How the Long Persecution
of the Rhineland Jews Shaped Karl Marx
A Revolutionary Spirit Born of the Crusades and Napoleonic Wars
Less than two months after Karl Marx’s death in London in March 1883, his youngest daughter, Eleanor (“Tussy”) Marx-Aveling, published in the socialist journal Progress an obituary of her father. In the second paragraph she wrote: “Karl Marx was born at Trier on May 5, 1818, of Jewish parents. His father—a man of great talent—was a lawyer, strongly imbued with the French 18th-century ideas of religion, society, and the arts; his mother was the descendant of Hungarian Jews who in the 17th century settled in Holland.”
Marx’s Jewish background was of course common knowledge, but he never referred to it publicly himself, certainly not in the way described here. Yet explicitly bringing up her father’s Jewish origin in such a prominent way should not come as a surprise from Eleanor. Of Marx’s three daughters, she was the best educated and the most active politically. She was also an essayist and a prolific translator of both literary and political works: she translated Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into English, as well as Ibsen’s plays The Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck, and The Pillars of Society, George Plekhanov’s Anarchy and Socialism, and Eduard Bernstein’s biography of Ferdinand Lassalle.
Among her own writings was a study of the working-class movement in America and a feminist tract, The Woman Question. As part of her activities among working-class people in London’s East End, many of them recent Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, she learned Yiddish. On one memorable occasion she declared, in Yiddish, “I am one of you,” and on another she accepted an invitation to address a rally protesting Russian anti-Jewish policies and pogroms, adding “I shall be more glad as my father was a Jew.”
Yet for all this, and despite writing with warmth and pride about her father’s Jewishness, her description in the obituary overlooks most of the defining moments of her family history.
Even as Eleanor stated that both of her father’s parents were Jewish and praised Karl Marx’s father for being imbued with French Enlightenment ideas about religion, she refrained from mentioning that he had converted to Christianity, and she also did not address the circumstances of his conversion. By prominently referring to her father’s Jewish background, she made an important point, but she totally missed—or perhaps intentionally avoided—the personal drama, historical significance, and possible traumatic memories of the odyssey that turned Karl Marx, the grandson of two rabbis, into one of the most influential revolutionary thinkers of the 19th century. And therein lies a story, the historical significance of which transcends Marx’s personal biography.
Karl Heinrich Marx was born on May 5th, 1818, in Trier in the Rhineland, then part of the kingdom of Prussia. Founded by the Romans as Augusta Treverorum and considered the oldest town in Germany, Trier is deeply steeped in history, displaying some famous Roman monuments, among them the exquisite Porta Nigra, the largest Roman edifice north of the Alps.
For almost 2,000 years the Rhineland has also been the center of the Jewish presence in the German lands. In the wake of the Roman legions, Jewish merchants crossed the Alps and established themselves along the Rhine, the main regional artery of commerce and communications. In documents written mostly in Hebrew, these thriving Jewish communities retained the echoes of the Latin names of their cities—Magenza (Mogontiacum/Mainz), Shpeira (Spira/Speyer), Vermaiza (Augusta Vangionum/Worms).
In the 12th century, an assembly of rabbis and scholars from the Rhineland set down a compendium of internal decrees regulating the structures, institutional arrangements, and functions of Jewish communities. This set of regulations, known as Takanot SHUM (the Hebrew acronym for the names of the three leading Rhenish communities) was over time adopted by many other communities and became the template for the way Jewish self-governing institutions fitted into the feudal and corporate life of medieval Europe.It was the French Revolution and its consequences that dramatically changed the fortunes of the Jews in the Rhineland.
In 1096, the First Crusade brutally interrupted Jewish life in the Rhineland. While the gentry-led crusaders, headed by Geoffrey of Bouillon, set out for the Holy Land from northern France and Flanders, hordes of what became known as the People’s Crusade assembled in the region of the lower Rhine, and set on their road to the East, marching up the river. Egged on by populist preachers, like the legendary Peter the Hermit, they visited violence and destruction on the Jewish communities along their route, including on the Jews of Trier.
