German Zionism before the First World War
The development of the Hamburg-Altona Zionist chapter
The first chairmen of the Hamburg chapter
The activities of the Hamburg chapter
The Congress of German Delegates and the Zionist Congress in Hamburg
German Zionists and the construction of a hybrid “Jewish nation”
Zionism—as a particular form of the idea of nation in the “long” 19th century—developed as part of and in dialogue with European national movements. Zionist answers to the (Jewish) “path to modernity” and to the ambivalent consequences of the Jewish emancipation process since the Enlightenment, which were perceived as deficient, had been emerging since the middle of the 19th century. As “diaspora nationalism,” Zionism was a trans- and international phenomenon and thus unique, which broke with the ideas of a “Jewish nation” circulating in the Zionist movement not only politico-ideologically but also nationally with regard to the Zionists' countries of origin.
In Germany, Zionists were organized in the “National-Jüdische Vereinigung” [National Jewish Association] founded in Cologne in 1894, which was renamed the “Zionistische Vereinigung für Deutschland” (ZVfD) [Zionist Association for Germany] after the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. With about 10,000 members in 1914, the Zionists only accounted for about four percent of the Jewish population in the German Empire, while the vast majority of Jews felt represented by the “Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens” (CV) [Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith], founded in 1893. The CV hoped to overcome antisemitism in German society by demonstrating loyalty to the German state and cultivating a German national consciousness.
The ZVfD represented the intellectual hub of Zionism in Germany, whose members debated their ideas of nation and nationalism at regular meetings and in the Zionist press. Although the German national association represented a minority within the ZO, it played a decisive role in the formulation of Zionist ideas. The “Basel Program,” which had been adopted at the First Zionist Congress in 1897, represented a compromise between the different national ideological currents in Zionism. Political Zionists such as Theodor Herzl attempted to obtain concessions from the European powers and the Ottoman Empire for a Jewish settlement of Palestine primarily through diplomatic efforts. Representatives of practical Zionist ideas such as Otto Warburg instead pursued the immediate settlement of Jews in Palestine, which was to create unalterable facts. On the other hand, the cultural Zionists, like Achad Ha'am and Martin Buber, saw Zionism as a cultural renewal movement. Despite these obvious differences, however, cultural Zionism was always to be understood politically, and the political ideas of many Zionists were deeply influenced by cultural Zionism and practical Zionism.
The German national association was divided into local chapters spread throughout the German Reich. The Hamburg-Altona chapter was founded in August 1898. With its 277 members and 311 shekel payers mentioned in the report for the year 1906, the number of Zionists organized in the ZVfD was initially relatively small in relation to Hamburg’s Jewish population. The shekel was the annual contribution (1 Mark) levied by the local chapter to cover the running costs of the Zionist movement, which every Zionist who recognized the “Basel Program” was obliged to pay. With the payment of the contribution, the payer became a member of the Zionist Organization and thus had the right to vote at the Zionist Congress.
In March 1909 the local group had 302 members, half a year later 495 among about 19,000 Hamburg Jews paid the membership fee. After the Ninth Zionist Congress, which took place in Hamburg in 1909, however, the number of members grew by about 100. Although the Hamburg Zionists thus represented a relatively large group in German Zionism, they could not compete with the early centers of the movement, Cologne and later especially Berlin, in terms of numbers and their significance for German Zionism.
In accordance with the so-called Hamburg system, the constitution of the German-Israelite congregation of Hamburg, which came into force on February 1, 1865, and which was characterized by a high degree of inner-Jewish tolerance, the Zionists worked closely with the Henry Jones Lodge, the regional branch of the Independent Order of B'nai B'rith. The Lodge meeting rooms and reading room set up by its members at Hartungstraße 9–11 in the Grindel neighborhood were also frequently used by the Zionists. Regular Zionist gatherings also took place in the large hall of the Konventgarten on Fuhlentwiete, and unofficial meetings were held at Café Ott on the corner of Alster- and Neuer Jungfernstieg. By 1914, the local chapter had its own office at Große Bleichen 65.
Like German Zionism as a whole, the Zionist local group Hamburg-Altona was strongly influenced by academia. Doctors or lawyers with doctorates were often found among the members of the board. From 1905 to 1910, the former Zionist and neurologist Ernst Kalmus (1874–1959) from Wroclaw headed the Hamburg-Altona Zionist branch. Kalmus was followed as chair by the Hamburg lawyer Bernhard David (1910–1911), the co-founder of the Zionist local chapter Nuremberg-Fürth Gerson Bloede (1911–1912), and the well-known Berlin gynecologist Leopold Landau (1912–1914). In August 1899, Franck in turn had replaced the Hamburg merchant Gustav Gabriel Cohen (1830–1906). After Cohen’s death in December 1906, the Jüdische Rundschau [Jewish Review] published a series of obituaries for the co-founder of the Zionist local group Hamburg-Altona. These praised the “friend and advisor of Theodor Herzl” as a “man with a far-sighted view, who as early as the beginning of the 1890s [...] had already drawn the guidelines of political Zionism” and who, with his paper “The Jewish Question and the Future” published in 1891, had “exerted a lasting influence on the shaping of Zionism.”
The activities of the members of the Hamburg-Altona Zionist chapter typically included participation in regular meetings, including the mostly annual German delegate days and Zionist congresses, as well as lecture and discussion evenings. In addition, the Hamburg Zionists participated in the writing of the official financial, annual and congress reports, as the writings and lectures by Estermann, Victor, Cohen, Kalmus, Franck, Stiebel and Wolff mentioned in the report show. Above all, however, the regional branches of the national association were to serve propaganda activities in the sense of the “Basel Program,” the contents of which were to be disseminated as the official guideline of the ZO through Zionist publications and the lectures mentioned previously.
In addition, the members of the local chapter participated in the founding of numerous associations. Even before the foundation of the ZVfD, a Zionist association had developed in Hamburg with the significant participation of Gustav Tuch (1834–1909). In 1905 a Mizrahi group of Orthodox Zionists was founded on the initiative of Franck, which was part of the Zionist local chapter. Furthermore, a “Jüdischer Volksverein” [Jewish People's Association] was founded, which sought to “promote the organization of foreign Jews on a national basis,” as can be seen from the lecture by (Lazar) Felix Pinkus (1881–1947) mentioned in the report. In 1906, the local chapter supported the foundation of a “Jewish Public Reading Hall,“ which was eventually taken over by the local chapter in 1909 and attached to the Jewish Library and Reading Hall. Further examples of the participation of members in new foundations are the local groups of the “Verband jüdischer Frauen für Kulturarbeit in Palästina” [Association of Jewish Women for Cultural Work in Palestine] (1908), the “Kunstgewerbeverein Bezalel” [Bezalel Arts and Crafts Association] (1909), the “Gesellschaft zur Verbreitung jüdischer Literaturwerke” [Society for the Dissemination of Jewish Literary Works] (1910), the “Jüdische Turnverein Bar Kochba” [Jewish Gymnastics Club Bar Kochba] (1910) and the “Jüdischer Wanderbund „Blau-Weiß” [Jewish Hiking Association “Blue and White”] (1914).
The 1906 report also mentions the founding of a women’s association within the Zionist local chapter, which initially had 75 members and was led by H. Huldschiner, presumably the mother of the local chapter’s board member Johanna Huldschiner (1848–1915). The women’s association carried out charitable work, for example by supporting Jews who had immigrated from Eastern Europe and establishing holiday day camps for children.
Since 1913, the Hamburg-Altona chapter published its own bi-weekly newspaper, the “Hamburger Jüdische Nachrichten” [Hamburg Jewish News], which had an initial circulation of 7000 copies. It published articles on basic questions of Zionist nationalism, reports on the activities of the local chapter, and news about national Jewish and Zionist associations.
Hamburg’s growing importance for German Zionism was not only reflected in the increasing number of members but also in the fact that the Hanseatic city was chosen as the venue for the Eighth German Delegates’ Congress and the Ninth Zionist Congress. The Eighth German Delegates’ Congress, which took place from May 23 to 25, 1904 in the Konventgarten in Hamburg, assembled 62 delegates in addition to ten members of the Central Committee. Participants were also offered a harbor tour with an excursion to Blankenese and a visit to the emigrant halls. The event strengthened the Central Committee in its powers and subordinated the management, especially the propaganda and organization, to a “Central Bureau,” which was set up in Berlin under the leadership of Arthur Hantke.
