Posts Tagged With: bourgeoisie

The Making of the Jewish Middle Class

Kaplan - Jewish Middle Class

Kaplan, Marion A. The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, and Identity in Imperial Germany. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

In this entertaining cultural history, Marion Kaplan explores the ways in which Jewish women were instrumental in the formation of the Jewish middle class in the German Kaiserreich (1871-1918). Her study highlights the ways in which these women navigated their lives in a manner that shaped religious, national, gender, and class identities for their entire families. This book calls into question the notion that Jews in imperial Germany simply assimilated into German culture. Instead, Jewish identity was renegotiated and reconstructed during this period, and Kaplan shows that this negotiation took place largely in the private sphere thanks to these Jewish women.

The dynamic of separate spheres is important to Kaplan’s work, and she shows that the private and public spheres were actually only rarely separate. While Jewish men went into new professions to earn more income, and thus position their family more firmly in the middle class, “it was in the household and family…that the most marked embourgeoisement took place” (4). Jewish women were expected to reign over the bourgeois realm of domesticity, and keep up appearances of respectability. They were meant to rear good, cultured German children who knew good manners and would conform to the expected bourgeois standards. In essence, the home and family members were supposed to display the family’s Bildung, or “authentic respectability” gained through self-cultivation (9). Kaplan argues that too many historians have focused only on men in their studies of Bildung because, until the twentieth century, women were barred from higher education and most jobs. But, this focus overlooks the central role that women played in setting the tone for the family’s Bildung: teaching manners, exuding Gemütlichkeit, and steadying support of her husband and family (25).

The home was an important site for another reason; this is where the mothers practiced acculturation, rather than the full-scale assimilation that has been suggested in other studies. By looking only at the public sphere, one gets the impression of assimilation, of Jews trying to become as “German” as possible. But turning one’s gaze to the private sphere, one sees that many women “continued to perform rituals, cook special Jewish dishes, and think and act in terms of Jewish life cycles, family networks and the Jewish calendar” (63). Women picked and chose how “German” their families would become, and by no means did they intend to give up their Jewish heritage. In fact, Kaplan argues that as the number of men going to synagogue and sticking to Jewish rituals steadily declined, women increasingly became the sole guardians of Jewish traditions in the German middle class (64). With the development of “optional ethnicity” for Jews, the “significance of women’s religious practices moved from periphery to core” (84).

The second half of Kaplan’s book describes the difficulty Jewish women faced when trying to enter the public sphere by entering higher education or the work force. In both of these ventures, they faced double discrimination as women and as Jews. These chapters remind readers that anti-Semitism was an everyday aspect of life in imperial Germany. One area that Jewish women were able to flourish in was social work. This endeavor explicitly connected the private and public spheres by extending the feminine (private) care of the sick, impoverished, or hungry in the public arena. “They then insisted that their traditional household duties extended, with the blessings of religion, to local and then national benevolent duty” (226). Kaplan sees this as a secularization of Jewish philanthropy, a transformation from religious to national duty.

Ultimately, Kaplan shows how these developments shaped not only Jewish middle class life, but also German middle-class life in general. Bourgeois Jewish leisure activities, higher average marriage ages, expanded role of domesticity and motherhood, and other factors all impacted German culture at large.

For more books on the history of modern Germany, see my full list of book reviews here.  

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The Peculiarities of German History


Blackbourn, David and Geoff Eley.  The Peculiarities of German History:  Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1984.


This book reexamines the theory of a German Sonderweg, which posits that German took a very distinct path of development in the 19th century – distinct from other Western nations, that is.  This allowed for a pre-industrial elite to maintain strong, authoritarian power over an industrial nation, which set the stage for Nazism.  The authors of the book wish to challenge this idea and probe to see if this was really the case.

Authors’ Main Arguments:

This work not only questions particular processes and historical findings of Germany in the 19th century, but also poses important historiographical questions for scholars.   The classic argument for Germany’s peculiar modernization process posits that the liberal, bourgeois revolution of 1848 failed, thus leaving pre-industrial, aristocratic elite in charge of an industrializing capitalistic nation.  Therefore, the political and economic spheres remained uniquely separated in Germany.  Blackbourn and Eley begin their study by questioning multiple assumptions that have become taken for granted (often, suggested arguments can harden into formulae, into taken-for-granted facts, they say):  1) the definition of revolution as referring to a single dramatic episode; 2) the assumption that capitalism and bourgeois democracy are intimately connected.  The authors argue that if one refines these definitions and assumptions to more accurately reflect historical reality, one will find that German history does not represent a Sonderweg, but rather a heightened version of what occurred elsewhere in Europe; in other words, Germany was much more the intensified version of the norm than the exception.

To challenge the idea of a “failed bourgeois revolution,” the authors put forward the idea of a “silent bourgeois revolution,” in which capitalism and the emerging class or “estate” of the bourgeois developed just fine in Germany – and along similar lines to that class in other European nations, though relatively later.  The German bourgeois’ relationship to politics is what makes the class particular (though not peculiar): they may have had a less public role in politics as the capitalists in other nations did, but this does not mean that they had nothing to do with politics as those supporting the Sonderweg thesis claim.  In order to understand the German bourgeois’ relationship to politics, the authors tell us that we have to question the assumption that the “normal” set of events (and thus the measuring stick for success) goes like this:  Bourgeios material achievements lead to parliamentarianism, which leads to liberalism, which leads to democracy.  The question of the “failure” of the bourgeois to achieve political dominance and the question of the “failure” of liberal democratic reform are not the same questions, the authors insist.

The bourgeois may have been united by economic factors, but they were politically diverse.  This is why, the authors argue, they actively retreated from the political sphere, where their differences (and weaknesses) were most visible to society at large.  They sought to solve their problems by less political means, including striking alliances with the old, aristocratic elite.  This is important because it grants agency to the emerging bourgeois and damages the myth that the old elite diabolically manipulated the lower classes and the political sphere to retain their wealth and power, thus single-handedly pushing Germany’s development “off course.”  Blackbourn and Eley even suggest why the bourgeois may have resisted democracy:  greater democratic powers would benefit the SPD, the largest single party, one that supported workers’ rights, which would be a threat to capitalists’ power.

Just because Germany did not experience the same level of “progressive” developments through the political sphere, that does not mean that such developments didn’t exist.  Beginning in the 1890s, developments in the public health movement, the statistical movement, housing reform, poor law, town planning, local financing, educational activity, processes of professionalization, labor legislation (accident and sickness insurance, provisions for old age, factory inspection, unemployment provisions, and so on – these were being developed “only very ambiguously with the concerns of parliamentary liberalism.  This was the authentic domain of bourgeois political achievement…that owed nothing to the existence of a liberal democratic state.  It was perfectly compatible with the latter, but certainly did not require it.”  Moreover, the alliances forged with the old elite (who still constituted much of the Kaiser’s government) also produced “progressive” developments:  unification itself consolidated national markets, called for national institutions, constitutional regulation, national economic integration, and the rule of law became the centerpiece of discussion.

This was one result of the bourgeois taking matters into their own hands (away from democracy); the other was that grievances caused by capitalism were forced onto the political realm, where the capitalists themselves were generally quiet.  This created an unstable political sphere.


For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, German History | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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