By David Aberbach

1893 marked the founding of the C.V – one of the most important Jewish organisations of the pre-Holocaust age. We look at it’s failure to respond effectively to antisemitism.

German infantrymen near Verdun in northern France, scene of a bloody battle between French and German troops (Photo: Getty Images)

The emergence of antisemitic political parties in the 19th century followed increased enfranchisement and free elections: in a democracy, an antisemitic electorate will elect antisemites. By the end of the 19th century there were about 50 antisemitic European parties, and antisemitism as a vote-getter could help win elections.

The German Jews, being the most thoroughly assimilated in the 19th century, were among the most troubled by the rise of antisemitism as it threatened their newly-won emancipation and rights as Germans in the newly-unified state (as of 1871).

To deal with the problem, they founded in 1893 the official communal representative of German Jewry, the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens (known as the C.V.).

This became one of the most important Jewish organisations of the pre-Holocaust age (by 1933 the C.V. had about 50,000 members in a community of about 600,000). The C.V. aimed to defend the German Jews against antisemitism – or, as its charter put it, to achieve “the protection of the civil and social rights of the German Jews”.

So, why did the C.V. fail?

Part of the difficulty involved self-image: the C.V. presented itself as a German organisation representing a fiercely patriotic community that saw itself as German first and imagined itself German by nature and could not be anything else. The problem was that most Germans disagreed. Maximilian Horwitz, first president of the C.V., summed up the reality of a hostile society in which Jews were unwanted: “Stepchildren must behave themselves.”

With a highly professional legal team, the C.V. set out to fight antisemitism, rationally, systematically, legally, as Germans, in German interests, out of ‘patriotic duty’ – for anti-Semitism gave Germany a “bad name”.

The C.V. aimed to educate Germans to overcome the “misunderstandings” behind their aversion to Jews. It used all possible legal means to bring antisemites to justice and supported Liberal, Progressive and Social-Democratic parties against the antisemitic German conservatives and nationalists.

To avoid the antisemitic charge of dual loyalty, the C.V., breaking with other Jewish organisations, abandoned the age-old Jewish solidarity world-wide, stating in its 1893 charter that it would give no aid to non-German Jews.

Decades later, Hannah Arendt accused the C.V. of betraying the Jewish people: ‘“When one is attacked as a Jew,” she wrote, “one must defend oneself as a Jew.” In the 1890s, however, when the C.V. was founded, most Jews who fought antisemitism as Jews were Zionists, a tiny minority. The C.V., committed as it was to a “symbiosis” of Jews and Germans, could never accept a Jewish national ideology separating them from their self-perceived German identity.

Until 1933, the C.V. opposed Zionism more strongly than most Arabs in the early 20th century. It attacked Herzl, founder of political Zionism, not for the “toxic infection” of his Jewish self-hatred, as Ernst Pawel called it, but as a dangerous utopian dreamer, effectively serving the interests of antisemites, for he allegedly aimed to give up Jewish emancipation and return to the ghetto. Herzl’s view (expressed in the JC in 1896) that anti-Semitism was ‘the force we need’ for a Jewish national revival was anathema to the assimilated German Jews represented by the C.V.

Perhaps the most important lesson learned by the C.V. is that legal opposition to antisemitism, however successful, is of limited use in an antisemitic society, especially in periods of crisis, military and economic. Prejudice is stronger than facts and reason and cannot easily be defeated by either.

The poison of political antisemitism, writes the historian David Blackbourn, entered the middle classes and nationalist movements, and prepared the way for the Holocaust long before Hitler. Antisemitic language was so widespread, and had been for so many centuries, that it was impossible to classify it as hate-speak.

Subject to the law and protected by the liberal principle of freedom of expression, antisemitic publications were published freely and widely read.

The powerlessness of the C.V. against German antisemitism became especially clear during the 1914-1918 war.

German Jews, over 10 per cent of whom were front-line soldiers, were libelled as malingerers. The C.V. produced irrefutable evidence to the contrary: in a community of 600,000, about 100,000 had served in the German army, 12,000 died and more than 30,000 won the Iron Cross. Once the German public understood that German Jews were staunch patriots and had given everything “in property and blood” – an Gut und Blut – the “misunderstanding” would be cleared up.

The leading C.V. spokesman for “symbiosis” of German and Jewish identity was Eugen Fuchs (1856-1923), who, typically of German Jews, believed that the German side in his make-up was stronger than the Jewish side and that he had more in common with Germans than with Jews. Fuchs was repelled by Zionism and by the taint of a Jewish national identity which might give antisemites ammunition for the expulsion of the German Jews.

The correct response to antisemitism, in Fuchs’ view, was not flight but greater patriotism, more uncompromising deutscher Gesinnung, and suppression of everything that made Jews different. To assimilated Jews like Fuchs, antisemitism was practically justified in relation to the Ostjuden, the Eastern European Jews with their odious Jewish loyalties, described by Zygmunt Bauman as “a large refuse bin of human characteristics into which all that nagged the conscience of the Western Jew and filled him with shame was dumped”.

Factual proof that antisemitic beliefs were based on lies and error could not uproot prejudice. There was also little point in arguing with a racial antisemite that Jews are not a race.

Racists will not hate Jews less if they are shown irrefutable proof that many have blond hair and blue eyes or that their level of criminality is lower than that of the general population; or that they pay more tax, or give more to charity than average; or that most Jews are neither capitalists nor socialists.

