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Pogroms and Riots: German Press Responses to Anti-Jewish Violence in Germany and Russia (1881–1882), by Sonja Weinberg. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2010. 243 pp. $64.95.
When modern antisemitism emerged in Germany during the late 1870s, its proponents were eager to distance the new movement from traditional Judeophobia. Coined by the journalist Wilhelm Marr in 1879, the neologism “antisemitism” signalled a new, supposedly objective and scientific approach to the “Jewish question” that apparently had nothing in common with the religious anti-Judaism and the irrational, emotional, and violent Jew-hatred of pre-modern times. To be sure, this form of self presentation served first and foremost as a rhetorical strategy to legitimize the renewed exclusion of Jews in a society that was influenced by modern ideas of civic equality, national homogeneity and public order and that looked upon religious strife and sectarian violence as unwelcome remnants of an uncivilized past. In actual fact, the formation of modern antisemitism in Germany was accompanied by new eruptions of violence against Jews: in the summer of 1881, anti-Jewish riots broke out in many towns and villages of Pomerania and West-Prussia; and following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in March 1881, a wave of pogroms swept through southwestern Imperial Russia. How were these outbreaks of violent Jew-hatred viewed in the contemporary German press? Did the press condemn or endorse the anti-Jewish violence in Germany and Russia, and was there a difference in the treatment of the German as against the Russian cases of violence? These are the main questions in Sonja Weinberg’s book, which is based on her dissertation at University College London, supervised by the late Professor John D. Klier. In her analysis, Weinberg focuses on four German newspapers: three conservative (the protestant-conservative Kreuzzeitung, the semi-official Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, and the Catholic Germania) as well as the liberal German-Jewish paper, the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums (AZJ). This is a somewhat peculiar combination of sources. With its close relationship to the topic, the Jewish AZJ does not really fit in, while other political voices (liberal, socialist, or antisemitic) that were crucial to the Conservatives in defining their position are not represented at all. It is a selective and rather limited picture of German press responses that Weinberg presents.
Still, her focus on the Conservatives is fruitful. Feeling somewhat marginalized in the first years of the new Empire, which they felt were unduly dominated by economic, political and cultural Liberalism, many Conservatives welcomed Bismarck’s turning away from the Liberals in 1878 and sympathized with the anti-liberal thrust of the emerging antisemitic movement. In the conservative world-view of both Protestants and Catholics, emancipated Jewry epitomized the essence and ills of modern society. Antisemitism was therefore a major ideological component in the conservative attempt to roll back liberal ideas in the early 1880s. So when the antisemitic agitation turned violent in 1881 and public order had to be restored by the police or even the military, the Conservative papers faced a major challenge: How could they reconcile their support of antisemitism with basic Christian and Conservative values? Weinberg’s study shows that the three conservative papers used various methods of what might be termed calculated ambivalence, i.e., condemning antisemitic violence and justifying it at the same time. One way of sending such a dual message can be seen in the Norddeutsche, which was closely associated with Bismarck and therefore had to exercise diplomatic restraint. The paper kept a “conspicuously low profile” in covering the anti-Jewish riots in Germany, but presented the Russian pogroms in a way that held the Jews responsible for the hatred against them and showed empathy for the Russian peasants. The other two papers also pursued a “double-bind strategy” in their coverage of the antisemitic events. They distanced themselves from the violence “whilst indirectly endorsing it as the understandable response of a people mistreated by the Jews” (p. 114).
These findings are important and well-documented. They confirm what previous studies have shown about the Conservatives’ use of calculated ambivalence vis-à-vis antisemitism in general and share new light on the crucial topic of Conservative attitudes towards anti-Jewish violence. What do these findings mean for the history of German antisemitism? Weinberg suggests that there was a greater continuity than previously thought between the Kaiserreich and the turbulent period after the First World War with respect to the “readiness to accept and use collective anti-Jewish violence.” This is a difficult point to prove, and Weinberg’s analysis, focusing just on the two years of 1881 and 1882, provides no basis for such a sweeping thesis. Moreover, it seems to me that Weinberg is overstating her case. How can she be so sure that the condemnation of violence in the conservative papers, however superficially meant, did not have an effect at all? That the conservative papers in their anti-liberal and anti-modern zest, tried to legitimize antisemitism, is beyond doubt. But whether this includes a justification of riots and pogroms is more questionable, and Weinberg’s reading, which schematically classifies negative or ambivalent statements as plain justification of anti-Jewish violence, is not really convincing.
University of Bergen, Norway