Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Little Bit about Religion in Germany

It is very difficult to tell just the facts of someone's life without giving the background of the times that person lived in. This project barely scratches the surface of what life was like in Germany two hundred years ago and even that has to be "led up to" with more background.

Mendelssohn was born in the Jewish faith.

This one observation and the impact it had on his life needs some background about the attitude toward Jews in Germany then and about the religious attitudes of the culture in general. What I'm writing about or quoting in these posts reflects the ideas and beliefs at the time and were not necessarily the ideas and beliefs of everybody. Any discussion of religious attitudes today could not possibly cover everything in a few pages - or not manage to offend someone.

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The Protestant Reformation – “protesters” breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church – began in Germany in 1517 with Martin Luther. In the decades that followed, Catholic princes tried to destroy the Protestant princes, mostly through warfare. But it was the people who suffered, especially during the devastating 30-Years War (1618-1648).

(See the European map, left, showing the German States in 1648 at the end of the 30-years War. Notice all the different smaller principalities - some 300 of them - making up what we know of as Germany, today. Compare them to the larger nations like France; Poland at the time was one of the largest countries in Europe - by 1795, it had been partitioned between its neighbors, Austria, Prussia and Russia, and no longer existed.)

The German lands were now divided between the largely Protestant north and the Catholic south, dominated by Austria. During the 1700s, Prussia (once just part of Brandenburg) – initially ruled by a duke who then decided to call himself a king – quickly became a powerful military force and took on a leading role among the northern princes. A “soldier-king” created a military-like bureaucracy. His son, who loved to play the flute and enjoyed writing his own music, turned out to be an even greater military ruler, expanding the boundaries of Prussia in wars with Austria, Russia, Poland and France and earning in his lifetime the nickname “Frederick the Great” (see picture, right).

In addition to his passion for music, he was a close friend of the great French philosopher Voltaire who once quipped that “other states have an army: the Prussian Army has a state.” He called Frederick “the Philosopher King.” His capital, Berlin, had been a kind of sleepy back-water city that was suddenly thrust into the lime-light by its sudden rise to power in the late-1600s. To improve the culture there, he invited artists and philosophers to live there, including a well-known Jewish philosopher named Moses Mendelssohn, the grandfather of the composer Felix Mendelssohn.

This was an age called “The Enlightenment” when rulers governed more by reason rather than religious faith, making reforms by moral principles based on a set of values than political or religious ideas. Many of its principles found expression in the French Revolution as well as in the founding of the United States of America.

His nephew Friedrich Wilhelm II, who succeeded him, was more interested in entertaining himself. He also enjoyed music, maintaining a fine orchestra and a string quartet, often playing the cello in it. Mozart wrote his last string quartets for the Prussian king, hoping to be given a job in Berlin as a court composer (he wasn't). Beethoven dedicated two cellos sonatas to the king (he gave him a nice ring as thanks).

Friedrich Wilhelm II also became a Rosicrucian, a member of a secret society that claimed to date back to the Medieval Ages built on “esoteric truths,” though in reality it probably developed around 1600 during the years of fighting between the Catholics and newly-formed Protestant churches.

The Masons were also a society founded on secret rituals with social intent that meshed well with the Enlightenment, but Rosicrucianism as observed by the Prussian king seemed less capable of working in a rational atmosphere and as a result, Prussia ended up becoming bankrupt by the time the king died and was much diminished in size and international prestige after losing war after war. When he died in 1797, his nickname could be translated “The Fat Fool.”

Even though many of the wars fought between the German states started in religious rivalries, both churches needed military protection, especially in the smaller states, and so essentially became subservient to the civil powers and secular states. The Catholic states became less attentive to the Pope's authority in Rome. The Protestant states became less centralized about their faith, preferring family prayers to eloquence from the pulpit.

This led to a variety of other Protestant sects – a movement called Pietism (after the word 'piety') which included the Moravian Brotherhood who had been banished from Catholic Bohemia but found a home in Protestant Germany (they also eventually found a home here in Pennsylvania).

This sense of religious mysticism was contradictory with the standard philosophies of the Enlightenment. The late-1700s was becoming an Age of Doubt. As Will & Ariel Durant explains in the 11th volume of their “History of Civilization”:

“The Prussian Protestant clergy had by that time... come to think of Jesus as a lovable mystic who proclaimed the approaching end of the world. In 1800, a hurried observer reported that religion was dead in Germany and that 'it is no longer the fashion to be a Christian.' ... Such reports were emotionally exaggerated... it hardly touched the German masses. ...Faith always recovers and doubt remains.”

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As faith weakened, toleration grew.

Like much of Europe, Germany had long been an anti-Semitic country, but (continuing to quote Durant) “it became impossible for an educated Christian to hate a modern Jew because of a political crucifixion eighteen centuries ago,” perhaps recalling those same Jews had met Jesus with palm leaves when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Before the Enlightenment, Jews were forced (either politically or socially, sometimes by law, other times for their own protection) to live in ghettos.

In the 1770s, freed by Emperor Joseph II in Austria and later in the Rhineland and in Prussia, they emerged from the ghettos and “assimilated” to became part of many cities' society.

This was, at least, the attitude of most of the educated classes: among the uneducated poor, this was not the case.

In some areas, resentment lingered, mostly because of economic competition in trade and banking. In 1810, Napoleon, who then controlled most of the Confederation of the Rhine, applied his own laws granting freedoms to the Jews of France to the Jews of Germany. In many countries, this was referred to as "Jewish Emancipation."

But as Jewish doctors and scholars and scientists mingled with Christians, intellectual Jewish women held salons where philosophy was discussed with some of the finest minds in the country.

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While this post reflects events mostly in the 18th and early-19th Centuries, it does not reflect the attitudes and events of the second half of the 19th Century or the 20th Century and the 2nd World War, times when Jews were once again forced (socially or politically) back into the ghettos.

The story continues in the next post about Mendelssohn's grandfather, the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

- Dr. Dick