Jews and Other Germans. Civil Society, Religious Diversity, and Urban Politics in Breslau, 1860-1925

TitleJews and Other Germans. Civil Society, Religious Diversity, and Urban Politics in Breslau, 1860-1925
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialvan Rahden, Till

book, Translated by Marcus Brainard. ISBN-13: 978-0-299-22694-7.

PublisherUniversity of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin
Review year


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Growing out of the author’s dissertation project at the University of Bielefeld and originally published in its acclaimed German version as Juden und andere Breslauer, van Rahden’s monograph examines, on the basis of the history of the Silesian capital, Breslau (nowadays Wrocław, Poland), the contested question of the extent and limits of Jewish integration in modern German society. In this primarily social historical, thoroughly argumentative study that draws on diverse printed and archival sources and presents its abundant findings in the form of a highly accessible text, van Rahden analyzes several concrete aspects of the process of integration, namely social structure, private and public socializing, the school system and city politics. Moreover, while much of the book deals with the bourgeoisie and bourgeois men in particular, important gender aspects get properly highlighted and reflections on lower-class Jews are included as well.
Drawing on recent discussions on multiculturalism and showing the possibilities of historical writing cognizant of diversity and difference, in Jews and Other Germans van Rahden uses an approach that is still far from common. He employs “situational ethnicity” as one of his key concepts, whereby he directly addresses the relations, interactions and the at least partially negotiated coexistence of Jews and other Germans. Thus, he takes on the formidable challenge of having to write Jewish, German-Jewish, and German history all at once (as opposed to reproducing the normative image of the homogeneous nation-state). This ambitious and potentially  fruitful approach also implies that he has to distance himself from explanatory models that narrowly focus on anti-Semitism or paint an idealized image of German-Jewish symbiosis as well as texts that employ key concepts such as ethnicity or assimilation in an overly facile way. It ought to be added that van Rahden also speaks out against the institutional “re-ghettoization” of Jewish history writing in Germany (p.291, footnote nr.38).
Taking situational ethnicity seriously seems especially apt for studying the life of Jews in Breslau, since this urban Jewish group was relatively open, its boundaries fluid and the forms of their inclusion and exclusion rather diffuse (p.8). What is more, the city of Breslau fulfilled a number of other prerequisites to serve as a space for “experiments of the acceptance of difference,” such as the relatively high proportion of Jews (between 4 and 8 percent in the period under examination) who also possessed a well-established bourgeois group and self-confident organs, as well as the local dominance of left-liberalism and at least partly welcoming non-Jewish groups (p.13). The main claim that the five rich empirical studies of the book aim to support is that high levels of integration and a dense web of relations based on mutual acceptance existed until 1914.  Jews and others were not only remarkably close to each other, but Jews could participate in municipal life and enjoy equal rights without having to deny their Jewishness (pp.13-14). Thus, van Rahden critiques mainstream Jewish assimilationist as well as nationalist conceptions – which tend to share much of the story of what happened, even if they evaluate it in diametrically opposite ways.
In his analysis of social structure, next to a presentation of occupational profile, the author also covers income structure, using it as a means of further specification and as a kind of corrective. This allows him to devote due attention to the major differences between petite bourgeoisieand the Bürgertum as well as the proportion and role of single women. It ultimately enables him to show that, though differences between the occupational profiles of Jews, Protestants and Catholics were enormous and rather stable (merchants and, more generally, individuals belonging to the group of self-employed being much more frequent among Jews) and Jews on average had to pay much higher taxes attesting to their relative wealth, notions concerning the majority of Jews being bourgeois are based on conceptual imprecision (p.28, p.33, p.55). His analysis of income stratification reveals a highly heterogeneous, unequal reality among Jews, and makes clear that poverty tended to have a “female face” (p.31, p.47). Even so, it remains true that “within the Breslau bourgeoisie, Jews were a core group, not a small minority,” making up between one-fourth and one-third of the entire Breslau bourgeois group during the imperial era (p.38, p.63).
Van Rahden devotes separate chapters to private and public socializing, examining the historical reality of Jews as a status group through their participation in associations in particular, and analyzing marriage patterns, including the intriguing story and societal meaning of inter-marriages. Treating the former issue, he shows that in the heyday of associational life, the majority of Breslau Jews could be active in both Jewish and general associations – by the turn of the century, when their involvement peaked, 70 percent of Jewish club members belonged to “mixed” clubs as well (p.68, p.90). Though they were excluded from some conservative Breslau associations and their presence triggered debates in others (polarization turning rather vehement around 1890), Jews could assume disproportionate and even leading roles in several major associations, such as the Humboldt-Verein für Volksbildung. The overall results were rather mixed, as van Rahden stresses: while the degree of inclusion was high, some residual distance remained and few intimate friendships seem to have developed (pp.92-93).
In his analyses of marriage patterns, the author shows that at the beginning of the era they were more common among the lower-middle and lower classes. Such class differences were particularly marked among women and, what is more, inter-marrying women tended to be more independent, older, and on average closer in age to their husbands (pp.100-102). As the number of inter-marriages increased fourfold in the course of the imperial era, a phenomenon partly related to the birth of the “new (or modern) woman,” inter-marriages came to resemble intra-marriages more and more (p.114). While van Rahden’s study of wedding witnesses as part of this chapter is imaginative and useful, his presentation of the utter normality of inter-marriages (i.e. few related conversions and few divorces) might have profited from checking a number of other indicators, for instance the number of children born of such marriages, as Viktor Karády has found remarkably low numbers of offsprings born in the case of Hungary.[1]
