Germany – first two Reichs

Does German unity always lead to the destruction of the world? In support of this contention, one could cite the well-known Gemara (Megilla 6b) that states the following:

“R. Yitzchok said, Why is it written, Grant not, G-d, the desires ofthe wicked one; do not remove his nose ring, for them to be exalted, Selah (Tehillim 140:9)? Ya’akov said before The Holy One, Master of the World! Do not give Eisav the desires of his heart; do not remove his nose ring.’ This refers to Germamia of Edom, because if they were to go out they would destroy the world!”


Significantly, the Gra (Vilna Gaon) and Rav Yaakov Emden alter the word Germamia to Germania, suggesting that this Gemara is speaking not of some unidentifiable nation, as Rashi suggests, but of the very well-known nation of Germany. There is also a tradition from the Gra that Germany is Amalek, which is perhaps the reason Rav Chaim Zonnenfeld refused to meet with Kaiser Wilhelm II during his visit to Eretz Yisroel in 5648/1898.

This led someone to ask Rav Shmuel Wosner of Bnei Brak (Shevet HaLevi 5:149) whether, according to this tradition, there might be a problem in accepting converts from Germany. Rav Wosner replied that there was not.

“Regarding your question concerning the tradition of the Gra that the Germans are from the root of Amalek. Even though their evil deeds indicate that they are certainly close to them, to rule so in our time is difficult because in a similar case regarding converts of Amon and Moav, we rule (Yadayim 3, Berachos 28), that Sancheriv already arose and mixed up the whole world, and we permit them to marry Jews. Therefore, I see no problem in accepting Germans as converts if they come with sincerity and truth to shelter under the wings of the D-vine presence.

“This is because there is a double safek in halacha to be lenient. First, the simple reading of the Rambam is that one does accept them, and there is also a doubt whether this tradition is correct regarding whether this person coming before us is included in Amalek. True, if a question arose regarding an actual Amaleki we would make another analysis, taking into account the Mechilta [which is more stringent] at least lechatchilla. But in the case you wrote I see no problem at all.”

In other words, halachically speaking Rav Wosner does not regard the tradition as absolutely reliable.

How did Hashem answer Yaakov’s plea and prevent Germania from going out and destroying the world? By keeping them constantly at war.

“Rav Chama bar Chanena said, ‘There are three hundred crowned heads in Germania of Edom, and there are three hundred and sixty-five dukes in Bavel. Every day, these ones go out against these ones, and they kill one of them, and [thus] they are too busy to set up a king’” (Megillah 6a).

It is often pointed out that Germany’s First Reich bore similarities to the Gemara’s depiction of Germania.

The First Reich was the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Nation, the western remnant of the huge empire of Imperial Rome. This empire lasted almost a thousand years, from the coronation of Emperor Otto I in 4722/962 until the abdication of Francis II in 5566/1806 in the Napoleonic Wars. At its peak, the empire included Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and most of Italy, providing Hitler with a pretext to try and incorporate these territories into his Third Reich.

In accordance with the Gemara’s depiction, the Holy Roman Empire was a Flickenteppich (patchwork carpet) of principalities, duchies, counties, free imperial cities, and other domains, many of them comprising only a few square mile, whose number rose to about 300 by the seventeenth century. In certain details, however, it is difficult to reconcile this empire with the Gemara, since unlike the Gemara’s description, this empire had a king, albeit with incomplete central authority, and it did not engage in constant warfare with Bavel or any other major nation.

The main source of conflict in the First Reich was the leadership of its sub-states, which resented the emperor’s power and gained more and more autonomy as the centuries rolled on, leading to French philosopher Voltaire’s famous quip, “This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” Nonetheless, even after the Thirty Years War (5376- 5408/1616-48), which devastated the Empire, the empire was still powerful enough to contribute half the army that defeated the Turks at the Battle of Vienna in 5443/1683 and saved Europe from becoming part of the Muslim world.


