Join Our Mailing List

Sponsor Us!

Virtual Jewish World:
Prussia


Virtual Jewish World: Table of Contents | Europe | Germany


Print Friendly and PDF

Prussia ia a former dukedom and kingdom, the nucleus and dominant part of modern united Germany (1870). The name came to signify a conglomerate of territories whose core was the electorate of Brandenburg , ruled by the Hohenzollern dynast from the capital, Berlin .

1300–1740

The order of Teutonic Knights, who ruled East Prussia from the 13th century, in 1309 expressly prohibited Jews from entering their territory. From the 15th century East Prussia was dominated by Poland and became economically dependent on it. As Jews constituted an important section of the merchant class in Poland, East Prussia acquiesced to the presence of Jewish merchants (exporters of furs, leathers, wax, and honey) although prohibiting them from settling and repeatedly threatening them with expulsions, which were rarely enforced. It was only with the complete secularization of the Teutonic order under Duke Albert I of Prussia (1522–77) that two Jewish physicians were allowed to settle temporarily in Koenigsberg (1538–41). From the 17th century Jews came in ever increasing numbers to the then staunchly Protestant region, where they were welcomed by the ruling circles. In 1664 Moses Jacobson de Jonge of Amsterdam received very favorable commercial privileges (subsequently renewed) in Memel , where he became the most important merchant, paying more customs dues than any of his Christian counterparts. He became a Court Jew in 1685 and his sons inherited the function. In Koenigsberg, capital of East Prussia, Jews were permitted to graduate in medicine from the university in 1658, and Jewish merchants were encouraged to settle soon after. A synagogue was built there in 1680 and a cemetery opened in 1703. The community grew during the 18th and 19th centuries, remaining the economic, social, and religious center of the region. In the latter half of the 18th century Jewish communities were founded in Elblag , Marienwerder, Lyck , and elsewhere.

Jews were expelled from Brandenburg in 1573 by Elector Joachim II. The great elector, Frederick William (1640–88), who became absolute master of East Prussia, inherited principalities in Western Germany where Jews had already settled (see Cleves , Behrend Levi ); subsequently he acquired Halberstadt and Minden (1648), and at a later date Magdeburg and Halle (1680) where Jews were granted rights of residence soon after the annexation. Frederick William, anxious to repair the havoc wrought by the Thirty Years' War and influenced by mercantilistic and tolerant ideas, encouraged foreigners to settle on his lands. In 1650 he permitted Polish Jews to trade in Brandenburg for seven years but not to settle there; this privilege was renewed in 1660. Israel Aron, a military contractor and purveyor to the mint (see Mintmasters ) received permission to settle in Berlin in 1663 and became Frederick William's Court Jew.

The basis for a Jewish settlement, however, was created by the expulsion from Vienna (1670). Through his resident agent in Vienna, Andreas Neumann, the elector, declared that he was not opposed to receiving 40–50 "rich and wealthy persons, prepared to bring and invest their means here"; on May 21, 1671, he permitted 50 families to settle, buy houses and shops, and engage in trade almost unrestrictedly. They could not, however, open a synagogue. The leaders of the small and interrelated group, Benedict Veit and Abraham Ries, and the richer Jews were encouraged to remain in Berlin. Other families settled in the cities of Brandenburg , Frankfurt on the Oder, and Landsberg ( Gorzow Wielkopolski ) where the first Landrabbiner , Solomon Kajjem Kaddish, and his successor had their seat. The elector disregarded his subjects' objections to Jewish settlement, being concerned with the economic benefits he derived from direct taxation of the Schutzjuden and indirect taxation through customs, tolls, and excise, which the Jews paid at a higher rate. During his reign the Berlin Jewish community grew to 40 families, that of Halberstadt to 86, that of Frankfurt to 43, while 15 families had settled in Pomerania.

