Germany and German Jews: A Brief History

Map from the 1890s that illustrates the distribution of Jews in Germany. Darker areas indicate a larger Jewish population.

Map from the 1890s that illustrates the distribution of Jews in Germany. Darker areas
indicate a larger Jewish population.

To fully understand the tragedy of the Holocaust, one must examine the tortured historical relationship between Germany and its Jewish population. This section describes the challenges faced by the German Jewish community. For many centuries, antisemitism was common throughout Europe. However, the Germanic countries were some of the first to grant Jews civil rights and to allow them to enter previously restricted professions and educational institutions. By the time the Nazis came to power in 1933, German Jews were the most assimilated in Europe; most considered their primary identity to be German, not Jewish, and intermarriage with Christians was not uncommon. The fact that thousands of German Jewish men served honorably in the first World War illustrates the patriotism that the Jewish community felt for its country.

Many intellectuals considered Germany to be the most cultured and modern nation in Europe. Artistic giants such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe, Schiller, Schubert, Wagner, Mann, and many others lived in Germanic countries. Germany also boasted many notable scientists, including Johann Hieronymus Schröter, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Friedrich Christian Accum, and Karl August Möbius. Germany was the first country to create research universities (in contrast to the classical, liberal art education) that focused on science and technology. The notion that a country as advanced as Germany would engage in the mass slaughter of its own citizenry was inconceivable. Even when German Jews began fleeing to other countries in 1933, many continued to feel proud of their former homeland's cultural achievements.