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Wilhelm Marr

(1819-1904)


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Known as the father of modern antisemitism, Wilhelm Marr led the fight to overturn Jewish emancipation in Germany.

Born in 1819, Marr entered politics as a democratic revolutionary who favored the emancipation of all oppressed groups, including Jews. However, when he became embittered about the failure of the 1848-49 German Revolution to democratize Germany, and about his own rapidly declining political fortunes, he turned his venom against the Jews. His essay “Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum von nicht confessionellen Standpunkt” (“The Victory of Judaism over Germandom: From a Non-Denominational Point of View”) reached its 12th edition in 1879.

Marr’s conception of antisemitism focused on the supposed racial, as opposed to religious, characteristics of the Jews. His organization, the League of Antisemites, introduced the word “antisemite” into the political lexicon and established the first popular political movement based entirely on anti-Jewish beliefs.

Marr’s often-reprinted political tract, “The Victory of Judaism over Germandom,” warned that “the Jewish spirit and Jewish consciousness have overpowered the world.” He called for resistance against “this foreign power” before it was too late. Marr thought that before long “there will be absolutely no public office, even the highest one, which the Jews will not have usurped.” For Marr, it was a badge of honor to be called an antisemite.

Marr and others employed the word antisemitism in the largely secular anti-Jewish political campaigns that became widespread in Europe around the turn of the century. The word derived from an 18th-century analysis of languages that differentiated between those with so-called “Aryan” roots and those with so-called “Semitic” ones. This distinction led, in turn, to the assumption--a false one--that there were corresponding racial groups. Within this framework, Jews became “Semites,” and that designation paved the way for Marr’s new vocabulary. He could have used the conventional German term Judenhass to refer to his hatred of Jews, but that way of speaking carried religious connotations that Marr wanted to de-emphasize in favor of racial ones. Apparently more “scientific,” Marr’s Antisemitismus caught on. Eventually, it became a way of speaking about all the forms of hostility toward Jews throughout history.

Over the centuries, antisemitism has taken on different but related forms: religious, political, economic, social, and racial. Jews have been discriminated against, hated, and killed because prejudiced non-Jews believed they belonged to the wrong religion, lacked citizenship qualifications, practiced business improperly, behaved inappropriately, or possessed inferior racial characteristics. These forms of antisemitism, but especially the racial one, all played key parts in the Holocaust.

Importantly, Hitler and his followers were not antisemites primarily because they were racists. The relation worked more the other way around: Hitler and his followers were racists because they were antisemites looking for an anti-Jewish stigma deeper than any religious, economic, or political prejudice alone could provide. For if Jews were found wanting religiously, it was possible for them to convert. If their business practices or political views were somehow inappropriate, changed behavior could, in principle, correct their shortcomings. But antisemites in the line that ran from Marr to Hitler believed that Jews were a menace no matter what they did. As Marr put the point, “the Jews are the ‘best citizens’ of this modern, Christian state,” but they were that way, he added, because it was “in perfect harmony with their interests” to be so. Undoubtedly, Marr believed--and Hitler agreed even more so--that the interests of Jews were irreconcilably at odds with Germany’s.

For antisemites of Marr’s stripe, converted Jews were still untrustworthy Jews. Jewish behavior might change in any number of ways, but the “logic” of racist antisemitism did not consider such changes as reasons to give up antisemitism. To the contrary, this antisemitism interpreted Jewish assimilation as infiltration, Jewish conformity as duplicity, and Jewish integration into non-Jewish society as proof of Jewish cunning that intended world domination. On the other hand, if Jews insisted on retaining their distinctively Jewish ways, that insistence provided evidence of another kind to show that Jews were an alien people. Added to earlier forms of antisemitism, racial theory “explained” why the Jews, no matter what appearances might suggest to the contrary, were a threat that Germans could not afford to tolerate.


Sources: The Holocaust Chronicle

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