by Tom Holland
Friedrich Wilhelm had first travelled there in 1814. The highlight of the young crown prince’s journey had been a visit to Cologne. The city—unlike Berlin, an upstart capital far removed from the traditional heartlands of Christendom—was an ancient one. Its foundations reached back to the time of Augustus. Its archbishop had been one of the seven electors. Its cathedral, begun in 1248 and abandoned in 1473, had for centuries been left with a crane on the massive stump of its southern tower. Friedrich Wilhelm, visiting the half-completed building, had been enraptured. He had pledged himself there and then to finishing it. Now, two years after his accession to the Prussian throne, he was ready to fulfil his vow. That summer, he ordered builders back to work. On 4 September he dedicated a new cornerstone. Then, in a spontaneous and heartfelt address to the people of Cologne, he saluted their city. The cathedral, he declared, would rise as a monument to ‘the spirit of German unity’.
Startling evidence of this was to be found on the executive committee set up to supervise the project. Simon Oppenheim, a banker awarded a lifelong honorary membership of the board, was fabulously wealthy, highly cultured—and a Jew. Even within living memory his presence in Cologne would have been illegal. For almost four hundred years, Jews had been banned from the devoutly Catholic city. Only in 1798, following its occupation by the French, and the abolition of its ancient privileges, had they been allowed to settle there again. Oppenheim’s father had moved to Cologne in 1799, two years before its official absorption into the French Republic.
Satiric print about the emancipation
of the Jews of Westphalia—Ed.
Since France’s revolutionary government, faithful to the Declaration of Rights, had granted full citizenship to its Jews, the Oppenheims had been able to enjoy a civic equality with their Catholic neighbours. Not even a revision of this by Napoleon, who in 1808 had brought in a law expressly designed to discriminate against Jewish business interests, had dampened their sense of identification with Cologne—nor their ability to run a highly successful bank from the city. It helped as well that Prussia, by the time it came to annex the Rhineland, had already decreed that its Jewish subjects should rank as both ‘natives’ and ‘citizens’. That Napoleon’s discriminatory legislation remained on the statute book, and that the Prussian decree had continued to ban Jews from entering state employment, did nothing to diminish Oppenheim’s hopes for further progress. The cathedral was for him as a symbol not of the Christian past, but of a future in which Jews might be full and equal citizens of Germany. That was why he agreed to help fund it. Friedrich Wilhelm, rewarding him with a house call, certainly had no hesitation in saluting him as a patriot. A Jew, it seemed, might indeed be a German.
Except that the king, by visiting Oppenheim, was making a rather different point. To Friedrich Wilhelm, the status of Cologne Cathedral as an icon of the venerable Christian past was not some incidental detail, but utterly fundamental to his passion for seeing it finished. Half-convinced that the French Revolution had been a harbinger of the Apocalypse, he dreamed of restoring to monarchy the sacral quality that it had enjoyed back in the heyday of the Holy Roman Empire. That he himself was fat, balding and short-sighted in the extreme did nothing to diminish his enthusiasm for posing as a latter-day Charlemagne. ‘Fatty Flounder’, as he was nicknamed, had even renovated a ruined medieval castle, and inaugurated it with a torchlit procession in fancy dress.
Unsurprisingly, then, confronted by the challenge of integrating Jews into his plans for a shimmeringly Christian Prussia, he had groped after a solution that might as well have been conjured up from the Middle Ages. Only Christians, Friedrich Wilhelm argued, could be classed as Prussian. Jews should be organised into corporations. They would thereby be able to maintain their distinctive identity in an otherwise Christian realm. This was not at all what Oppenheim wished to hear. Shortly before the king’s arrival in Cologne, he had gone so far as to write an open protest. Others in the city rallied to the cause.
