German Anti-Semitism in Context Part 2: Heinrich von Treitschke

In his posthumous work Politik, the famed German historian and political commentator Heinrich von Treitschke (1834–1896) wrote that those preaching the doctrine of eternal peace did not understand the essence of the Aryan life.[1] The true German spirit, argued von Treitschke, was represented not through turning the other cheek but through the image of the war hero who valiantly overcame all attempts to contain his spirit in the mediocrity of the age and instead strove for glory and majesty. Von Treitschke’s writings extol the moral virtue of war as an inevitable element in the struggle for national greatness, and in so doing offer a justification for military conflict as an ongoing necessity in the struggle for German colonization. Within this militarised environment the weak states would be swept away under the unstoppable force of German heroism and in their place would lie a transformed Germany marked by racial purity and nationalistic vigour. It is von Treitschke’s twin emphases on social Darwinism and anti-Semitism which make him a particularly important figure in relation to the study of the Third Reich period, upon which he was a notable influence.[2] As a distinguished professor, von Treitschke is also important in establishing the academic credibility of anti-Semitism within bourgeois society. 

The son of a Saxon general, von Treitschke studied history and politics at the Universities of Leipzig and Bonn under the mentorship of the esteemed German historian Friedrich Christoph Dahlmann. Von Treitschke eventually achieved the academic title of Privatdozent and went on to teach History at the Universities of Freiburg, Keil, Heidelberg, and Berlin.[3] Von Treitschke’s personality and breadth of historical knowledge ensured he was popular with students, who were often mesmerized by the passion and stridency of his political views and were known to burst spontaneously into approving applause at the end of a political monologue.[4] A vehement critic of German liberalism, von Treitschke was initially reserved in his anti-Semitism. Like many in the German intelligentsia, von Treitschke found the obscene rhetoric of contemporary anti-Semitic intellectuals undignified. He remained for a time disapproving of anti-Jewish discrimination, fearing that it would lead to their ostracization from wider German society. For von Treitschke, the isolation of certain ethnic and religious groups threatened the ongoing process of unification under the banner of a shared German identity and would prevent Jews from acquiring the “joyful feeling of national pride.”[5] Theoretically, von Treitschke appeared to accept that the Jews could be considered legitimate Germans, making him somewhat more nuanced than other anti-Semitic intellectuals of the time.[6]

Yet these indications of an early tolerance toward the Jews were to harden throughout the 1870s. Throughout this decade von Treitschke’s own feelings toward the Jews became infected with the paranoia of the day. Within von Treitschke’s increasingly radicalised thought, liberalism was identified as the ideological tool being used by the Jews to undermine national strength and unity. He became suspicious of the Jewish “clan” mentality which would have a “negative, dissolving” influence on the national struggle for a united Germany.[7] Furthermore, von Treitschke’s polemic against the Jews began to reflect distinctly racial themes. This is revealed in his concern that the physical proximity of the Jews to the healthy Germans was have a deleterious effect: “Whenever he finds his life sullied by the filth of Judaism,” von Treitschke remarked, “the German must turn from it, and learn to speak the truth boldly.”[8]

Von Treitschke promoted his opinions through his classroom lectures, his involvement in national politics,[9] and his writing. Of his published works, the most infamous is an anti-Semitic pamphlet published in the Preußische Jahrbücher (Prussian Yearbooks), of which he was an editor. The original article first appeared in January 1880 and was supplemented by two later articles, eventually being published together as Ein Wort über unser Judenthum (A Word about Our Jews). The pamphlet begins with von Treitschke’s response to the rising tide of anti-Semitism within German society, the character of which is described as a repulsive, violent uprising of “mob instinct.”[10] Despite the nature of this anti-Semitism being at significant variance with the more refined tastes of a University Professor, von Treitschke understood this new form of virulent anti-Semitism as ultimately grounded in truth. Von Treitschke’s immediate grievance lies in his response to the seemingly unstoppable immigration of Eastern European Jews into German territory. Dismissing the French and English for their lack of insight into the immigration problem facing Germany, von Treitschke poses a question to his readers which forms the crux of his anti-Semitic position: how were Germans to assimilate this “alien nation?” In one of his most infamous quotations, von Treitschke describes the immigration question as a national crisis and the negative reaction of ordinary Germans toward this “barbarian” invasion inevitable:

