.L.R. did not apply to the Jews since these were, at the time of its publication, technically not Prussian subjects but merely tolerated aliens whose status was in every respect exceptional. But the edict of 11 March 1812 explicitly stated in its opening paragraph that the Jews of Prussia were to be regarded as “nationals and Prussian citizens”: “Die in unseren Staaten jetzt wohnhaften . . . Juden und deren Familien sind fur Einlander und preu[beta]ische Staatsburger zu achten”. For all the limitations of the edict, it flatly contradicted the view that the Jews were merely tolerated foreigners. It was not easy to reconcile the confessional activism of the administration with the principles enshrined in Prussia’s corpus of law. The constitutional cracks that resulted had therefore to be plugged with the plaster of legal casuistry. But Schuckmann’s argument was more than a cynical improvisation. It reflected a conservative preference for historical, genetic argumentation over the principles embodied in codified law. In Schuckmann’s view, the status of the Jews in Prussia was defined by reference to a discrete historical moment. The edict was an act of concession by the Christian government to a specific group of Jewish residents; it was not concerned with the status of Judaism as a religion. Certain Jewish families (i.e., those with permits of residence dwelling in the provinces of Silesia, Brandenburg, Pomerania and East Prussia in 1812) had been emancipated; “Judaism” as such had not.(16) The historical dimension in the case against conversion was made especially clear in a letter of 1818 from the minister of church affairs, Karl Sigmund Franz von Altenstein, to the Breslau Consistory. Altenstein argued that the Jews were not a confession in the sense implied by the A.L.R., “because they were not admitted as a Religions-Parthey, but rather as the ruined fragments of a dissolved people, to whom, as individuals, the practice of their national religion was permitted”.(17) This ministerial rhetoric did not, of course, alter the fact that there was no law against conversion to Judaism in Prussia.

The way in which the Prussian administration dealt with the would-be converts to Judaism listed in the appendix during the three decades between 1814 and 1843 continued to reflect the incoherence of Prussian law and practice on the question of the relationship between religion and citizenship. Let us consider a few cases. Fischel Salomon was born into a Jewish family and converted to Christianity before the publication of the edict of 1812. Like a number of converts in a similar position, she subsequently regretted her decision and “retro-converted” to Judaism. Having done so, she applied for naturalization as a Prussian Jew in 1814. The local police authorities informed her that her request could not be granted, since she had not been a Jew on 11 March 1812 and was therefore not entitled to the rights granted by the edict of emancipation. She appealed to Hardenberg, who applied in turn for advice from Schuckmann of the ministry of the interior. Schuckmann acknowledged that Salomon’s Jewish birth was an extenuating circumstance, but he also reminded Hardenberg that a Christian who converted to Judaism was obliged to “win the rights of citizenship”; if the state chose not to grant them, that person must leave the country. He added: “I am not of the opinion that one can treat conversion to Judaism as a matter of indifference without injuring the general interest by destroying the respect for that religion to which our yolk owes its culture and strength and with which it has earned independence, freedom, and unfading honour”.(18)

These are strong words, and they remind us of the political context in which this case came to light. The independence and freedom to which Schuckmann referred were the fruits of the wars of liberation against Napoleon. The revival of religion among conservative administrators owed much to the conditions that prevailed in Prussia during and after the wars against the French. The liberal “demagogues” of the 1820s and 1830s stressed the national and popular character of the wars, seeing them as a mass insurrection by the people of Prussia against the foreign tyranny of Napoleon. They continued, during the decades that followed, to appeal to the wars of liberation as the mythical legitimation of a nationalist and liberal political agenda. Conservatives, on the other hand, were more inclined to see the wars as the victory of an estatist, Christian order over the secular egalitarianism of the revolution. It was not the sense of “nation”, with its democratic implications, that galvanized Prussian resistance, but the revival of Christian, dynastic values. Perhaps it is not surprising that Hardenberg, an enlightened reformer if not a liberal, picked up this theme in Schuckmann’s letter. In his reply of 20 May 1815 he confirmed Schuckmann’s decisions on the Kowalski and Salomon cases, but he added a long and rather teacherly paragraph, warning Schuckmann not to exaggerate the role of religion in Prussian success against the French. The popular Erhebung or uprising and the sense of national honour, Nationalehre, had both played an important role. Leaving religion aside, “we cannot deny that the luck of the battles must have depended upon other factors”. (19)