His son Frederick I (1688–1713; crowned king of Prussia in 1701) confirmed existing Jewish privileges on his succession; new communities were founded and existing ones grew. A noted collector of gems, Frederick patronized jewel purveyors such as Jost and Esther Liebmann and Marcus Magnus . Under his son Frederick William I (1713–40), a generally harsh regime was introduced. On his accession he ordered a thorough inquiry into Jewish affairs, the outcome of which was the law of 1714 restricting to one the number of sons who could inherit their father's right of residence (Schutzbrief); to be granted this right the second son had to possess 1,000 taler and pay 50, and the third son twice these amounts. Thus a dominant theme in Prussian-Jewish relations, the attempt to restrict and even to reduce the number of Jews, was formally introduced. In 1717 the king appointed Moses Levin Gomperz as Oberaeltester ("chief elder," parnas) of Berlin and Prussian Jewry, an appointment probably connected with the supervision of the just distribution of the tax load, conducted by representatives of communities and Landjudenschaften . In 1728 the sum was fixed at 15,000 taler annually, to be reapportioned every five years. In 1730 a new Jewry law was promulgated: the eldest son was now obliged to own 1,000 and pay 50 taler and the second twice these amounts; all were subject to the condition that the number of protected Jews (Schutzjuden) in any given locality should not increase. Foreign Jews in possession of at least 10,000 taler were allowed to settle in Prussia. The law also prohibited Jews from engaging in all crafts (except seal engraving) competing with Christian guilds; it prohibited them from dealing in a large number of goods (mainly local produce). Peddling , in particular, was suppressed. Commerce in luxury wares (expensive textiles, spices, etc.) was permitted, as was moneylending and dealing in old clothes. The law applied not only to Brandenburg but to all Prussian territories, creating uniform conditions for the Jews and defining (in article 24) their juridical relationship to the state. The regular tax load was raised, in addition to extraordinary exactions. Jewish merchants were encouraged to become entrepreneurs and invest in manufacture, particularly of textiles (silk, ribbons, satin, lace, etc.). These businessmen were granted highly favorable conditions. Thus the king passed on to his son a basically contradictory policy, at the same time mercantilist and anti-Jewish; needing and encouraging Jews for their economic contribution he attempted to restrict their rights and numbers.

From Frederick II to Emancipation

Frederick II, the Great, enforced his father's policies even more rigorously. By his conquest of Silesia (1742) his rule extended over a sizable Jewish population; appreciating their economic importance he exempted them from his otherwise obnoxious Jewish legislation. In 1750 Frederick promulgated his Revidiertes Generalprivilegium und Reglement, prompted by the results of an inquiry which showed the number of privileged Jewish families in Prussia (excluding Silesia) in 1749 at 2,093, almost double the 1728 figure. The preamble stated that the law was intended to help both Christians and Jews, whose livelihood was being threatened by the increasing number of Jews. It created two types of Schutzjuden: an unrestricted number of "extraordinary" ones whose rights could not be inherited, and a restricted number of "ordinary" Schutzjuden who could pass on their rights to one son only. As in 1730, Jews were excluded from almost all professions and expressly prohibited from brewing, innkeeping, and farming. Trade in livestock, wool, leather, and most local produce was prohibited; the permitted occupations were moneylending and dealing in luxury wares and old clothes. The strictures against peddling were made more severe, as were those against beggars. During the Seven Years' War (1756–63) Frederick relied on monetary manipulations effected by Daniel Itzig , V.H. Ephraim , and other purveyors to the mint. His armies were provisioned by Jewish military contractors (supplying horses, grain, fodder, wine, etc). After the war he encouraged a newly created, sparse layer of very wealthy Jews to invest their capital in industry and manufacture. Frederick levied onerous and distasteful taxes. In 1766 he introduced the Silberlieferung: 12,000 silver marks to be delivered annually at below face value to the royal mint; the 15,000 marks annual tax (from 1728) was increased to 25,000 in 1768. In 1769 he ordered every Jew to purchase and export a certain quantity of local porcelain (expensive, inferior wares produced by the royal factory) whenever he needed a royal concession or privilege (e.g., for marriage).

During Frederick's reign the Berlin community gradually became preponderant in Prussian Jewry. The Landrabbinat was occupied by such leading authorities as David Fraenkel (1742–62), Aaron Mosessohn (1762–71), and Hirschel Levin . The dual office of Oberlandes-Aeltester was successively occupied by elders of the Berlin community, V.H. Ephraim (1750–75), Daniel Itzig (1775–99), and Jacob Moses (1775–92). In Berlin, Breslau, and Koenigsberg the upper strata of the Jews, who were rich and influential, took the first steps toward assimilation, acquiring the General-Privilegium, which granted them the rights of Christian merchants (such as freedom of movement and settlement). Through the First Partition of Poland (1772) Prussia's Jewish population had almost doubled, and Frederick feared above all an influx of Jews from the newly annexed province of West Prussia.

Frederick's nephew, Frederick William II (1786–97), inaugurated a period of liberalization and reform in Prussia. As crown prince he had borrowed large sums from Berlin's Jewish financiers. An admirer of Mendelssohn and Mirabeau , in the first years of his reign he abolished the porcelain law and repealed the Leibzoll for foreign Jews. On May 2, 1791, Daniel Itzig and his family received the first Naturalisationspatent, which granted them full citizenship. A year later the solidarische Haftung (collective responsibility and liability of the Jewish community for non-payment of taxes and crimes of theft) was abolished. The king nominated a commission to draft a new and liberal Jewry law but due to the procrastination of his counselors, his own hesitations, and his increasing preoccupation with foreign affairs this was never carried out. New problems were created by the Second (1793) and Third (1795) Partitions of Poland, which respectively added about 53,000 and 75,000 Jews to the Prussian realm. New legislation became urgent. Shortly before his death Frederick William II passed a Jewry law for the new territories, which was in some respects more progressive than previous laws. His early death and the conservative nature of his son, Frederick William III, disrupted all reformatory activity until Napoleon's defeat of Prussia at Jena (1806), when far-reaching reforms were carried out under the leadership of Karl August von Hardenberg and Wilhelm von Humboldt . In 1808 municipal citizenship and offices were opened to all, irrespective of religion.

