Bihler on Jünger, 'Jahre der Ungewissheit: Emigrationspläne deutscher Juden, 1933-1938'

David Jünger
Lori G. Bihler

David Jünger. Jahre der Ungewissheit: Emigrationspläne deutscher Juden, 1933-1938. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016. 440 pp. $88.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-525-37039-1.

Reviewed by Lori G. Bihler (Framingham State University) Published on H-TGS (December, 2018) Commissioned by Alison C. Efford (Marquette University)

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Imagining Emigration: Jewish Plans for Leaving Nazi Germany

The shadow of the Holocaust looms large in any study of Jewish emigration out of Nazi Germany. Undergraduates new to the subject continue to ask, “Why didn’t they all leave when Hitler came to power?” In this dissertation turned monograph, historian David Jünger provides some answers. Jahre der Ungewissheit tracks Jewish debates around whether to remain in or leave Germany from the end of the Weimar era to the November 9 pogrom in 1938. In doing so, Jünger provides a nuanced account of changing Jewish self-perception in Germany as antisemitic activity escalated. Rather than serving as a close study of the precise preparatory actions and actual routes taken by hundreds of thousands of émigré families, the work focuses on the imagined possibilities and plans of liberal intellectuals, Orthodox leaders, and Zionists.

The book is structured chronologically in two-year increments, beginning in 1933. The author draws from a range of primary sources, including organizational publications and speeches as well as diary entries of four prominent German Jews to examine their responses to important political turning points. The author reveals the diversity of views among German Jews from early in the Nazi regime, including those who did not perceive the rise of National Socialism to be a threat to their existence and others who did. Liberal Jewish leaders tended to approach the new government with a continued political strategy used throughout the Weimar years. Namely, they attempted to apply reason and legal arguments to antisemitic laws. Hitler’s vituperative writings from the 1920s and his volatile hate speech was undeniable, yet many liberal Jews believed that the Germany of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller could not easily succumb to such base sentiments. For Jewish men who fought for Germany in the Great War, it was even more inconceivable in 1933 and 1934 that their rights would be wholly rescinded. Jünger demonstrates that the option for liberal German Jews to “wait it out” was logical. At the same time, he effectively shows how Orthodox leaders like Isaac Breuer and prominent Zionists argued for emigration from the start. As a result, Jünger challenges broad assumptions about singular Jewish reactions to boycotts, anti-Jewish legislation, and state-sponsored violence.

The second chapter explores reactions to the enactment of the Nuremburg Laws in 1935 and the convoluted and ultimately unsuccessful attempts by German and international Jewish organizations to develop comprehensive emigration plans. While the codification of anti-Jewish laws may have helped alleviate a sense of the unknown for some, the new certainties were hardly comforting for Germany’s Jews. The new measures solidified the resolve of many liberal, Zionist, and Orthodox leaders to make plans for Jewish emigration. A strength of this book is its exploration of these three distinct factions and the ways their organizations diverged and converged in responding to escalating persecution.

The final chapter is the shortest and perhaps the most wanting. Here Jünger explains how specific Nazi actions in 1937 and 1938 intensified pressure on Jews to emigrate, while simultaneously creating greater obstacles to prevent them from doing so. He describes the desperate urgency of Jewish families, like the family of historian Willy Cohn, whose diaries were published in 2012, to seek refuge in Palestine and more far-flung locales. In the first two chapters, the author more thoroughly explores the thoughts and imagined plans of differing Jewish leaders and intellectuals in response to specific acts of persecution by the Nazis through 1936. However, in the last chapter, Zionist, Orthodox, and liberal reactions to the November pogrom of 1938 are not given nearly the same attention. This leaves one to wonder if the book should have remained focused exclusively on the first four or five years of Nazi rule, when emigration was still an idea rather than a reality for the majority of German Jews. In addition, this work could have been bolstered by the inclusion of more women, elderly, and children, whose views on immigration often diverged from organizational leaders and intellectuals. The inclusion of research by historians Marion Kaplan (Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany [1998]) and Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt (Flight from the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933-1946 [2009]) would have complemented and enriched the book in this respect.

Overall, this book carefully tracks how Jewish responses to Nazi persecution evolved as the marginalization of Jews intensified. Jünger effectively integrates a diversity of artifacts, such as the hand-drawn fictional map of Jewish exile “Jutopia” from 1939, personal diary entries, newspaper articles, and family letters. His weaving of a multitude of sources creates a rich tapestry of shifting perspectives on the various organizations and individuals he follows. The originality of this research is in its exploration of plans that did not come to fruition and in that way it reveals the hopes and fears of much of the German Jewish community.

Citation: Lori G. Bihler. Review of Jünger, David, Jahre der Ungewissheit: Emigrationspläne deutscher Juden, 1933-1938. H-TGS, H-Net Reviews. December, 2018. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.