The First Reich, the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation”, had a large and very old Jewish population. Because the First Reich was usually a very decentralized body, more like a collection of small countries than one, large, empire other than in the periods when a particularly strong German Kaiser came to the throne and united the German people behind him. The Jewish population predated the rise of the House of Habsburg to the imperial throne, the Hohenstaufen Kaiser Friedrich II being notable for encouraging Jews to enter the financial sector and, indeed, they soon became known as the ‘servants of the treasury’. They were recognized as a separate group within the empire, allowed to live by their own laws and were not subject to the same laws as the Christian population. However, because of the decentralized nature of the empire, their status varied from locality to locality with some local rulers being more tolerant of them than others. There were occasions of mob violence against them but, overall, they were generally far better off than the Jews in other countries.
|Albert II of Germany|
It should also be pointed out that Emperor Ferdinand II, who is generally regarded as a Catholic champion like Emperor Charles V, was also like Charles V in being more tolerant of the Jews. He opposed their persecution and even allowed them to build a new synagogue. Obviously, it is ridiculous to attribute anti-Semitism to Catholic zealotry when the monarchs who are most celebrated by traditional Catholics, Charles V and Ferdinand II who led the Catholic side of the Thirty Years War, were more tolerant of Jews than Maximilian II or Rudolf II who are generally disliked by these same staunch Catholics. Indeed, during the Thirty Years War, Emperor Ferdinand II found the Jewish population to be a very valuable tax base to support his war effort against the Protestant coalition. In many ways, the Catholic emperors who wanted reconciliation with the Protestants tended to be more anti-Jewish while the Catholic emperors who wanted to defeat the Protestants were more tolerant of the Jews, at least during this period.
|Emperor Leopold I|
This trend generally remained in place though with one slight exception. Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary, inherited the Habsburg lands, prompting the War of the Austrian Succession (King George’s War to Americans) and she married the Duke of Lorraine, bringing to the Habsburgs one of the claims to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. She was a devout Catholic, not a fan of the “Enlightenment” and not a big fan of the Jews. She wrote that, “Henceforth no Jew, no matter under what name, will be allowed to remain here without my written permission. I know of no other troublesome pest within the state than this race, which impoverished the people by their fraud, usury and money-lending and commits all deeds which an honorable man despises. Subsequently they have to be removed and excluded from here as much as possible.” However, it should also be remembered, she had a similar opinion of Protestants and wished to deport them as well which ultimately prompted a threat from her eldest son to abdicate. She also, like Leopold I, had Jews in her court and her ministers did convince her to moderate somewhat.
|Emperor Joseph II|
|Badge of Jewish support for the K.u.K. war effort|
|Rabbi praying over Emperor Charles & Empress Zita|