This Day in Jewish History

1861: A Frustrated Lawyer Persuades Wurttemberg to Free Its Jews

Europe's creeping enfranchisement of Jews finally reached Germany and the duchy of Wurttemberg, after Gabriel Riesser took the stage.

Humus Sapiens, Wikimedia Commons

On this day, December 3, in the year 1861, Jews were finally given equal rights in the duchy of Württemberg, as part of a gradual process of Jewish enfranchisement in the German kingdom of Prussia during the 19th century. For that they could thank, in no small part, Gabriel Riesser (1806-1863), a practicing Jew, and deeply frustrated lawyer in Hamburg, Germany.

Riesser was one of five children born in Hamburg to Lazarus Jakob Riesser, a rabbi and tradesman (1763-1828), and Fromet “Fanni” Riesser (1770-1847), nee HaKohen, herself of rabbinical lineage as well. Her father, Raphael HaKohen, Gabriel’s grandfather, was the chief rabbi of Hamburg.

But Gabriel, though schooled in Judaism, elected to study secular law at the universities of Kiel and Heidelberg and finished with a doctorate in jurisprudence. He found his legal career hampered, however, by anti-Jewish discrimination, not only in sentiment but in regulations. Riesser sought but was blocked from becoming a lecturer at Hamburg University and in 1829 was barred from practicing law in Hamburg – on the grounds that as a Jew, he was not a citizen.

Not a people apart

Frustrated by the automatic rejection, Riesser began to argue, in writing, the case for Jewish emancipation. He authored a brochure in which he argued that the Jews were not a people apart, but were loyal to the state and differed from their neighbors in nothing but religious beliefs. He also founded a journal in 1832 – The Jew, Periodical for Freedom of Religion and Thought – through which he argued the case for enfranchisement.

Two years later Riesser was to write a letter delivered to the Hamburg parliament arguing the case for Jewish emancipation: Reportedly, the senators found him convincing but were cowed by public anti-Jewish sentiment.

The battle Riesser and other prominent Jews of the time were fighting was part of an unorganized but sweeping change in Europe. As the 19th century began, it was rare for Jews to be considered equal citizens in Europe, with the exception of Poland, which had emancipated its Jews some five centuries earlier. France had been the second nation to emancipate its Jews, in September 1791, followed by Holland in 1796 and 1834, with different legislation.

Riesser and others arguing the cause of Jewish civil equality in Germany were ultimately persuasive. From 1848 to 1870 – following a series of unorganized, public rebellions in Germany and Austria that become known as the Marzrevolution (the March Revolution), to protest the autocratic regimes and poor living conditions – the provinces began granting civic enfranchisement to Jews, starting with Prussia, shortly followed by Hanover and Nassau. Württemberg would finally confer equality on its Jews on this day in 1861.

Others would follow and Saxony finally took the step in late 1868. With the establishment of the North German Union on July 3, 1869, and continuing under the Weimar Republic, full religious equality became the law of the land.

A violent anti-Semitic rebound

Riesser’s activity in favor of Jewish emancipation diverted him into an alternative career in the realm of politics. Finally a full citizen, in 1860 he was elected a deputy to the National Assembly of the German Confederation; come 1860 Riesser would become the first Jewish judge in Germany, with an appointment to the Hamburg High Court, but only briefly. He died in 1863.

Meanwhile, although the Jews in Germany and Austria were becoming assimilated, their legal emancipation and enfranchisement did not translate into wider tolerance. The German word antisemitisch was coined in 1860 by the Bohemian Jewish scholar Moritz Steinschneider, who had been similarly frustrated in his career by the refusal of academia to accept him, and who countered allegations of Semitic inferiority in his writings.

Thus the decades of dawning enlightenment and integration were to be followed in Germany by a violent volte face in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with escalating anti-Semitic feeling, legislation and violence toward Jews and certain other minorities.

With the rise of Nazi Germany, anti-Jewish laws were enacted again, beginning in 1933 with a ban on working on government, and peaking in the Holocaust and the invention of industrialized mass murder.