Article Note: Todd H. Weir, “The Specter of ‘Godless Jewry’: Secularism and the ‘Jewish Question’ in Late Nineteenth-Century Germany”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 3 (September 2015)

Article Note: Todd H. Weir, “The Specter of ‘Godless Jewry’: Secularism and the ‘Jewish Question’ in Late Nineteenth-Century Germany,” Central European History 46 (2014): 815-849.

By Heath Spencer, Seattle University

Todd Weir’s article contributes to a growing body of scholarship on Imperial Germany that explores how the “Jewish Question” was imagined and articulated across the ideological spectrum, particularly in secularist and anticlerical movements associated with the political left.  He finds that conservative defenders of the confessional state and their liberal opponents shared an assumption that integration required Jewish self-transformation, though they differed in terms of what kind of transformation was required.

Weir draws on examples from the “Berlin Antisemitism Controversy” that began in 1879 to show that “the conflation of modern Jewry with worldview secularism was a unifying feature across the political and religious spectrum of the emerging antisemitic discourse” (823).  He concludes that racial thinking did not replace religious antipathy but recast it by associating Judaism with national degeneration along with atheism and the erosion of Christian society.  Although this part of the article focuses on the usual suspects (Adolf Stöcker and Heinrich Treitschke), Weir adds a significant twist with his claim that “modern antisemitism must be understood in the context of the struggle over secularism” (821).

Even more important is Weir’s observation that philosemitic defenses of Jews were often accompanied by hostility toward manifestations of Jewishness.  For example, the Union of Free Religious Congregations welcomed individual Jewish members but refused to accept Free Religious Congregations that identified with Judaism.  In such cases, the unity of Jews and non-Jews required “exclusion of Jews as Jews from this unity” (831).  Likewise, Freethinkers tended to be “intolerant of the survival of any religious dogmas alongside their humanistic, monist, natural-scientific Weltanschauung” (838).  Jews were welcome to join, but they were expected to “convert” to secularism.

Jewish secularists like Wilhelm Loewenthal, founder of the Berlin Freethought Association Lessing in 1881, resisted such pressure and tried “to find a means of overcoming confessional division through science that did not eradicate the right to subjective affiliation with religious and cultural communities” (842).  The German Society of Ethical Culture promoted a similar kind of pluralism, in which a “science of ethics” served as a basis for cooperation among various confessions (844).  Yet philosemites like Wilhelm Foerster also complained about “Jewish separatism” and admonished Jews: “do not organize among yourselves, rather join with us against all evil, also in your own ranks, against German and against Jewish nationalism” (845).

Weir’s study is limited to a comparison of conservative Protestant, free religious and secularist subcultures in Imperial Germany.  Catholic and liberal Protestant approaches to the “Jewish Question” are not part of his analysis.  Nevertheless, he provides an important corrective to earlier scholarship that reduced the story to a two-dimensional contest between conservative antisemites and liberal proponents of emancipation.  Racism, religious bigotry, and fears of “godless Jewry” may have been part of a “conservative-nationalist cultural code” (847), but secularist philosemitism was not necessarily the antidote to this poison, for even as these secularists condemned antisemitism they also demanded “Jewish assimilation within the secularist fold” (847).