Year after year over our Eastern frontier, from the inexhaustible Polish cradle there comes, forcing their way in, a host of pushful, trouser-selling youths whose children and children’s children are one day to dominate Germany’s stock-exchanges and newspapers; the invasion increases visibly, and ever more serious becomes the problem as to how we can ever manage their alien Volkstum with ours … the Jews are our misfortune.[11]

As von Treitschke understood it, the solution to the seemingly irreconcilable clash of cultures was for the Jews themselves to become more tolerant of German culture. Echoing de Lagarde’s mantra that the task was to “become a German and nothing but a German,”[12] von Treitschke understood fidelity to national identity as overriding all other cultural or ethnic distinctions.[13] Unlike de Lagarde, however, von Treitschke did not consider himself anti-Semitic in a strictly racial sense, although he was certainly capable of using rhetoric congruent with biologically informed anti-Semitism. Rather, he saw his own views as having been shaped by the immediate context of mass immigration and potential cultural collapse.[14] Allowing for a degree of inherent anti-Jewishness which had been a feature within Europe for centuries,[15] von Treitschke’s polemic appears less about race and more about cultural integration.[16]

Critical reception to Ein Wort über unser Judenthum was divided. Von Treitschke enjoyed popular support from within various student groups (e.g., Burschenschafften) and ideological sympathizers, but his rhetoric alienated those who found his anti-Semitic pronouncements unnecessarily inflammatory. A Berlin University colleague named Theodor Mommsen became a vocal opponent of von Treitschke’s provocative approach to the Jewish question and was a reminder that the academy itself was by no means uniform in its position on the Jews. Widely respected for his five-volume The History of Rome, Mommsen accused von Treitschke of pandering to the supporters of more extreme forms of anti-Semitism. He argued instead for a more considered and temperate view based on historical precedent.[17] While Mommsen’s own anti-Semitism is evident,[18] he nevertheless conceded that there were ethnic Germans who also displayed the anti-social and undesirable traits of which he presumed the Jews were most guilty. Further, Mommsen argued that von Treitschke’s depiction of a mass flood of Eastern European Jews into Germany was simply not true, and that the alleged immigration issue was invented as a propaganda tool. In response to Mommsen’s umbrage von Treitschke maintained his original position with even greater steadfastness, suggesting that the Jews were attempting to create a parallel nation within Germany and that the only responsible course of action for ordinary Germans was to respond to this subversion with passionate activism:

Whoever wants to be considered a man will never cease to toil for the unity of Germany. A heart glowing with passion, a mind cold and clear, a sober assessment of the prevailing power factors—this is the only fitting attitude for the patriot of a nation which is struggling for its very existence … An arduous task of political education still lies before us.[19]  

Where did the Christian Church fit into von Treitschke’s understanding of the “Jewish question” and the need for national reform? Unlike de Lagarde, von Treitschke assumed an inalienable link between the German reformation and nationalistic ideology, seeing Luther as the ideal Germanic-German who was legitimized by God to lead the nation.[20]For von Treitschke, the spirit of the Reformation and the nationalistic impulse were sacred and represented two different manifestations of the same holy ideals. The close bond between reformed Christianity and the German Volk made it nearly impossible to consider the possibility of a Jewish–German identity. Such an idea was an affront to the glorious history of German civilization, which struggled throughout numerous wars and battles to establish its autonomy.[21] To become fully German meant that one should shed the old wineskin of Judaism and embrace the Christianity of the Volk. This reiterates von Treitschke’s view that, where possible, the conversion of Jews to German Christianity should be actively encouraged to foster national unity. The issue of the Jewish origins of Christianity was resolved through von Treitschke refusal to acknowledge the ongoing legitimacy of Judaism as an integral component of Christian theology:

Every young spiritual power that defeated the older one is itself the offspring of its enemy. The greatness of the Christian doctrine now lies in the fact that, although it emerged from Judaism, it overcame Semitism became a global church.[22]

These exercises in uncritical theologizing would serve as a template for many scholars within the Third Reich era who took it upon themselves to proclaim that Jesus Christ was Aryan and that the advent of Gentile Christianity represented the spiritual negation of Judaism.   