The papal call to liberate the holy sites of Christendom in Jerusalem from Muslim rule was transformed into horrendous massacres of the Jewish population of the Rhineland—the first massive anti-Jewish riots in western Europe. The official church hierarchy was so shocked by this anti-Jewish violence that some bishops and archbishops opened their compounds to protect the local Jewish community from the wrath of the fanatical Christian rabble, and in some cases themselves became victims of the religious demon unleashed by the call to protect Christianity’s holy sites in the Orient.
These traumas remained deeply etched in the collective Jewish memory over generations: some of the laments written under the impact of these harrowing events are still being recited on the High Holidays; and the year 1096 (4856 according to the Hebrew calendar) is seen as a watershed in European Jewish history, heralding later anti-Jewish legislation and persecution.
But the Jewish communities in the Rhineland largely survived and continued to flourish. The rise of the Christian burgher class in the late Middle Ages brought about municipal anti-Jewish legislation, when many so-called Free Cities in the Holy Roman Empire adopted the Magdeburg Statutes, which included the Privilegium de non tolerandis Iudaeis, or right to exclude Jews. This caused many cities in the German lands to expel Jews, although in the Rhineland these expulsions were mostly temporary, and the historical communities continued their existence. Many Jews, however, moved farther east, to the more tolerant Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, which eventually became the largest region of Jewish presence in Europe.
It was the French Revolution and its consequences that dramatically changed the fortunes of the Jews in the Rhineland. On the eve of the revolution, the Rhineland was a patchwork of petty jurisdictions: principalities and duchies, markgraviates and landgraviates, counts palatine and imperial free cities, archiepiscopal sees exercising secular jurisdiction, independent knights and minor baronies—the region was a kaleidoscope, signifying the ultimate decrepitude of the medieval idea of a universal empire.
The French Revolution and later the Napoleonic wars brought major changes to the region. French armies occupied the Rhineland, did away with the multitude of local jurisdictions, annexed most of the region to France, and later, under Napoleon, set up the kingdom of Westphalia farther east, with Napoleon’s brother Jérome on its throne.
Like most of the Rhineland, Trier was thus annexed to the French Republic and later became part of the Napoleonic empire, with political, social, and intellectual consequences that are still visible in the area today. One of the immediate and far-reaching results had to do with the status of the Jews.
Revolutionary France was the first European country to emancipate its Jews, granting them equal political and civic rights. When it annexed the Rhineland, this emancipation was extended to Jews there as well, and the Jewish population was transformed from a tolerated but not equal community into full and equal citizenship. Limits on Jewish professional activity and landowning were lifted, as were restrictions on residence rights; schools and universities were opened to Jewish students, as was the civil service. For the first time Jews could serve as lawyers, judges, doctors, military officers, and civil servants.
As evidenced in Jewish prayers, sermons, and poems of the time, many Jews saw this as an almost messianic redemption, and republican France—and later Napoleon—were praised as a modern, secular incarnation of the messianic vision. The 20 years between the mid-1790s and 1814 witnessed the appearance for the first time—in France as well as in the annexed Rhineland—of Jewish persons as equal citizens, active in the professions and in general social and political life. France, in its extended borders, was viewed as the new, modern Promised Land, a secular paradise in the here and now, established on the hallowed grounds of Enlightenment and Emancipation.
This came to a cruel end in 1814–15 following the defeat of Napoleon, and the Congress of Vienna, which set up the borders and contours of post-revolutionary and post-Napoleonic Europe: the Restoration, identified with the politics of the leading Austrian statesman Prince Metternich. France was set back more or less to its pre-1789 borders and lost the territories it had annexed, including the Rhineland.
It was obvious that the patchwork of pre-revolutionary political systems in the Rhineland could not be revived. Instead, most of this territory was annexed to Prussia, as a reward for its role in the anti-Napoleonic coalition. This changed Prussia in many respects: from a marginal, middle-sized eastern kingdom it became a much bigger country controlling large expanses of territory bordering on France; from a mainly agricultural land, dominated by its Junker class, it gained regions with a traditional commercial culture, also rich in the mineral resources of the Ruhr; and from a predominantly Protestant country, with a Lutheran state church, it gained a large Catholic population. Last, and not least, significant numbers of Jews, in the historical Rhenish communities, were added to it, outnumbering the small Jewish population in the traditional Prussian and Brandenburg lands of the east.
