The German-Jewish Kulturkampf in the Weimar Republic

The beginning of the Weimar Republic (1918–1933) in Germany was characterized by a surge of the German Socialist Democratic Party (SPD) and revolutionary activities by the communists. The German emperor had fled the country, the empire was economically in tatters due to the Great War (1914–1918) and the political right was in disarray. It was not until the rise of National Socialism (NS) in the 1930s that the right regained the upper hand in Germany. A good example of this shift from left to right is the city of Breslau (600,000 inhabitants in 1928), where the SPD scored 51.19% of the popular vote in 1919 and the NS party received 51.7% in 1933. The question is how the balance shifted from left to right and how this can be attributed to the result of a struggle between revolutionary Jews and nationalist Germans.

Breslau Gymnasium

In the German educational system the gymnasium was (and still is) the highest level of secondary education and a stepping stone for entrance at a university. The gymnasium was the ‘nursery’ for the German cultural and political elite. Around 1900 it was dominated by the Christian and nationalistic German culture of the day, the total opposite of the cosmopolitan and pacifist ideas which are prevalent nowadays. This did not mean that this culture was unopposed, not least because the gymnasia were not a pure German Christian affair. In both the 1880s and 1900s more than 30% of the pupils in the Breslau gymnasia were Jewish (Till van Rahden, Jews and other Germans, p. 126). A further illustration of Jewish overrepresentation in higher education is the census of 1879 which showed that of every 10,000 Protestant inhabitants of Berlin, 81 had obtained secondary education; the rate among Catholics was 22 and among Jews 350. In Upper-Silesia, the region adjacent to Breslau, the rate was 81 Protestants, 19 Catholics and 423 Jews (A. Prinz, Juden im deutschen Wirtschaftsleben, p. 89).

At this time Jews represented 5% of the Breslau population and were a tight-knit group with a low rate of intermarriage with Christians (Till van Rahden, Juden und andere Breslauer, p. 150–152). Jews were not only a separate religious-ethnic community, but also put their electoral weight behind the local liberal party (Till van Rahden, p. 248). The Prussian system of representation based on census gave the Jewish vote a higher weight than they would have on the basis of actual numbers, because Jews were overrepresented in professions that yielded a high income (Till van Rahden, p. 248–249). This Jewish political influence was felt in the field of education as the Jews tried to breach the Christian dominance in education by proposing to appoint Jewish teachers. These efforts resulted in complaints that “Jews were unfit to raise Christian children into German Christian men and women” (Till van Rahden, p. 235). There was no official ban on Jewish teachers, but Jews were in practice widely rejected as teachers and professors in Imperial Germany. Here we can see the working mechanism of ethnic-cultural self-protection against a highly collective ethnic minority.

School councils

The defeat and sub consequent fall of Imperial Germany proved to be shock for the German people. Almost overnight Germany became a republic and the Social Democrats grabbed power. In order to break the conservative influence of teachers and parents over education, the SPD Minister of Education Konrad Haenisch decided two weeks after the Kaiser’s abdication to establish councils of pupils’ representatives. The subversive nature of this measure is illustrated by the fact that “a pupil council could appoint a representative empowered to bypass the school director and teaching staff and hold conversations with the ministers in Berlin about how to redress inequities in their particular school and change youth policy in the new republic more generally” (A. Donson, “The Teenagers’ Revolution (Central European History 44, 2011, 420–446, 420). Haenisch banned prayer and curtailed the teaching of Christian religion, but criticism against the new republican order was explicitly forbidden (H. Wegener, Das Joachimstalsche Gymansium, Berlin Story Verlag 2007, p. 109)

However, this attempt to revolutionize the pupils did not have the intended effect and actually bolstered resistance against the Weimar Republic among secondary school pupils in the Gymnasia. It also had an unintended side-effect of resulting in a clash between nationalist and republican students, largely along ethnic lines as the former were pre-dominantly Germans and the latter were dominated by Jews (Donson, p. 421). As noted above, Jews were strongly overrepresented in Gymnasia in cities such as Breslau, but also in Berlin where 25% of the Jewish population in Germany lived. Jewish overrepresentation becomes even clearer when we observe that only 8% of the German population enjoyed secondary education compared to 59% among Jews. Jews largely embraced the new republican order because it removed the last professional obstacles in education and government administration. Until 1918 both fields were totally dominated by German men, as German women were not allowed to teach German boys until 1916 (Donson, p. 423).

Weimar culture

Jewish embrace of republicanism was not solely out of social-economic motives, but also because they saw it as a chance for iconoclasm against Christian religion and traditional German culture. Emily D. Bilski of the Jewish Museum of New York has argued in her book Berlin Metropolis: Jew and the New Culture 18901918 (University of California Press 1999) that Jews were pre-eminent and overrepresented among the iconoclasts (p. 21) and were fiercely anti-nationalist (p. 82). A good example is Magnus Hirschfeld, who unsuccessfully advocated ‘sexual freedom’ from 1897, until the foundation of the Weimar Republic gave him the opportunity for the establishment of the Institute for Sexual Science in 1919, promoting all kind of abhorrent sexual behaviour and pornography. It was one of the first institutions to be disbanded in March 1933 when the National Socialists came to power.