The decisive step was taken with the promulgation in March 11, 1812, of an edict concerning the civil status of the Jews. The first article declared all legally resident Jews to be full citizens. All occupations were declared open to Jews, as were academic positions. Article 9, however, postponed the question of Jewish eligibility to state offices; the oath more Judaico also remained in force. Marriage to a Prussian Jewess did not bestow citizenship and foreign Jews were prohibited from becoming communal employees. The edict was received with thanksgiving by the elders of the main Jewish communities, Berlin, Breslau, and Koenigsberg. A year later, during the War of Liberation, Prussian Jews expressed their patriotism by volunteering in large numbers (see Military service ). The high expectations of Prussian Jewry were not put to the test until after the Congress of Vienna , at which Prussia was given back the province of Posen ( Poznan ) and received the Rhineland and part of Westphalia (where Jews had been fully emancipated).

As King Frederick William III had no intention of carrying out the 1812 edict, he repudiated his express promise that volunteers, irrespective of their religion, would be eligible for state offices. On Sept. 18, 1818, Jews were excluded from all academic positions (causing Heinrich Heine , Eduard Gans , and others to apostatize); the following January Jewish officials in Westphalia and the Rhineland were dismissed (including Heinrich Marx, father of Karl Marx ). The benefits of the 1812 edict had not been applied to Posen (where the laws of 1750 and 1797 remained in force), while its restrictions were applied to the western territories. Thus the Napoleonic "infamous decree," which by then had lapsed in France, was renewed by Prussia in 1818 to cover the Rhineland for an indefinite period. Prussian Jewry's legal position was encumbered by the coexistence of 22 different legislative systems with the various provinces. The king actively encouraged conversion to Christianity and prohibited conversion to Judaism; between 1812 and 1846, 3,171 Jews in Prussia converted. In addition he closed down Israel Jacobson 's private Reform prayer room in Berlin; on Sept. 12, 1823, he made the minister of the interior responsible for ensuring that "no sects among the Jewries (Judenschaften) of my lands be tolerated." The king's policy toward the Jews of Posen province – the historical Great Poland (where they were 6.4% of the population and 42% of all Prussian Jews in 1816) – was even more restrictive. Severe steps were taken to keep them within the boundaries of the province. In 1833 a new Jewry law was promulgated for Posen; its main feature was the division of the province's Jews into naturalized citizens, whose rights were conditional on their economic, moral, and educational achievements (command and use of German), and the remainder, who remained deprived of basic rights. By 1846, 80% of Posen Jews were still not citizens and one-third of Prussian Jews had not attained that status.

The accession of Frederick William IV (1840) was accompanied by rising hopes, which were soon dashed when he took steps to implement his medieval conception of a corporationist "Christian state." In this crisis Prussian Jewry, led by Moritz Veit and Ludwig Philippson , was supported by the liberal majorities in the provincial estates. Nevertheless, with the aid of the upper house and Friedrich Julius Stahl , the king succeeded in passing the 1847 Jewry constitution which recognized the corporate status of individual Jewish communities. It permitted Jews to occupy "offices not carrying executive, juridical, or law enforcement powers"; at universities all chairs in the humanities were closed to them, as were the senate and rectorate; Jews owning landed estates could not enjoy the rights accorded the gentry. The law, introduced for the benefit of the Jews the king declared, was not applicable to Posen. It had barely been introduced when the 1848 revolution proclaimed the principles of religious freedom and equality for all, reconfirmed in 1869 for the whole North-German Confederation. In practice, however, discrimination in the army, bureaucracy, and university remained the rule.

