Judaism and the Reshaping of Medieval Historiography

Julie Mell on Cordelia Hess

Absent Jews is a rare book. It delves into modern history in order to reconsider medieval history. A single place – Prussia-Lithuania – unites the two. And a single concept is under investigation: that of Prussia as a bulwark protecting Deutschtum (German-ness) against Slavic and Jewish influences.

The historical claims for the purity of medieval Prussia aided the Nazi occupation, genocide, and ethnic cleansing in Polish and Baltic areas. The control of memory and its destruction, as well as conscious political framing, shaped an entire research tradition around the issue of Jewish absence in Prussia-Lithuania. Anyone ruminating on whether the founding of the US should be dated to 1619 or 1620 will find here a fascinating case-study, which illuminates the complex relationship between political persuasion, factual accuracy, and moral standing in the creative endeavor of History.

Cordelia Hess turns the presumed absence of Jews into a tool for cracking open the bulwark of historical assumptions about Prussia. She breaks apart the idea of medieval Prussian “purity” by recontextualizing it in modern genocide and the military occupation in Nazi-occupied Poland, and the institutional and intellectual frameworks of Ostforschung that supported them. (Ostforschung refers to East European Studies by German scholars from the perspective of German superiority and hegemony.)

Hess skillfully gets at these issues through the professional and intellectual biography of Kurt Forstreuter. He was a Prussian archivist and minor historian who played a central role in the Nazis’ seizure of Polish and Jewish archives in Poland, and their destruction or reorganization.

He wrote the formative historical account asserting the absence of Jews in medieval Prussia in an article published in 1937 and revised in 1981. His conclusions continue to shape our historical understanding, as do the archives and source collections he helped create.  Yet, the key piece of evidence supporting his vision of Prussian purity turns out to have been bogus – there was no ban on Jewish settlement issued by the Teutonic Knights ruling medieval Prussia. In fact, the Teutonic Knights showed little interest in Jews or Judaism.

Hess raises serious questions about Forstreuter’s claims to be a dispassionate historian sine ira et studio (“objectively or impartially”), as Tacitus claimed in the introduction to The Annals.  (And this ought to make us all aware of the political nature of claims of historical objectivity.) Forstreuter was committed to the ideology of Ostforschung and his professional work as a Prussian state archivist was guided by these principles as he travelled throughout occupied Polish and Baltic lands overseeing the seizure of archives. He was sent days after the expulsion of Poles and pogroms against Jews to “secure” the archives of the victims. On his “business trips to the East”– Poznan, Płock, Masovia, Suwałki, Warsaw, Lithuania and Bialystok – he assessed Polish and Jewish archives, assisted in the looting of precious cultural goods and oversaw the packing up what was “of value to Prussian history.” Documents deemed unimportant by him and other state archivists were destroyed.

This archival work coincided with and aided the disappearance of Polish Jewish communities and Polish political groups, principally by creating deportation lists. Forstreuter directly supported the first stage of genocide – the identification of Jews. And his decisions on what documents to preserve and which to destroy have materially shaped the historical record. While there are many critical studies of Ostforschung and its contribution to Nazi ideology, they have been written by modern historians who are unable to critique the impact of this ideology on medieval research. Conversely, few medievalists are ‘ready and willing’ to critically rethink reigning assumptions in the field of medieval studies by grappling with the modern historical context which shaped them. Hess does both and thereby makes a major contribution.

Ostforschung rested on several key ideological concepts:  the rapid Germanization of the Old Prussians, the cultural (and racial) superiority of Germanic peoples to Slavs, and, particularly, Prussia as a medieval and modern bulwark against the threat of Ostjudentum (East European Jewry) and Slavic cultures to Germanity (Deutschtum). In nationalist discourse of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Teutonic Knights’ control of Prussia, the eastern Baltic lands, and eastern Pomerania were seen as legitimating contemporary German settlement in the east. The Order established a strong feudal state in Prussia by the end of the fourteenth century, after the Polish duke, Conrad of Mazovia, had invited them to the region to fight pagan Prussians. Over the fourteenth century, the Order continued to expand, conquering much of Lithuania under the pretext of Christianizing the population. The Order ceded much land and became a vassal to the Polish king, following their defeat by Poland and Lithuania at Grunwald in 1410 and in the Thirteen Years War in 1466. Their rule over Prussia ended in 1525 and over Livonia in 1558. Today, the Teutonic Knights’ extermination of pagan Prussians and settling of German peasants in depopulated areas eerily prefigures twentieth-century genocides, ethnic cleansings, and population transfers.

