Gabriel Riesser and the Emancipation Debate in Hamburg

Arno Herzig

Source Description

In 1834, following several anti-Jewish excesses in Hamburg, the Jewish jurist and native, Gabriel Riesser, commissioned by the Committee for the Improvement of the Civil Conditions of Israelites  ComitĂ© zur Verbesserung der bĂŒrgerlichen VerhĂ€ltnisse der Israeliten, wrote “Denkschrift ĂŒber die bĂŒrgerlichen VerhĂ€ltnisse der Hamburgischen Israeliten” [“A Memorandum Concerning the Civil Conditions of the Israelites of Hamburg”], which was presented to the Council as a petition. In this document, comprising 120 printed pages, the author raised various problems in connection to the citizenship right  BĂŒrgerrecht [citizenship right in the city]: The right of self-government; the precondition for acquiring civil rights was inherited real property, the swearing of a citizen’s oath, and the one-time payment of “BĂŒrgergeld” [citizenship fee]; members of the nobility were excluded from this; until 1814 citizenship was granted exclusively to members of the Lutheran church [see: Helmut Stubbe-da Luz, “BĂŒrgerrecht,” in: Franklin Kopitzsch / Daniel Tilger (eds.), Hamburg Lexikon, Hamburg 1998, p. 92.], which he linked to a historical survey. The present excerpted text from the memorandum summarizes the essence of Riesser’s argument on behalf of equality of status for Jews. He here advocates the “full legal equality of all citizens, without distinction of faith” as an important prerequisite for the well-being of the state.
  • Arno Herzig

The turning point in the debate over Emancipation


With its 8000 members, Hamburg ruled over one of the larger Jewish communities in Germany, although the legal status of Jews there, when compared to the situation in other German federal states, was quite poor. This, even though they had attained complete equality of status during the period of French dominance. The Congress of Vienna of 1815 had introduced a turn toward restoration in Emancipation politics in Germany. The representatives of the Hanseatic cities saw to it that Article 16 of the Act of Confederation would explicitly disadvantage Jews who were declared unqualified for citizenship in the federated states. Thereby the equality of status for Jews was abolished in all the states where it had been introduced by the French. With the exception of Hamburg, however, Jews in almost all the other federal states had at least limited citizenship rights  BĂŒrgerrecht [citizenship right in the city]: The right of self-government; the precondition for acquiring civil rights was inherited real property, the swearing of a citizen’s oath, and the one-time payment of “BĂŒrgergeld” [citizenship fee]; members of the nobility were excluded from this; until 1814 citizenship was granted exclusively to members of the Lutheran church [see: Helmut Stubbe-da Luz, “BĂŒrgerrecht,” in: Franklin Kopitzsch / Daniel Tilger (eds.), Hamburg Lexikon, Hamburg 1998, p. 92.].

Riesser as the spokesman for all Jews


Because of Gabriel Riesser’s publishing activity on behalf of Jewish Emancipation, Hamburg became a trailblazer in the contemporary debates over Emancipation. On both his father’s and mother’s side, Riesser descended from important rabbinic families. In 1826, following his study of law at Kiel and Heidelberg, he graduated “summa cum laude,“ becoming a Doctor of Law (Dr. jur.). However, the project, which would have allowed him to go on to the next level (Habilitation), failed at Heidelberg as well as Jena. His attempt to settle as a lawyer in Hamburg was also unsuccessful, when, in 1829, the City Council rejected his petition to practice his profession. In the following period, he worked as an editor for the Hamburg Börsenhalle trade journal . He was financially independent thanks to his family’s wealth, which his father had acquired as a lottery agent. He used this independence to write in the struggle for equality of legal status for Jews. He became the acknowledged spokesman for all German Jews, which brought him universal recognition. Despite his family background, Riesser was not a religious man, although he never contemplated conversion for the sake of professional advantage which would have violated his secular conception of statehood. Riesser’s ideal was a Jewish citizenry alongside the Christian citizenry in German society and culture.

