German Anti-Semitism in Context Part 3: Eugen Dühring

The Prussian-born scholar Eugen Dühring (1833–1921) made important contributions to the fields of philosophy, economics, and politics. As something of a polymath, the breadth of Dühring’s written corpus includes treatments of topics as diverse as militarism, Marxism, mathematics, and literature. His scientific discoveries[1] and economic theories have, however, been overshadowed by his advocacy of racially based anti-Semitic theories, prompting Irving Louis Horowitz to describe him as “particularly ferocious in asserting that German culture must liberate itself from the Old and New Testaments alike.”[2] 

Relatively little is known of Dühring’s early years. Born in Prussia and of Swedish heritage, Dühring appears to have inherited his father’s commitment to the values of free and independent thought, especially in relation to religious questions.[3] A gifted student, Dühring was accepted as a boarder in several leading Prussian gymnasiums following the tragic death of his father. It was here that he pursued his interest in science and mathematics—subject areas which would occupy much of his future academic research. Dühring pursued further study in the field of law before the onset of serious vision problems which would later result in permanent blindness. Due to this development, Dühring decided on an academic career as a writer of scientific and philosophical works.[4] His experience within the academy was initially positive, with James Gay notes that Dühring’s lectures at the Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität were amongst the most popular throughout the 1870s.[5] Dühring’s career as a lecturer soon soured, however, after he was overlooked for a tenured professorship. This rejection resulted in Dühring’s increased bitterness toward the academy and his professional colleagues. Echoing the turbulent relationship between de Lagarde and his professional rivals, Dühring’s polemical campaign against his University colleagues led to his dismissal in 1877. From this point forward Dühring devoted himself to a life of private scholarship and writing.    

Throughout his career as a writer, Dühring’s eclectic work was marked by an unwavering commitment to the philosophy of positive materialism. Critical of many of the intellectuals of his own time, Dühring nevertheless held the work of French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte (1798–1857) in particularly high regard.[6] Comte’s major contribution to the history of ideas lies in his approach to the relationship between human society and the physical sciences. Comte adopted the view that the natural, physical world must be adequately grasped before questions of human existence and social evolution could be addressed.[7] Lester F. Ward summarises Comte’s position on the interpretation of the natural and social world when he writes that “the most important thing to determine was the natural order in which the sciences stand– not how they can be made to stand, but how they must stand, irrespective of the wishes of anyone.”[8] Having established the centrality of a detached, positivistic approach to scientific investigations, Comte’s work The Course in Positive Philosophy outlines his three-stage model for interpreting the sociological development of humanity.[9] These stages include the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive. Comte’s purpose was to offer a comprehensive system which explained the phenomenon of human development. The final stage—the positive—represents the culmination of the intellectual journey and is marked by a commitment to reason, rationality, and empirical science.[10] Although not uncritical of Comte’s work, Dühring shared the sociologist’s belief that the positivist, empirical method represented the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement. This core belief gave shape to Dühring’s own scholarly pursuits, which were in part aimed at tearing down the unnecessary myths and metaphysical traditions of the past.   

Dühring’s relevance for the study of Nazism lies chiefly in his contribution to anti-Semitic racial theory. Dühring began work on The Jewish Question: A Racial, Moral and Cultural Question with a World Historical Answer in the period after his dismissal from the University of Berlin, eventually publishing it in 1881.[11] The work itself is an extended exploration of the concept of an inherently negative Jewish character. It was one of the first anti-Semitic works to suggest that, as an ethnic group, the Jews all shared similar unsavoury aspects to their character which were permanent and fixed. Thus, in Dühring we have the beginnings of a biological, racial anti-Semitism that pitted the healthy, Aryan Germans against the corrupted Jews. These biological “traits” were evident, for example, in the German struggle for freedom from the exploitative economic measures being utilized by Jews. Woven into the very fabric of Jewish self-identity was a compulsive desire for world domination, and a sneaky, strategic process of eroding local culture through financial control was a chief tactic for achieving this end.[12]  

Dühring’s treatise was popular with readers and sold well, although the drastic measures it advocated for dealing with the Jewish question were met with resistance from the Deutsche Reform Partei, who felt Dühring’s approach to be too dogmatic and complex.[13] Yet despite reservations from some political sections of society, Die Judenfrage was an important step in advancing the idea that Jews and Germans were fundamentally incompatible, and that the only way for the German Volk to establish independence was to advocate for their separation. In advocating this position Dühring’s treatise would influence future intellectuals and politicians. In the 1890s Dühring’s influence inspired his supporters to form the Sozialitärer Bund (Socialist Confederation), an association which aimed to advocate for the implementation of Dühring’s political and racial ideas, including anti-Semitism.[14] Historians and researchers in the post-Second World War era have come to view Dühring as the first “proto-Nazi” due to the way in which the ideas set forth in Die Judenfrage would help shape future Nazi policy.[15]  

The structure of Die Judenfrage begins with Dühring’s attempt at documenting the emergence of the Jews and the problem of their alleged racial inferiority.[16] In the first chapter, Dühring acknowledges a new era in which fresh understandings of the Jews as a problem of race and genetics was “breaking through decisively”[17] despite the levelling instincts of religious influence:  

