Continuities in a Historiography Overshadowed by Its National Socialist Past?

Dirk Rupnow

Source Description

The study “Sephardic Jews on the Lower Elbe” published by Franz Steiner Verlag in 1958 as volume 40 of their supplement to the academic journal Vierteljahresschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte (edited by Hermann Aubin) may be considered a central contribution to Hamburg’s Jewish history of the early postwar period. Its author, Hermann Kellenbenz, was one of the most influential German economic historians of his generation. In his 600-page book, he studied the economic significance of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in the early 16th century and had been allowed to settle in Hamburg. However, the publication’s origins date back to the National Socialist period, when Kellenbenz had received a research assignment by the Reich Institute for the History of the New Germany  Reichsinstitut für Geschichte des neuen Deutschlands. This fact is omitted in the study’s preface – which is hardly surprising for this time period.
  • Dirk Rupnow

In the preface to his study “Sephardim on the Lower Elbe” published in 1958, Hermann Kellenbenz mentions that his first encounter with this topic went back almost 20 years and that it was the “exotic nature” of one of the study’s protagonists, Manuel Teixeira, which had appealed to him during the research for his dissertation on the Swedish demesne of Holstein-Gottorf, published in Kiel in 1938. He calls it impossible to mention the names of all those who had supported him with assistance and advice throughout the years. He is concealing the fact that this study by an economic historian who was quite influential in postwar Germany was the result of a multi-year research commission from the Reich Institute for History of the New Germany  Reichsinstitut für Geschichte des neuen Deutschlands. Kellenbenz was habilitated at the University of Würzburg on the basis of the resulting publication titled “Das Hamburger Finanzjudentum und seine Krise” [“Hamburg’s Finance Jewry and Its Crisis”] in late November 1944, shortly before the end of the Second World War. Neither the original version of the text nor the habilitation certificate has survived, however. They were most likely destroyed during an air raid on Würzburg in March 1945 during which the university library was damaged.

The Reich Institute for the History of the New Germany

The Reich Institute for the History of the New Germany Reichsinstitut für Geschichte des neuen Deutschlands founded in Berlin by Walter Frank in 1935 was meant to become the center of a newly developed, National Socialist, antisemitic study of history. Its interdisciplinary branch devoted to the “Jewish Question”  Forschungsabteilung Judenfrage established in Munich in 1936 made it one of the main institutions of National Socialist “Judenforschung” [research on Jews], especially in its early phase. During the National Socialist regime, “Judenforschung” or “Erforschung der Judenfrage” [study of the Jewish Question] was the term used for studies carried out by non-Jewish scholars in the humanities, cultural studies, and social sciences which examined the history of Judaism and the so-called “Jewish Question” from an explicitly antisemitic perspective. By founding a number of institutes, starting publications and organizing events, the “Third Reich’s” “Judenforschung” sought to transcend the traditional boundaries between faculties and establish itself as a discipline in its own right.

National Socialist “research on Jews”

Apart from racial science, “Judenforschung” represents the most striking intersection of academic study and antisemitic propaganda and of National Socialist ideology and anti-Jewish policy in its practical application ranging from marginalization to expulsion and mass murder. Within National Socialist “Judenforschung,” Antisemitism was instituted as the principle leading to all foregone conclusions, while the “Jewish Question,” already antisemitic in its phrasing, served as point of departure for all scientific interest and became the focus of all research. In contrast to German historiography’s usual habit of ignoring topics of (German-) Jewish history, these were now considered of scholarly interest. The expulsion and murder of European Jewry was thus paralleled by the study of Jewish history from a National Socialist, antisemitic perspective – a study which obviously went beyond the propagandistic requirements for justifying anti-Jewish German policies on the one hand and the political requirements for implementing them on the other. German scholarly study of Jewish history did not begin with National Socialist “Judenforschung,” yet it represents its first obvious foothold in the academic landscape, where it continued to exist under different circumstances after 1945. The forced integration of Jewish history into German history was undertaken by those who simultaneously legitimized and carried out anti-Jewish policy. In Germany, the institutionalized study of Jewish history was virtually complementary to the expulsion and murder of German and European Jewry.

Within a short space of time, the “Third Reich” saw a veritable boom of institutions dedicated to “Judenforschung.” Various government offices sought to be involved in this field, at times cooperating, at times competing. The Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question  Institut zum Studium der Judenfrage was founded in Berlin as early as 1935. In 1939, it was renamed “Antisemitic Action Antisemitische Aktion, and as of 1942 it was called “Antijüdische Aktion Anti-Jewish Action. It actually was a branch of Goebbels’ propaganda ministry, but this connection was concealed from the public in order to keep up the pretense of an independent academic research institute. One of the most important and productive organizations of National Socialist research on Jews was founded in 1936, when the Reich Institute for the History of the New Germany Reichsinstitut für Geschichte des neuen Deutschlands opened the interdisciplinary branch devoted to the “Jewish Question”  Forschungsabteilung Judenfrage in Munich. The Berlin based Reich Institute was meant to be the replacement for the Reich Commission for History  Historische Reichskommission and, along with the Reich Institute for Early German History  Reichsinstitut für ältere deutsche Geschichte, was charged with the study of modern history and especially the period since the French Revolution. Competing with activities at Frank’s Reich Institute was the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question Institut zur Erforschung der Judenfrage openend in Frankfurt am Main in March 1941 after having been formally established in 1939. This institute was the first realized branch of the National Socialist alternative university called “Hohe Schule literally High School, which had been conceived by Alfred Rosenberg and was planned to be established after the war. In 1939, the Institute for the Study and Extinction of Jewish Influence on German Parochial Life  Institut zur Erforschung und Beseitigung des jüdischen Einflusses aus dem deutschen kirchlichen Leben led by Protestant theologian Walter Grundmann was founded in Eisenach. In the context of its security police tasks, the Reich Main Security Office, Department VII  Reichssicherheitshauptamt’s Amt VII also investigated racial and ideological enemies under scientific pretense, including Jews among others (“Gegnerforschung”). Some universities not only followed suit in their staffing of teaching positions, but also attempted to establish designated chairs: the universities of Tübingen, Vienna, Berlin, and Frankfurt, for example. However, Hermann Kellenbenz’ habilitation at the University of Würzburg shows that “Judenforschung” was also carried out by individual scholars at universities without a designated chair.

National Socialist ideology in Kellenbenz’ work

In the 1958 version of Kellenbenz’ study originally completed in 1944, there is no striking antisemitic residue of the kind often found in contemporaneous publications. However, the postwar version’s bibliography still lists works published as part of National Socialist research on Jews: Volkmar Eichstädt’sBibliographie zur Geschichte der Judenfrage” (1938) [“Bibliography on the History of the Jewish Question”], as well as an essay by Wilfried Euler titled “Das Eindringen jüdischen Blutes in die englische Oberschicht” [“The Intrusion of Jewish Blood into the English Upper Class”] in the journal “Forschungen zur Judenfrage” (vol. 6, 1941).

The question to what extent Kellenbenz’ criticism of Werner Sombart that he had overestimated the Jews’ importance for the development of modern capitalism, which at first seems incompatible with National Socialist ideology, conceals an antisemitic argument denying Jews all creativity cannot be answered with absolute certainty. Arguing based on a close reading of the sources he diagnosed a particular significance of the Sephardic Jews for the modernization of Hamburg’s trade with Portugal and Spain due to their international experience. He states the same for migrants from the Netherlands and southern Germany, yet he rejected Sombart’s assumption that they had in fact established and dominated Hamburg’s trade with Portugal and Spain.

Kellenbenz’ defensive arguments

Consequently, Kellenbenz was indignant at being mentioned in Helmut Heiber’s book on Walter Frank and the Reichsinstitut. Heiber, a researcher at Munich’s Institute of Contemporary History Institut für Zeitgeschichte, was one of the first to study German historians of the National Socialist period. In a letter to Theodor Schieder, then a colleague of his at the University of Cologne who had reviewed Heiber’s study along with Hans Rothfels and had recommended it to the Institut für Zeitgeschichte for publication, he referred to Wilhelm Enßlin’s review of his Würzburg habilitation and pointed out that “from the outset, the study had been conceived to consider not just the Sephardic Jews’ social and economic history, but also how the entire topic fit into the political history of the 17th century.” In fact, Kellenbenz never was an actual expert on Jewish history, but rather an economic historian. Nevertheless, it apparently seemed advisable to retroactively and clearly shift the study’s focus away from a “Judenforschung” topic and towards classic political history. Significantly, his exculpation from the ideological context of National Socialist academia went along with a general distancing from the field of Jewish history and thus an implicit admission that all study of Jewish history in the “Third Reich” was politically and ideologically motivated.

