Modernity, Capitalism and the Pathologies of Jewish Health: Anti-Semitic Elements of Fin-De-Siècle Medical Discourse

Essay 2010 10 Pages

History Europe - Other Countries - Modern Times, Absolutism, Industrialization



(Pavel Vasilyev)

While we are generally eager to recognize the importance of medicine and medical discourse in the contemporary world, it is not always easy to connect the history of medicine with the study of anti-Semitism. Indeed, this topic has received relatively little attention from scholars. However, I will argue that a closer look at the anti-Semitic elements of medical discourse is an important and promising enterprise. If we examine the most notorious manifestation of modern anti-Semitism, the Shoah, we can easily see that it was at least partially prepared and justified by the authority of medical science.[1] In contemporary post-modern world, academics and laymen alike often question the objectivity of science and its ability to coherently explain the world[2], but for the late 19th and early 20th century Europeans Science was perhaps the highest authority and the main reference point. Accordingly, when the genocide of the Jews was justified scientifically, it became much more difficult to resist it. In a certain way, medical science gave to modern anti-Semitism the same degree of legitimacy as Christian religion delegated to medieval anti-Judaism centuries earlier.

The focus of this paper is on the same region where the Nazi genocide was planned and carried out (Central Europe) and on the German-language medical discourse (German being arguably the most important language for European scientific discourse for a long period). However, I will concentrate on the period that preceded the Nazi rule (late 19th and early 20th centuries) – and for some reasons. As scholars struggle to comprehend the horrific design of the Holocaust, they come to the understanding that it is impossible to explain the Nazi genocide without looking at the rise and developments of modern anti-Semitism in Wilhelmine Germany (even though it is absolutely necessary to differentiate between the two). This approach was implemented by Shulamit Volkov in her attempt to distinguish “the written matter” and “the spoken word”[3] as well as by some medical history scholars dealing with continuity/discontinuity debate.[4]

Accordingly, in this paper I will look at fin-de-siècle German-language medical discourse to locate and analyze anti-Semitic sentiments and critique of Jewish health that were often inherent in it. In particular, I am interested why (and how) various alleged pathologies of Jewish health were associated with modernity and capitalist economy. Additionally, I want to trace the influence that fin-de-siècle medical anti-Semitism had in the later period. In doing so, I plan to rely largely on such medical history classics as Sander Gilman's “The Jew's Body” and John Efron's “Medicine and the German Jews” - as well as the number of works by Klaus Hödl and Daniel Wildmann.

Scientification of Stereotypes: The Nature and Content of Anti-Semiti с Medical Discourse

As soon as we approach turn-of-the-century medical discourse and label it anti-Semitic, we must face an important challenge. There is a seeming contradiction between flourishing anti-Jewish sentiments among the doctors and the statistically proven over-representation of the Jews in the medical profession in the region.[5] Yet most of these Jewish doctors were reluctant to challenge the dominant discourse that presented the Jewish people as fundamentally diseased and pathological. To better understand and explain this seeming contradiction, we should discuss the nature, content and the lines of reasoning of fin-de-siècle medical anti-Semitism in more detail.

As Klaus Hödl has successfully demonstrated, late 19th and early 20th century medical theory was “highly influenced by extant, racially determined conceptions”, “amenable to biased views of ethnic groups” and “its findings reflected … widely shared prejudices”[6]. However, the language of medicine of that time was becoming increasingly scientific and sophisticated. Hödl explains this by arguing that late 19th century medical anti-Semitism was in fact occupied mostly with “scientification” of the already existing stereotypes, not with the creation of the new ones.[7] This new language of the science might seem modern, but the anti-Semitic physicians were generally repeating the accusations against the Jews that had existed since the Middle Ages – but in a more fashionable way.


[1] Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[2] See., e.g., Georges Canguilhem, On the Normal and the Pathological (Dordrecht, Holland: Reidel, 1978 ); Karin Knorr-Cetina, Die Fabrikation von Erkentniss: Zur Anthropologie der Naturwissenschaft (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984); Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).

[3] Shulamit Volkov, “The Written Matter and the Spoken Word: On the Gap Between Pre-1914 and Nazi Anti-Semitism,” in Unanswered Questions: Nazi Germany and the Genocide of the Jews, ed. François Furet (New York: Schocken Books, 1989), 33-53.

[4] Paul F. Lerner, Hysterical Men: War, Psychiatry and the Politics of Trauma in Germany, 1890-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).

[5] John M. Efron, Medicine and the German Jews: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 10.

[6] Klaus Hödl, “The Black Body and the Jewish Body: A Comparison of Medical Images,” Patterns of Prejudice 36 (2002): 34.

[7] Klaus Hödl, “Medizinischer Antisemitismus oder Antisemitismus in der Medizin? Historische Wurzeln und Charakterisierungsversuche eines Phänomens,” in Antisemitismusforschung in den Wissenschaften, ed. Werner Bergmann and Mona Körte (Berlin: Metropol, 2004), 175.


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Modernity Capitalism Pathologies Jewish Health Anti-Semitic Elements Fin-De-Siècle Medical Discourse




Title: Modernity, Capitalism and the Pathologies of Jewish Health: Anti-Semitic Elements of Fin-De-Siècle Medical Discourse