Peasants and Jews: Anti-Semitism and Rural Politics in Northwest Germany

Chapter 1: A Special Land


In this first chapter, I describe the physical, social/economic and cultural landscape of the northwest Germany. The region consisted of three historically distinct entities abutting the North Sea coast: East Friesland, Oldenburg, and the Prussian administrative district of Stade. Although smaller than the US state of New Jersey, the area was characterized by three distinct landscape types (Marsch. Geest, and Moor) and radically diverse settlement patterns and social structures. 

Each area possesses its own local historical literature, almost exclusively in German.  The only relevant English-language works are by Allen Mayhew and Vincent Oliver Erickson. Erickson's dissertation was never published, and Mayhew is no longer in print. No scholar has pulled the entire region into a sustained political analysis in either English or German.

Jewish-gentile relations varied across the three districts. The port city of Emden in East Friesland had the second highest population of Jews in the province of Hanover. Oldenburg a leading center of the Jewish revival in the 18th and 19th centuries being the home of Samson Raphael Hirsch, the father of Neo-Orthodoxy. Jews first entered the Stade district in 1613 when Stade's city fathers decided to invite a small number of Frankfurt Jews to open a sugar refinery in the town. In all three areas, Jews living dispersed in small towns were active as livestock traders. Jewish-gentile relations varied considerable across the region. Jews were respected and integrated co-citizens in heavily Calvinist and Mennonite East Friesland, were accepted if ghettoized in Oldenburg, and in the words of historian Jürgen Bohmbach, "kept as far away as possible" in the Stade region.

In this chapter, I untangle the cultural codes that informed gentile-Jewish relations and examine the economic ties that bound the two communities together. There is a considerable literature in German on the East Fresian and Oldenburg communities (such as Herbert Obenaus’s handbook of the Jewish communities of Lower Saxony and Bremen), as well as the overarching studies of Jonathan Israel, David Sorkin, Monika Richarz, and Marion Kaplan in which I can ground my narrative. I have something to add to this literature in two respects. The first is my regional comparative emphasis: no one has examined the status of Jewish-gentile relations for the region as a whole. Secondly, the statistical data (as visually displayed in my GIS) indicates that the growing Jewish population dispersed into the villages after the codification of full legal equality in 1871, then largely migrated into larger population centers by 1905.

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