The modern age brought new ideas and inventions.
This period saw the emancipation of the Jews in Europe, whereby many Jews gained equal rights for the first time. This allowed Jews to excel in new professions, and live in new places.
However, whilst legally the situation for Jews had changed, many of the antisemitic actions and attitudes they so often experienced continued.
By the end of the nineteenth century, an increase in antisemitic attitudes was evident in France and Germany. In Russia and Romania, antisemitic pogroms led to Jews emigrating westwards, to countries such as America and Britain. This section charts the development of antisemitism in the modern era.
Also known as the ‘Age of Reform’, the Enlightenment was a movement which started in the late seventeenth century and ended in the early nineteenth century. The movement saw the rise of ideas such as individualism, tolerance, freedom and scientific reason.
France is seen as the birthplace of the Enlightenment. After the French Revolution of 1789, France became the first country to emancipate the Jews and give them equal citizenship. This was followed by Belgium in 1830, England in 1858 and Germany in 1871.
Jews entered into new professions, could live where they pleased, and wear what they wanted to.
However, although legally the Jewish situation improved, antisemitic attitudes were still present. As such, when Jews started to expand into new professions and areas, they were often met with hostility.
Most people still saw Jews as outsiders, and development of ideas of ‘race’, as well as the rise of nationalism, increased this feeling.
In 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. This book set out his theory of evolutionary biology. This has become the basis for life sciences today.
Darwin’s main idea was that organisms develop over time. Those that are able to adapt to their surroundings are the most likely to reproduce and therefore survive. Darwin’s theory is often described as ‘survival of the fittest’.
Social Darwinists misapplied Darwin’s theory of natural selection to socially constructed human groups. They believed that, just as the strongest plants and animals adapt to a changing world, the same applied to humans. Social Darwinists used this theory to suggest that some humans were superior to others.
Social Darwinism proved to be extremely dangerous. In time, Hitler would use their theory as a pseudo-scientific justification that non-Aryan’s were inferior races, and should therefore be exterminated.
The development of new and more democratic nations led to a growth in nationalism.
Nationalism is the idea that a community who share a language, culture, values, and history should come together to declare and promote their unity and individuality .
Although nationalism promotes unity, it may also oppose anything that threatens this unity, or anyone who is seen as not part of the larger community. One group of people who had continually been viewed as separate to the larger community were Jews.
The rise in nationalism then, alongside new ideas such as social Darwinism, intensified this distinction between Jews and other citizens.
The Dreyfus Affair was a political scandal which took place between 1894 and 1906. The Affair is an example of the growing antisemitism across Europe in the modern period.
In 1894, a document offering military secrets to the Germans was found in a bin and sent to the French Secret Service. This document was known as the ‘Bordereau’.
The investigation focused around Alfred Dreyfus, an officer in the French artillery who was of Jewish descent. Dreyfus was a suspect for three reasons:
- He was in the artillery (which was what the secrets had been about)
- He was an officer (so he would have access to this information)
- He was a Jew
Despite a lack of evidence, Dreyfus was arrested in October 1894 and found guilty in December of the same year.
Whilst his family claimed his innocence throughout, Dreyfus’ situation only changed when Georges Picquart was appointed as Head of the Information Service in 1895. Picquart soon discovered that Commandant Esterhazy was the true culprit, not Dreyfus.
A new trial was started, with huge press coverage for both sides. The media was fueled by new publications such as Emile Zola’s open letter in support of Dreyfus, J’accuse, to the then President, M. Felix Faure. This letter condemned the judicial error and those responsible.
Uproar followed the publication of J’accuse. Opposition to Zola claimed that supporting Dreyfus was an attack on the state, and in turn, the nation. This position ran in line with the rising nationalist feelings at the time.
In the second trial of Dreyfus he was convicted again of the crime, and sentenced to ten years, but given amnesty by the French government. The supreme court finally annulled Dreyfus’ sentence and reinstated him in the army in 1906.
The Dreyfus Affair shows that despite the emancipation and equality of the Jews following the Enlightenment, antisemitism still continued.
The Affair divided the nation’s opinion, questioning the very morals of the Republic’s existence. It left a deep and lasting legacy in France.
While the Enlightenment had a huge impact on tolerance and development of ideas in Western Europe, this did not spread to Eastern Europe.
The assassination of the Tsar Alexander II in 1881 was a turning point in Russia’s persecution of the Jews. The Tsar was murdered by anarchists, but a rumour that Jews had been involved led to severe antisemitism in the following years.
A series of pogroms and antisemitic policies were initiated. This resulted in the migration of over two million Jews from the Russian Empire by the start of the First World War.
The first pogrom in 1881 started in Elisavetgrad in the Ukraine. A Jewish landlord ejected a drunk Russian after an argument concerning a ritual murder accusation. This action started a riot against the Jews in Elisavetgrad. This was stopped by the police that evening.
However, the next morning, the attacks continued and this time, the police did not intervene. The attack soon spread to other cities such as Kiev, with the police in many areas joining the attackers. Pogroms were recorded in over 160 places in South Russia.
In 1882, rather than convicting the attackers, the Tsarist government released the May Laws. These laws restricted Jews’ freedom. Jews could no longer conduct business on Sundays, they could no longer own or manage real estate outside of the Pale of Settlement , and efforts were made to ban Jewish students from schools and universities.
The situation for the Jews did not improve and at the turn of the century the pogroms started again. From 1905 onwards the pogroms were primarily organised by the Union of the Russian People, which had government backing. From 1905-1909 pogroms took place in over 184 cities. From these pogroms alone there were an estimated 50,000 victims.
Unsurprisingly, many Jews chose, or were forced, to emigrate from Tsarist Russia. They headed for places such as Great Britain and America. In 1880 the population of Jews in New York City was 230,000. In 1914 this population had reached 1.75 million, an increase of over 700%.
This type of antisemitism was not confined to Russia. Austria and Romania also had record numbers of Jews emigrate in this period.