It was not, in any case, Hardenberg, but men such as Schuckmann, his colleague Altenstein, minister of church and education affairs, and of course the monarch himself who interpreted and applied the law in the cases we are considering here. One of the most striking things about conversion cases of this kind is that throughout the period 1814 to 1843 they continued to find their way to the highest authorities in the Prussian state. The chief reason for this was that they could not be resolved at a local level. Local or provincial police and government authorities were mostly unaware of Prussia’s arcane state of law in regard to converts to Judaism. In 1816, for example, Court Assessor Zettwack of the Supreme Court of Pomerania pronounced in the case of the Catholic domestic servant Charlotte Schmidt of Batzebuhr that there were no legal grounds for hindering her conversion to Judaism. Prussians were free to choose their own Religionsparthey from their fourteenth birthday onwards, unless they could be proven mad or incapable of judging the consequences of their actions. Charlotte Schmidt was eighteen years of age; if she were sane, her conversion constituted, in Zettwack’s formulation, “a procedure to which the state is indifferent”.(20) The provincial government in Stettin appealed to the ministry of the interior and was ordered by Schuckmann to see to it that Schmidt be removed from the Jewish household where she was employed and warned of the grave consequences of her step.(21) There was similar confusion in the case of Henriette Marquard of Falkenburg, who lived in concubinage with the Jew Itzig Cohn. The Konigsberg provincial government took the view that the law offered no hindrance to her conversion. The government pointed out that “the Allgemeines Landrecht does not distinguish between publicly accepted and merely tolerated religious parties” and added that Part 2, Title II, paragraph 84 of the A.L.R. Ordered “generally and without discrimination on these grounds that every citizen of the state . . . is free to select the religious party to which he wishes to adhere”. It is interesting to note that the Konigsberg government was fully aware of how the law had been applied in previous cases of this kind. But since Henriette Marquard would be, after her conversion and subsequent expulsion, a foreign Jewish woman, it argued that under the edict of 1812 Itzig Cohn had the right to marry her as such and bring her back into Prussia.(22)

If the officials in Konigsberg had deliberately set out to make an ass of Prussian legal practice regarding conversions to Judaism, they could hardly have done much better. Schuckmann was forced to resort to high-handed legal caprice. In his reply to Konigsberg, he reminded them that the king himself had stated that such conversions were not to be permitted. If Marquard were to persist, she would be expelled and her children placed in a Christian orphanage, where they would be brought up as Christians. As for the right of Jews to marry foreigners, it did not extend to cases of this kind.(23) Schuckmann’s response reveals the bottom line of Prussian policy: when all else failed, coercion and intimidation were justified, even if they involved distorting and inventing law. A woman like Marquard or Sophie Koch (see appendix)-who sought conversion to Judaism in order to consolidate a long-standing relationship of cohabitation that had already borne children was unlikely to persevere at the cost of her own expulsion and the institutionalization of her offspring. In some cases it is clear that the technique of intimidation was successful. Louise Pracht, a needleworker of Berlin, sought conversion on the grounds that she had long been in close contact with Jewish families, had “experienced much kindness from them” and now wished to marry a Jew. Here as in so many other cases, the provincial government (in Potsdam) could find no legal reason to oppose her plan.(24) However, after she had been apprised of the consequences attending her conversion, Louise Pracht changed her mind. She was placed under police surveillance in case her resolve wavered.(25)

Despite the gradual accumulation of cases, no measures were introduced to resolve the problem and attempts by Christian women to convert to Judaism continued to cause administrative confusion. Even Altenstein admitted that it was unclear whether Frederick William in his original cabinet order had intended to forbid conversion to Judaism (thereby making use of his royal Machtspruch) or simply to advise that it was forbidden under Prussian law.(26) The latter view had the disadvantage of leaving the matter open to debate, since the monarch’s interpretation could in theory be overturned by reference to the laws themselves. But it had the advantage of protecting the king against the charge that he had broken the law in order to flout the principle of Gewissensfreyheit. Further confusion arose from the fact that the prohibition against conversion was confined to a single expression of the monarch’s will and was thus unable to exert any deterrent effect. Only when a Christian had actually made known her intention to convert could the priests and policemen be sent in to apply the art of mingled threat and persuasion. If, as sometimes happened, the local authorities learned of a conversion after it had taken place, a complex situation arose where the law had in effect to be applied retroactively. A case of this kind (Hoffmann) prompted the Church Consistory of West Prussia in Danzig to request in 1819 that the law regarding conversions to Judaism be published in the normal way. This, they argued, would help to avoid “collisions” between ministries, judges and others who had to implement law at a local level.(27) In 1820 and 1821 Theodor von Schon, the liberal governor of the provinces of East and West Prussia, thrice reiterated the call for a properly published law that would eliminate the invidious consequences of the current practice.(28)