Just as skewed historical claims on the ‘whiteness’ of medieval Europe are used today by white supremacists for contemporary political ends, skewed historical claims about the ‘Germanness’ of East European regions in the distant past were used to bolster German claims to territory. The fifteenth-century military conflicts between Teutonic Knights and Poland-Lithuania therefore appeared as the natural precursor to modern nationalist territorial disputes and fed the research program of Ostforschung and the Nazi ideology of Lebensraum. Because Ostforschung continues to provide the structural framework for study of the medieval period, claims like Forstreuter’s – that Prussia under the Teutonic Order was a “bulwark” preventing the influence of “Ostjudentum” – has not been seen for what it is:  a hodge-podge of medieval and modern facts, German pride, and anti-Slavic prejudice.

Cordelia Hess. Absent Jews: Kurt Forstreuter and the Historiography of Medieval Prussia (New York & Oxford, 2017) pp.334 $145 (hardback)

Absent Jews is divided into two parts. In the first half, Hess reconstructs Kurt Forstreuter’s intellectual and professional biography during the interwar and war years. She teases out the complex, contradictory evidence on Forstreuter’s position vis-a-vis the Nazi party with sensitivity and nuance: Forstreuter was a little man, interested in his archival career and Prussian Landesgeschichte. He was not an ideologue or a rabid antisemite. But he did not protest the horrific killings that he witnessed, nor the pillaging of Polish and Jewish archives. Forstreuter’s travels between 1939 and 1942 overlapped with deportations, establishment of ghettos, and mass killings. In Poznań, his Polish landlady was abducted and deported while he was living in her apartment. Over the course of six visits to Warsaw during the war, he witnessed Jews marked with yellow stars before the ghetto was established; later he arrived on a train that passed through the ghetto; and he visited again after the ghetto had been destroyed and the city was in chaos. He reports at the time living “in constant fear” under the mistaken impression that many Jews had escaped. He arrived in Kaunas and Vilnius, Lithuanian, a month after the occupation began on June 24. Some of the more gruesome scenes his path crossed include Kaunas’ Fort VII, used as a Jewish concentration camp where its 1500 prisoners were routinely tortured and daily executed. Corpses were still lying about in the summer heat while Forstreuter was working there in late July. Mass killings in the town were being carried out during this time by Einsatzgruppen. In Vilnius, the Einsatzkommando 9 and Lithuanian volunteers shot about 500 people a day throughout July. Shootings were still ongoing during Forstreuter’s stay, although the EK 9 had left for Minsk two days before he arrived.

In the second half of the book, Hess re-examines and negates traditional claims about the “ethnic purity” of medieval Prussia:  the medieval ban on Jewish settlement and its role as a bulwark against Slavic incursion in the west.  Hess shows that there was no land ordinance forbidding Jewish settlement or expelling Jews – only a conflation of later early modern misinformation. The Teutonic Order in fact had limited interest in Jews or Judaism. The conversion of pagans was the initial goal for the Teutonic Knights and remained their primary focus. Accepted wisdom has held that there were no stable Jewish communities before the seventeenth century. Yet hints of earlier settlements are uncovered by Hess and more may come to light. Just as important, Hess gently probes our assumption that medieval Jewish communities were necessarily large, settled and stable, rather than itinerant, fluctuating, and small.  But Hess’ critique of the assumption of “Jewish absence” does more:  it dissolves the modern ethnic categories of Slav, German, and Jew with their affinities for foreigner versus native, introducing a much more complex and complicated medieval past.

The central arguments of Absent Jews are subtle. It would be a mistake to assume that the book aims to establish the fact of a Jewish presence in medieval Prussia. Similarly, it would be a mistake to read it as an exposé of Kurt Forstreuter as a vicious antisemite.  There is not much solid evidence for either. Rather, Absent Jews is after something larger:  to critically reshape the medieval historiography of Prussia, Poland, and the Baltic region. The book takes apart piece by piece the concept of “Prussia as a bulwark” against the East in the medieval period. It illuminates the abiding influence of Ostforschung, long after the dismantling of the Third Reich, in the creation (and destruction) of medieval archives, source collections, and scholarship. And, it uncovers the antisemitic assumptions still shaping the medieval history of this region today.  Truly, as Hess says, “in this field we are not ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. We are standing on the shoulders of German supremacists.” If one leaves Absent Jews with one insight, it should be this.

Absent Jews is a brilliant and important book. It changes the historical framework with which German historians approach Prussian-Lithuanian history. It challenges the assumptions with which Jewish historians of pre-modern Europe work. And it illuminates the intricate and subtle ties between history, politics, and morality.


Julie Mell is an Associate Professor for Medieval History and Jewish History at NC State University. Among her publications are “Jews and Money: The Medieval Origins of a Modern Stereotype” in the Cambridge Companion to Antisemitism, ed. by Steven Katz (Cambridge, 2022), The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, (Palgrave, 2018, 2019) and Jewish Émigrés and the Shaping of Postwar Culture, edited with Malachi Hacohen (MDPI, 2014). She has been a Visiting Fellow of Yad Hanadiv in Israel, a Visiting Scholar at the Centre of Hebrew and Jewish Studies in Oxford, and a Fellow at the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University.