The regional government pushed for full emancipation. ‘The strained relationship between Christians and Jews,’ thundered Cologne’s leading newspaper, ‘can be resolved only through unconditional equalisation of status.’ The result was deadlock. Friedrich Wilhelm—channelling the spirit of a mail-clad medieval emperor—refused to back down. Prussia, he insisted, was Christian through and through. Its monarchy, its laws, its values—all derived from Christianity. That being so, there could be no place for Jews in its administration. If they wished to become properly Prussian, then they had a simple recourse: conversion. All a Jew had to do to be considered for public office was to make ‘confession of Christianity in public acts’. This was why Friedrich Wilhelm had been willing to pay a social call on Oppenheim. What was a Jew prepared to fund a cathedral, after all, if not one close to finding Christ?
But the king had been deluding himself. Oppenheim had no intention of finding Christ. Instead, he and his family continued with their campaign. It was not long before Cologne, previously renowned as a bastion of chauvinism, was serving as a trailblazer for Jewish emancipation. In 1845, Napoleon’s discriminatory legislation was definitively abolished. Time would see a sumptuous domed synagogue, designed by the architect responsible for the cathedral, and funded—inevitably—by the Oppenheims, rise up as one of the great landmarks of the city. Well before its construction, though, it was evident that Friedrich Wilhelm’s dreams of resurrecting a medieval model of Christianity were doomed. In 1847, one particularly waspish theologian portrayed the king as a modern-day Julian the Apostate, chasing after a world forever gone. Then, as though to set the seal on this portrait, revolution returned to Europe. History seemed to be repeating itself.
In February 1848, a French king was deposed. By March, protests and uprisings were flaring across Germany. Slogans familiar from the time of Robespierre could be heard on the streets of Berlin. The Prussian queen briefly dreaded that only the guillotine was lacking. Although, in the event, the insurrectionary mood was pacified, and the tottering Prussian monarchy stabilised, concessions offered by Friedrich Wilhelm would prove enduring. His kingdom emerged from the great crisis of 1848 as—for the first time—a state with a written constitution. The vast majority of its male inhabitants were now entitled to vote for a parliament. Among them, enrolled at last as equal citizens, were Prussia’s Jews. Friedrich Wilhelm, appalled by the threat to the divine order that he had always pledged himself to upheld, declared himself sick to the stomach. ‘If I were not a Christian I would take my own life.’
Nevertheless, as the king might justifiably have pointed out, it was not Judaism that had been emancipated, but only those who practised it. Supporters of the Declaration of Rights had always been explicit on that score. The shackles of superstition were forged in synagogues no less than in churches. ‘We must grant everything to Jews as individuals, but refuse to them everything as a nation!’ This was the slogan with which, late in 1789, proponents of Jewish emancipation in France had sought to reassure their fellow revolutionaries. ‘They must form neither a political body nor an order in the state, they must be citizens individually.’ And so it had come to pass. When the French Republic granted citizenship to Jews, it had done so on the understanding that they abandon any sense of themselves as a people set apart. No recognition or protection had been offered to the Mosaic law. The identity of Jews as a distinct community was tolerated only to the degree that it did not interfere with ‘the common good’.
Here—garlanded with the high-flown rhetoric of the Enlightenment though it might be—was a programme for civic self-improvement that aimed at transforming the very essence of Judaism. Heraclius, a millennium and more previously, had attempted something very similar. The dream that Jewish distinctiveness might be subsumed into an identity that the whole world could share—one in which the laws given by God to mark the Jews out from other peoples would cease to matter—reached all the way back to Paul. Artists in the early years of the French Revolution, commissioned to depict the Declaration of Rights, had not hesitated to represent it as a new covenant, chiselled onto stone tablets and delivered from a blaze of light. Jews could either sign up to this radiant vision, or else be banished into storm-swept darkness. If this seemed to some Jews a very familiar kind of ultimatum, then that was because it was. That the Declaration of Rights claimed an authority for itself more universal than that of Christianity only emphasised the degree to which, in the scale of its ambitions and the scope of its pretensions, it was profoundly Christian. [pages 421-425, bold added by Ed.]