The proselytes of Prussia

The Politics of Conversion
April 19, 1996

One of Martin Luther's most cherished beliefs was that his Reformation would lead to a mass conversion. This did not happen, whereupon Luther famously rounded on the Jews. Thereafter, the relationship between Protestant Germany, especially the Prussian state, and the Jews remained fraught. On the one hand there was the expectation of conversion and assimilation; on the other, the hope of emancipation and recognition.

Nowhere were the frustrations and ambiguities of this relationship better illustrated than in the Protestant Mission to the Jews in Prussia. In his excellent and superbly researched first book, Christopher Clark has thus hit on a perfect vehicle for the study not merely of the Jewish "problem" in Germany from the early 18th century right down to the Third Reich, but of state policies towards a "paradigmatically marginal group". For the Mission to the Jews was always more than just a religious exercise: thanks to Clark we now know that it was also very much part of the "internal colonisation" of Prussia. The 18th-century Institutum Judaicum, aimed not only at a change in Jewish belief but at "a social and occupational adjustment" as well. Jews, in the words of the institute's long-serving director, Johann Heinrich Callenberg, needed to be taught the "hard lesson" of manual work in order to wean them away from their "ingrained" beggary and peddling; this conveniently overlooked the fact that Jewish occupational patterns were primarily the result of restrictive state laws.

By the close of the 18th century the cold therapy of rationalism had forced pietism - and the Institutum Judaicum - into remission. Yet the second decade of the 19th century saw the emergence of a neopietist awakening and with it a revival of the mission to the Jews. As in the 18th century, the mission aimed at more than just conversion. In Posen, for example, the mission supplemented the Germanisation programme of the Prussian state. Far more importantly, the mission became part of Frederick William IV's conception of a Christian state. This reflected a change of priorities for the state: assimilation through occupational and behavioural change - which had been the main concern of the enlightened cameralist state - was now replaced by demands for the sincere conversion which the Jew needed to secure full political rights in a Christian state.

Throughout the book, Clark sets the fortunes of the Mission to the Jews in the context of a highly subtle and well-informed analysis of the political and politico-theological divisions of 19th-century Prussia. In particular, Clark stresses that the mission's relationship with the state church remained problematic until well into the 19th century. He also punctures the notion that the opposition to the Hohenzollern state after 1815 was confined to liberal and bourgeois circles. In fact, the mission to the Jews was closely identified with and suffered from, its association with such separatist groups as the aristocratic "perfumed pietists" and the "Old Lutheran" resistance to the church union with the Calvinists.

By and large, however, the mission's relationship with the monarchy - excepting some tension in the 1820s and 1830s - was harmonious. Indeed, perhaps one of the most striking results of Clark's work is the extent to which the mission involved those in the antechamber of power around the king. The list of sponsors in the 1830s and 1840s reads like a Who's Who of Prussian high politics: the Gerlach brothers, Ernst Senfft von Pilsach, Count Anton Stolberg-Wernigerode, Count von der Groben and many others. Conversely, the accession of Wilhelm I marked the retreat from political favour.

But the loss of royal favour alone cannot explain the long decline of the mission after about 1860. It was the growth and triumph of racial anti-Semitism, Clark points out, that ultimately destroyed the very assumptions upon which it was based. To the racial anti-Semites, the notion of annihilation through conversion was utterly alien. The Mission to the Jews, wrote one Nazi cleric, "is the entry gate of foreign blood into the body of our nation". After a long rearguard action, the mission was finally suppressed in 1941.

The modesty and understatedness of this monograph is deceptive. It eschews the "Caesarean" approach to historical argument: a spectacular but messy operation, in which combative prose, extended theoretical skirmishes and false polarisations culminate in the delivery of a modest result. Christopher Clark opts instead for a quiet keyhole surgery in which historiographical tumours and empirical polyps alike are excised with a deftness that brooks no argument.

Brendan Simms is a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

The Politics of Conversion: Missionary Protestantism and the Jews in Prussia, 1728-1941

Author - Christopher Clark
ISBN - 0 19 8200456 6
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £40.00
Pages - 340

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