The French Revolution, Napoleon, and Life in a City Where Jews Needed a License to Reside

April 2, 2019 | Shulamit Magnus
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In 1424, at a time when such banishments were common, the German city of Cologne expelled its Jewish population, which had been there since at least the 4th century CE. Looking back on her research into the city’s Jews, which formed the basis of her first book, the historian Shulamit Magnus explains the anomalous history that followed:

Cologne, unlike most places, rigidly excluded Jews [after the expulsion, rather than] letting some back in only to re-expel and readmit, as happened in many Central European locales. In Cologne, there was no ghetto, no Jewish street—no Jews at all. In the rare event that political pressures forced permission for a (very wealthy) Jew to traverse the city en route elsewhere, he (I don’t recall reading any were women) had to be accompanied in the streets by a red-cloaked guard, proclaiming, “Jew! Jew!”

Then, in 1789, the French Revolution took place, and shortly thereafter was carried across the map of Europe by armies of the Revolution. Cologne, on the left bank of the Rhine, near France, was not just conquered, but annexed. . . . It is well known that the French Revolution emancipated French Jews and that Revolutionary armies then razed ghettos and imposed emancipation wherever they went. . . . It is less well known that Napoleon [who seized power from the Revolutionary government] was profoundly Judeophobic and that, as emperor, he severely compromised the emancipation the Revolution had extended and instituted discriminatory legislation that harked back to that of the ancien régime.

Under Napoleonic legislation, Jews were guilty until proved innocent. For Jews to engage in business, they first had to obtain a special “Jew-license” in addition to any regular license needed to conduct business. To qualify for this license, Jews had to prove that they had not engaged in usury or fraud and to bring a character testimonial from the local synagogue, implicating the organized community in systematic discrimination. . . . Napoleon’s anti-Jewish legislation remained on the books on the left bank of the Rhine until 1847.

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