The call for separation of Church and State


In the first pages of his memorandum (pp. 6f) , Riesser laid out his principle. With the argument of “legally equal status according to the principle of equality before the law, without distinction of religious faith,” Riesser pursued a new strategy which went beyond the normal practice of merely refuting the accusations against Jews. With the appeal to the welfare of the state, that could be achieved only through the equality of all the state’s members, without distinction of religious faith, Riesser was advocating the separation of Church and State and thereby was an early champion of the secular state. It was clear to him that the equality of status he demanded would involve a long process. However, the “setting aside of the oppressive conditions” for Jews was a task for current policy. Riesser was a convinced proponent of the philosophy of “progressive civilization,” that – in his view – would “every day made greater headway in the legislation of civilized states.” With this statement he contrasted the situation in Hamburg with that of other states in the Germanic Confederation. He sought to convince Hamburg’s citizens with his arguments, postulating that his basic principle would be “shared by the majority of the citizens of our city.” The exclusion of Jews from almost all occupations, according to Riesser, stood opposed to the common welfare and to morality. Riesser proclaimed in this connection the “protection and the freedom of labor,” above all for those whose secure existence had only work for its basis. He thereby sharply attacked the backwardness of the Hansa city which, “stands in conflict [
] with all present day conditions.” In his demand for relief, Riesser saw firstly an obligation to the “coming generation” as well as to the common good of the state.

Riesser argues for equal rights


Citizenship rights  BĂŒrgerrecht [citizenship right in the city]: The right of self-government; the precondition for acquiring civil rights was inherited real property, the swearing of a citizen’s oath, and the one-time payment of “BĂŒrgergeld” [citizenship fee]; members of the nobility were excluded from this; until 1814 citizenship was granted exclusively to members of the Lutheran church [see: Helmut Stubbe-da Luz, “BĂŒrgerrecht,” in: Franklin Kopitzsch / Daniel Tilger (eds.), Hamburg Lexikon, Hamburg 1998, p. 92.] had been granted to the Jewish inhabitants of Hamburg during the years of French rule (1810–1814), when the city belonged to the French Empire. An attempt by the Council in 1814 to concede a limited citizenship for Jews foundered on the resistance of the so-called Council of Hereditary Residents  Erbgesessene BĂŒrgerschaft. After the dissolution of the old Triple Congregation Dreigemeinde (Altona, Hamburg, Wandsbek) in the era of French rule, the German Israelite Congregation was created which was bound to the modification of the Regulations of 1710 which now permitted Jews to build a synagogue and establish a congregation. Riesser’s argument was directed above all against the withholding of citizenship rights  BĂŒrgerrecht [citizenship right in the city]: The right of self-government; the precondition for acquiring civil rights was inherited real property, the swearing of a citizen’s oath, and the one-time payment of “BĂŒrgergeld” [citizenship fee]; members of the nobility were excluded from this; until 1814 citizenship was granted exclusively to members of the Lutheran church [see: Helmut Stubbe-da Luz, “BĂŒrgerrecht,” in: Franklin Kopitzsch / Daniel Tilger (eds.), Hamburg Lexikon, Hamburg 1998, p. 92.], which barred the Jews of Hamburg from acquisition of property, participation in political life, as well as entrance into any of the guild-controlled or academic professions (with the exception of that of a physician). In his argument, Riesser proceeded from the principle: Equal rights, equal duties. In this regard, he referred to the duties that Hamburg’s Jews, like other inhabitants, had to comply with, paying taxes and serving in the civil guard. A further aspect of his argument touched upon the common good. It was part of Riesser’s rhetorical style to contrast the bad conditions for Jews created by Hamburg’s politics to universally recognized moral principles. The principle of equity bore duties that Hamburg’s Jews like all its citizens ought to perform. Denial of access to citizenship rights  BĂŒrgerrecht [citizenship right in the city]: The right of self-government; the precondition for acquiring civil rights was inherited real property, the swearing of a citizen’s oath, and the one-time payment of “BĂŒrgergeld” [citizenship fee]; members of the nobility were excluded from this; until 1814 citizenship was granted exclusively to members of the Lutheran church [see: Helmut Stubbe-da Luz, “BĂŒrgerrecht,” in: Franklin Kopitzsch / Daniel Tilger (eds.), Hamburg Lexikon, Hamburg 1998, p. 92.] determined that a Jewish middle class could scarcely develop. For that reason, the Jewish welfare system, which according to Riesser cost 100,000 shillings, would not be sustainable. The same held true of the Jewish school system. Riesser refuted as unfounded the arguments made against allowing Jews into the craft guilds (Sabbath rest, competition). Banning Jews from the practice of law dated only from 1816 and was based on dubious religious grounds. These same grounds denied Jews all political rights in Hamburg, since, in contrast to Prussia, only Lutherans had access to the political committees. Riesser’s political maxim was: “All conditions are well and good, if founded on equality and freedom; all are hateful and ill-fated if they make for servitude and hold one back contingent on birth” (p. 116). That is to say: the majority acts against the common good, “when it hinders the minority from the natural and free use of its powers” (p. 117). If basic rights were conferred, Hamburg’s Jews would be “loyal and thankful, would be citizens devoted to the common good” (p. 118).

