The Society for Defense against Anti-Semitism

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The anti-Semitic movement of the 1880s spurred prominent Christians and Jews to join together in a Society for Defense against Anti-Semitism (Verein zur Abwehr des Antisemitismus) in 1890-91 in order to respond to the anti-Semites’ pernicious and un-Christian activities (call for the society’s foundation).

The society had as many as 20,000 members at times. They came predominantly from the liberal educated and propertied bourgeoisie and included many Protestant theologians and liberal politicians. Although Catholics und Social Democrats occasionally joined in the Weimar Republic, it was unable to expand its social, denominational and political base decisively.

The society wanted to educate the public, relying on the authority of education and morals. It published materials such as the “Mitteilungen aus dem Verein zur Abwehr des Antisemitismus” (News from the Society for Defense against Anti-Semitism, called “Abwehr-Blätter” or Defense Newsletter as of 1925) and a handbook, the “Antisemiten-Spiegel” (Mirror of Anti-Semites), which refuted anti-Jewish stereotypes and discredited anti-Semitic agitators. The society also issued appeals to vote against anti-Semitic parties and supported parliamentary initiatives against discrimination against Jews in the civil service and armed forces.

The Society for Defense pursued a policy upheld by prominent figures until it disbanded on its own accord in July of 1933. Rather than seeking direct confrontations with anti-Semites, it attempted to exert influence on public opinion through the press, parliaments and the academic authority of scholars. It was unable to mobilize the political masses with its defense strategy.

The society was intent on the Jews’ enjoyment of equal rights as citizens, which, although formally attained in the imperial constitution of 1871, was frequently flouted in practice. It rejected philo-Semitism, Zionism and, initially, any form of Jewish self-organization as illegitimate particularism. Many members pursued the goal of a religious and cultural homogeneity, not plurality, and were therefore uninterested in the perpetuation of an independent Jewish identity. Its members had not discarded social and religious clichés about Judaism by any means.

In the Weimar Republic, the society combatted accusations that the Jews were accountable for the loss of the war and for the revolution and were representatives of the “system”. Its “Abwehr-ABC” (ABCs of Defense) contained aids for disputing common anti-Semitic defamations and also information on the various political parties’ stances toward anti-Semitism. The society cooperated with the German Democratic Party (DDP). Georg Gothein, a German Democratic member of the Reichstag, became the society’s president in 1921.

From 1925 onward, the circles of the Society for Defense increasingly perceived Hitler and the NSDAP as a menace. “Mein Kampf” and Hitler’s speeches were analyzed and discussed in the Abwehr-Blätter, but still in an ironic tone for the most part.

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