Richard Evans points out in his book The Coming of the Third Reich (Penguin 2004) that mainstream parties such as the Catholic Centre Party identified Jewish culture with socialism, liberalism and modernism (p. 30). Donald L. Niewyk gives some interesting numbers in his book The Jews in Weimar Germany (Transaction Publishers 2001): around 1919 Jews made up to 99% of the Socialist student group in the University of Frankfurt-am-Main and more than half of the Social Democratic students in Berlin (p. 30). In his recent book Weimar: A Cultural History (Transactions Publishers 2011) Walter Laqueur underlines the importance of Jewish influence during the Weimar Republic: “Without the Jews there would have been no ‘Weimar culture’— to this extent the claims of the antisemites, who detested that culture, were justified. They were in the forefront of every new daring, revolutionary movement. They were prominent among Expressionist poets, among the novelists of the 1920s, among the theatrical producers and, for a while, among the leading figures of the cinema. They owned the leading liberal newspapers such as the Berliner Tageblatt, the Vossische Zeitung and the Frankfurter Zeitung, and many editors were Jews too. Many leading liberal and avant-garde publishing houses were in Jewish hands (…). Many leading theatre critics were Jews, and they dominated light entertainment.” (p. 73)

Clashes in school councils

The above mentioned pupils’ councils caused a deepening divide between Jewish and German students. The willingness of Jewish pupils to embrace the pupils’ council and adopt the socialist revolutionary rhetoric caused anti-Semitism among nationalist German students. Laqueur observes that Jews were increasingly excluded from nationalist student clubs in this period, as in the university city of Göttingen in 1920 (p. 192). In the Berlin Bismarck Gymnasium, tensions were very high due to the German-Jewish divide as this Gymnasium was situated in a neighbourhood where Jews made up over 13% of the population. As the Jewish boy Rothstein, who chaired the pupils’ council, began to mock the German army and its officers, the Jewish students generally applauded loudly while the German nationalist students whistled to show their disapproval. When the leader of the nationalists, Kurt Eggers, demanded an apology, Rothstein dismissed him by smiling scornfully and began to instigate the pupils’ council to draw up charges of counter-revolutionary activity against Eggers. Eggers was fed up and struck Rothstein in the face for which he was disciplined by the school board (Donson, p. 432). As a result of these clashes, people like Eggers would turn into die-hard National-Socialists.

In the Helmholtz Gymnasium in Berlin German nationalist pupils ostentatiously carried the old Imperial flag of black-white-red instead of the new republican black-red-gold and fought with Jewish students who opposed them (Donson, p. 437). In November 1919 hundreds of pupils from the above-mentioned Bismarck-Gymnasium went to the streets to pay homage to Field Marshall Von Hindenburg shouting: “Down with the Jewish flag! Down with the republic! Long live the German Empire!” (Donson, p. 441). These clashes were commonplace in German secondary schools in 1918–1919 as revolution was sweeping over Germany.  Donson acknowledges in his article that “these incidents mirrored the adult world, where Jews were the leaders in the revolution in numbers disproportionate to their population and faced increasing anti-Semitism” (Donson , p. 432). Moreover: “Among the cohort of right-wing elites who were in secondary schools during the revolution, the belief that Jews were traitors originated not in some distant observation gleaned from newspapers or second-hand accounts. Rather, it grew out of real political experiences in the pupils’ councils in the winter and spring of 1919” (Donson, p. 432-433).


The role of the Jews in shaping the so-called Weimar Republic (1918–1933) has often been downplayed by referring to their relatively low numbers. There were approximately 550,000 Jews living in Germany, constituting less than 1% of the total population. What made Jews influential was their high-investment upbringing of their children by emphasizing education. The overrepresentation of Jews in secondary and higher education led to an overrepresentation of Jews among the cultured, notably in the urban culture centres of Germany such as Berlin where most Jews lived. Beginning in the 1890s these cultured Jews began to constitute an anticlerical and internationalist counter-culture against Christian and nationalist Imperial Germany. Niewyk underlines this (The Jews in Weimar Germany, Ibid.): “In fact, a surprisingly large number of Jewish intellectuals had risen to leading positions in the party. The Social Democratic party, as a working class party, lacked trained journalists, propagandists, and parliamentary representatives. It was only natural that educated Jews, part of a minority deprived of full rights under the monarchy, should have filled this need in substantial numbers” (p. 26).

After the fall of the German Empire, the SPD rose to power and the Jews became the new cultural elite of the republican order in Berlin. The Weimar Republic of 1918–1933 not only removed the last barriers against Jewish influence in the field of politics, education and culture, but its democratic institutions ironically created enough breathing space for a cultural and political struggle against the new republic which was largely fought along ethnic lines: the revolutionary Jewish spirit clashed against the conservative German spirit. The overrepresentation of Jews in secondary education diminished the numerical difference between Germans and Jews and made schools in cities as Berlin and Breslau into a mirror image of the armed struggle in Germany between revolutionaries and conservatives in 1918–1919. It was the Jewish overrepresentation in these revolutionary movements and their zeal to destroy the Christian and nationalist foundations of Germany that led to a surge of NS as a racially defined counter-movement against Jewish cultural domination. In short, Jews had become and were seen by Germans as a hostile elite which attacked the culture which most Germans embraced.

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