Schon’s requests for public clarification of the law were not successful, but there were signs of growing unease at the ministerial level. In October 1823 Altenstein, minister for church, health and educational affairs, wrote to Schuckmann urging him to consider the merits of a published law forbidding conversions to Judaism. With specific reference to the case of Engel Hildebrandt, who had borne several children by the Jewish trader Theodor Haas and had been formally accepted into the Jewish community at Wehden after her conversion, Altenstein observed that banishment from Prussia seemed an inhumane response to the woman’s misdemeanour. He conceded that the relevant passages of the A.L.R. seemed calculated to “support the opinion that an apostasy of this sort is completely permissible and carries no negative consequences in civil law for the apostate”. The solution, Altenstein suggested, was to warn the public of the consequences of apostasy and to set out a penalty — such as the withdrawal of Prussian citizenship — for any Jew who connived in the induction of an apostate into the Jewish community. Altenstein was fully aware of the problems posed by the formalization of government measures to prevent and punish conversion to Judaism. The publication of regulations prohibiting conversion might convey the misleading and dangerous impression that this was a step many Christians felt tempted to undertake. Nor would it be easy to reconcile the new legislation with existing legislation guaranteeing freedom of conscience. It was essential, Altenstein wrote, that conversion to Judaism not be framed as a religious issue. The real question was not: do Prussian citizens have the right to convert to Judaism? but rather: “to what extent should the protection assured to born Jews be denied to apostates?”.(29) These knotty problems continued to exercise Altenstein’s mind. Nine years later, in a letter to Schuckmann’s successor Rochow, Altenstein insisted that police action against converts only seemed to conflict with freedom of conscience; in reality, it had nothing to do with conscience, since the motives for conversion to Judaism were never spiritual but always “immoral and economic” (unsittliche und okonomische).(30) This argument represented a novel refinement in the ministry’s campaign to criminalize conversion to Judaism and strip it of its confessional associations.

Despite Altenstein’s efforts, it appears that the Draconian penalties he prescribed for Jews involved in the conversion and induction of Christians were neither published nor applied in any systematic way. Since there appear to have been no further cases of secret or discovered conversion after 1823, there was probably no opportunity to put them to the test. But Christian women did continue to attempt to convert, and except for two cases where exceptional circumstances justified a royal dispensation (Blumenthal and Gudemann both in 1828), they were all refused. In 1827 the case of Anna Kleefeld, a fifteen-year-old Catholic domestic servant from Neumark in West Prussia, prompted further complaints from the provincial authorities. According to reports from the district magistrate of Neumark, Kleefeld was already in the habit of celebrating Sabbaths and holy days “like the born Jews” and neglecting Christian Sundays and feast-days. Although the girl had stated that it was her “adamant wish” to convert to Judaism, the magistrate suggested in a report to the provincial government in Marienwerder that the “persuasion of her [Jewish] employer and the town Jews” were the chief motivation for her decision. The situation was complicated by the fact that Kleefeld’s Christian parents were nowhere to be found.(31) Theodor von Schon of the provincial government in Konigsberg once again requested the ministry of the interior in Berlin to clarify the legal situation of Prussian converts to Judaism by issuing and gazetting a law to cover such cases. Applying the law in the light, as it were, of the monarch’s cabinet order would mean expelling Kleefeld from Prussian territory. But the expulsion of converts in the past had run into practical difficulties. Neither the Polish nor the Russian authorities were willing to accept expellees who had never been resident in either country. “In such cases”, Schon warned, “we will have no choice but to treat such proselytes as vagabonds when they turn back into Prussia and to have them locked up; I must, however, observe that such a measure seems extremely harsh”.(32) There were further assurances from Berlin that a proper law regarding conversion was on the way. The matter was under consideration by the ministries of justice and the interior. It would have to wait, however, until the forthcoming “general revision” of the legal system in Prussia and would not in any case apply retroactively. In the mean while the provincial authorities should proceed in accordance with existing law.(33) The answer from Berlin gave little reason to hope for a speedy resolution; over eight years had elapsed since Schon had first applied to Berlin to have an anticonversion ordinance formalized in penal law.(34)

