The Business of Emancipation

The German-Jewish struggle for legal equality and economic prosperity

Introduction

Late 18th-19th century

Early modern era

Beginning with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (1050-1106), Jews were legally reduced to Kammerknechte, servants of the royal chamber, and therefore property of the king (servi camerae regis). While Jews were not tied to the land like serfs, they were not free to live where they wanted and were often forced to pay high taxes. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Jews were subjected to different legal restrictions than their Christian neighbors. With each new ruler, the laws could become more tolerant or more restrictive. Expulsions from German cities, together with violent pogroms, often destroyed the economies of Jewish communities. These constraints meant that most Jews enjoyed a marginal existence as itinerant peddlers, merchants, horse and cattle traders, pawnbrokers, and suppliers to local rulers.

By the late 18th century, some Jews began benefiting from Germany’s economic transformation. The growth of manufacturing made all kinds of goods accessible to more people at a lower cost, increasing living standards and spurring trade. These changes also threatened some established professions, particularly those of craftsmen and farmers. The social dislocation created by Germany’s rapid industrialization generated a great deal of criticism on the left as well as the right, some of which fell upon

Jews. Because they were often easily identified, Jewish merchants and bankers were often associated directly with capitalism. Vilified as “unproductive” members of society for selling the fruits of hard labor created by others, Jewish entrepreneurs were not only forced to trade under adverse conditions, but also had to defend their reputations and their work

Family Stories

Samuel Oppenheimer

Samuel Oppenheimer (1630-1703) was a banker, arms supplier, diplomat, and philanthropist at the Imperial court in Vienna. As a so-called “court Jew” (Hofjude), he was granted the right to reside in Vienna – even though Jews had been expelled from the city in 1670 – in return for providing financial and diplomatic services for the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. Like most “court Jews”, however, Oppenheimer’s good fortune was precarious, resting on the whimsy of royal favor and the caprice of royal budgets. In 1697, Oppenheimer was briefly arrested because of an antisemitic intrigue at the Imperial court. In 1700, anti-Jewish rioters destroyed and plundered houses in Vienna, including Oppenheimer’s mansion. Oppenheimer nevertheless remained loyal and rescued Leopold, who had overextended himself in the War of the Spanish Succession, from bankruptcy. When Oppenheimer died in 1703, however, Emperor Leopold refused to honor his debts, plunging the family into financial ruin.  

For more information about Glückel of Hameln see Shared History Project: https://sharedhistoryproject.org/object/hamburg-during-the-life-of-gluckel-of-hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

Early modern time

Late 18th-19th Century

Introduction

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln