Unification of German Empire Leads to Jewish Emancipation

April 14, 1871

The process of Jews receiving political emancipation in Europe began with Napoleon’s conquest of the continent at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries.  With Napoleon, the concepts of liberty, fraternity and equality spread into Central Europe.  A setback for attainment of Jewish equal rights in German lands followed Napoleon’s defeat and a return of conservative leaders and ideology. This reality resulted in many German states rescinding previously granted Jewish rights following the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815.

In March 1848, a series of popular revolutions broke out in German lands against the power of the independent states. The 1848 revolutions pushed for the spread of liberal democratic principles, including emancipation for the Jews.  Despite the failure of the revolutions to create a unified Germany in 1848, the groundwork for Jewish equality had been laid in the short-lived March 1849 Frankfurt Parliament.

In July 1869, Prussian King Wilhelm I promulgated the North German Confederation Constitution, which gave Jews civil and political rights in twenty-two German states.  This Constitution was adopted by the new German empire upon its establishment on April 14, 1871.  On April 22, 1871, the Jews in all of Germany were finally given emancipation when the Constitution was extended to Bavaria.

The process of Jewish emancipation led to many changes in both Jewish and non-Jewish society.  Some Jews continued religious identification with non-Orthodox Judaism, seeking to remain Jewish but more like their Christian peers;  some converted to Christianity because the Emancipation of 1871 still prevented Jews from gaining access to certain high profile social positions; others simply assimilated.  Emancipation also led to new and more virulent forms of anti-Semitism, a term that was coined in 1879 in a pamphlet by Wilhelm Marr. Marr became the father of virulent racial anti-Semitism, singling out  Jews as inferior because of their racial impurity.

The photo shows the Constitution of the German Empire, which was proclaimed by Emperor Wilhelm I on April 16, 1871.