As a result, the legal situation remained more or less unchanged. There were no systematic penal measures in place. Rabbis who inducted converts could be fined retrospectively for the crime of “forbidden proselytizing”, but there is no record of an expulsion order of the kind recommended by Altenstein, and no evidence that the Jewish communities had been informed of the legal consequences of accepting converts from Christianity. Christian women continued to attempt conversion, and when these cases were intercepted by the authorities, they trickled up from magistrate to provincial governor to minister, often coming to the attention of the king himself. In December 1834, exasperated by continuing reports that “women of low estate who have been made pregnant by Jews” were seeking conversion to Judaism, Frederick William III issued a stern cabinet order insisting on the fundamental illegality of the act. The king had devised a new solution to the problem. He ordered that the Jewish communities be forbidden to accept Christian converts until they had been “released” (entlassen) from the Christian community by the church authorities. At the same time, he forbade the Christian authorities to issue such releases to persons seeking conversion. He hoped that this preventive approach would do away altogether with the ambiguities that dogged the question of how to treat Christian converts to Judaism. “It will not be necessary to treat [them] like any other Jews”, he wrote, “because, if my order is obeyed, there can be no such converts”.(35)

The royal cabinet order appears to have been effective. Letters explaining the king’s wish went out from Rochow, minister for the interior and police, to the provincial governments and were relayed to the district magistrates, Catholic and Protestant church officials and the chief rabbis. Local rabbis were instructed by the chief rabbi or by the district magistrate that the induction of converts without a certificate of release was strictly forbidden.(36) One advantage of the new system was that it permitted the authorities to act without consulting the monarch himself.(37) Between 1835 and the king’s death in June 1840 only two further cases (Louise Ernst, Jette Sauer) reached the desk of the minister for church, health and educational affairs. Neither was referred to the monarch and both were refused.

The mechanisms installed to prevent conversions from Christianity to Judaism were abandoned within the first years of Frederick William IV’s reign. In a letter to the state ministry, the new king announced that he found his father’s cabinet order of December 1834 “dubious” (bedenklich) and internally contradictory. He proposed instead that Prussia adopt the Josephine legislation of Austria and require prospective converts to Judaism to undergo a year of instruction by a Christian clergyman before being permitted to enter the Jewish community. This would entail no danger for the Christian church as a whole, because conversions of this kind were “extremely rare”. In any case, the king argued, refusing to release those who wished to convert would help neither the Christian community nor the individuals in question. Instead, he suggested, the Christian community should be mobilized to encourage prospective converts to remain within the fold. He envisaged prayer meetings in which the entire congregation gathered about the renegade to bemoan her damnation and pray for her enlightenment. This cosy, quixotic formula reflected Frederick William IV’s faith in the spiritual authority of the Gemeinde (parish, community) and his preference for voluntaristic solutions in confessional matters over the direct compulsion practiced by his father.(38)

When the first of the cases we have considered, that of Henriette Kowalski, came to light, Minister Schuckmann ordered the police authorities in Konigsberg to investigate the possibility that Kowalski’s conversion was a deliberate provocation designed to probe the attitude of the Prussian administration. “She may possibly have been bought by the Jews in order to find out how the state authorities respond to such a case”.(39) Schuckmann’s suspicions confirm the intuition that led me to pursue these materials, namely, that conversions to Judaism were awkward test cases for the Christian state of Prussia. They exposed a vulnerable fault-line where the positive Christianity expounded by the monarch and his chosen advisers confronted the enlightened, secular legacy of the Allgemeines Landrecht and the edict of 1812.

