Jewish Studies Heinrich Graetz
Amos Bitzan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0047


Heinrich Graetz (also known as Hirsch, Hirsh, or Tsvi; b. 1817–d 1891) was the 19th century’s foremost narrative historian of the Jews. Born in a small town in the Prussian province of Posen (today, Poznań), Graetz rose from obscurity to become a major figure in 19th-century German Jewish scholarship. After studying at a traditional yeshiva in his youth, he came under the influence of Samson Raphael Hirsch (b. 1808–d 1888), the future intellectual spokesman for modern, bourgeois German Jewish Orthodoxy. Having broken with his mentor over ideological differences, Graetz enrolled at the University of Breslau in 1842. He gained public recognition for his critique of Abraham Geiger (b. 1810–d 1874), the philologist and theologian of the incipient movement of Reform Judaism. In 1846, Graetz earned his doctorate after writing a dissertation on “Gnosticism and Judaism,” which he presented to the University of Jena. In the same year, he published an essay presenting his philosophy of Jewish history, “Die Construction der jüdischen Geschichte.” After a long search, Graetz found stable employment when he was appointed to teach history and Bible at the Breslau Jewish Theological Seminary, which opened in 1854. He remained there for the rest of his life. Graetz’s greatest achievement was his eleven-volume Geschichte der Juden (see Historiography). In it Graetz conceived of the history of the Jewish people in many of the terms of nationalist historiography. Ranging across time and space from ancient Israel to 19th-century Germany, Graetz crafted his narratives in an impassioned prose style that competed for the attention of a burgeoning audience of European Jewish leisure readers with its vivid and assertive reconstruction of the past. In addition to the History, Graetz published a large number of philological, exegetical, and critical articles and maintained correspondence with writers from across Europe. Graetz was named Honorary Professor at the University of Breslau in 1869. In the late 1870s, he became the subject of attacks by the historian Heinrich von Treitschke for his allegedly anti-German and anti-Christian writings and Jewish chauvinism. Graetz continued publishing until his final years, working especially hard on books of Bible criticism and exegesis. He died in 1891. The great Jewish historians of the 20th century, in particular Simon Dubnow (b. 1860–d. 1941), Ben-Zion Dinur (b. 1884–d. 1973), and Salo Baron (b. 1895–d. 1989), wrote their histories as corrections of and responses to Graetz’s work.

General Overviews

A required starting point for anyone interested in Graetz is the now classic introduction by Ismar Schorsch to his anthology of Graetz’s writings translated into English (Schorsch 1994). Schorsch’s article was later reprinted in a volume on Wissenschaft des Judentums, where it can be read profitably alongside erudite but focused essays about all the major figures of this intellectual movement. Schorsch masterfully evokes the intellectual, cultural, religious, and psychological contexts that produced Graetz as a new kind of historian of the Jews and a religious thinker. For a more synoptic overview of Graetz’s historiography, see Brenner 2010, which analyzes key themes such as the historian’s relation to Germanness, Christianity, and mysticism; provides some of the reception history of Graetz’s works; and discusses other multivolume histories of the Jews by Graetz’s successors. From Schorsch, scholars may turn to one of two recent monographs about Graetz. Marcus Pyka’s excellent book (in German), based on his doctoral dissertation, is the best available biographical study of Graetz’s life and writings (Pyka 2009). Pyka connects Graetz to larger developments in the history of German Jewry, modernization, scholarship, Prussia, and the German Empire. His work is rigorously documented and assembles an impressive array of primary and secondary sources, leaving no stone unturned and incorporating the work of nearly every scholar who has written about Graetz. The Hebrew reader can consult Reuven Michael’s biography of “the historian of the Jewish people” (Michael 2003), the first full-length biography of Graetz to appear since the early 20th century. Michael, who published Graetz’s diary and parts of his correspondence, surveys all of Graetz’s life and work in one place, giving the reader a synoptic view of everything from Graetz’s historiography to his exegesis. However, Michael does not significantly update the framework of analysis established by the earliest scholarly studies of Graetz’s life. Readers interested in the latter, particularly those who want to understand the reception of Graetz in the decades following his death, should consult the biographical articles by Philipp Bloch (b. 1841–d. 1923) and Marcus Brann (b. 1849–d. 1920), his one-time students at the Jewish Theological Seminary and later colleagues in the pursuit of Wissenschaft des Judentums (Bloch 1898, Bloch 1904, Bloch 1908, Brann 1917).