As part of the 1947 Christmas amnesty, Hermann Kellenbenz was exonerated by a denazification court in Munich  Spruchkammer München I: it ruled that despite his party membership he had opposed National Socialism, that he had not worked in the National Socialist spirit, and that he was considered a critic and enemy of National Socialism. His work as “Forschungsbeauftragter des Reichsinstituts für Geschichte [!]”  Senior Research Fellow at the Reich Institute for History was not considered incriminatory because the institute was not a party organization. In his statement before the denazification court, Kellenbenz cited economic hardship and a “constant feeling of being threatened by state coercion” as his excuses, but also—in an interesting modification of his self-portrayal as a scholar—stupidity and inexperience: “Please consider that back then, despite my book learning, in terms of life experience I was still stupid and inexperienced at 22.” He styled himself to be one of those “small people who always have a tough lot in life.” He claimed he had rejected the party’s antisemitic program in particular, and moreover his mother had always kept company with Jews. His studies were of an exclusively historical nature and “strictly scholarly.” He stated that his motivation for writing his habilitation thesis had been to “present the topic strictly academically and only based on determined facts, contrary to the books on Jews published at the time.” He expressly volunteered his services for participating in the rebuilding of a democratic Germany.

Kellenbenz’ further academic career

Kellenbenz’ self-portrayal was supported by a number of affidavits. These repeatedly emphasized that he had always felt “a stranger to” National Socialism who had “rejected” it and had became a victim of contemporary circumstances. He had only pursued the career of an “absolutely objective historian” who was filled with a “purely scholarly aspiration.” Another argument made was that the Reichsinstitut had to resist the interference of both party politics and ideology. Thus Kellenbenz was able to continue his career relatively unscathed. In 1947, he was given a teaching position at the Philosophisch-Theologische Hochschule Regensburg and later became an assistant professor in Würzburg, spending time at Harvard University and the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris as a visiting lecturer. In 1957, he became a tenured professor at the Hochschule für Wirtschafts-und Sozialwissenschaften in Nuremberg. He spent the years from 1960 until 1970 as a professor at the University of Cologne before returning to the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg until his retirement.

It is quite evident that the history of National Socialist “Judenforschung” by no means ended in 1945. Kellenbenz’ work, too, cannot be considered without the crimes of National Socialism in mind. In the spring of 1945, at the end of the war, he allegedly spent several days burning the files of the branch devoted to the “Jewish Question” Forschungsabteilung Judenfrage in Munich.

Select Bibliography

Helmut Heiber, Walter Frank und sein Reichsinstitut für Geschichte des neuen Deutschlands (Quellen und Darstellungen zur Zeitgeschichte 13), Stuttgart 1966.
Horst Junginger, Die Verwissenschaftlichung der ‚Judenfrage‘ im Nationalsozialismus, Darmstadt 2011.
Hermann Kellenbenz, Sephardim an der unteren Elbe. Ihre wirtschaftliche und politische Bedeutung vom Ende des 16. bis zum Beginn des 18. Jahrhunderts (Beihefte zur Vierteljahresschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte 40), Wiesbaden 1958.
Dirk Rupnow, Judenforschung im Dritten Reich. Wissenschaft zwischen Politik, Propaganda und Ideologie, Baden-Baden 2011.

Selected English Titles

Alan E. Steinweis, Studying the Jew. Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany, Cambridge, Mass. 2006.

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About the Author

Dirk Rupnow, Univ.-Prof. Mag. Dr., born 1972, is head of the Institute for Contemporary History at the University of Innsbruck. His focus of research is: Austrian, German, and European contemporary history, Holocaust and Jewish studies, intellectual history, history of science, cultural studies, transnational history, migration history and theory and methods of historiography.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Dirk Rupnow, Continuities in a Historiography Overshadowed by Its National Socialist Past? (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 22, 2016. <> [April 17, 2024].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.