The Business of Emancipation

The German-Jewish struggle for legal equality and economic prosperity

Late 18th- first half of 19th Century: Changes are coming

In the late 18th century, the legal status of Jews in German lands began to improve. Emperor Joseph II issued the Edict of Toleration in 1782, inviting Jews to become members of the Holy Roman Empire and serve in the army, and thus abolishing occupational and residency restrictions and eliminating special taxes levied on Jews. Similarly, Napoleon emancipated the Jews living in the lands he conquered, granting them equal rights and the right to worship as they saw fit.

 

Under the influence of Napoleon, some German rulers introduced reforms that fell short of full emancipation and were often abrogated in their implementation. In 1812, for example, Prussia passed an edict granting Jews citizenship but refusing them the right to serve in any official capacity, whether as officers in the army, civil servants, postal clerks, or university professors. Still, some Prussian regions revoked these economic and social freedoms for Jews. In other German states, emancipation suffered grave setbacks. The Free City of Frankfurt stripped Jews of their citizenship, and, in Austria, formal civil rights were often undercut locally through legal chicanery.

 

Despite some opposition, economic reforms nevertheless proceeded, with states lowering taxation rates on Jews and opening some professions to them. In 1842, Prussia lifted residency restrictions for all its subjects, which significantly lowered obstacles to Jewish migration to larger towns and cities. Although greater economic freedom did not automatically translate into higher living standards, it permitted Jews to participate in the larger German trend towards urbanization.

Family Stories

  Glückel of Hameln

Schweitzer

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

Schweitzer

Isaac Schweitzer (1845-1901) was a merchant from Mühringen (near Stuttgart). Following other German Jewish emigrants, he departed LeHavre, France in July 1866, following in the steps of his three uncles, who immigrated to the United States earlier and started dry-goods stores in Virginia and Pennsylvania, among other states. To better acculturate themselves in their new country, all members of the family changed their name to Switzer or Sweitzer, or used other Americanized spellings. Isaac remained in the United States for almost twenty years, eventually marrying Isabella Guggenheimer, the American-born daughter of two other German immigrants. 

To see a collection of letters (translated into English) between Isaac Schweitzer and his family in Germany, click here.

Early modern time

Second half of the 19th century

Early modern era

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

Edict of Toleration by Joseph II, 1781. Public domain. 

An 1806 French print depicts Napoleon Bonaparte emancipating the Jews. Public domain.

Napoleon grants the Jews freedom to worship, represented by the hand extended extended to the Jewish woman.

The Revolution of 1848-49 brought calls for emancipating Jews, as well as opposition to them. Although many German states initially signed onto the idea that all people were equal no matter their religion, many rulers backpedaled after the Revolution failed. Wurttemberg, for example, revoked the emancipatory statutes it passed in 1848, but eventually granted its Jews full civil rights in 1864. Sporadic violence against people and property remained a serious threat to safety. Many German Jews responded to this violence and to the continued restrictions on their economic freedoms by moving from rural areas and smaller towns. Some left for big cities, where they found more protection from violence and more economic opportunities. Others left Germany entirely and emigrated to North America, attracted by the promise of legal equality as well as economic freedom.