Irrespective of such proclamations, von Treitschke was generally more concerned with the realm of realpolitik than he was in articulating a theological justification for anti-Semitism.[23] Nevertheless, a knowledge of von Treitschke’s immediate and long-term impact is vital for our understanding of the nature of the Church and anti-Semitism within the Third Reich period. There are three important reasons for this. First, von Treitschke is responsible for popularising the idea that the Jews represented a threat to German culture. This was achieved in his long-enduring maxim that the Jews were Germany’s “misfortune.”[24] This particular phrase resounded in popular culture throughout the following decades and was eventually co-opted by Nazi publisher Julius Streicher as the slogan of his notorious, hate-filled newspaper Der Stürmer.[25] Second, von Treitschke’s belief in the honour and necessity of war as a means of achieving national goals was a philosophical concept which was to receive increasing acceptance throughout the following century. The increasing militarization of German society throughout the Nazi-era[26] is a testament to the strength of the legacy left by von Treitschke, who once nihilistically proclaimed that “God will see to it that war always recurs as a drastic medicine for the human race.”[27] Such bleak and violent worldviews would become an actuality in the devastating racial and expansionist policies of the Third Reich. Third, von Treitschke played an instrumental role in lending credibility to the pursuit of academically informed anti-Semitism, even if this may not have been his primary goal. It was the anti-Semitic work of von Treitschke which inspired the formation of the Verein deustcher Studenten (Union of German Students) in 1881, whose purpose was to explore further the Jewish question in relation to Germanic identity and culture. The development of such groups is a testament to the resurgence of conservative nationalist ideology in the 1880s, and von Treitschke’s esteem as a credible, well-respected scholar helped legitimize the Jewish question as one of vital academic concern.[28] This approach was a further step in the project of establishing the Jewish question as one of necessity for all Germans, not just those with an interest in politics. 


[1] Heinrich Von Treitschke, Politics, 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 1:65–68, 2:597–99. 

[2] Christopher J. Probst, Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 23, 181; Götz Aly, Why the Germans? Why the Jews? Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust, trans. Jefferson Chase (New York: Metropolitan, 2014), 128; Richard Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth for the Dumb! The German Evangelical Church and the Jews 1879–1950 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1976), 20; S.K. Padover, “Treitschke: Forerunner of Hitlerism,” Pacific Historical Review 4 (1935): 161–70.

[3] For a biographical summary of von Treitschke’s early life, see H.W.C. Davis, The Political Thought of Heinrich von Treitschke (London: Constable and Company, 1914), 1–9.   

[4] Andreas Dorpalen, Heinrich von Treitschke (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 46, 277. 

[5] Heinrich von Treitschke, Deutsche Kämpfe. Neue Folge: Schriften zur Tagespolitik, ed. Erich Liesegang (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1896), 21–28, 62–63, 136–38. 

[6] Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth, 12. Walter Boelich, ed. Der Berliner Antisemitismussreit (Frankfurt: Insel, 1965), 10. The complexities of von Treitschke’s anti-Semitism can be contrasted with the more extreme views of teacher and activist Bernhard Förster, who described the Jews as a parasite on the German body. See Hannu Salmi, “Die Sucht Nach Dem Germanischen Ideal,” Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft, 6 (1994): 485–96. 

[7] Walter Gurian, “Antisemitism in Modern Germany,” in Essays on Antisemitism, ed. Koppel S. Pinson (New York: Horney, 1946), 230. 

[8] See P.G.J. Pulzer, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria (New York: Wiley, 1964), 250. 