It was also futile to prove that the German Jews fought bravely in large numbers at the front. Antisemites, including Hitler, would continue to accuse them of being shirkers.

The C.V. was helpless in the face of popular antisemitism and mainstream intellectual antisemitism, justifying racism and genocide, which pervaded Europe in the century prior to the Holocaust.

A yellow CV sticker translates as ‘Hatred of Jews arises from envy, stupidity and incompetence’ (Photo: PA)

The C.V. did not diminish the influence of intellectual antisemites who justified the destruction of European Jewry, including Jakob Friedrich Fries, Heinrich von Treitschke, Eugen Karl Dühring and Paul de Lagarde. C.V. efforts to prove antisemites wrong might even have encouraged Jew-hatred, rousing suspicions of non-Jews as to why Jews needed the C.V. to protest so emphatically their patriotism. It is striking how widespread, not just in Germany, prejudice of all kinds was in the decades before the Holocaust.

In Germany, “enemies” were everywhere – including the “barbaric” Russians and especially the “decadent”French. France reciprocated with its own hatreds, quite apart from the Jews, among whom the Germans and the Italians took first place.

In England, similar language was common: in World War I, Rudyard Kipling condemned the Germans as “germs of any disease” and after the Russian Revolution, Churchill attacked Bolshevism as a “plague bacillus”.

Even the C.V. itself, committed as it was to fighting prejudice, inadvertently revealed that it had absorbed popular German prejudices, not excluding the Jews.

Its official paper, Im Deutschen Reich, condemned “Russian malice, French thirst for revenge, English deviousness”, and “Serbian lust for murder.”

The aforementioned Eugen Fuchs used even stronger language, as befitted a “German down to my bones”: “murderous Russia”, “insidious England”, “bloodthirsty France”, even Japan’s “yellow highway robbers.”

Contempt for foreign countries and ethnic groups contributed to both world wars. As prejudice was widespread, it could not easily be seen as an evil to be eradicated; consequently, many warnings were ignored and Jews remained loyal to their hate-filled Fatherland.

Zionism, which created at least the possibility of Jewish self-defence against antisemitism, was rejected by most assimilated European Jews as it required that they give up their patriotism and acknowledge a shared national identity with people with whom they, at best, felt no affinity and, at worst, detested. In Germany even after 1933, the C.V. feared that Zionism endangered the standing of German Jews as loyal patriots.

Only when the Nazis forced emigration to Palestine on increasing numbers of German Jews did the C.V. begin to accept that Zionism might be a solution to the Jewish Problem. Even then, the C.V. tended to view emigration as Kopflose Panik – unthinking panic – and many of the older C.V. leaders, fixed in lifelong patriotic devotion to Germany, continued to oppose Zionism with almost the same vehemence with which they fought antisemitism.

Until the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, the C.V., like other German Jewish communal organisations, aimed to support Jews to remain in Germany and to limit emigration. They issued declarations of loyalty to the Nazi regime. Their leaders, including Zionists, tended to see mass emigration as an abdication of responsibility, a weakening in the Jewish struggle for equal rights, and even a betrayal of the Fatherland.

Even those like Rabbi Leo Baeck, religious leader of the German Jews, who pronounced in 1933 the end of German Jewry – Das Ende des deutschen Judentums ist gekommen – did not call for emigration.

It is true that German Jews under Nazi rule found some encouragement in the fact that public opinion in many parts of Germany was sympathetic to and opposed violence. The anti-Jewish boycott was frustrated in 1934–6; courts often ruled in favour of Jews who appealed against anti-Jewish signs, many Germans continued to buy from Jewish shops, and traders traded with Jews. And in general, to the chagrin of Nazi officials, Jews continued to be seen as human beings. Yet, after 1933, the original aim of the C.V. – to fight antisemitism as patriotic German Jews – no longer had credibility in face of the Nazi demonisation.

Hannah Arendt, in a pre-war study of the German Jews, concluded that their patriotism had led them to the delusion that they were “nothing but Germans”. The historian, Peter Gay, who as a child had lived in Berlin, tried to answer the post-war reprimand . . . “and you still thought, after the Nuremberg Laws and other horrors, that you were Germans?’: “But we were Germans. The gangsters who had taken control of the country were not Germans – we were … my parents and I did not think we were living a delusion.”

By 1942, German Jewry was destroyed and Zionism was adopted by most Jews and Jewish organisations, or at least was no longer vehemently opposed. And when the full dimensions of the Holocaust became known, Zionism was accepted faute de mieux as the only political answer to antisemitism. To the present day, there has been no other plausible answer, and antisemites blinded by hatred continue, in effect, to justify Zionism through their hatred.

The failure of Jewish organisations such as the C.V. to respond effectively to antisemitism has haunted diaspora Jewish communities since the war.

For although German-Jewish attachment to Germany was extreme, the pattern of loyalty and reluctance to emigrate was repeated in Jewish communities throughout Europe, even at the moment of betrayal. Even in death, many German Jews continued to dream of Deutschtum and Judentum united.

Paul Celan’s Todesfuge is a death dream joining the German murderer hunting his Jewish victim with Goethe’s golden-haired Margarete and Shulamith from the Songs of Songs, with ashen hair:

a man in the house your golden hair Margarete

he hunts us down with his dogs in the sky he gives us a grave

he plays with the serpents and dreams death comes as a master

from Germany

your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith