Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The House of Habsburg and the Jews

Particularly after World War II, many have looked back and heavily scrutinized any comments concerning the Jews from German Kaiser Wilhelm II in a very obvious effort to portray him, and thus justify his overthrow, as the precursor to Adolf Hitler. That, however, is a ridiculous exercise. The Kaiser did make accusations against the Jews, no doubt because of their overrepresentation in the ranks of his enemies on the far left, but he also expressed genuine horror at the first anti-Semitic crackdowns in Germany under the Nazi regime. The entire narrative, however, is a canard. Hitler, after all, was a native of Austria rather than Germany and none of these people ever look to the relationship between the last two Austrian Kaisers and the Jewish population, doubtless because there is little, if anything, which can be used against the final Habsburg monarchs in that regard. What was the relationship like between the Jews and the Habsburg emperors? The answer is that it was one subject to change.

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
Just prior to the Habsburgs attaining the imperial throne the status of the Jews initially remained the same as it had been previously. However, that changed under Archduke Albert V of Austria, aka Albert II of Germany. During the Hussite Wars the Jews were accused of complicity with the enemy and after a notorious incident of Eucharistic desecration at a church in Krems in 1420, Albert V ordered that the Jews be arrested, forced to convert and forfeit their property. Some were deported, some fled and a few were burned. Albert V banned Jews from Austria, destroyed the synagogue in Vienna and declared that they would never be allowed back. The successor of Albert V as Archduke of Austria would be the first Habsburg to be elected to the imperial throne; Emperor Frederick III. The “eternal ban” of Albert V turned out to be nothing of the sort as Emperor Frederick III canceled it, welcomed the Jews back and was extremely popular with the Jewish community who hailed him as the “King of the Jews”. The Jewish population revived quickly and prospered quickly, finding no shortage of customers for their businesses, particularly those looking for loans. Yet, this period of tolerance was not eternal either as Friedrich III was succeeded by Emperor Maximilian I.

Emperor Maximilian I, a very astute statesman and a figure who looms large in European history, found the Jewish presence rather at odds with the foundational principles of what was supposed to be a Catholic Christian empire. He did not go as far as he could have or as far as other monarchs had done in countries such as England, France or Spain but in 1496 he ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Styria and, later in 1509, confiscated Jewish property and burned all Jewish books. Yet, this situation did not persist nor was it widespread. After greatly expanding the reach of his dynasty, Maximilian was succeeded by Emperor Charles V who, despite being one of the most significant emperors, did not command unquestioning obedience. Faced with enemies such as the French, the Turks, the first Protestants and even the Pope, he had to take care to respect local authorities. He tolerated Jews in his German lands but in Spain, of which he was king as Carlos I, where Jews had been expelled, they remained expelled. Indeed, compared to Martin Luther, many Jews viewed Emperor Charles V as their guardian from fundamentalist mobs. In this period the Habsburg emperors were known to defend the Jews from the repressive measures of the Estates-General.

Ferdinand I
However, the outbreak and spread of Protestantism, and with it an increase in Christian fundamentalism, was bound to cause trouble for the Jews who stood out as the most noticeable non-Christian population within the borders of Christendom. When Emperor Charles V abdicated and divided his lands, the German half went to Emperor Ferdinand I who remained tolerant of them but did order them to wear a symbol marking their status as Jews. Today, this tends to cause an uproar due to memories of Hitler making the Jews wear a Star of David on their clothes but for Emperor Ferdinand it went no further than that. He did not molest them, he simply wanted them to be easily identified as a people apart which, it must be said, the Jews themselves considered themselves to be. However, restrictions on them did increase throughout the reigns of Emperors Maximilian II, Rudolf II and Matthias. This is often attributed to the Society of Jesus and an increasingly “fanatical” Catholicism in the empire, in reaction to the Protestants, yet, most ardent Catholics have a generally less than extremely favorable view of any of these Habsburg monarchs with many doubting the Catholic zeal of Maximilian II and Rudolf II and with Emperor Matthias also often viewed as too tolerant of non-Catholics.

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
Things changed again with the reign of Emperor Leopold I. He was a staunch Catholic and had a very different attitude toward the Jews than his predecessors. Leopold I expelled the Jews from many of his lands, including banning them from Vienna in 1640. However, while he deported a great many Jews, he ultimately did not prevent them from returning which, in spite of accusations of persecution, they inevitably did. It is also worth noting that Emperor Leopold I had a Jewish economic advisor, one Samson Wertheimer. Clearly, whatever his attitude toward Jews collectively, he was willing to make exceptions. Although not extremely significant, it is also true that not all the Jews did come back after being expelled from the Habsburg lands with some moving all the way back to the Holy Land, following a rabbi who purported to be the messiah but who later converted to Islam (!). In general, however, over the ensuing years and throughout the reigns of a number of monarchs, the situation of the Jews was peaceful and the attitude of the Imperial Crown generally tolerant.