[9] Von Treitschke was a member of the German Reichstag from 1871 to 1884, although his influence was limited due to his almost total deafness. 

[10] Boehlich, Der Berliner Antisemitismussreit, 9.

[11] Boehlich, Der Berliner Antisemitismussreit, 9, 13. 

[12] Universitätsarchiv Göttingen, Lagarde 150:1160. 

[13] For an extended discussion on von Treitschke’s views on Jewish ethnic and religious conversion, see George Y. Kohler, “German Spirit and Holy Ghost-Treitschke’s Call for Conversion of German Jewry,” Modern Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Ideas and Experience 30 (2010): 172–95. 

[14] In reflecting on the raucous agitation of contemporary antisemitic protests, von Treitschke wrote that it was a “natural reaction of the Germanic national feeling against an alien element which has usurped too much space in our life.” See Marcel Stoetzler, The State, the Nation and the Jews: Liberalism and the Antisemitism Dispute in Bismarck’s Germany (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), 37–38. 

[15] For a thorough treatment of the history of anti-Semitism in Europe, see especially William I. Brustein, Roots of Hate: Anti-Semitism in Europe before the Holocaust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[16] Gutteridge maintains that von Treitschke did not, in fact, consider himself anti-Semitic. See Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth, 15. 

[17] See Hans Liebeschütz, “Treitschke and Mommsen on Jewry and Judaism,” LBI Year Book VII (1962): 153–82. 

[18] In The History of Rome, Mommsen describes the ancient Jews as an element of “national decomposition,” a claim he repeated about the contemporary Jewish question (Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, 5 vols. [London: Macmillan, 1905], 5:419). See also: Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth, 15.   

[19] Heinrich von Treitschke, Historische und Politische Aufsätze (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1865), 513.  

[20] In the arrival of Luther, von Treitschke saw the German people as becoming a “new Israel.” Luther represented the salvation of the German people and their liberation from the tyranny of the Roman Church. See Heinrich von Treitschke, History of Germany in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul, 7 vols. (New York: McBride, Nast & Company, 1915), 1:4. See also Clemens Vollnhals, “Nationalprotestantische Traditionen und das euphorische Aufbruchserlebnis der Kirchen im Jahr 1933,” in Christlicher Antisemitismus im 20. Jahrhundert: Der Tübinger Theologe und “Judenforscher” Gerhard Kittel, ed. Manfred Gailus and Clemens Vollnhals (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2020), 47.    

[21] Boehlich, Der Berliner Antisemitismussreit, 79–92. 

[22] As quoted in Boehlich, Der Berliner Antisemitismusstreit, 89–9. On von Treitschke’s disavowal of the Old Testament, Kohler argues that von Treitschke believed that true Christianity had overcome Judaism, and that its holy literature had been purged of all Semitic influence (“German Spirit and Holy Ghost,” 177). 

[23] On von Treitschke’s understanding of Realpolitik, see Karl H. Metz, “The Politics of Conflict: Heinrich von Treitschke and the Idea of ‘Realpolitik,’” History of Political Thought 3 (1982): 269–84.

[24] Von Treitschke, Der Berliner Antisemitismussreit, 9, 13.

[25] Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth, 17. 

[26] For a perceptive review of Nazi militarisation of German public life, see Albert Salomon, “The Spirit of the Soldier and Nazi Militarism,” Social Research 9 (1942): 82–103.  

[27] Heinrich von Treitschke, Politik (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1899–1900), 76.

[28] The scholarly legitimization of anti-Semitism was a process rather than an instantaneous event. Gutteridge writes that in the initial stages it was “a shock to the intelligent public that anti-Semitism had won a foothold in Berlin University, and that anti-Jewish propaganda was now being disseminated from so distinguished a professorial chair as well as from the pulpit and the political platform” (Open Thy Mouth, 15).   

About Ryan Buesnel

Welcome to my page! I am a writer and musician from Melbourne who enjoys reading philosophy, theology and military history. I am a Ph.D. Candidate through Charles Sturt University, with my thesis exploring the activities of the German State Church during the Third Reich-era.
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