Klaudia Meyer
Universität Hamburg

As reported in Figurations 8, an early article by Norbert Elias has recently come to light. It is entitled `Zur Soziologie des deutschen Antisemitismus', and it appeared in the 13 December 1929 (11 Kislev 5690) issue of the Israelitisches Gemeindeblatt: Offizielles Organ der israelitischen Gemeinden Mannheim und Ludwigshafen, No.12, pp. 36.

The very title of the 1929 article showed the way Elias would go. He did not want to provide yet another essay locating anti-Semitism in politicalideological terms, but rather a sociological explanation of the origin and popularisation of anti-Semitic attitudes running through the whole history of the German population. Thus Elias turned anti-Semitism into a socially relevant problem which not only touched upon the interests of a social minority the German Jews, but was interwoven with the genesis of present state of bourgeois society.
Under the influence of Karl Mannheim, especially his 1927 essay on `Conservative Thought' (in Essays in Sociology and Social Psychology, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953, pp. 74164), Elias analysed the origins of anti-Semitism in the `changing fronts on which the German bourgeoisie has had to fight over the last 100 years', the causes of which he located predominantly in the `diminishing economic scope' resulting from war.

In the initial phase of capitalism, the liberal sections of the German bourgeoisie spoke up for emancipation, because in the Jews they saw `welcome allies in building the German economy' and in the struggle against the `traditional restrictions on freedom under the established order'. But, says Elias, `the support for Jewish emancipation by all liberal elements at that time was not the expression of any special liking for the Jews among the Christian bourgeoisie, but rather a necessary consequence of the specific location and objectives of this liberal bourgeoisie. ... Today [at the end of the 1920s], this struggle has been finally played out. The nobility no longer has any special political privileges.'

The bourgeoisie now had to turn towards a front no longer on the right `but on the left, against the rising proletarian stratum'. So now the bourgeoisie was defending the established order against the new stratum. It had itself become a `preserving' stratum. The opposition between conservatism and liberalism had thus been largely dissolved.

And what about the Jews? Elias saw their position as characterised by two lines of conflict. Economically belonging largely to the bourgeois strata, socially they now constituted a second-rank society within the bourgeoisie, and fell between the lines of the working class and the increasingly conservative bourgeoisie. Against the background of the economically tense situation in post-war Germany, this constellation was the `source of many conflicts'.

The function of competition had changed. It was no longer just the motor of progress, but now also gave rise to conflicts within the declining bourgeois camp. With examples from various economic fields, Elias illustrated how the social and cultural isolation of the Jewish population had become instrumental for the German bourgeoisie in their construction of Jewish people as different, as guilty, as enemies. Jews appeared in the German public sphere only as stereotyped clichés Elias speaks of social masks as peddlers, money-lenders, and crafty, cunning Jews. The German bourgeoisie `drove them [the Jews] into social segregation, sometimes by brutal and sometimes by cultivated means, with this or that ideological justification. They pursued this battle as a struggle closely based on social and ideological interests, just as they pursued the struggle against the rising proletarian stratum.

What prospects does this diagnosis open up? None! For the author, anti-Semitism is the `function of economic and social development which no group of German Jews can change or even influence in any way'. For anyone who wants neither to fight nor to go to Palestine, `there remains resignation'. Elias's answer is further adaptation to the social stratum which he has just exposed as the bearer of anti-Semitism: `One answer to anti-Semitism is always still possible for the German Jews: to adopt an unobtrusive, resolute and self-conscious attitude to life, which is the only one appropriate to their situation.' This already heralds the outsider position to which Elias's later work gave a theoretically-grounded hallmark, and of which politics were to give terrible and fatal proof.

from: Figurations. Newsletter of the Norbert Elias Foundation
Issue No. 9 June 1998