But the Jewish population of the new Rhenish territories differed fundamentally from the Jews then residing in the original Prussian provinces, and this presented the Prussian authorities with some tricky problems in their new domains. In Prussia proper, the Jewish religion was tolerated and Jews were protected, but they were not equal under the law. Despite some liberal legislation introduced by the Prussian reforms associated with Baron Karl vom Stein and Karl August von Hardenberg in the early 1800s, there were still restrictions on where Jews could live as well as limitations on land ownership, and they were not allowed to join the free professions.
Prussia was faced with a novel dilemma, as with the territory came people: emancipated Jews in the Rhineland, who enjoyed equal rights with their Christian neighbors, served as lawyers, judges, and civil servants. People still remembered how the first well-known Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, needed a special royal dispensation to reside in Berlin in the late 1700s. True, there were some moneyed, privileged Court Jews and financiers in Prussia, like the Ephraim family, who owned palatial residences—but Jews as such did not enjoy equal rights in what was considered a Christian state.
Anticipating the possible consequences of the annexation of the Rhineland to Prussia, a Jewish delegation, headed by the leaders of the Jewish community in Frankfurt (then as now a center of banking), went to Vienna and petitioned Metternich not to revoke the rights of Jews who had enjoyed 20 years of civic equality under French rule, but to no avail. The matter was referred to the decision of the new authorities now established under the arrangements of the Congress of Vienna.In the years between 1815 and 1848 one can discern a deep feeling of alienation and consequent political radicalization among members of the Jewish intelligentsia in the Rhineland.
After some deliberations, the Prussian authorities in the Rhineland revoked Jewish emancipation and imposed on the Jews in the newly annexed territories the status of Jews in Prussia proper. The major principle, following the precepts of what it meant to be a Christian state, implied that Jews could not be in a situation of authority over Christians: they could not serve as lawyers, judges, civil servants, teachers in schools or universities. In other words, the Rhenish Jews were de-emancipated, thrown back to where they—or their parents—had been a generation ago.
Among the tremendous consequences of the post-1815 Restoration, the change in the status of Rhenish Jews was obviously a minor and marginal footnote, and is hardly noted or mentioned by historians, but it gave rise to a totally new situation, affecting a few thousand Jews who within one generation were both granted emancipation and then drastically denied it, something that had never happened until that time to any Jewish group. The fact that most of those affected were, almost by definition, educated professional middle-class people, for whom emancipation had opened the road to being full-fledged citizens in an open society and were now thrown back into almost a medieval status, had far-reaching consequences.
In the years between 1815 and 1848 one can discern a deep feeling of alienation and consequent political radicalization among members of the Jewish intelligentsia in the Rhineland and the emergence among them—much more than among the more quietistic Jewish communities in Prussia proper—of radical politics; some did convert under that pressure, but this did not make them more supportive of the system imposed on them; others, while distancing themselves from orthodox Judaism, did try to maintain their Jewish identity in one way or another.
But it is among them that one finds the pioneers of radical democracy, revolutionary socialism, and a profound critique of bourgeois society and German nationalism. Many of them exiled themselves to Paris—which not only symbolized the legacy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in general, but must have also meant to them the homeland that once granted to their families and ancestors equality and citizenship. No region of Germany produced so many revolutionary radicals as the Rhineland.
Among these was the revolutionary thinker and poet Heinrich Heine (born in Düsseldorf in 1799); the communist and later forerunner of Zionism Moses Hess (born in Bonn in 1812); the writer and satirist Ludwig Börne (born in Frankfurt in 1786; his father, the banker Jakob Baruch, had headed the Jewish delegation that pleaded futilely with the Congress of Vienna not to revoke the emancipation of the Rhineland Jews).
And of course, Karl Marx, son of the Trier lawyer Heinrich (Heschel) Marx.