Which had more authority, the king or the law? In issuing orders that ran against the grain of the law, Frederick William III was affirming his own status as supreme legislator, and forgetting the lessons he had learned as a young man from his enlightened tutors. In calling for a formal penal code, conversely, Theodor v-on Schon was affirming the authority of published and codified law — the fundamental principle of the Rechtsstaat — over monarchical caprice. At the bottom of this dispute were two conflicting interpretations of law. Schon’s posture reflected the priorities of that “liberal” school that favoured codification; the king and his ministers, on the other hand, were influenced by the conservative legal theory of men like Friedrich Karl von Savigny, who played down the authority of legislation and saw law as the product of an interaction between individual discretion and the “inner necessity” of the particular case.(40) In the matter of conversions to Judaism, the king and his ministers were able to impose their will, but they could only do so by improvising furtive detours around the Allgemeines Landrecht. It is interesting to note how reluctant Frederick William was to make open use of his royal decree. In this, at least, he was still the pupil of his tutor, Carl Gottlieb Svarez, who had warned against the royal Machtspruch and saw the A.L.R. as embodying the difference between Prussia and an “oriental despotism”.(41) The tension between the executive power of the monarch and the authority of published law was never permitted to become explicit. At no time did Frederick William simply forbid conversion to Judaism. He preferred to state — wrongly, as we have seen — that it was not permissible under Prussian law or to finesse the issue bureaucratically by placing insurmountable obstructions in the way of would-be converts. Significantly, the king and his ministers never questioned, even in confidential correspondence, the validity in principle of Gewissensfreyheit. This was not merely because of its constitutional status. Freedom of conscience was more than a mere survival of the age of Frederickian legal reform. It was part of the ideology of German Protestantism. The ethical role of conscience had been a central theme in the rhetoric of the Reformation and many German Protestants saw in the guarantee of Gewissensfreyheit one of the signal differences between the Protestant confessions and the despotic regime of the Catholic church. In a cabinet order of 1802 Frederick William himself had expressed his hatred of “religious compulsion” (religiosen Zwang) declaring that it was opposed to the spirit of his religion.(42)

