Skip to main content

Celebrating Seventeen Centuries of “Shared History” in 2021

David Brown
Thu, Feb 27, 2020

LBI is leading an international group of Jewish, museums, libraries, and other institutions to celebrate the 1,700th anniversary of the first documented evidence of Jewish life in the Rhineland. In 2021 an online exhibition will feature 52 objects that show the diverse experience of Jewish life across central Europe since then. The key document is a Roman imperial edict from 321 that has long been a touchstone of German-Jewish identity.

When the rabbi and historian Adolf Kober published his first comprehensive monograph on the Jewish history of Cologne in 1940, he began in the soil. Beneath the, “thick, heavy blanket of earth” that had accumulated atop the Cologne of Roman days was the detritus of a teeming imperial outpost peopled by soldiers, traders, and artisans making glass and earthenware since the first century CE. Among them were Jews.

Although little of Roman Cologne had been excavated when Kober began his research on Jewish Cologne at the Seminary in Breslau in the 1890s, the presence of Jews in Colonia Agrippina was a firm part of the historical record. On December 11, 321 CE, the Emperor Constantine wrote to the city’s municipal councilors, instructing them: “By a general law We permit all municipal senates to nominate Jews to the municipal council.” That meant that the Jews of Cologne were well-established enough to bear the significant financial burdens of service in the council, or Curia. Summarizing the scholarly debates on the question, Kober came down on the side of those who believed that Jews had been present in the Rhineland as Roman citizens and landowners since the second century.

The manuscripts and notes in Kober’s papers at the LBI suggest that he began work on this short chapter in the 1930s, but it was never published in Cologne. Kober fled his adopted city (and the object of his abiding scholarly fascination) in 1939. Cologne was published in exile by the Jewish Publication Society of America in its “Jewish Community Series” in 1940.

Of course, it is not so extraordinary for a book on ancient history to begin in the dirt. The fact of Kober’s own uprooting from the banks of the Rhine, however, gives his opening metaphor a resonance beyond the merely archeological. He was writing at a time when the National Socialist embrace of a German nation based on “blood and soil” explicitly excluded Jews on a racial basis. Ironically, the same slogan also highlighted just how deep Jewish roots went in Germany.

Defending the claim to belong

The Roman history of the Rhineland had occupied scholars of all backgrounds since the 19th century, but the bourgeois elements of German-Jewish society seized on the ancient Jewish presence in Germany to defend their claim to belonging against Nazi propaganda. Take for instance, a pamphlet produced in 1932 by the Central-Verein, a Jewish civil rights group. The Latin text of Constantine’s 321 edict appears on the cover under the title Wir Deutschen Juden (“We German Jews”). The text explicitly addresses rising antisemitism in the crisis-stricken Weimar Republic with the message that “German Jews are German.”

The Central-Verein’s defense of that claim also starts with the soil. “For over 1600 years [Jews] have been rooted in the German soil, breathed German air, grown up in the German culture, spoken the German language, loved German fields, lakes, and rivers,” the authors write. Since we know that Jews settled in the Western Roman provinces before the arrival of German tribes, they ask, “Can their descendants really be described as immigrants, alien to German soil?”

The romanticization of an ancient connection to the land was more than just a rhetorical inversion of the blood-and-soil nationalism of the antisemitic right. It was also a genuine expression of Heimatliebe. Still, it feels outdated. The anonymous authors of the Central-Verein pamphlet did not need an ancient connection to the land—they had every right to live in Germany “free of insult and discrimination” as they demanded simply because they were human beings.

And yet, the 16 centuries of history shared by Germans and Jews clearly mattered a great deal to the authors. If their patient debunking of antisemitic myths with facts—which they concede had fallen out of fashion by 1932—did not convince the reader after 45 pages, they beseeched him in conclusion at least to “believe us when we tell you that what we feel—that there is only one Fatherland for us German Jews, and it is called Germany!”

As another century since Constantine’s edict comes to a close, the pamphlet’s analysis of antisemitism feels just as uncannily familiar as its discussion of what we now call “fake news.” It describes a world in which social and economic crisis have led to political polarization (“Not und Elend verschärfen die Gegensätze der Weltanschaungen”) and excited the all-too-human reflex to hunt for a scapegoat.

Of course, too few were persuaded by the pamphlet’s earnest recitation of the myriad ways that Jews had shared in centuries of German life—practicing (when allowed) every trade in every sector of the economy, holding fast to Germanic tongues when others quickly adopted the languages of conquerors, fighting and dying for the fatherland on the battlefield, and “co-creating” German culture. The Nazis took power in 1933 and began a campaign of propaganda and terror that made the Central-Verein’s German patriotism and appeal to shared roots seem naive in hindsight.

A photograph of a Latin manuscript containing Constantine’s 321 edict appears in one of Adolf Kober’s books about the Jewish history of the Rhineland, and the text is also reprinted on a 1932 pamphlet intended to fight antisemitism. LBI Library.

What does it mean to share history?

There are other ways to argue for the basic right of all people to enjoy freedom and dignity. The universalist ethics of Judaism described by Leo Baeck are one. The post-WWII conception of human rights that emerged in reaction to the refugee crisis of the 1930s and the Holocaust offers another framework that the Central-Verein did not have access to, and which is also under threat from right-wing xenophobia today.

Still, we should do as the authors of Wir Deutschen Juden ask and believe them when they proclaim their deeply felt love of their land and its culture. The history matters to them, and we must study it if we want to understand their lives. Furthermore, if our understanding of the world is not grounded in historical fact, then we leave the door open for the same hatred that drove Kober from his homeland and the same vicious unreason that the anonymous Central-Verein authors sought to neutralize with their pamphlet.

That is why the LBI plans to spend 2021 working with partners across Europe to tell the stories of Jews in Central Europe over the past 17 centuries through 52 objects. Like the archaeologists who uncovered Roman Cologne, we will also focus on the material remains of culture—not the earth as a source of rights, belonging, or identity—but the objects that form the tangible evidence of human lives and experiences.

Every week, the project website will present an object that illuminates Jewish life in a specific period since 321, accompanied by an essay from an expert on the period and region. Because Jewish life in central Europe reaches back to a time before the modern German language had developed, we will choose objects that cover the entire range of places in Europe where German ever became a primary language. That means that the Shared History Project will reach from Cologne to Czernowitz and from Klagenfurt to Königsberg.

The history shared between Jews and non-Jews across that enormous expanse of time and space is important not just for affirming Jewish belonging in Germany. It also offers countless examples of how the co-existence of different groups in a place can succeed or fail, how identities overlap and differentiate themselves, and how freedom, peace, and prosperity can be won and lost, over and over again. With antisemitism, racism, and xenophobia waxing, understanding shared history might give us some insight into how we can best share the present. That is of concern for everyone, whether our roots in the part of the earth we call home can be measured in millennia or months.

From LBI News No. 109