The Ninth Zionist Congress, which met in the rooms of the Konzerthaus on Millerntorplatz in St. Pauli from December 26 to 31, 1909, was accompanied by heated debates on the Zionist ideology and leadership style of Herzl’s successor, David Wolffsohn, influenced by the recent Young Turks’ Revolution. In the dispute over the orientation of Zionist nationalism, the majority of Hamburg’s Zionists supported the leadership of the ZO. Nevertheless, the Ninth Zionist Congress marked the end of Wolffsohn’s presidency and with it the dominance of political Zionism.
The members of the Hamburg chapter contributed to the formulation of Zionist nationalism with their numerous speeches and publications. The Hamburg physician and writer Max Besser, for example, participated especially keenly in the Zionist discussion of race. On the one hand, many German Zionists, like Besser, assumed the existence of differently developed “races” and, associated with this, the difference of the “Jewish race.” On the other hand, they, who often saw themselves as a para-colonized minority, frequently rejected the associated superiority of their own “race” and the inferiority of other “races,” thereby positioning themselves to a certain extent between racist and anti-racist thinking. With his lecture on “Judaism and Socialism,” which is mentioned in the report, Besser also examined the question of how German Zionism should position itself towards socialist ideas.
The resignation of 15 members of the Hamburg chapter after the Seventh Zionist Congress in August 1905 mentioned in the report probably resulted from the general dissatisfaction and internal disputes about the Congress’ decision to finally reject the so-called “Uganda Project.” Pointing out the acute plight of Russian Jews at the time, Cohen, Kalmus, and most members of the local chapter were among the vociferous supporters of this plan for an alternative territory for Jewish settlement in British East Africa for which the president of the ZO, Theodor Herzl, who died in 1904, had openly campaigned after the pogroms in the Russian town of Kishinev in May 1903. However, the majority of the Congress, including many Eastern European Zionists, spoke out in favor of Palestine as an exclusive destination for Jewish settlement. The gulf between Western European and Eastern European Zionists, which surfaced during and after the Congress or was perceived as such, was seen by many Hamburg Zionists as threatening the existence of the (imagined) unity of Zionist nationalism, as the Congress reports listed in the local chapter’s report show. The minority of “Nein-Sager” [“naysayers”] in the Hamburg chapter, as the opponents of the “Uganda Project” were also called in the Jüdische Rundschau [Jewish Review], gathered in the newly founded “Free Committee [for the organization of Young Jewish Evenings],” which suspended its work after further anti-Jewish riots in the Russian Empire, however.
The Wroclaw economist and journalist (Lazar) Felix Pinkus gave a lecture to the Hamburg chapter on antisemitism in the Russian Empire. German Zionists like Pinkus saw antisemitism as an antithesis of “culture” and “civilization” due to its implicit inhumanity and irrationality and thus as a step backwards in the history of human civilization. By exposing the ambivalence of the modern Christian, occidental “cultural world,” which had also produced antisemitism in its present form according to them, they undertook a dual critique of civilization in their contributions to the debate.
The Zionist interpretations and experiences of antisemitic discrimination and persecution influenced the relationship of German Zionism to (German) colonialism and imperialism in no small measure. As a case in point, the second lecture by Pinkus on this topic listed in the report was strongly based on the lectures and economic policy ideas of Franz Oppenheimer and Otto Warburg and thus on the model of German colonialism. It is also informed by cultural-imperialist patterns of interpretation, for example, when Pinkus speaks of Jewish colonization activity as serving to “win back Palestine and Syria for culture.” However, the Zionist discourse on the colonization of Palestine was by no means homogeneous, but characterized by the fact that it combined hegemonic, colonial and anti-colonial ideas.
The study of Zionism today tends to view German Zionism “as part of the ideological and political debate about the nation and nationalism in Germany” (Stefan Vogt) in general. German Zionism drew extensively on the pattern and arsenal of German nationalism and at the same time distanced itself from it. Applying postcolonial theories, it can therefore be understood as a hybrid nationalism, moving in contradictory ways between “Germany” and “Zion,” “Occident” and “Orient,” colonialism and anti-colonialism, nationalism and universalism.
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Dr. Sabrina Schütz, born in 1983, is a secondary school teacher and lecturer in the Department of History Didactics at the University of Regensburg. She studied History and English at the universities of London and Regensburg. There she was a research assistant at the Chair of Modern and Contemporary History from 2012–2017. Her main research interests are Jewish history (especially the history of Zionism) and the history of German and European nationalism.
Sabrina Schütz, The Local Chapter Hamburg-Altona as Part of the Zionist Movement in Germany (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, March 14, 2020. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-259.en.v1> [May 29, 2023].