The cases I have examined here illuminate one, and only one, of the areas in which the conflict between secular and confessional definitions of the state produced confusion and incoherence in Prussian administrative practice. The enforcement of the church union and the suppression of Old Lutheran separatism, the use of police informants to identify and prevent pietist “sectarian activity” — these and other government policies raised acutely the issue of Gewissensfreyheit and the limits of the state’s competence in religious questions. Under the secular dispensation provided by the Allgemeines Landrecht and the edict of emancipation, conversion to Judaism was a plausible, if unlikely, step. In the “missionary state” of the post-Napoleonic decades, it was an abomination, an Unding, that made a nonsense of the state as an expanding community of faith. The question was: if the state was “Christian”, in what sense was it Christian? How ought the relationship between the state and Christian principles and institutions to be defined? And, more importantly, how coercive could the state afford to become in the pursuit of its aims? Where should the line be drawn between the defence of Christian values and the suppression of private freedoms? None of these questions was resolved during the reign of Frederick William III. However, in a cabinet order of 1821 forbidding Christian clergymen to attend Jewish religious ceremonies, even in a private capacity, the king offered an interim guideline: “However strong the claim to tolerance may become, a borderline [Grenze] must be drawn wherever this implies a step backwards on the road to the redemption of mankind”.(43) The incoherence of Prussian confessional policy after 1815 reflected the hybrid character of a reign that spanned the transition from enlightened absolutism and reform to the conservative Christian authoritarianism of the post-Napoleonic era. (1) N. Samter, Judentaufen im 19. Jahrhundert (Berlin, 1906), p. 37. (2) R. Bieling, Die Juden vornehmlich: Ein geschichtlicher Uberblick uber die Arbeit der Gesellschaft zur Beforderung des Christenthums unter den Juden (Berlin, 1913), p. 12. (3) Frederick William III, cabinet order of 14 June 1824, reproduced in Bildarchiv Preu[beta]ischer Kulturbesitz, Juden in Preu[beta]en: Ein Kapital deutscher Geschichte (Dortmund, 1981), p. 195. (4) Cited in Samter, Judentaulen im 19. Jahrhundert, p. 19. (5) See C. M. Clark, The Politics of Conversion: Missionary Protestantism and the Jews in Prussia, 1728-1941 (Oxford, 1995). (6) On the phenomenon of conversion for the sake of marriage among Jewish women, see D. Hertz, “Seductive Conversion in Berlin, 1770-1809”, in T. Endelman (ed.), Jewish Apostasy in the Modern World (New York and London, 1987), pp. 48-82. (7) See Appendix below. (8) Geheimes Staatsarchiv, Merseburg (hereafter GStA Merseburg), Rep. 76 III, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, Deputation for Religion and School Affairs to interior ministry (department of religion and instruction), Konigsberg, 6 Oct. 1814. (9) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 III, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, Schuckmann to Deputation, Berlin, 9 Oct. 1814. The corrections are entered in the margin. (10) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 III, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, Frederick William III to Schuckmann, Vienna, 19 Nov. 1814. (11) On the A.L.R. as the “posthumous constitutional settlement” of Frederick the Great and its status as a “surrogate constitution” (Ersatzverfassung), see R. Koselleck, “Staat und Gesellschaft in Preu[beta]en, 1815-1848”, in W. Conze (ed.), Staat und Gesellschaft im deutschen Vormarz, 1815-1848 (Stuttgart, 1962), pp. 79-81; R. Koselleck, Preu[beta]en zwischen Reform und Revolution: Allgemeines Landrecht, Verwaltung, und soziale Bewegung von 1791 bis 1848 (Stuttgart, 1967), pp. 23-5. For criticisms of this interpretation, see G. Birtsch, “Zum konstitutionellen Charakter des preu[beta]ischen Allgemeinen Landrechts von 1794”, in K. Kluxen and W. Mommsen (eds.), Politische Ideologien und Nationalstaotliche Ordnung: Studien zur Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts: Festschrift fur Theodor Schieder (Munich and Vienna, 1968), pp. 97-115. (12) See esp. A.L.R., Th. II, Tit. 2, [subsections] 2; Allgemeines Landrecht fur die preu[beta]ischen Staoten von 1794: Textausgabe, ed. H. Hattenhauer (Frankfurt-on-Main and Berlin, 1970). For a list of passages from the A.L.R. relating to freedom of conscience, see the register volume, p. 54. (13) A.L.R., Th. I, Tit. 4, [subsections 9. (14) A.L.R., Th. II, Tit. 2, [subsections] 84. Birtsch, “Zum konstitutionellen Charakter”, p. 106, n. 38, notes that the A.L.R. did not guarantee “freedom of religion” as a “fundamental right” (Grundrecht). This is correct in the sense that the A.L.R. did not grant Prussian subjects the right to establish their own sects and churches, but it has little bearing on the issue of freedom of conscience or on the right of Prussian subjects to transfer their confessional allegiance from one existing “religious party” to another. (15) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 III, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, [Schuckmann] to Hardenberg, Berlin, 6 Dec. 1814. This document is unsigned, but its style and archival context suggest Schuckmann’s authorship. (16) Cf. H. Fischer, Judentum, Staat und Heer in Preu[beta]en im fruhen 19. Jahrhundert (Tubingen, 1968), p. 93. (17) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 III, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, B1. 