The basic understanding which sees the Jew not as a religion but as a racial tribe is already breaking through decisively. Only, it is still, to a certain degree, distorted by the mixture of religion in it. But it lies in the interest of a noble humanity, thus of a true humanity and culture, that this obscurantism of religion, which has up to now covered and protected the worst qualities of the Jews with its darkness, be fully removed so that the Jew may be revealed to us in his natural and inalienable constitution.[18] 

It is within this discussion that Dühring makes one of his more controversial claims, suggesting that even if all German Jews were miraculously converted to Christianity then Die Judenfrage would remain pertinent, as the question is no longer one of cultural assimilation but of fundamental racial differences which could not be reconciled through superficial shifts in cultural integration. Such a view represents a significant break with many other late 19th century writers such as Adolf Stoecker and von Treitschke, whom both acknowledged the theoretical possibility of Jewish conversion and assimilation.[19] Following his assessment of the phenomenon of European Judaism, Dühring develops his thesis through a further five chapters, each of which treats a different aspect of Die Judenfrage including the Jews relationship to science, the arts, politics, as well as an extended discussion of potential “solutions” to the perceived Jewish crisis facing Germany in the late 19th century. Within these closing chapters, Dühring advocates for a range of preventative and exclusionary measures against the Jews. Dühring, for example, suggests that Jewish wealth should be placed under the supervision of the state. Evoking the paranoia of an international Jewish conspiracy which sought to dominate the world through financial control, Dühring writes that “it can indeed be least tolerated that precisely a foreign race of the constitution of the Jews cross over the limits of natural private competence and exercise a commercial power over entire social groups which equals the sovereign rights of the states.”[20] Similar sentiments would be expressed several decades later in Adolf Hitler’s notorious manifesto Mein Kampf.[21]   

It is important to note that from a theological and ecclesial perspective, Die Judenfrage remains far more critical of Christianity than the work of other authors surveyed in this chapter. A central reason for this is Dühring’s positivism, which is by nature sceptical of forms of knowledge which lie outside the scope of empirical science. Opting to undertake his work independently of “church, state and scholarly guild,”[22] Dühring remained critical of the Church in its institutional forms throughout his academic career.[23] Aside from objections to faith based on its perceived clash with findings of modern science, Dühring’s central argument against the Church was that it accepted the revelatory nature of the Old Testament as a necessary element in its theological self-understanding. For Dühring, the acceptance of the Old Testament by the German churches was the gateway through which contemporary Jews were legitimised by Protestantism: the “Christian Church has accepted the Old Testament and therewith also the Jews, even if only in a subordinate position.”[24] 

Dühring found this acceptance confounding, not only in terms of the perilous issues facing Germans but also by virtue of the fact that he perceived that it was the Jews who murdered Christ.[25] It might be countered that the problem posed by the Jewish origins and character of the New Testament itself might be considered insurmountable for Dühring’s anti-Jewish hermeneutics, but it should be remembered that Dühring did not hold Christianity in high regard, and the attempt to reconcile the Jewishness of the New Testament with a German nationalistic Christianity was not a major focus of his work. Nevertheless, Dühring interpreted Jesus as a martyr figure whose mission was to reform “the Jews from themselves and from their bad characteristics.”[26] The stubbornness of the scribes and Pharisees in response to Jesus’s teachings was testament to the Jews’ intolerance and inability to reform outdated and repressive laws.[27] Dühring concluded that “what the Germanic peoples have made of Christianity through their own ways of perceiving and feeling is something better than that Jewish coloured original form of the same.”[28]   

Dühring’s significance for the study of the Third Reich period lies in his emphasis on the racial and biological character of the Jews, whom he felt where marked by fixed and permanent individual characteristics which presented a danger to the German nations.[29] When surveying the policy and propaganda output of the Third Reich, one does not need to delve too far into the material to find echoes of Dühring’s views on Judaism, and it is clear that Dühring’s work was especially important in advocating for racial segregation of Germans and the Jews. The segregationist Nuremberg Laws of 1935 are in no small way indebted to the pioneering work of Dühring, who so vehemently warned against “disharmonic ethnic mixing.”[30] Dühring is also important in that he articulates a unique position on the institutional Church. Unlike many contemporaneous writers, Dühring felt no particular loyalty or affection for the Christian Church and took it upon himself to critique its theological basis in Judaism. Unable to grasp how a faith with its roots in Judaism could effectively represent the people of Germany, Dühring presented his readers with a problem which was to haunt the Church in the post-first world war era, namely: how can one speak of a uniquely German Christianity without also legitimizing the role of the Jews in its formation? This challenge was to be taken up by future theologians of the Deutsche Christen. 


[1]  For a detailed review of Dühring’s scientific method, see J. Wisniak, “Karl Eugen Dühring: Scientist and Political Extremist,” Journal of Phase Equilibria 22 (2001): 616–21. 

[2] See Irving Louis Horowitz, “From Pariah People to Pariah Nation: Jews, Israelis and the Third World,” in Israel in the Third World, ed. Michael Curtis and Susan Aurelia Gitelson (New Jersey: Transaction, 1976), 363.  

