Diligent Bureaucrats and the Expulsion of Jews from West Prussia, 1772–1786

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Dahms, Thomas 

Previous historiography has repeatedly highlighted the progressive influence of the Prussian administration on Frederick the Great’s policies toward the Jews. Scholars have argued that officials frequently opposed the king’s discriminatory legislation and intentionally delayed its implementation. These actions, they claimed, were influenced by the Enlightenment humanism of the Prussian administrators and their training in natural law theories and mercantilist economics, both taught at German universities at the time. Such views of the Prussian bureaucrats are central for histories of late eighteenth-century Prussia as a relatively tolerant state that developed remarkably progressive policies towards the Jews. This article challenges the traditional portrayal of the Prussian administration by examining the actions of three officials involved in the expulsion of several thousand Jews from West Prussia between 1772 and 1786. It argues that the strikingly positive assessment of the Prussian bureaucrats and their role in the Jewish policies of the time needs significant revision. Firstly, previous historiography has overstated the extent to which Prussian officials objected to Frederick the Great’s discriminatory legislation. Secondly, instances of resistance from within the administration were mainly motivated by political, economic, and demographic objectives or even careerist pursuits that had little to do with the Jewish communities. Lastly, Prussian administrators did not merely adhere to economic principles, or even to ideals of tolerance and humanity. Instead, their actions towards the Jews were also influenced by anti-Jewish sentiment.

Eighteenth-Century Germany, Eighteenth-Century Poland, History of Religious Toleration, History of the Enlightenment, Jewish History, Prussian History
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German History
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Oxford University Press (OUP)
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Konrad Adenauer Foundation, German History Society

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