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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Der Verein zur Abwehr des Antisemitismus. Zum Verhältnis von Protestantismus und Judentum im Kaiserreich und in der Weimarer Republik, by Auguste Zeiß-Horbach. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2008.  462 pp.  €44.


The book under review is a dissertation, handed in at the faculty of theology at the University of Leipzig. Its author, Auguste Zeiß-Horbach, working currently as parish pastor and spiritual advisor in hospitals, claims at the outset of her investigation that her main objective is to make a “contribution to determine the relationship between Protestantism and Jewry in the German Empire and in the Republic of Weimar” (p. 11) by analyzing the history of the Verein zur Abwehr des Antisemitismus (VAA, Association in Defense against Antisemitism), founded in 1893. This organization assembled numerous more or less renowned Protestant intellectuals, politicians (like Heinrich Rickert and Friedrich Naumann), and clergymen but also Catholics and German Jews (pp. 63–66), though in far lesser numbers.

Unlike other related topics, this subject hitherto has been largely neglected (a fact, by the way, which Zeiß-Horbach fails to point out clearly enough [pp. 21–28], perhaps for reasons of false modesty). This could be because the sources are difficult to trace. In particular, the archive of the VAA is regarded as lost, except for the personal papers of the former civil servant and later politician Georg Gothein, chairman from 1909 until nearly the voluntarily self-dissolution of the VAA in July 1933, and “the search for other sources is arduous,” as the author stresses (p. 29; cf. p. 113). Zeiß-Horbach tried to make the best out of this bad situation by exploring an impressive amount of material in many archives and even a vast amount of published sources, first of all the official organ of the VAA, the Mitteilungen (Notes, Information) which in 1925 received the “catchier” (p. 33) title Abwehrblätter (Sheets of Defense).

Hence, by and large, Zeiß-Horbach succeeds in closing the above-stated research deficit in a quite convincing and extensive manner. She not only gives a rather broad account of the evolution of the VAA, illustrating it also by means of a case study, which she calls—somewhat exaggeratedly—a “regional paradigm” (p. 13), but she also explores the “values and attitudes” of its members in general, who belonged basically to a milieu of left-wing liberal German citizens, so-called cultural-protestants (Kulturprotestanten, p. 15), as well as of numerous Protestant theologians in particular.

Above all, she argues convincingly that many Jews didn’t feel represented by the VAA, which led to the decision to found, as early as 1893, the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens (Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith, pp. 132–134). This situation was caused by two fundamental problems, which were, first, a lack of broad public effect, a consequence not least because of an aversion to current methods of political mobilization; and second, certain inconsistencies among members of the VAA concerning attitudes against Jews as Jews. This last aspect, at first glance, may be surprising, even more so because the first paragraph of the statutes of the VAA postulated explicitly that its aim was to “combat antisemitism” (p. 53). But, in fact, even some members of the VAA admitted that a Judenfrage (“Jewish question”) really existed, while others asked for nothing less than a complete “assimilation” of their fellow Jewish citizens (p. 49) and thus even demanded that they should convert. Zeiß-Horbach puts it like this: “Some of the opponents of antisemitism fostered reservations against the Jews, which were based on prejudices passed on for a long time” (p. 45).

The author documents this claim well enough. Yet one could hold that at least some of these reservations—such as the existence of a certain “Jewish type” (pp. 240–241) or “usury” (p. 233)—were themselves of antisemitic nature, in spite of Zeiß-Horbach’s claim that among the members of the VAA there existed “complete agreement in the refusal of antisemitism and in the request for equal rights” (p. 19). It seems more than plausible that she would plead for a broad concept of antisemitism, including more or less all forms of anti-Jewish thinking. Accordingly, at one point she states the existence of “religious antisemitism” in German society (p. 120). But such an understanding is far from self-evident. Indeed, numerous researchers would argue for a rather restricted concept of this phenomenon, namely in the sense of a “moral inferiority out of racial” reason (pp. 37f.). In this respect at least one major problem of the analysis can be identified: Naturally enough, we read a lot about antisemitism, but the author provides no definition of this phenomenon (see, for example, p. 179). Apparently, this results from a specific kind of approach to the subject, which ignores not only theoretically based reflections on the nature of antisemitism, but some important works on the relationship between German Protestants and German Jews too, like those of Wolfgang Altgeld and Uffa Jensen.

Anyway, this deficit, despite some minor shortfalls such as rather frequent excessive quotations (cfr. for example pp. 45–47; 51f.; 89f.; 110f.; 130; 134; 149f.; 156f.; 163; 164–66; 167f.; 169; 177; perhaps it would have been wise to add an appendix of quotations), the lack of an index of names, and a very short summary of the results of her inquiry (pp. 424–425), don’t affect the assessment that we are confronted with a rather important new publication, not only as far as the “relationship between Protestantism and Jewry in the German Empire and in the Republic of Weimar” is concerned, but also with respect to the thinking of German (mainly protestant) non-Jews on their fellow Jewish citizens.


             Christoph Berger Waldenegg