Hamburg as the trailblazer of Emancipation policy


The Hamburg Council did not act upon Riesser’s petition. When he failed with another petition to the City Council in October 1835, Riesser resignedly left the Hansa city. A life-long bachelor, he moved with his mother and sister to Bockenheim, which then belonged to the Electorate of Hesse-Kassel. He first returned to Hamburg in 1840 when, in the pre-March (1848) years, political conditions began to gradually become more liberal. Riesser joined a number of clubs that were now defining politics. As a member of the Frankfurt pre-Parliament and then the St. Paul’s Church National Assembly (1848), he advocated separation of Church and State. With a brilliant speech there, he attained inclusion of this statement in the St. Paul’s Church Constitution: “The enjoyment of a citizenship right will be neither conditioned nor limited by religious confession. Neither shall it negate the citizen’s duties.” When in 1849 the City-State of Hamburg adopted as law this principle of the St. Paul’s Church Constitution, Riesser had finally attained the goal for which he had fought since the 1830s. Hamburg, quite backward in the matter of Emancipation since 1814, now took the lead in Emancipation politics, while Prussia did not write Jewish Emancipation into its laws until 1869. Riesser’s political career in the 1860s symbolized the success of Emancipation. Thanks to a new, liberal constitution for the City-State in 1859, Riesser became a deputy in the Hamburg city assembly. On October 17,1860, he became the first Jew in Germany to be called to the bench, as the Senate appointed him a judge of the Superior Court of Hamburg. The equality of status for Jews was established by law in all the states of the German Empire in 1871. Riesser, who died in 1863, did not live to see this.

Select Bibliography


Peter Freimark / Arno Herzig (eds.), Die Hamburger Juden in der Emanzipationsphase 1780–1870, Hamburg 1989.
Arno Herzig, Gabriel Riesser, Hamburg 2008.
Uri R. Kaufmann / Jobst Paul, Gabriel Riesser. AusgewÀhlte Werke, Part 1, Wien et al. 2012.
Moshe Zimmermann, Hamburgischer Patriotismus und deutscher Nationalismus, Hamburg 1979.

Selected English Titles


Michael Brenner / Stefi Jersch-Wenzel / Michael A. Meyer (eds.), German Jewish History in Modern Times. Vol. 2: Emancipation and Acculturation, 1780-1871, New York 1997.
Jacob Katz, The Term ‘Jewish Emancipation’. Its Origin and Historical Impact, in: ibid. (ed.), Emancipation and Assimilation. Studies in Modern Jewish History, Westmead, Farnborough, Hants. 1972, pp. 21-45.
Werner E. Mosse, The Revolution of 1848 - Jewish Emancipation in Germany and Its Limits, in: Werner E. Mosse et al. (eds.), Revolution and Evolution. 1848 in German-Jewish History, TĂŒbingen 1981, pp. 389-401.
Moshe Rinott, Gabriel Riesser. Fighter for Jewish Emancipation, in: The Leo Baeck Institute Year Book 7 (1962), pp. 11–38.
Moshe Zimmermann, Wilhelm Marr. The Patriarch of Anti-Semitism, New York 1986.

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About the Author

Arno Herzig, Prof. Dr. phil., born 1937, was until his retirement in 2002 professor for German history at the University of Hamburg. His focus of research is: protest movements of the working class in early modern times and the 19th century, German-Jewish history, confessionalization in the early modern period.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Arno Herzig, Gabriel Riesser and the Emancipation Debate in Hamburg (translated by Richard S. Levy), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, April 06, 2018. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-20.en.v1> [July 17, 2018].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.