Modern Anti-Semitism

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Modern Anti-Semitism


The character of Modern Anti-Semitism (dating from 1688) was different from Classical or Christian Anti-Semitism in that it was based on racist rather than religious considerations. Anti-Semitism flourished despite the intellectual liberation of the Enlightenment period. It was enhanced by nationalistic sentiments in reaction to groups such as the Jews which practiced a culture and spoke a language at variance with the native populations. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and anti-Semitic theorists promoted increased hatred of the Jews which served as the prelude to the Nazi views about them.


Students will learn that:

1. The Enlightenment made possible the growth of secular anti-Semitism, which flourished during the 19th century and which was a precursor to the Holocaust.

2. Modern secular anti-Semitism has a historical continuity with religious anti-Semitism.

3. Extreme nationalism, modern racial theories, and the publication and distribution of forged and slanderous publications about the Jews paved the way to Nazi anti-Semitism.


Modern anti-Semitism, in contrast to earlier forms, was based not on religious practices of the Jews but on the theory that Jews comprised an inferior race. Anti-Semites exploited the fact that Jews had been forced into exile by extolling as “fact” that their “rootlessness” had a genetic basis. A Jew was a Jew not because he or she practiced any particular religion, but because it was a character of his or her blood. While there is evidence that Jews suffered persecution in the past which was secular-based, it was not until the period of the Enlightenment that this form of anti-Semitism became prevalent.

The Enlightenment describes the period in European history (17th-18th century) when the dominant philosophical idea was that human reason, through rational thought, could alone be used to solve problems and serve as the ethical system for living. It had as its roots the scientific revolution of the late 1600s when scientists and philosophers such as Newton, Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes advanced theories about the physical universe. Their discoveries directly contradicted and challenged the rule of the Church. In attacking both superstition and the non-secular rule of Western Europe, many scientists and philosophers of the Enlightenment also attacked Jews for their mystical and religious beliefs and separatist ways, and pointed to the Jews as a scapegoat for national problems.

Eighteenth Century Enlightenment was based on three assumptions:

1) the entire universe is fully intelligible and governed by natural rather than supernatural forces;

2) the “scientific method” can answer fundamental questions; and

3) the human race can be “educated” to improve itself, even to overcome limitations of birth and class.


During the Enlightenment, there was a rise in nationalistic feelings. People with a shared culture, language, history, race and value systems, bonded together into political, economic, and social entities with distinct continuous geographical boundaries which we refer to today as nations. A nation was a group of people united politically and militarily under a single flag and a single leader to ward off the domination of foreigners. The group had a shared loyalty to the nation.

Jews, as outsiders who did not share the common language, culture, religion, and values, were seen as a threat by extremists in the nationalist movement. As such, they became the targets of anti-Semitic persecution.

Anti-Semitism in France

France was the center of the Enlightenment movement and the French philosophes aimed at changing society by applying rational analysis to existing social and political problems. The leading figure in the movement, which included Diderot, Montesquieu, and Condorcet, was Voltaire. All attacked the oppressive practices of Christianity and the Inquisition. Theoretically, they all favored toleration of the Jews and denounced persecution of them, but Voltaire also attacked Jewish “particularism,” stubbornness, perversity, and greed. Enemies of Jews quoted Voltaire to prove that not only their religion but their essential character was bad, that they were narrow-minded and bigoted, as reflected in the Bible.

These arguments were used in the intense debates over whether Jews were worthy to be accepted as citizens debates in the first phase of the struggle for Emancipation, from 1780 to 1814. Would Jews constitute a “state within a state” (a phrase first used by the German philosopher Fichte in 1793)? If they were given the right to own land, to join the guilds, to work at varied occupations outside the ghettos, could they qualify as citizens?

In France, among some Catholics and anti-republican militarists, the Revolution was viewed as the incarnation of evil, planned by mysterious anti-French and anti-Christian forces. The international Alliance Israelite Universelle, organized to protect Jews, had its headquarters in Paris and was attacked as the center of an international French conspiracy. In 1886, Edouard Drumont’s anti-Semitic tract, La France Juive, went through 114 editions in one year and paved the way for large-scale anti-Semitic propaganda. Drumont, too, contrasted the greedy, mercantile Jew with the heroic and trusting Aryan.

