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Stunning Bodies: Animal Slaughter, Judaism, and the Meaning of Humanity in Imperial Germany

  • Dorothee Brantz


In 1886, the National Association of Animal Protection Societies petitioned the German Reichstag to protest “the deplorable state of affairs surrounding the method of slaughtering, the role of the butcher, and finally the demoralizing effect that the sight of this albeit necessary killing of livestock must have, particularly on the youth.” Calling for a nationwide law to prohibit the killing of livestock without prior stunning, animal protectionists insisted that only nationwide state intervention could alleviate the widespread problems with slaughter, which, by extension, would guarantee the advancement of humanity. Yet, butchers and Jewish communities vehemently disagreed and in more than two thousand counterpetitions, they appealed to the Reichstag to refrain from proposing such a law. Why did a relatively minor issue like the slaughter of livestock spark so much controversy, and, more importantly, why did it become such a politicized agenda when it was deliberated in the Reichstag in 1887 and again in 1899?



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I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers of Central European History for their kind and helpful remarks. I would also like to thank David Blackbourn, Nicole Butz, Tanya Fernando, Michael Geyer, Sander Gilman. Jan Goldstein, Sean Harris, Richard Levy, Harriet Ritvo, Avi Sharma as well as the members of the Modern European History workshop at the University of Chicago for their comments and suggestions.

1. The German name was Verband der Thierschutzvereine des Deutschen Reiches. The rest of my article will refer to it as the Verband.

2. This petition of the Verband was reprinted in the Erster Bericht der Kommission für die Petitionen” in the Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstages. VII. Legislatur-periode, II. Session 1887/1888. Erster Anlageband, no. 97, 816–26.

3. Such debates certainly also occurred in other countries, most notably in Switzerland. Canton Aargau made stunning obligatory in 1854. Following the protest of Jewish communities, special provisions for Shehitah were made in two communities, Endingen and Lengnau. However, the prohibition of Shehitah remained in effect until 1890 when it was finally declared unconstitutional. See von Hippel, Robert. Die Thierquälerei in der Strafgesetzgebung des In- und Auslandes (Berlin, 1891), 8587. Much more research into the Western context of this debate is necessary. The present article simply hopes to open the discussion in order to encourage further investigations into different national contexts.

4. Interestingly, none of the participants invoked Cartesian arguments to dismiss the relevance of compassion for nonhuman creatures, which is all the more surprising because this line of argument was quite central in the vivisection debates. See, for instance, Rupke, Nicholaas, ed. Vivisection in Historical Perspective (London, 1987), and Turner, James, Reckoning with the Beast: Animals, Pain, and Humanity in the Victorian Mind (Baltimore, 1980). On the significance of Cartesian arguments, see especially Rosenfield, Leonora C., From Beast-Machine to Man-Machine (New York, 1940).

5. On the history of the German butchers' tradition see, for example, Potthoff, Ossip D., Illustrierte Geschichte des deutschen Fleischerhandwerks vom 12. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart (Berlin, 1927).

6. See Böckh, Richard, ed. Statistisches Jahrbuch der Stadt Berlin (Berlin, 1871 and 1900).

7. Many European cities established such public facilities during the nineteenth century, e.g., Paris 1818, Vienna 1851, Brussels 1865, and Berlin 1881. For a historical overview of Prussian slaughterhouses, see Tholl, Stefan, Preussens blutige Mauern: Der Schlachthof als öffentliche Bauaufgabe im 19. Jahrhundert (Walsheim, 1995), and for Berlin, see Schindler-Reinisch, Susanne, ed. Berlin Central-Viehhof: Eine Stadt in der Stadt (Berlin, 1996).

8. The first societies were founded in Stuttgart (1837), Nuremberg and Dresden (1839), Berlin and Munich (1842), Trier (1852), and Cologne (1868). To date, if existent at all, histories of German animal protection societies are mostly published by specific associations themselves and they focus mainly on anecdotal commemorations of their work. For a notable exception, see Zerbel, Miriam, Tierschutz im Kaiserreich: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Vereinswesens (Frankfurt, 1993).

9. Membership rosters attested to the somewhat egalitarian nature of these societies that drew their members from the upper, middle, and lower classes even though their general spirit was certainly bourgeois. Statistics reprinted in Der Deutsche Tierfreund 1 (1900): 53.