  • Bloch, Philipp. Heinrich Graetz: A Memoir. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1898.

    Bloch (b. 1841–d. 1923), a student of Graetz and a German Jewish rabbi as well as a prolific scholar in his own right, wrote the first full-length biography of his former teacher. It provides a thorough and highly readable account of Graetz’s life and his most important scholarly works, drawing on parts of the historian’s diaries and his published writings.

  • Bloch, Philipp. “Heinrich Graetz: Ein Lebensbild.” Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 48.1 (1904): 33–42.

    Bloch’s biography of Graetz, which appeared serialized in the most important Judaic studies scholarly journal of the day, was originally published in English translation (Bloch 1898). The text published in German does not diverge substantially from the English. This biography was later included in the first volume of Graetz’s History (Bloch 1908). Subsequent installments of the serialized version appear in Monatsschrift 48.2: 87–97; 48.3: 161–177; 48.4: 224–241; 48.5: 300–315; 48.6: 346–360; 48.8: 491–503. Most easily accessible online.

  • Bloch, Philipp. “Biographie des Dr. H. Graetz”. In Geschichte der Israeliten von ihren Uranfängen (um 1500) bis zum Tode des Königs Salomo (um 977 vorchristlicher Zeit). 2d ed. Edited by Heinrich Graetz, 1:1–72. Leipzig: Oskar Leiner, 1908.

    A reprint of the biography that first appeared in serialized form (Bloch 1904). Included here only for ease of access.

  • Brann, Marcus. “Heinrich Graetz.” Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 61.4 (1917): 321–355.

    Brann (b. 1849–d. 1920), a student of Graetz at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau and a Jewish historian, published this article to mark the centenary of his former teacher’s birth. His sketch includes some valuable notes about Graetz’s diary and usefully supplements the earlier biography by Bloch. Most easily accessible online.

  • Brenner, Michael. “Between Religion and Nation: Graetz and His Construction of Jewish History.” In Prophets of the Past: Interpreters of Jewish History. By Michael Brenner; translated by Steven Rendall, 53–91. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

    Most of the details in Brenner’s account will be familiar to those who have read Graetz or surveyed some of the older secondary literature. However, Brenner efficiently surveys the sprawling Geschichte der Juden and also connects it to later works by lesser-known German Jewish historians, such as Moritz Güdemann and Samuel Bäck. Pages 53–80 deal specifically with Graetz.

  • Michael, Reuven. Hainrikh Grets: Ha-historyon shel ha-am ha-yehudi. Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 2003.

    Michael, who published Graetz’s diary and correspondence (Graetz 1977, cited under Primary Texts), largely stays away from a broader treatment of the subject, using a smaller range of sources to provide a concise overview of the life of “the historian of the Jewish people.” Some of the details may be familiar from Bloch’s biography, but Michael includes a more thorough analysis of Graetz’s biblical exegesis in addition.

  • Pyka, Marcus. Jüdische Identität bei Heinrich Graetz. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009.

    Pyka’s study is the best and most recent monograph about Graetz. It not only exhausts all the sources related to Graetz and his milieu but also treats his subject in a sophisticated analytic framework informed by historiographical and theoretical advances in the histories of nationalism, identity formation, and gender.

  • Schorsch, Ismar. “Ideology and History in the Age of Emancipation.” In From Text to Context: The Turn to History in Modern Judaism. By Ismar Schorsch, 266–302. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England for Brandeis University Press, 1994.

    A classic article that is the best starting point for a scholar new to the subject. Schorsch situates Graetz’s position against those of his colleagues in the Wissenschaft des Judentums. He skillfully evokes the cultural, intellectual, and religious context from which Graetz’s philosophy of history and historiography emerged. Originally published in The Structure of Jewish History and Other Essays (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1975), pp. 1–139.

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