A French, Jewish military officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was arrested and charged in 1894 with selling state secrets to Germany. Dreyfus was convicted on the basis of trumped up evidence, and he was deported. After his trial, evidence surfaced which proved that Dreyfus was innocent, and his conviction was eventually overturned. However, the Dreyfus case inflamed the hatred for the Jews of many French conservatives and reactionaries. The case divided the country politically, and anti-Jewish violence erupted.

Ironically, the anti-Semitism unveiled by the Dreyfus case served as the motivation for an Austrian journalist, Theodor Herzl, to organize the Zionist movement. This movement culminated in the establishment of a Jewish national homeland, the State of Israel, in 1948.

Anti-Semitism in Russia

In Russia, most Jews were confined to the Pale of Settlement. This Pale was established by the Russian government in 1792 and consisted of parts of Russian Poland, Belorussia, the Crimea, Bessarabia, and the Ukraine. There were additionally other restrictions on Jews, pogroms, plus the myth of a Jewish conspiracy which gave rise to a fabrication by Russian emigres in France, called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. They were forged in France in the midst of the Dreyfus affair, with the assistance of the Russian secret police, and alleged a massive Jewish international conspiracy to seize power all over the globe, to start wars and depressions. The Protocols purported to be the minutes of part of the 1897 international meeting of Jewish leaders, known as the First World Zionist Congress, called by Theodor Herzl. This forgery was poorly-written, and was totally implausible from beginning to end. Preposterous as it was, however, The Protocols were believed by those among the populace who found Jews to be convenient scapegoats. The document was translated into at least seven languages.

It was not until 1921 that a London Times newspaper reporter uncovered that the story described in The Protocols was a direct plagiarism of two obscure fictional works, one a satire on Napoleon by a French writer, Maurice Joly, and the other a story by Herman Goedsche. The damage, however, could not be erased. The Nazis relied on The Protocols to justify persecution of the Jews, and the worldwide publication of the document persisted in fanning the flames of anti-Semitism years after the hoax of this forgery was proven. It is still possible to find copies of The Protocols today, as it remains one of the most popular tracts for distribution by individuals and groups which hate Jews.

German Romanticism and Nationalism

In reaction against the rationalism of the 18th century, romanticism glorified feeling and the special characteristics of the historic past. In Germany, these ideas were expounded by Johann Gottfried von Herder, August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Friedrich Melchior Grimm. In 1808, Fichte delivered a series of “Addresses to the German Nation,” in which he rallied German-speaking people to resist the French, and spoke of the superiority of the Germans. During the same period, Ernst Arndt and Friedrich Jahn promoted and exalted the notion of a mystical “Volk,” in which the Jew could have no part.

Following the Congress of Vienna in 1815, German hopes for national sovereignty were thwarted by the Austrian statesman, Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich. A period of reaction set in, and violent attacks against Jews occurred in many cities of Germany.

Racial Anti-Semitism and The Aryan Myth

Racial theorists in the 19th century were the first to confuse the term “Aryan” (a linguistic term) with race. The term “Semitic” also had a linguistic origin. Of particular interest among the early racial theorists was Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882), who used anthropology, linguistics and history to formulate a theory in which race explained virtually everything in the human experience. In his “Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races,” Gobineau argued that he and his fellow French aristocrats were superior to the French masses by virtue of their pure Aryan stock. The decisive events of history are determined by the iron law of race, he asserted, and human destiny is decreed by nature and expressed in race. “History shows that all civilization flows from the white race,” and the jewel of this race is the Aryan, which survived as a superior race, he maintained. However, he warned that cross-breeding and race-mixing were threatening its very survival.

Gobineau’s essay was translated into German forty years later and had a powerful influence on Germans such as composer Richard Wagner and his son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who, in turn, influenced Nazi racial doctrine.

Following the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War (1870), Germany was finally unified under Otto von Bismarck’s “blood and iron” policy. German nationalism was now able to move farther away from liberal, democratic ideas. The new German Reich of 1871 was dominated by Prussia, by Junker, and by militaristic interests.

