In the nineteenth century, all the Central European governments made efforts to create equal rights and legal security for their citizens. Until then, the statutes of the principalities and the “free cities” had legal force. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna’s final document was agreed on; it contained the provision that the old laws and statutes would remain universally in force until the introduction of new binding legislation for all citizens throughout the various regions. However, conflicts frequently arose when governments tried to introduce legislation in newly acquired territories. The implementation of laws and decrees was a cumbersome process, even in an authoritarian state like Prussia. Conflicts often escalated around the question of the legal status of the Jews. Today, there is general consensus that legal equality and legal certainty for Jews are among the most important topics in nineteenth century European social history. Michał Szulc shows that what Reinhard Rürup has termed the “tortuous and thorny path to legal equality” was also watched over by upstanding liberal citizens and civil servants.
The city of Danzig (Polish: Gdańsk) is an interesting focal point for inquiries into the implementation of relevant laws during the nineteenth century’s first half. The city was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1793, when it was annexed by Prussia after the second partition of Poland. Between 1806 and 1814, under the rule of Napoleon, it had the status of a free city. In the following period, between 1814 and 1919, it was again part of Prussia and as such the capital of an administrative district (what was termed a Regierungsbezirk).
Michał Szulc has provided us with an impressive study of Danzig Jewry’s legal situation up to legislation of 1847. He has analyzed archival sources in Gdańsk, Berlin, Paris, and Jerusalem. He describes the Napoleonic period and the failed attempts of the French consul to enforce civic rights for Jewish citizens. Under Prussian rule, the municipal authorities and city council opposed implementation of the 1812 Prussian Edict, granting Jews citizenry. This resistance was also encouraged by governmental hesitation in Berlin. A royal decree only put an end to the ensuing state of uncertainty in 1832, after which the conflict was carried on in newspapers and pamphlets.
The municipal authorities offered formal objections to the 1812 edict’s validity. They set up impediments to Jewish participation in trade, commerce, and both social and political life. Referring to archival sources, Szulc can demonstrate a well-functioning network at work in the city in this respect, including Christian elites and high-level civil servants, among them the Danzig Oberpräsident, Theodor von Schön, a liberal reformer who continues to enjoy a distinguished reputation. In 1819 and 1821, violent unrest threatened the Jews of Danzig, and on both occasions Schön and his local governmental subordinates held the Jews responsible. Together with the municipal authorities, Oberpräsident Schön trivialized the obvious role of the city’s Christian elites in what was taking place and obstructed the efforts of the police president, Dagobert von Vegesack, to preserve law and order and protect Danzig’s Jewry against the rioters. Oberpräsident Schön failed in an effort to discredit Vegesack in Berlin. By contrast, both Chancellor Karl August von Hardenberg and Minister of the Interior Friedrich von Schuckmann approved Vegesack’s measures and reproved Schön’s behavior. Up to the present, historians have presented Schön’s frequent conflicts with the government in Berlin as evidence of his liberal convictions. Szulc’s description of the Danzig events of 1819 and 1821 points to a need for further consideration of this major liberal official’s policies toward the Jews.
Although Szulc’s account is centered on legislation in a nineteenth century city, he adds significantly to a broader understanding of his underlying topic. He presents the conditions prevailing at the time in Danzig clearly, enriching our knowledge of the long path to legal equality and security for all citizens in Central Europe. Moreover, he demonstrates that new knowledge concerning the history of German liberalism can emerge from research in the archives.
Manfred Jehle, indipendent scholar
Michał Szulc, Emanzipation in Stadt und Staat: Die Judenpolitik in Danzig 1807–1847 (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2016), Hamburger Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Juden, vol. 46, pp. 352.