The author’s study of education has two aims: to show the direct relations between Jewish overrepresentation in schools and the social structure of Breslau and present two major conflicts over educational policy, namely over the founding of an interdenominational school based on parity (a goal partially achieved after prolonged struggle that lasted from 1865 till 1872) and the hiring of Jewish teachers in elementary schools (fought with even less success between 1904 and 1911). On the first point, van Rahden even finds that Catholics were more overrepresented, if the impact of social structure is neutralized, though he also mentions that Jews tended to frequent the four elite high schools of Breslau – in fact 84 percent of them earned their Abitur at one of these, while only 16 percent of the Catholics did (p.126, p.131). While his method of neutralizing the effects of class is sound, Breslau as a testing case for Jewish overschooling may not be the best, as he points out that Breslau schools were among the most socially exclusive in Prussia, and the profession and income of parents mattered above all (p.130, p.133). One could test whether Jews from the lower and lower-middle classes invested in education--which could be evidenced in their performances at schools in addition to other factors--more than people belonging to other denominations in places with better opportunities (i.e. a more inclusive system). The pattern of opting for elite training in Breslau, in addition to evidence from other countries, notably from Hungary, does speak in favor of the thesis of more rational and extensive Jewish investment in education even when class differences are properly neutralized.[2]
The last empirical chapter of Jews and Other Germans focuses on local politics. It not only discusses its apolitical tone and investigates the reciprocal relations between it, anti-Semitism and the history of Breslau Jews (members of which community constituted up to 30 percent of left liberal representatives on the city council, and two of whom even became honorary citizens), but also explores some remarkable conflicts between an anti-Semitic Prussian state and a liberal city over immigration, naturalization and expulsion policies. While the state rather consistently followed the principle of exclusion, ascribing collective criteria to individual applicants (i.e. practicing anti-Semitic exclusion, treating foreign Jews as second-class foreigners, in Van Rahden’s apt phrase), the city wanted to consider only individual, acquired criteria, treating naturalization as a social but not an ethnic/denominational issue (p.202, p.217). It is a shame that the process through which the city and the state exchanged the anti-Semitic and liberal roles after the First World War is only mentioned but is not really explained, and the perplexing, more general topic of how “the high degree of Jewish integration visible in the prewar period eroded between 1916 and 1925” is also only briefly treated (p.231, p.235). That bourgeois Jews in Breslau lost much of their political power with the arrival of democracy in the shape of the Weimar Republic (now they represented mere 5 instead of 30 percent of the voters in local elections) is certainly part of the story, but what happened to their partners in integration who supposedly negotiated with them the definition of bourgeois culture and civility remains far from elucidated, let alone the fact that soon after the National Socialists scored their greatest success precisely in this city (p.235, p.241).
In sum, Jews and Other Germans. Civil Society, Religious Diversity, and Urban Politics in Breslau, 1860-1925 is a substantial and timely scholarly contribution whose English translation can only be welcomed. It provides a thoroughly researched coverage of several major topics in the social history of integration in Breslau, while its author also manages to navigate through the scholarly literature and present nuanced revisionist points. A number of qualifications ought to be added though. While the book provides an impressive panorama of Breslau society, the study has a decidedly local focus – spheres in which local factors played a negligible role are not analyzed (p.295, footnote nr.55). Comparative remarks and reflections on the extent to which the findings about Breslau can be generalized remain infrequent – this is partly due to the lack of appropriate case studies on other German cities, but extra-German Jewish considerations are also almost wholly absent, safe for a few remarks on Vienna. An arguably crucial specificity of the Metropolis on the Oder, which van Rahden mentions but does not really develop into an argument was the strong presence of both Protestants and Catholics, a situation to which only Frankfurt was roughly comparable (see p.297, footnote nr. 64).
In spite of insightful references to the discussion on multiculturalism, the study has an almost exclusive focus on social history: the textual indicators of the various and contextually embedded collective identity discourses of its inhabitants, the specific cultural features of Breslau and questions of architecture and urban spaces are neglected (unusually, no map of Breslau is included) – though the analysis of residential patterns was planned but disabled by a computer error, as we can find out from a footnote (p.295, footnote nr.55). How the situational ethnicity of Jews worked in practice could have been shown more convincingly through considerations of these aspects as well. In the absence of such analyses, Jewish politicians, for example, appear as squarely left-liberal throughout the whole period, i.e. little variety is detected between them and the evolution of Jewish politics does not become comprehensible. These minor problems and omissions notwithstanding, Jews and Other Germans remains a rich, in-depth and sound study. It can only be judged as a major accomplishment on its specific topic, as well as on German-Jewish history more broadly speaking.

[1] See Viktor Karády, “A felekezetek közötti házasságok általános szociológiája a régi rendszer idején” in Viktor Karády, Zsidóság, modernizáció, asszimiláció. Tanulmányok (Cserépfalvi Kiadó, Budapest, 1997), p.238.

[2] See Viktor Karády, “Felekezetsajátos középiskolázási esélyek és a zsidó túliskolázás mérlege” in Viktor Karády, Zsidóság és társadalmi egyenlőtlenségek (1867-1945) (Budapest: Replika Kör, 2000), pp.243-6.