In 1878, the Social Democratic Party was outlawed, and democratic efforts were stifled. In the 1890s, political democracy was blocked by the rising power of German industrialists and diverted by imperialist expansion. This period also coincided with a new cycle of anti-Semitism, with Jews being blamed for manipulating peasants and small businessmen into resisting the traditional social and economic order. Jews were blamed for the severe economic depression of 1873. In the same year, Wilhelm Marr, a journalist who coined the term “anti-Semitism,” wrote a pamphlet, “The Victory of Jewry over Germandom.” It was very successful, going through twelve editions in six years. Using ideas of race and Vilkisch nationalism, Marr argued that Jews had become the “first major power in the West” in the 19th century. He accused the Jews of being liberals, a people without roots who had Judaized Germans “beyond salvation.” In 1879, he founded the League for Anti-Semitism.

In the late nineteenth century, political parties in Europe, especially in Germany, used anti-Semitism in their party platforms. The first was the Christian Socialist Workers Party, founded in 1878 by Adolf Stricker, a chaplain of the imperial court. Stricker blamed Jews for business failures, domination of liberal political movements, and for being “a foreign drop of blood in the German body one with destructive power!” He appealed to many Germans in the lower economic and social classes the same groups to whom Hitler appealed who yearned for status and a strong state. In 1879, Stricker joined Marr in founding the League for Anti-Semitism.

In 1879, the historian Heinrich V. Treitschke began writing that “the Jews are our misfortune,” and that an unbridgeable chasm existed between the German and Jewish spirit. In 1881, the philosopher Eugen Karl Dîhring wrote The Jewish Question as a Racial, Moral and Cultural Question, in which he argued that Jews were causing Germany’s decline, and that they constituted a “counter-race” which neither conversation nor assimilation could change. His influence among university students was considerable.

In 1893, 250,000 voters sent 16 deputies (out of 397) pledged to anti-Semitic measures to the Reichstag, the German legislature. In 1900, H. S. Chamberlain, an Englishman who settled in Germany, wrote The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, in which he idealized the German “race-soul,” which made Germans honest, loyal, and industrious. By contrast, Jews were materialistic, legalistic, and devoid of tolerance and morality. These two peoples were locked in a struggle, in which the Jews must be defeated. This book gave Nazis the text for their racial myth and had enormous sales success in Germany.

During World War I, when the German war effort began to deteriorate, a new cycle of anti-Semitism was the response as Jews became the popular scapegoat. They were accused of profiteering, not participating in combat, and causing food shortages. Anti-Semitic literature proliferated.

Germany’s military defeat in 1918 was blamed on the Jews and the Socialists. The German General Erich Ludendorff participated in the failed coup attempt with Hitler in 1923, and denounced Jews and their “deadly superstition of Jehovah.” The destructive hyper-inflation, the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty which set the terms for peace after the war, and widespread misery created in concert an atmosphere which promoted anti-Semitism. In 1922, Walter Rathenau, the Jewish foreign minister of Germany, was assassinated. Volkisch movements and parties sprang up, including the German Worker’s Party (which later evolved into the Nazi party), which Hitler joined in 1919.

In 1920, the Nazi party issued its 25-point platform, asserting that no Jew could ever be a member of the German Volk. Discontented with social and economic conditions as well as Germany’s humiliation in the war, often violent ex-soldiers joined the Free Corps (see Chapter 6). The Free Corps broke up left-wing meetings and crushed uprisings. The members of these paramilitary groups formed the nucleus of Ernst Rîhm’s Stormtroops (S.A. Sturm Abteilung).

The post-war violence of right-wing groups and parties became a school for murderers later involved in the annihilation of the Jews. In 1930, Alfred Rosenberg, who brought The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to Germany and to Hitler’s attention, wrote “The Myth of the Twentieth Century” which emphasized the superiority of the Nordic race and the creation of a German national church based on race and purity of blood. In the same year, the Nazi party polled over six million votes, giving it 107 seats in the Reichstag, making it the second largest party in the country.



– Originally used to denote a member or descendant of the pre-historic people that spoke Proto-Indo-European. As used by the Nazis, the term refers to a non-Jewish Caucasian, especially of the Nordic type.


– An economic system in which the ownership of property is chiefly by private individuals or corporations and allows the free marketplace to determine the supply and demand for goods and services.

The Enlightenment

– A European philosophical and cultural movement of the 17th and 18th centuries characterized by belief in the supreme power of human reason, and concerned with the critical examination of previously accepted doctrines and instructions from the point of view of that reason.

Imperialism – A foreign policy which emphasizes the importance of extending the rule of a state beyond its present borders and subjugating native peoples.

Nationalism – The popular sentiment that places the existence and well-being of the nation-state highest in the scale of political loyalties.


– Concern with religious beliefs, ideas or rule.


– Any of the leading “popular” intellectuals and social philosophers of the French Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, or Diderot.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

– An anti-Semitic forgery fabricated in France by Russian emigrÇs during the reign of Czar Nicholas II (1894-1917) which alleged to be the minutes of a meeting of Jewish leaders plotting for world domination.

Racial theorists

– Those who developed theories, which were based primarily on opinions, prejudices, and non-scientific observation, to prove that one race was superior to another.


– Extreme political conservatism which is usually a reaction in the opposite direction to a liberal or progressive idea.


– The rewriting of history for political or ideological purposes.

Secular – That which relates to non-religious or worldly concerns, ideas or rule.


– An economic system in which those who produce the goods and services own the machinery of production, share the profits, and make the decisions governing production and distribution of the goods and services.

Volk – A word for “people” or “nation.” Nationalist Germans used the term to exclude Jews, Gypsies, and other “non-Aryan” people.


– The nationalistic movement of the Jewish people. In modern times, it referred to the establishment of a Jewish state in what is now the modern State of Israel.


  • Compare the 19th century racial theorists’ ideas with respect to Jews to those in the U.S. who had racial theories about African-Americans, Hispanics, East Asians, Koreans, and American Indians.
  • Comb the newspapers for examples of potential disinformation, propaganda, and historical revisionism, and discuss the difficulties of refuting these.
  • Compile examples of historical revisionism throughout history, and discuss whether any attempts at this revisionism were successful.


  • How do you think that the “typical” German viewed the “typical” Jew in 19th century Germany?
  • Discuss the difficulties of refuting propaganda. What is a rumor, how does it start, why is it believed, and why does this belief often persist?
  • What factors permit historical revisionism to succeed? What U.S. institutions make it difficult for a government to revise history?
  • Why is revisionism likely to be more successful in nations with authoritarian governments compared to democracies such as the United States? How successful was the recent attempt at revisionism by the Chinese government during the pro-democracy uprising during the summer of 1989?


1. Define the following:

  1. imperialism
  2. non-secular
  3. philosophe
  4. reactionary
  5. volk
  6. Zionism
  7. Socialism

2. What was the Enlightenment?

3. How and why was anti-Semitism fostered during the period of the Enlightenment?

4. Define nationalism, and discuss why nationalist movements in Germany in the mid-19th century contributed to the development of Modern anti-Semitism.

5. What were The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and for wha purpose were they written?

6. What were the beliefs of the racial theorists of 19th century Germany and France, and what were their views about the “Aryan” and Jewish “races?”

7. What were the social and economic conditions in post-World War I Germany which fostered anti-Semitism, and who were some of the politicians who exploited these conditions?

8. Who was Captain Alfred Dreyfus, and why was his case significant to 19th century France?

9. In what major respects does Modern anti-Semitism differ from Classical anti-Semitism and Christian anti-Semitism?

10. Name two 19th century anti-Semitic publications and their authors as well as a major theme of each.


  • Ask students to give examples of how propaganda is used in the United States by:

    a) TV advertisers

    b) the U.S. government

    c) foreign governments

    d) political parties

    e) parents

    f) teachers and school administrators

    g) neo-Nazi groups

  • Make a list on the board of problems which class members point to as important to the community. Ask the class who is to blame for each problem. Then ask if any of these groups are really to blame or are being used as scapegoats. Sample problems could include:

    1. homelessness
    2. air polution
    3. AIDS
    4. Federal deficit
    5. high auto insurance rates
    6. inflation
    7. drug abuse
    8. violent crime
    9. poor performance by the school sports team

Copyright 1990 Gary M. Grobman

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