During the 19th century the geographic, demographic, social, and economic makeup of Prussian Jewry underwent great changes. Their number increased from 123,823 in 1816 to 194,558 in 1840. In 1840 about two-fifths of Prussian Jewry were concentrated in Posen province (where they formed about 6% of the population), and another two-fifths in Silesia, the Rhineland, and West Prussia (where they constituted about 1% of the population). Posen had the largest Jewish community (6,748), with Berlin (6,458) and Breslau (5,714) following. The majority of Prussian Jewry lived in rural and semirural conditions; peddling, shop- and innkeeping, commerce, and the livestock trade were the main occupations. In 1816 Prussia contained 48.2% of German Jewry; in 1871, 325,000 Jews were natives of Prussia (69.2% of German Jewry), including the Jews of the recently (1866) annexed territories of Hanover , Schleswig-Holstein , Hesse - Nassau , and Frankfurt on the Main. Due to internal migration the percentage of Posen Jews had declined proportionately, to 22.8% in 1871, and also absolutely, so that by 1910 only 26,512 remained (about 7.7% of Prussian Jewry). A similar process of depletion occurred in West Prussia. As a result of industrialization and urbanization, Brandenburg (Berlin) attracted a greater proportion of Prussian Jewry, increasing from 6.5% in 1816, to 17.5% in 1871, and 43.9% (151,356) in 1910. In the other provinces, Westphalia, Rhineland, and Silesia, the number of Jews remained proportionately stable while increasing at a regular rate. Demographically, Prussian Jewry reached its peak around 1870–80. The process of urbanization continued, causing small-town communities to remain stable or decline while village communities gradually vanished. By 1925, 60% of Prussian Jewry (342,765) was to be found in the four largest communities and another 15% in communities with more than 1,000 persons.

Prussia within the German Empire

In spite of the noteworthy cultural, economic, and social achievements of Prussian Jews within the new German Empire, Prussia retained a specific conservative, anti-Jewish, social and political attitude, which found expression in the influence of the Prussian mentality within the empire and in its political parties (see Bismarck , E. Lasker , I.D. Bamberger , and Central-Verein ). Until World War I the majority of Prussian communities were organized within the Deutsch-Israelitischer Gemeindebund (DIGB). The organization's main difficulties were caused by differences between the numerous small, rural, and needy communities and the large wealthy ones, primarily Berlin. Thus, when a common communal organization did not immediately emerge after the war the Berlin community entrusted Ismar Freund with organizing the Preussischer Landesverband juedischer Gemeinden. Its opening session (1921) was attended by 110 communities, who soon numbered 656 (96% of Prussian Jewry), making it the largest regional communal organization in Germany. Its charter and activities were modeled on the defunct DIGB; although a Prussian official was present at its founding and it received state subsidies, it was not officially recognized by the government of Prussia.

Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries the Prussian reactionary mentality found a persuasive anti-Jewish argument in the "Masseneinwanderung," the alleged mass immigration of unwanted East European Jews (Ostjuden) into Prussia, particularly into Berlin and the major cities. Their number was greatly magnified by antisemitic propaganda which eventually caused the expulsion of 30,000 Russian Jews, mainly refugees from the 1883 pogroms. In fact, the number of Prussian Jews was decreasing, due to a low birth rate and emigration. After World War I the problem of the unwanted East European Jews again became a political issue; in fact, the majority of these were Jews from Posen, then once more in Poland, who had preferred to be repatriated to Prussia (one-third of c. 45,000 Jews). When the Nazis seized power, H. Goering was appointed prime minister of Prussia, where he enforced the Nazi anti-Jewish measures (see Germany).


Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Wiener Library, German Jewry (1958), 62–66 (bibl.); BJCE (bibl.); LBI, Bibliothek und Archiv, 1 (1970), index (bibl); Gesamtregister zur MGWJ (1966), index; I. Freund, Die Emanzipation der Juden in Preussen, 2 vols. (1912); S. Stern, Der preussische Staat und die Juden, 4 vols. (1925–1975); H.D. Schmidt, in: YLBI, 1 (1956), 28–47; H. Strauss, ibid., 11 (1966), 107–36; H. Fischer, Judentum, Staat und Heer im fruehen 19. Jahrhundert (1968); H. Schnee, Die Hoffinanz und der moderne Staat, 1 (1953); 5 (1965), 15–53; M. Aschkewitz, Zur Geschichte der Juden in Westpreussen (1967); H. Neubach, Die Ausweisungen von Polen und Juden aus Preussen 1885/86 (1967); S. Wenzel, Juedische Buerger und kommunale Selbstverwaltung in preussischen Staedten 1808–1848 (1967); A. Sandler, in: YLBI, 2 (1957), index; H. Strauss, ibid., 11 (1966), 107–38; M. Lamberti, in: LBIYB, 17 (1972), 5–17; M. Birnbaum, Staat und Synagoge, 1918–1939 (1981); A. Bruer, Geschichte der Juden in Preussen (1750–1820) (1991); S. Volkov, Jahadut Prussia – Mythos u-Mẹziut (Hebr.; 1994); Clark, in: Past and Present, 147 (1995), 159–79; C. Clark, in: Protestants, Catholics and Jews in Germany (2001), 67–93.

Back to Top