[3] James Gay has offered the most thorough treatment of Dühring’s biography to date. See James Gay, “The Reformation in Eugen Dühring‘s Perspectives,” inThe Reformation as a Pre-Condition for Modern Capitalism, ed. Jürgen G. Backhaus (Berlin: Lit, 2010),112. Gay’s doctoral thesis is the most detailed study of Dühring to emerge in recent times. See James Gay, “The Blind Prometheus of German Social Science: Eugen Dühring as Philosopher, Economist and Social Critic (Ph.D. diss., University of Erfurt, 2012), 27–30. It should be noted, however, that Gay himself acknowledges the limitations of biographical information regarding Dühring, stating that the latter’s autobiographySache, leben und feinde: Als hauptwerk und schlüssel zu seinen sämmtlichen Schriften (Karlsruhe und Leipzig: Verlag von H. Reuther, 1882) is the primary resource (Gay, The Blind Prometheus, 27).  

[4] Dühring’s contributions to scientific theory include Kritische Geschichte der Nationalökonomie und des Sozialismus (Berlin: Grieben, 1871), Kritische Geschichte der allgemeinen Principien der Mechanik (Berlin: Verlag von Theobald Grieben, 1873) and Cursus der Philosophie (Leipzig: L. Heimann’s Verlag, 1875).   

[5] Gay, The Reformation, 112.  

[6] Gay, The Blind Prometheus, 108.  

[7] On the enduring influence of Comte’s positivistic philosophy, see Robert C. Scharff, Comte After Positivism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).   

[8] See Lester F. Ward, The Outlines of Sociology (Norwood, MA: Berwick & Smith, 1898, reprinted 1913), 6. 

[9] See Auguste Comte, Cours de philosophie positive, 6 vols. (Paris: Bachelier, 1830). 

[10] For a critical examination of Comte’s three-stage model, see L.T. Hobhouse, “The Law of Three Stages,” The Sociological Review 1 (1908): 262–79. 

[11] Eugen Dühring, Die Judenfrage: Racen-, Sitten- und Culturfrage. Mit einer weltgeschichtlichen Antwort (Karlshrue und Leipzig: Reuther, 1881).   

[12] Weaver Santaniello, Nietzsche, God and the Jews: His Critique of Judeo-Christianity in Relation to the Nazi Myth (New York: State University Press, 1994), 101.  

[13] Gay, The Blind Prometheus, 244.

[14] The guiding principles of the Sozialitärer Bund are found in the first edition of its journal, “Socialitärer Bund,” Der Moderne Völkergeist 1 (1894): 7.  

[15] See Weaver Santaniello, “A Post-Holocaust Re-Examination of Nietzsche and the Jews: Vis-A-Vis Christendom and Nazism,” in Nietzsche and Jewish Culture, ed. Jacob Golomb (London: Routledge, 1997), 22; cf. Dirk R. Johnson, Nietzsche’s Anti-Darwinism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 117.

[16] The following quotations and references are taken from the only extant English translation of Die Judenfrage, which appeared in 1997 and was translated by Alexander Jacob. See Eugen Dühring, Eugen Dühring on the Jews, trans. Alexander Jacob (Brighton: Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1997). 

[17] Dühring, On the Jews, 56.  

[18] Dühring, On the Jews, 57.  

[19] Dühring’s view here is also at variance with the early Martin Luther, who wrote of the Jews: “If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them not by Papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially and permit them to trade and work with us, that they may have occasion and opportunity to hear our Christian teaching and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.” (“That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew,” trans. Walter I. Brandt, in Luther’s Works [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1962], 200–1, 229). Luther’s later anti-Semitism must be seen in the light of his early expectation that the Jews would convert to Christianity and thus contribute to the German nation.    

[20] Dühring, On the Jews, 174.  

[21] On the Jewish attempt at influencing state politics, Hitler remarks that “in circles concerned with the executive administration of the State, where the officials generally have only a minimum of historical sense, the Jew is able to impose his infamous deception with comparative ease (Mein Kampf, trans. James Murphy, 2 vols. [London: Hurst and Blackett, 1942], 1:173). 

[22] As quoted in Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED, Dokumente und Materialien zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung (Berlin: Dietz, 1957), 107–8.  

[23] Gay, The Blind Prometheus, 28.  

[24] Dühring, On the Jews, 147.  

[25] Dühring, On the Jews, 146–47.  

[26] Dühring, On the Jews, 88.  

[27] Dühring, On the Jews, 88–89. 

[28] Dühring, On the Jews, 79.  

[29] The crude 1940 Nazi propaganda film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) further developed the theme of a fixed, permanent Jewish nature. A sinister goal of this film was to educate ordinary Germans about the destructive nature of the Jews, and thus further Jewish persecution. For an analysis of the historical sources used as the ideological platform for the film, see Stig Hornshoj-Moller, “Der Ewige Jude”: Quellenkritische Analyse eines antisemitischen Propagandafilms (Gottingen: Institute fur den Wissenschaftlichen Film, 1995).  

[30] Dühring, Cursus der Philosophie, 390.  

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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