The Business of Emancipation

The German-Jewish struggle for legal equality and economic prosperity

From economic to political participation

The creation of a German state not only unified German markets, but also provided the political stability essential to sustained economic activity. The new single currency and commercial code, as well as the abolition of tax barriers on trade, lowered transaction costs for businesses and led to a boom during which thousands of new businesses were founded. Jews participated in these developments, from introducing the necessary legislation to establishing new firms.

 

Despite their increased political freedoms and growing affluence, however, the social standing of Jews remained ambiguous. Physical violence was no longer the norm in Imperial Germany or the Habsburg Monarchy, though periodic riots injured Jewish communities and destroyed their property. Business opportunities also opened a path to political engagement for the most prominent German Jewish businessmen. The price of inclusion was nevertheless high and often accompanied by antisemitic insults.

 

It was only after the Revolution of 1918 and the establishment of Germany’s first democracy that the remaining occupational restrictions for Jews were lifted. Although Imperial Germany formally granted Jews the right to serve the state, internal administrative rules had prevented Jews from serving as professors, judges, civil servants, postal workers, and officers in the army. In the Weimar Republic, all professions were open to Jews, even as informal discrimination persisted.

Street barricades during the revolution...

Street barricades during the revolution...

1933 and beyond

Philanthropy and social justice

Family stories

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

Rathenau

Jews were often only begrudgingly accepted by Germany’s political establishment after they became wealthy. Emil Rathenau was a mechanical engineer who immediately recognized the importance of Thomas Edison’s invention of the lightbulb, and founded what would become Germany’s General Electric Company (AEG) in 1883. His son, Walther, secured new markets and expanded the business. He also earned a literary reputation for his critique of antisemitism. During WWI, Walther helped organize Germany’s war effort and the occupation of Belgium. An energetic administrator and gifted diplomat, he co-founded the German Democratic Party (DDP), helped reduce Germany’s reparations obligations, and became Foreign Minister in 1922. His assassination in June 1922 by right-wing radicals led to public demonstrations of support for democratic rule, but it also underscored just how fragile the acceptance of Jews by other Germans remained.

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

Over time, Emperor Wilhelm II invited prominent Jewish businessmen, including James Simon, Max Warburg, and Emil and Walther Rathenau, to sit and discuss economic matters on a regular basis. They tried to use the access to power provided by their wealth to advocate for Germany’s Jews. But the Kaiser and his entourage, like most non-Jews, viewed them as uncouth parvenus. Many Jews, moreover, felt uncomfortable about the political power their wealth gave these businessmen.

 

From a Zionist perspective, attempts to curry favor with the Kaiser were doomed, since antisemitism prevented any real integration into German society and fostered open humiliation. Chaim Weitzman, who ultimately became the first president of Israel, famously captured this dilemma when he accused Simon, Warburg, and the Rathenaus of being Kaiserjuden – “the Emperor’s Jews,” a disdainful reference to the older phenomenon of “court Jews.”

Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, 1914. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R52689 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Street barricades during the revolution in Berlin, 1918. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1981-126-31 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.