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
Her son, Emperor Joseph II, is generally regarded as much more tolerant than his mother, however, as is often the case with Joseph II, the truth is more complicated with him. He did not, like his mother, wish to expel all Jews or deport them to wild, frontier areas, but he did basically want them to stop being so Jewish. Emperor Joseph II was perfectly willing to restore the old tolerance toward the Jews but, at the same time, he also wanted them to stop being ‘a nation within a nation’ and integrate or assimilate as we would say today. He would give them the same rights as his Christian subjects but also expected them to submit to the same obligations with no special privileges. Joseph II, for example, was happy to let Jews worship as they please and do business as they pleased but he also wanted them to speak German rather than Yiddish, be subject to service in the Imperial Army, submit to the same laws as everyone else and so on. The Jews accepted their restored rights but generally refused to assimilate. It was, for Joseph II, one more project of his that failed to reach completion. As with most of the innovations of Joseph II, his successors, Leopold II and Francis II/I moderated the most extreme but largely kept the rest in place.

The status of the Jews remained largely unchanged until the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph who also oversaw the transition of the Austrian Empire to the “Dual-Monarchy” of Austria-Hungary. Rather than being a primarily German power, as the First Reich had been, Austria-Hungary reflected the shift toward multi-nationalism. Emperor Franz Joseph lifted remaining restrictions on the Jews and even championed their cause, repeatedly condemning anti-Semitism. As a result, he was widely popular with the Jews who called him the King of Jerusalem. They also recognized that nationalism by the member peoples of Austria-Hungary was a threat to them and so regarded themselves and the monarchy as having a common enemy. Rabbi Joseph Samuel Bloch, a native of Polish Galicia, was highly involved in this, promoting a Jewish form of Austrian patriotism. The restoration of full citizenship for Jews by Emperor Franz Joseph caused many to flock to Vienna. One of the most notable was Theodor Herzl, father of the Zionist movement, who believed that anti-Semitism could never be eliminated and the only solution was for the Jews to have a state of their own outside of Europe.

Badge of Jewish support for the K.u.K. war effort
Emperor Franz Joseph elevated many Jews to the nobility and gave them special considerations in the army. In the last conflict of the Habsburg drama, the Imperial and Royal Army included Protestants, Jews and Muslims which would likely have shocked previous generations. Rabbis and Imams served alongside priests in the chaplaincy. These policies were continued by Emperor Charles (Kaiser Karl) though he had little time to establish the same sort of relationship with his various peoples that his uncle had over so many years. According to Scottish author Gerald Warner, in Austria at least (likely not Hungary) the Jews were very supportive of the restoration of Emperor Charles and his son and would-be successor Archduke Otto is credited with helping a great many Jews escape Austria after its annexation by National Socialist Germany. This is rather remarkable given that all three of the founders of the Austrian Communist Party were Jews as was the leader of the short-lived communist takeover of Hungary Bela Kun. However, neither Emperor Charles or Archduke Otto in his long life ever relented in their friendly attitude toward the Jews or showed any regret over the policies of the last Habsburg monarchs in this regard (or any other really).

Rabbi praying over Emperor Charles & Empress Zita
No doubt this attitude contributed to the visceral hatred Adolf Hitler had toward the House of Habsburg whom he regarded as altogether too pandering towards Jews, Slavs and others rather than the German-Austrians. The problem that usually arises with this issue is that so many who focus on it tend to have a very simplistic attitude and firmly set preconceived notions one way or the other, pro- or anti-Semitic. History, as is usually the case, is more complicated than that. Some Habsburg monarchs were very indulgent with the Jews, some very clearly found them objectionable. However, on the whole, Jews fared better under the Habsburgs than in most other parts of Europe, the decentralized nature of the empire being very beneficial for them. When the King of England or King of France expelled the Jews, they were expelled from the country entirely. Under the Habsburgs, however, even when an emperor did expel them, they could only be expelled from lands directly belonging to the Habsburg dynasty and not from the whole empire over which the emperor had no control. Some did try to change this but none were successful. So, after starting out quite hostile to each other, the Jews and the Habsburgs ended on quite friendly ground with even the end of the empire not changing the attitude of the Habsburg dynasts in that regard.


  1. Thus, it was due to this tolerance that befell the Imperial Habsburgs after the end of WWI, and also explained Hitler's popularity among the German people. The Jews got America into the war with the Balfour Declaration. They cared not for Germany, or Britain, or any other country but their own. I normally like your work, but this article is rather naïve. Always blaming the "Nazi" (Jewish term, by the way), and never asking WHY the Jew was so unpopular in many countries over the centuries.

    1. Naive? "blaming the Nazi"?? You should try reading instead of letting your imagination run wild but, I suppose, that would probably interfere with your worldview. I have no idea what you imagine I blamed the Nazis for since I hardly mentioned them nor why you would expect an article about the relations between the Jews and Habsburgs to address "WHY" the Jews have been expelled from so many countries. The title alone was fairly simple, self-explanatory and contained no big words.

