Unit Essential Question: What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?
In the previous lesson, students examined the concept of race and learned how it was created by society in order to justify unequal power and status between different groups. This lesson continues the study of “We and They” in the Facing History scope and sequence by introducing antisemitism, another historical example of how humans have created “in” groups and “out” groups. Students will explore the long history of hatred and discrimination against Jews, and they will see how anti-Judaism, a religious prejudice, was transformed in the nineteenth century into antisemitism, a form of racism. Learning about the development of antisemitism will provide students with important context for the worldview of the Nazis. It will also help students recognize and understand the impact of stereotypes and myths about Jews that persist today.
A note on terms:
- The term anti-Judaism refers to religious prejudice against Jews before the historical emergence of the concept of race.
- The word Semitic does not actually refer to a group of people. It is not a “race” but rather a linguistic term that refers to a group of languages traditionally spoken in the Middle East and parts of Africa, including Amharic, a language spoken in Ethiopia, as well as Hebrew and Arabic. Because there is no such thing as a Semitic race, Facing History and Ourselves uses the alternate spelling antisemitism.
Although antisemitism—a central component of the Nazi worldview—is based on the belief that Jews are members of a distinct race, the history of hatred, prejudice, and discrimination targeting Jews extends back in time more than two millennia, long before the idea of race emerged during the Enlightenment.
In the late 1800s, many European and American scientists continued to divide humankind into smaller and smaller “races.” One of these was the “Semitic race,” which they used to categorize Jews. The term antisemitism was coined by German Wilhelm Marr, who published a pamphlet in 1878 titled “The Victory of Judaism over Germandom.” Filled with lies and myths about Jews, Marr’s pamphlet argued that Jews were more than a distinct “race.” They were dangerous and alien, intent on maliciously destroying German society. Marr founded the League of Anti-Semites in Berlin in 1879 to combat the threat he imagined that Jews posed. Although his political organization did not gain much support, the racist beliefs of antisemitism spread across Europe, providing justification for discrimination and violence against Jews in the twentieth century.
Antisemitism relies on the idea that certain physical and intellectual differences exist between groups and that these differences are biological, permanent, and irreversible. Because they believed, falsely, that differences between so-called races were justified by modern science, antisemites were convinced that science also justified discrimination against Jews.
Historian Deborah Dwork explains:
The move from anti-Judaism—against the religion—to antisemitism with this notion of "race" was only possible when Europeans conceived of the idea of race. And once they had conceived of the idea of race in the 19th century, Wilhelm Marr had the notion that Jews constituted a "race." And thus, antisemitism can be seen as a form of racism.
For a deeper and more detailed exploration of the history of anti-Judaism and antisemitism, you can substitute the resources below for the reading Overview of Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism. The readings in Holocaust and Human Behavior and videos listed below also include connection questions for additional discussion and reflection: