This Day in Jewish History

1616: Leaders of anti-Jewish Riot Are Executed in Germany

The Fettmilch Uprising targeted the town leaders, for milking the people – in collusion with the Jews, they thought.

A picture of Frankfurt-am-Main in 1612, two years before the popular uprising against the city fathers and the Jews, and four years before the uprising's leaders would be executed.
Wikimedia Commons

On February 28, 1616, Vincenz Fettmilch, the leader of a popular uprising in Frankfurt-am-Main, in which Jews were targeted together with the city fathers, was executed in that city, together with six of his fellow rebels.

The Fettmilch Uprising was principally a protest by Frankfurt’s merchant class against the high-handed manner in which a small circle of patricians controlled the municipal council and the city’s economic life. But inevitably – how could it be otherwise? – the Jewish community took the brunt of the anger.

At the height of the revolt, in August 1614, armed citizens led by an angry Fettmilch entered the Judengasse, Frankfurt’s “Jewish Lane,” and drove the residents, who numbered 1,380, from the city, before ravaging the quarter and looting its movable property. When they were permitted to return two years later, the Jews declared the anniversary of that event a “little Purim” – a local holiday marking the return of the community.

Whom to hate first

The stage had been set for the rebellion after the election, in May 1612, of Matthias as the new Holy Roman Emperor. The occasion raised expectations among the city’s mercantile and crafts guilds that reforms would be undertaken in the city.

The subjects of their grievances were both the city council and the Jews: The merchants wanted the council to disclose the special privileges held by its aristocratic members; they called for the institution of an open market for the setting of grain prices; and they demanded a decrease in the number of Jews permitted to live in Frankfurt, and a 50 percent cut in the interest rate they were permitted to charge for loans.

But the emperor’s powers over municipal life were limited, and the grievances remained unresolved. In May 1614, one of the guild leaders, a gingerbread baker named Vincenz (or Vincent) Fettmilch, led a group in storming the city hall, where they declared their intention to hold council members hostage until they resigned their positions. He then declared himself gubernator.

Assault on the Judengasse

The rebellion’s anti-Semitic character derived from residents’ assumption that Jewish financiers were in collusion with the patrician class. After negotiations had gone on for several months, without the overall crisis being resolved, on August 22, 1614, Fettmilch led his fellow burghers in an assault on the walls of the Judengasse.

For several hours, the Jews mounted a defense, building barricades to prevent the walls being breached, and sending the women and children to the Jewish cemetery for protection. Eventually, though, the raiders got through, at which time they drove the remaining Jews to the cemetery too, and ordered them to leave town the following day. A wholesale looting of the neighborhood then ensued.

Only when the violence threatened to spread to other parts of the city was action taken to suppress it, 13 hours after it had begun.

The uprising received widespread publicity across Europe, but it was only after the sacking of the Judengasse that Matthias was finally roused to take action. There were even rumors that the emperor would bring in Spanish troops from the Netherlands to suppress the rebellion. Fettmilch and his co-conspirators were declared outlaws, and finally some of his former allies arrested him and turned him over to the imperial commissioners.

The emperor restored the patrician council to power and ordered the dissolution of the independent guilds, replacing them with organizations, called Handwerke, that were answerable to the municipal council.

Matthias also announced, in February 1616, that the Jews, who in the interim had resettled in such nearby towns as Hanau, Hoechst and Offenbach, could return to the Judengasse, and rebuild their homes and institutions. At the same time, their requests to be compensated for lost or damaged property was refused.

The quarter’s synagogue was repaired and reconsecrated, and above the gates to the Judengasse a stone imperial eagle was mounted, accompanied by an inscription reading "Protected by the Roman Imperial Majesty and the Holy Empire."

The day of the Jews’ official return, and of the execution of Fettmilch, was February 28, 1616, which corresponded to Adar 20 on the Hebrew calendar. It was declared a local Purim, called Vinz Purim, and celebrated annually, following a day of fasting on Adar 19.