  2. I know that you don't take requests, however one topic that you could maybe consider, that very much resembles this post, is the relationship between Spanish leader Francisco Franco and the jews. After all, his regime never established relationships with Israel, gave refuge to Leon Degrelle and he also wrote a book entitled "Masoneria" under the pseudonym Jakim Boor, in which lets just say, Franco was less than politically correct on the history of jews in Spain. I very much believe there's a middle ground between nazi anti- semitism and the obsession with Israel so many Christians have, especially when you approach Christianity from a Catholic point of view. It may be uncomfortable, but nevertheless factual, that just as in the case of Nicholas II and the Kaiser as you mention in this post, some of the most outspoken critics of Francisco Franco and his regime were jews, and even today you'd be hard pressed to find many Jews who admire the man who saved not only Spain but all of Western Europe from the clutches of communism. I was curious to your thoughts on this subject as I've recently received a two volume set of Franco's collected speeches in the original Spanish, and as politically incorrect as it may be, I think it's safe to say that what Franco's regime stood for is unwelcoming to most jews compared to the decadent degeneracy of the modern world.

    1. The constant problem with this issue, as mentioned, is the 'black & white' mentality both sides tend to have but which hardly fits the complications of real life. Franco, as far as I know, had a fairly realistic view of the issue. The Jews were expelled from Spain for perfectly valid reasons, they started to trickle back in the mid to late 19th Century I think and no major action was taken against them. Franco allowed Jewish refugees to flee through Spain during WW2 but was not keen on them settling down and staying. Yet, it was his regime which formally repealed the law of expulsion, so he was not simply a blanket anti-Semite. I don't think he felt they really belonged in Spain, a valid argument especially after the creation of the State of Israel as they then had a country of their own to go to) but he also recognized that they were disproportionately represented among the ranks of his enemies and those who opposed all that he believed in. So, for Franco, as with some others, it was their behavior, their opinions etc that mattered most and not just that they were Jews. He had no hesitation in destroying enemies but he wasn't going to kill someone simply for their blood. If you were a Jew who did not oppose him, I doubt he would have a problem with you. If you were a Jew who was a communist, you'd be in for trouble but so would any other communist.

  3. Are you familiar with the Talmud?

    1. I am aware of the Talmud, not familiar. Not being Jewish I see no more reason to be familiar with it than with the Quran or hadiths.

    2. The Muslim holy books are kind of humorous honestly (in the sense of absurdity), from the bits and pieces I know.
      I take the ex-Jews' (and loud Jews; they're not supposed to go into detail about it) words for its content.
      As much as I dislike Islam, I hold tenfold the contempt for Judaism. Sorry if all this offends you, but there's a reason they've been kicked out of nearly every country they've ever inhabited.

    3. Am Yisrael Chai!

  4. Very interesting!
    One small point: wasn't Rudolf I the first Habsburg elected to the imperial throne, rather than Frederick III?
    All the best,

    1. I believe Rudolf was the first Habsburg to be King of the Germans but not the first to be emperor, though usually the Emperor of the Romans was the King of Germany (and King of Italy, etc)

  5. Hello,

    I have to say that I do absolutely not share your political point of view (I am a french left-wing republican), but I must say I LOVE your blog I recently discovered, and I want you to know that.

    You are almost the only one on the internet to have interest on topics no one (but me and some other historiamaniacs) cares.

    This one is a good example. I always wondered why some of my ancestors left Galicia (in Poland when they left, in Austria-Hungary before)) in the early 20's and not before or after, and the answer you confirm is that the Habsburg did not persecute the jews in since the XIXth century in Austria-Hungary.

    But unfortunately, no one ever works on that topic, because rehabilitating a monarch (even on a particuliar field only) is a work historians (who are almost all republicans in my country and can easily have leftists behaviours) have no interest on...

    But I thinkg you cannot honestly criticise the past monarchies if you cannot admit the good sides there may have had on some sectors, and the bad sides of the regimes that came after ( in this example, the authoritarians regimes not really hostiles to anti-semitism, though whithout necessarily being nazis)

    So, many thanks from a political opponent who loves your work.

    Have a good day,

  6. Read the book of rabbi yoselman of rosheim from marcus Lehman.. talks about his.connection with maximillian and charles V

  7. You might want to read the novels of Joseph Roth, who wrote:

    “My most unforgettable experience was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one that I have ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy,” he wrote in 1932. “I loved this fatherland,” he continued in a foreword to The Radetzky March. “It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time, among all the Austrian peoples also a German. I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today, when it is dead and gone, I even love its flaws and weaknesses.”

    And from an article in the NYTimes Review of Books:

    "Hostile to both fascism and communism, he proclaimed himself a Catholic and involved himself in royalist politics, specifically in efforts to have Otto von Habsburg, grandnephew of the last emperor, restored to the throne. In 1938, with the threat of German annexation looming, he traveled to Austria as representative of the royalists to persuade the government to hand over the chancellorship to Otto. He had to depart ignominiously without being granted an audience. Back in Paris he urged the creation of an Austrian Legion to liberate Austria by force.

    Opportunities to escape to the United States came up, but he let them pass. “Why are you drinking so much?” asked a worried friend. “Do you think you are going to escape? You too are going to be wiped out,” Roth replied. He died in a Paris hospital in 1939, after days of delirium tremens. He was forty-four."


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