After Germany’s dissolution in 5566/1806, the millions of people in its territories still shared a common language, culture and history. The first step in founding a new Reich was the founding of the Zollverein in 5578/1818, a coalition of German states to correlate their economic policies. In addition, Burschenschafts (German student organizations) arose clamoring for a united Germany, and a growing network of railways enforced Germans’ feeling that they were one people. All that was needed was a powerful person to recreate Germany’s political link.

This persona was the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck who was a militant character, declaring in 5642/1862 that, “The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined by its liberalism but by its power … Prussia must concentrate its strength and hold it for the favorable moment, which has already come and gone several times. Since the treaties of Vienna, our frontiers have been ill- designed for a healthy body politic. Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided…but by iron and blood.” This militant slogan led to his nickname, the Iron Councilor.

The largest of Germany’s autonomous entities were Prussia and Austria who were often at odds with each other over territory and influence, each one jockeying for the greatest control. Therefore, one of Bismarck’s first actions was to crush Austrian influence by defeating it in a war over a small piece of territory. At this point, Bismarck displayed brilliant statesmanship by fighting the king and his advisors who were intoxicated by the brilliant victory over Austria and wanted to press on with the war. He relates in his memoirs how this would have been a crucial mistake.

“We had to avoid wounding Austria too severely,” he writes. “We had to avoid leaving behind in her any unnecessary bitterness of feeling or desire for revenge; we ought rather to reserve the possibility of becoming friends again with our adversary of the moment, and in any case to regard the Austrian state as a piece on the European chessboard and the renewal of friendly relations as a move open to us. If Austria were severely injured, she would become the ally of France and of every other opponent of ours; she
would even sacrifice her anti-Russian interests for the sake of revenge on Prussia.”

Now another challenge remained, since Bismarck knew France would never allow Germany to unite and disturb the delicate balance of European power.

“I never doubted victory over France must precede the restoration of the German kingdom,” he writes in his memoirs. “If we did not succeed in bringing it this time to a perfect conclusion, further wars without the preliminary security of our perfect unification were full in view…I did not doubt that a Franco-German war must take place before the construction of a United Germany could be realized.”

To achieve this goal, Bismarck provoked the “Gallic bull” into war by manipulating the words of a key telegraph message, and unified the German states behind him in a war that included the siege and capture of Paris. This saw the first use of anti-aircraft artillery when the Germans constructed a special cannon to shoot down hot air balloons the French were using to carry messages in and out the besieged city.


On January 18, 5631/1871, Bismarck’s dreams reached their culmination when the princes of many German states gathered in Versaille Palace’s Hall of Mirrors and proclaimed Wilhelm of Prussia as Emperor Wilhelm I of the German Empire. Bismarck and the emperor encouraged calling it the Second Reich, conscious that it was the Holy Roman Empire’s new resurrection.

Bismarck’s dream was now complete. “I am bored, ” he complained. “The great things are done. The German Reich is made.”

In an act of great irony, the Germans now sowed the seeds of their later defeat in World War I by annexing the French province of Alsace and much of Lorraine to Germany. As the Germans fired their cannon in celebration, Frenchmen seethed and vowed to one day take revenge. The words of French patriot Leon Gambetta rang forever in their ears, “Think of it always, speak of it never,” and Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, was often draped with black crepe and mourning garlands for decades afterwards.

Bismarck, who had been so careful to not antagonize Austria after defeating it in war, opposed the annexation, complaining that the hostile territory would be Germany’s Achilles heel and warning that “a generation that has taken a beating is always followed by a generation that deals one. ” But Emperor Wilhelm ignored Bismarck’s warning, and Germany was doomed to spend the next seventy years contending with an unforgiving, powerful neighbor with a long memory.

All this lay in the future and in the meanwhile, Yaakov’s worst fear had come true. Germany was united. Eisav had gained the desires of his heart, his nose ring was removed, and Germania was ready to go out and destroy the world.

(Many thanks to Yated reader Stanley Hartstein who contributed key ideas towards this article.)

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