16. October 2016

Background

Judaism in Germany has a long tradition. The very first documented mention of settlement is dated 321 CE., and refers to the city of Cologne. At that time, there probably were further Jewish communities in the German region, however no written evidence has yet been found. Records of extensive immigration exist from the 10th century. Up to the end of the 11th Century Jewish communities established in political and economic centers including Worms, Speyer, Mayence, Treves, Cologne and Regensburg, cities that lay on the main river transit corridors and trade routes. The southern region of Germany became, through this development, a focal point for Jewish life.

Jews as City Residents

At this time (the 10th through 11th centuries) Jews predominantly lived in towns or cities in order to maintain their cultural and religious identity. Only much later they were assigned very restricted areas, outside which Jews weren’t allowed to settle. The number of Jews was always relatively small in Germany. Their percentage compared to the entire population for the most part amounted to less than 1 percent.

Jews as engine of economic development

The main reason why Jews were allowed to settle in these towns was economic. Their trading activity was highly welcomed, as it made an important contribution to the economic development of the area. Gradually money lending became another important occupation for the Jews, especially after the third and fourth Lateran synods in the years 1179 and 1215 which forbade Christians to deal in currency or collect interest. At the same time, Jews were not allowed to enter many professions. They were forbidden any agricultural employment for the most part. Also the pursuit of trades and crafts was impossible, since Jews could not enter Christian guilds. Fom the beginning, the economic opportunities of Jews were subject to secular and clerical laws.

Precarious legal status of Jews

The legal situation of Jews differed – until into the 19th century – fundamentally from that of the the Christian population. They were direct subordinates of the Crown. The monarch could therefore decide arbitrarily when to impose duties and taxes, especially those on sales, mortgates and rents. Rights, such as the Jews were granted, could be rescinded at any time. This precarious legal status led time and again to persecution and expulsion.