Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The holocaust in context

Just back from Berlin, where I visited the Jewish Museum for the first time. Not to be missed. The holocaust, of course, provides the prism through which you view every exhibit, and the red thread that guides you through the collection moves relentlessly towards it, but there is more, much more.

We know Jews settled in Germany as early as Roman times. Routinely, they faced discrimination. They were banned from craftsmen’s guilds, and there were professions they could not enter. Handily, though, they could lend money at interest which, for a long time, Christians were not allowed to do. Now there was always plenty of demand for borrowed money, especially among ambitious or improvident princes, so, not surprisingly, many Jews did become moneylenders , and, in the grand old tradition of “blame the victim”, were stigmatised for it.

Three German cities – Mainz, Speyer and Worms – became Europe’s centres for Jewish erudition in the Middle Ages. Persecution and murder, though, really began to take off around the time of the Crusades. Then the Jews got the blame for the Black Death in the fourteenth century (see my blog of March 31), and suffered more massacres.

When the German Empire was founded in 1871, Jews notionally became full and equal citizens, but anti-Semitism remained a powerful force. Twelve thousand Jews died fighting for Germany in World War One. (It was, incidentally, a Jewish officer who recommended Adolf Hitler for the Iron Cross.) That, though, counted for nothing when roaring inflation and mass unemployment swept the Nazis to power.

About half of Germany’s Jewish population managed to escape, but the Nazis murdered 200,000. After World War Two, around 20,000 Jews settled in Germany, and today there are more than 100,000 – many of them recent arrivals from the Soviet Union.

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