After the emancipation of the Jews, brought about by the Enlightenment of the 18th cent. and by the French Revolution, religious and economic resentments were gradually replaced by feelings of prejudice stemming from the notion of the Jews as a distinct race. This development was due not only to the rising nationalism of the 19th cent., but also to the conscious preservation, especially among Orthodox Jews, of cultural and religious barriers that isolated the Jewish minorities from other citizens. It has also been charged that in the years between the fall of Napoleon and the rise of Hitler the Roman Catholic Church, which sometimes subscribed to the idea of Jewish racial identity and sometimes denied it, not only failed to condemn European anti-Semitism, but actually contributed to it. Jewish reaction to the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in its many forms found political expression in Zionism.
The unpopularity of the Jews was exploited by demagogues, such as Édouard Drumont in France, to stir the masses against an existing government, and by reactionary governments, as in Russia, to find an outlet for popular discontent. The millions of Russian and Polish Jews who, after the assassination (1881) of Alexander II, fled the pogroms and found refuge in other countries contributed to the popular feeling that Jews were aliens and intruders. In addition, a spurious document, the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," purporting to outline a Jewish plan for world domination, emerged in Russia early in the 20th cent. and was subsequently circulated throughout the world. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Jews were accused of plotting to dominate the world by their international financial power or by a Bolshevik revolution.
Pseudoscientific racial theories of so-called Aryan superiority emerged in the 19th cent. with the writings of Joseph Arthur Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain and found their climax in those of Alfred Rosenberg. These theories were incorporated in the official doctrine of German National Socialism by Adolf Hitler. Hitler's persecution of the Jews during World War II was unparalleled in history. It is estimated that between 5 and 6 million European Jews were exterminated between 1939 and 1945 in the Holocaust (see also concentration camp).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.