79, Altenstein to Breslau consistory, Berlin, 10 Mar. 1818. (18) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 III, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, [Schuckrnann] to Hardenberg, 7 Feb. 1815. (19) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 m, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, Hardenberg to Schuckrnann, Vienna, 20 May 1815. (20) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 m, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, Supreme Court Assessor Zettwack, report of 14 Apr. 1816. (21) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 m, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, Schuckmann to Stettin government, department for religion and schools, Berlin, 21 May 1816. (22) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 m, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, Konigsberg government to ministry of the interior, department of religion and public instruction, Konigsberg, 6 May 1815. Paragraphs 17 and 18 of the edict of 11 March 1812 affirmed that a foreign Jewish woman who married a Prussian Jewish man obtained thereby the right to settle in Prussia. (23) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 III, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, Schuckmann to Konigsberg government, Deputation for Religion and Schools, Berlin, 21 May 1815. (24) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 III, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, government of the Kurmark to ministry of the interior, department of religion and public instruction, Potsdam, 29 Feb. 1816. (25) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 III, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, Brandenburg consistory to ministry of the interior, Berlin, 9 June 1816. (26) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 m, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, Altenstein to district government of Oppeln, Berlin, 17 Feb. 1825. (27) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 III, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, West Prussian consistory to ministry of the interior, Danzig, 21 Aug. 1819. (28) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 III, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, Schon to ministry for church, health and educational affairs, Danzig, 23 Aug., 9 Nov. 1820, 11 Nov. 1821. (29) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 m, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 1, Altenstein to Schuckrnann, Berlin, 16 Oct. 1823. (30) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 m, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 2, Altenstein to Rochow, Berlin, 19 Nov. 1834. (31) Geheimes Staatsarchiv, Berlin (hereafter GStA Berlin), HA XX 2/2282, Bl. 3 Acta Consistorialia betreffend den Ubertritt der Christen zum Judenthum, District Magistrate Neumark to royal government Marienwerder, 27 Aug. 1827. (32) GStA Berlin, HA XX 2/2282, B1. 7, Schon to Altenstein, Konigsberg, 6 Oct. 1827. (33) GStA Berlin, HA XX 2/2282, B1. 8, Altenstein to Schon, BerLin, 13 Dec. 1827. (34) For a reference to Schon’s original application, see GStA Berlin, HA XX 2/2282, B1. 1-2, royal government Marienwerder (department of the interior) to von Schon, Marienwerder, 5 Sept. 1827. (35) EvangeLisches Zentralarchiv, Berlin, G III 13 9/35, Frederick William III to Rochow, Berlin, 21 Dec. 1834. (36) This, at least, was the case in the Rhineland: Rochow to Coblenz government, Berlin, 28 Dec. 1834; excerpts from this document and a useful commentary are printed in “Des Verhaltnis der Juden zu den christlichen Religionsgemeinschaften”, ed. K. H. Debus, in Dokurnentation zur Geschichte der judischen Beuolkerung in Rheinland-Pfalz und im Saarland vom 1800 bis 1945, iv (Coblenz, 1974), pp. 225-335; here doe. 15b, p. 258. (37) See GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 m, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 2, Frederick William to Altenstein, Berlin, 30 July 1835. (38) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 m, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 2, Frederick William IV to state ministry, Berlin, 5 Dec. 1843; Frederick William IV to Eichhorn, Charlottenburg, 8 Dec. 1843. (39) GStA Merseburg, Rep. 76 m, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIV, Nr. 46, vol. 2, Schuckmann to Konigsberg government, Berlin, 9 Oct. 1814. (40) On the dispute between liberal “codifiers” and the lawyers of the “historical school”, see M. John, Politics and the Law in Late Nineteenth-Century Germany: The Origins of the Civil Code (Oxford, 1989), pp. 18-21. (41) T. Stamm-Kuhlmann, Konig in Preu[Beta]ens gro/[Beta]er Zeit: Friedrich Wilhelm III der Melancholiker auf dem Thron (Berlin, 1992), p. 55. The quotation is from C. G. Svarez, Vortrage fiber Recht und Staat, ed. H. Conrad and G. Kleinheyer (Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen der Arbeitsgemeinschaft fur Forschung des Landes NordrheinWestfalen, x, Cologne and Opladen, 1960), p. 236. (42) Circular to all consistories regarding the baptism of children within six weeks of birth, Berlin 23 Feb. 1802: Novam Corpus Costitutionum Prussico-Brandenburgensium praecipue Marchicarum, ii (1800-5) (Berlin, 1806), cols. 769-72; here col. 771. (43) Evangelisches Zentralarchiv, Berlin, 9/37, circular issued by ministry for church, health and educational affairs to all superintendents with excerpts from Frederick William’s cabinet order, 18 Oct. 1821.


