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14— Pride and Prejudice
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The German Jew as Chemist

Besides xenophobic chauvinism, Kolbe's other great prejudice was antisemitism. Of course, he was not the only one in his culture to suffer from this malady, and so some background will be helpful in establishing context.

The autobiography of the great German organic chemist Richard Willstätter (1873-1942) provides a sobering reminder of how hard it was for a talented German Jewish scholar to build a career in the first third of the twentieth century.[31] It is insufficiently appreciated how different the academic world looked a generation earlier. Albert Ladenburg (1842-1911) received perhaps the earliest call for an unconverted Jew to be a full professor of chemistry in a German university—to Kiel, in 1872. Yet there is not a single mention of antisemitism or even prejudice throughout his autobiography; he was astonished to receive the call, he wrote—but only because he was still young and very little known.[32] In fact, our views of the position of Jewish scientists in Germany before the rise of the antisemitic movement have been excessively influenced by our knowledge of the horrors that came after. Moreover, there were some unique aspects about chemistry in particular that for a time held hope for Jewish academic careers, aspects that were not present to the same extent in other fields—not even in other fields of science.

Traditionally barred from owning land and from the civil service—hence also from academia—German Jews concentrated their efforts in many of the professions that became stereotypically Jewish, especially business, banking, law, medicine, journalism, and the book trade. Liberated from the ghetto after the Napoleonic wars, full "emancipation"—strict civil and legal equality with gentiles—was granted only upon establishment of the North German Confederation in 1869, which was extended to the entire German Empire two years later.[33] Before this time, most Jews who felt the lure of chemistry naturally gravitated to the chemical industry, such as Heinrich Caro, Franz Oppenheim, Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, and Ludwig Mond. The fact that chemistry was the earliest of the pure sciences to have broad applications to industry clearly served as an incentive for the study of that science at universities. In the great expansion of chemistry enrollments around mid-century, Jews were represented in far greater percentage than their proportion of the population.

In view of the circumstances that there were virtually no Jewish students before 1800 and that before 1869 true professorial calls were essentially impossible for Jews, there were surprisingly many Jews in the periphery of German academia during the middle decades of the


century. The more effective exclusion of Jews from other fields meant a concentration of Jewish students in the sciences as well as in medicine and law, a trend that was reinforced by a certain congruence between German Jewish culture and the scientific Weltanschauung. This nineteenth-century German phenomenon represented the first significant Jewish scientific cohort in history. In the field of chemistry, the cohort group was very large indeed. Many of these Jews were simply learning the trade preparatory to entering industry, but many also had been smitten by love for pure science and were willing to tolerate a dead-end career. One recent compilation of "important" German Jewish scientists and mathematicians of the second half of the century suggests that nearly two-thirds were chemists—an amazing proportion.[34]

Even casual prosopography reveals commonalities in Jewish academic career paths in the years before emancipation.[35] Perpetual residence among the ranks of the Privatdozenten, occasional teaching posts at trade academies or technische Hochschulen, or scientific writing and editing provided some of the means of maintaining a presence in academia despite being barred from entering the mainstream. Conversion by baptism was always an option and provided a route into that mainstream for many; however, silent prejudice against converts who obviously still retained their "Jewishness" proved a powerful barrier, both before and after legal restrictions were removed.

There were, to be sure, some exceptions to the exclusion of Jews from academia. A partial loosening of the Prussian legal barriers soon after Friedrich Wilhelm IV acceded to power in 1840 made entry at least possible. Gustav Magnus, a student of Berzelius and a prolific, wide-ranging researcher, became ausserordentlicher Professor at Berlin in 1833 and attained the Ordinarius in 1845. K. F. Rammelsberg ascended from Privatdozent to Extraordinarius in 1846. F. L. Sonnenschein, a third Jewish Dozent at Berlin, had the best chemical laboratory at the university during the 1850s, but did not become ausserordentlicher professor until 1869. Any or all three of these men may have undergone baptism.[36] It is said that the first call to an Ordinarius position for an unconverted Jew was the Göttingen mathematician M. A. Stern, in 1859.[37]

Jews in all walks of life, no matter how well assimilated, had to fight against widely held negative stereotypes in bourgeois society; even those Germans without active prejudices were influenced by these caricatures. Partially emancipated early in the century, many German Jews did achieve status and wealth by the middle decades, and many were apparently fully assimilated into society. However, the negative stereotypes, deepened by such novelists as Gustav Freitag and Wilhelm Raabe, slowed the movement toward granting of complete


civil equality. Active antisemitism such as that of Richard Wagner was unusual during the economically prosperous years of the 1850s and 1860s, but the increase in fervor of German ethnic nationalism and aspirations toward a unified state, as well as the new perception of a connection between Jews and radical or anarchic politics, allied with the older perception of even assimilated Jews as "foreigners," laid the groundwork (even among liberals) for the later emergence of an organized antisemitic movement.

Bismarck included Jewish emancipation as an element of the liberal side of his agenda, and full emancipation followed the founding of the Reich. Prosperous Jews played a full role in the overheated economic expansion of the Gründerjahre in the early 1870s and were correspondingly popular scapegoats in the inevitable crash and depression, which plagued the German economy for over two decades after 1873. These circumstances help explain why it was precisely this period that saw the emergence of an organized and virulent antisemitic movement in Germany.[38]

Emancipation produced an influx of Jews into the German professoriate, at first very modest in scope and concentrated largely in the sciences and in medicine. Antisemitism, usually of the silent variety, still provided a rather effective barrier for the most prestigious universities, even for baptized Jews, but less so for the more peripheral and especially eastern universities such as Berlin, Breslau, Königsberg, Rostock, and Kiel. Baden, with the most progressive political tradition of all the German states, also provided relatively greater opportunities for Jews at its University of Heidelberg. Albert Ladenburg, as mentioned, was one of the first Jewish chemists to receive a respectable call (although Kiel was then the newest of the German universities). The first to break into the "majors" was probably Victor Meyer, who was called to Wöhler's old chair at Göttingen in 1885 and then to be Bunsen's successor at Heidelberg in 1889. Kekulé's protégé Otto Wallach, an openly professing Jew, was named Extraordinarius at Bonn in 1876; he succeeded Meyer at Göttingen. By 1874, four percent of German Ordinarien were of Jewish descent, the large majority of these Jews having been baptized. Fifteen years later the percentage had risen to more than six percent. By 1909, twenty-one percent of all German Privatdozenten, although only seven percent of Ordinarien, were Jewish by conviction or immediate descent.[39]

Berlin was the one major university that saw Jews enter its professorial ranks soon after 1869. Among those in the chemical community, in addition to Magnus, Rammelsberg, and Sonnenschein, were the pharmacologist Oscar Liebreich and the organic chemist Alphons Oppenheim; Carl Liebermann was successor to Adolf Baeyer (whom


the Nazis were to consider a Jew) at the Berlin Technische Hochschule. Together with the steady stream of Privatdozenten that passed through the university and the large number of chemical industrialists and entrepreneurs, Berlin had by far the largest chemical community in the Reich, and a good many of them were Jewish. By 1874, a fourth of the teaching force (including Privatdozenten) and six percent of the Ordinarien at Berlin were Jewish.[40]

As mentioned, antisemitism in Germany grew during the depression years after 1873 and explosively after 1878; however much the ground had been prepared for this movement, it was perceived as novel by proponents and opponents alike. In his justly celebrated study of the German nonscience professoriate during the Wilhelmian and Weimar periods, Fritz Ringer has emphasized the instinctively conservative, socially snobbish, and antimodernist tendencies among the normally "liberal" academic community, a set of attitudes he compares to that of the mandarin elite of China.[41] The sudden lurch of German students into full-throated nationalism, political illiberalism, and antisemitism is more puzzling than that of their elders because the predominant tone of student culture had been, since the days of the early nineteenth-century Burschenschaft, notably liberal. As recently as the opening years of the depression, many had openly flirted with socialism and Marxism. But from 1879 on, there was no mistaking the grass-roots popularity of academic antisemitism, from both sides of the lectern.

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