1814, Konigsberg: Henriette Kowalski wants to marry the Jew Koppel Meyer. Her application is refused. Meyer himself subsequently converted to Christianity.

1815, Berlin: Fischel Salomon was born a Jew, then converted before the edict of emancipation (1812); she now seeks naturalization after her retroconversion on the grounds that she is a “Prussian Jew”. Her application is refused.

1815, Falkenburg, East Prussia: Henriette Marquard wants to marry the Jew Itzig Cohn, with whom she presently lives with their two children. Cohn applied to marry her, but was refused, because mixed marriages are prohibited. Her application is refused.

February 1816, Berlin: Louise Pracht, a Lutheran, has enjoyed long-standing contacts with Jewish families and wishes to marry a Jew. Her application is refused.

March 1816, Breslau: The Christian wife of the Jew Martin Hahn (they were married under French law in Cassel) seeks to convert to Judaism. Her application is refused.

April 1816, Batzebahr, Pomerania: Charlotte Schmidt, a Catholic, is a minor, but old enough under the A.L.R. to choose her own Religionsparthey. She works in a Jewish household and wants to convert. Her application is refused.

June 1816, Ovenhausen, bishopric of Korvey: Elise Poplier seeks to convert. Her application is refused.

1817, Silesia: Heinrich Julius Wolff wants to convert back to Judaism. His application is refused.

1818, Magdeburg: Rebecka Hager converted to Judaism in order to marry the Jewish trader Joachim Heinrich Goldmann. Frederick William issues a cabinet order announcing that this is illegal and orders that the law be put into effect.

1818, Oppeln district: A report of 1825 from Oppeln district government indicates that the Christian servant girl Hedwige Wilczeck married the Jewish distiller Wolf in 1818 at Peiskretscham under Mosaic law. Altenstein, minister of church and educational affairs, advises that expulsion from Prussia is the consequence of loss of citizenship.

August 1819, Danzig: Katharina Hoffmann, wife of the Jewish citizen Gotthilf Schmul in Christburg, converted secretly two years ago. Provincial President Theodor von Schon pleads for clemency and asked for a published law. Rabbi Moses Simon Cohn is fined 10 thaler for illegally marrying them.

December 1819, Pomerania (Stettin?): Sophie Koch lives in concubinage with a Jew and has one child by him. Now wishes to convert, allegedly because the local police will no longer tolerate her “ansto[beta]igen Umgang” (scandalous behaviour). Her application is refused.

September 1823, Minden: The servant girl Engel Hildebrandt was “taken into the Jewish community at Wehden in the district of Minden only four weeks ago”. She had been made pregnant on a number of occasions by the Jewish trader Theodor Haas. Outcome unknown.

1827, Neumark: Anna Kleefeld, a Catholic servant girl of Neumark, seeks to convert. Her application is refused.

May 1828, Loslau, Oppeln district, Silesia: Juliana Ascher, born a Jew, then converted to Catholicism, now seeks retro-conversion. Her application is refused.

June 1828, Berlin: Rosalia Blumenthal, wife of tobacco-spinner Jacobi in Rogasen, Posen. She left her family in order to convert to Christianity and now, allegedly pained by guilt at the dereliction of her maternal duties, seeks retro-conversion. (The answer is yes in view of the importance of her maternal role.)

November 1828, Hoxter in Minden: Rebecca Gudemann of Hoxter, daughter of the Jewish trader Abraham Gudemann, fell pregnant by Heinrich Lessmann, an agricultural labourer from Hembsen. He went back to Hembsen, she followed and converted in the hope that he would marry her, but he refused. So she returned home and has since been a practicing Jew who brings her child up as such. The problem arose when the (half?) brother of Abraham Gudemann, J. Meyer Gudemann, married Gudemann’s daughter, i.e. the illegitimate granddaughter of his deceased brother. Because of its parentage, the child is officially Christian, although it has been brought up in the Jewish faith. The marriage of Christians and Jews is forbidden, but Gudemann seeks special permission to have her daughter legally classified as a Jew, so that her marriage with J. Meyer Gudemann remains legal. King Frederick William m grants them special dispensation in view of the exceptional nature of the circumstances.

November 1828, Posen: Catharine Konkoleska from Jarocin and her mother seek to convert because the daughter wishes to marry a Jewish tailor. Their application is refused.

September 1834, Berlin: The Christian divorcee Zieche nee Kieser wants to convert in order to marry a Jew. Her application is refused.

December 1835, Schippenbeil, East Prussia: Louise Wilhelmine Ernst, concubine of the Jewish trader Goldstamm, seeks to convert in order to marry him. Her application is refused.

June 1836, Posen: Jette Sauer, nee Baer, from Prittisch, Posen, seeks retroconversion to Judaism. Her application is refused.

October 1840 (Frederick William IV), Berger in Rugen: Dora Loewenthal seeks (retro?)conversion to Judaism. Her application is refused.

February 1841, Ratibor district, Silesia: Ida Aschner, nee Grossmann, Ratibor district. She is very old and seeks retro-conversion to ease her conscience. Her application is refused.

5 December 1843: Frederick William IV seeks a revision of the existing law. Those seeking conversion must undergo the process stipulated in the Josephine legislation in Austria, i.e. one year of compulsory instruction by a Christian clergyman, followed by the issuance of a special certificate from the district police authority. Only when this process is complete may a rabbi accept the convert into the Jewish community.

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