10. Blackbourn, David, The Long Nineteenth-Century: A History of Germany, 1780–1918. (New York, 1998), 279.

11. There is an extensive literature on the history of particular associations. For a more general treatment of associations within German history see Nipperdey, Thomas, “Verein als soziale Struktur in Deutschland im späten 18. und frühen 19. Jahrhundert” in his Gesellschaft, Kultur, Theorie. (Göttingen, 1976), 174205; and the edited volume by Dann, Otto, Vereinswesen und bürgerliche Gesellschaft in Deutschland, Historische Zeitschrift, supplement 9 (Munich, 1984).

12. See Löfgren, Orvar, “Our Friends in Nature: Class and Animal SymbolismEthnos 50 (1985): 184213; Ritvo, Harriet, Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge, 1987); and Thomas, Keith, Man and the Natural World: A History of Modern Sensibility (New York, 1983).

13. Mission statement of the Munich society reprinted in Jahresbericht des Münchner Thierschutz Vereins (Munich, 1845), 3.

14. An interesting collection of the philosophical writings on this topic is Kronauer, Walter, ed. Vom Nutzen und Nachteil des Mitleids (Frankfurt, 1990). This collection of excerpts from philosophical writings ranging from Aristotle to Singer depicts two specific lines of argument, one rejecting compassion in favor of reason (e.g., Seneca, Kant, Hegel), the other supporting a more romantic notion of empathy, insisting that compassion was necessary to balance human tendencies of self-centered egotism (e.g., Mandeville, Voltaire, Rousseau, Schopenhauer). The only philosopher to address livestock killing directly was Schopenhauer, who already in the 1850s, had demanded that livestock be chloroformed prior to slaughter. See his “Parerga und Paralipomena” in Sämtliche Werke (Frankfurt, 1986), 5:444.

15. On the history of animal rights see Benton, Ted, Natural Relations: Ecology, Animal Rights, and Social Justice (London, 1993); DeGrazia, David, Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status (Cambridge, 1996); Garner, Robert, ed. Animal Rights and the Changing Debate (New York, 1996); Guither, Harold, Animal Rights: History and Scope of a Radical Movement (Carbondale, 1998); Midgley, Mary, Animals and Why They Matter (Athens, 1983); Regan, Tom, The Case of Animal Rights (Berkeley, 1983); Singer, Peter, Animal Liberation (New York, 1990); and Tester, Keith, Animals and Society: The Humanity of Animal Rights (New York, 1991).

16. Nipperdey, “Verein als soziale Struktur,” 196.

17. Even though many local societies had objected to this national unification fearing that it would eclipse local projects, such an umbrella organization was thought to be necessary in order to coordinate local efforts into a nationwide movement that could actively influence German politics. See Zerbel, , Tierschutz im Kaiserreich, 8394.

18. Bericht über die Vierte Versammlung des Verbandes der Thierschutz-Vereine des Deutschen Reiches (Meissen, 1889), 55.

19. Their Statutes stated in §1 that, “the purpose of the association is to forge a great community and uniformity of our endeavors.” Bericht über die Vierzehnte Versammlung des Verbandes (Cologne, 1914), 224–28.

20. This law, which had local forerunners in Saxony (1838), Prussia (1851), and Bavaria (1861), was introduced in the first nationwide penal code as §360 no. 13 of the Reich penal code. It stated that, “any person who publicly tortures or callously maltreats an animal can be punished by a fine of up to 150 Marks or incarceration.”

21. Bericht über die Neunte Versammlung des Verbandes (Cologne, 1904), 22.

22. Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstages, 815

23. Yet another practice was the Genickstich where the butcher would stab an animal between the second and third cervical vertebrae to sever the spinal cord. Most animal protectionists highly criticized the Genickstich because it merely paralyzed the animal, rendering it motionless but leaving its consciousness completely intact.

24. Oddly, in the 1880s, the destruction of the brain was considered stunning rather than killing. However, by 1900 this understanding had apparently changed because most of these stunning apparatuses had been re-re-labeled as killing instruments.

25. See for instance the E.G. Richtlinie 1993 (RL 93/119/EWG) of December 22nd, 1993 (ABI 93/L 340/21).

26. Chicken, fish, and game were not mentioned in this context.

27. For this purpose, pigs were often stabbed in the eye first.

28. Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstages, 816.

29. As a matter of fact, the Verband might have been more successful if it had addressed the issue more strongly on the municipal level first. Its decision to make nationwide claims at a time when the Reichstag was just beginning to get involved in welfare issues might have contributed to the failure of its campaign. On the shift of welfare policy see Langewiesche, Dieter, “‘Staat’ und ‘Kommune’: Zum Wandel der Staatsaufgaben in Deutschland im Neunzehnten JahrhundertHistorische Zeitschrift 248, no. 3 (1989): 621–36, and more recently Steinmetz, George, Regulating the Social: The Welfare State and Local Politics in Imperial Germany (Princeton, 1993).

30. Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstages, 820.

31. It is impossible to ascertain the actual significance of Shehitah in Jewish daily life because of the lack of exact figures about how many Jews actually adhered to the prescribed dietary laws.

32. On the relationship between Jewish tradition and animal protection, see Schochet, Elijah J., Animal Life in Jewish Tradition: Attitudes and Relationships (New York, 1984).

33. After the animal had expired and its carcass had been flayed, the inner organs especially the lungs and breast cavity were inspected to determine if the animal had been healthy while alive. Only then was the carcass stamped ‘kosher.’ Moreover, Jews usually only ate the front part of the animal. The hind section because of its coarser muscle and vein structure not bleeding as well, was sold off to gentiles.

34. First, the animal had to be put to the ground and positioned so that its throat pointed upward. Usually this was followed by a benediction. A special knife, the halat, which had no point and was at least twice as long as the width of the animal's throat, was used to cut the animal's throat in one swift motion.

35. He had to obtain a special license, known as the kabbalah, certifying that he was versed in the law of Shehitah and the more general dietary laws and that he knew how correctly to perform ritual slaughter. The Shohet was hired and paid by the community to remove any financial incentive and to prevent that unkosher meat would be sold as kosher.

36. Berman, Jeremiah, Shehitah: A Study in the Cultural and Social Life of the Jewish People (New York, 1941), 1.

37. Volkov, Shulamit, “The Verbürgerlichung of the Jews as a Paradigm” in Bourgeois Society in Nineteenth-Century Europe, eds. Kocka, Jürgen and Mitchell, Allan (Oxford, 1993), 367–92.

38. Breuer, Mordechai, Jüdische Orthodoxie im Deutschen Reich, 1871–1918: Sozialgeschichte einer Minderheit (Frankfurt, 1986), 305–7.

39. In addition to Meyer Kayserling, whose writings I will discuss below, see, for example, Landsberg, Wilhelm, Das rituelle Schächten der Israeliten im Lichte der Wahrheit (Kaiserslautern, 1882), and Ehrmann, H., Das Schächten (Frankfurt, 1885).

40. Kayserling, Meyer, Die rituale Schlachtfrage oder ist das Schächten Thierquälerei? (Aarau, 1867).

41. Ibid., 2.

42. Ibid., 92.

43. Representing all of the Jewish petitions, the commission report reprinted one, which, according to them expressed the general tenor of the very similarly phrased petitions. Commission report, 819.

44. The most elaborate collection consisted of 264 reports drawn up by the Kommittee zur Abwehr Antisemitischer Angriffe, published as Gutachten über das jüdisch-rituelle Schlachtverfahren (Berlin, 1894).

45. This is especially peculiar since some of these men like Du Bois and Virchow were avid and outspoken defenders of vivisection. For example, see Virchow, Rudolf, “Über den Werth des Pathologischen Experiments” in Transactions of the International Medical Congress, vol. 1 (London, 1881), 2237.

46. For example, the chief veterinarian of the Berlin slaughterhouse Hertwig estimated that given the fact that for a bull a blood loss of 16 to 20 pounds led to unconsciousness and given that severed jugular veins discharged 15 to 18 pounds of blood in approximately 30 seconds, an animal would be unconscious in less than a minute. Gutachten über das jüdisch-rituelle Schlachtverfahren, 17.

47. Interestingly enough, many physiologists made comparisons to human conditions such as epilepsy and fainting to support this argument. Since in both instances it had been proven that the afflicted persons suffered no pain, physiologists concluded that it was improbable that animals experienced any pain either.

48. In fact, some of the experts argued that animal protectionists themselves had pointed to the deceptive nature of appearance when they had charged that the Genickstich only paralyzed but did not desensitize animals.

49. See, for example, the letters to the Kuratorium of the Berlin slaughterhouse located in the file “Das Schlachtverfahren” LAB/STA 13–02/2 Magistrat Berlin Finanzbüro, no. 1488, vol. 1, 3.

50. Even though most experts agreed that the Jewish method of killing was not cruel, numerous respondents did voice concerns about the preparatory procedures. Some wrote that the felling and positioning of the animal caused suffering, especially if the Shohet was not present at that time. In this area improvements were necessary, and new techniques were needed to ease the preparations.

51. Kayserling, , Die rituale Schlachtfrage, 91.

52. For a compelling comparison between the situation of Jews in Germany and Britain, see Brenner, Michael, Lidtke, Rainer, and Rechter, David, eds. Two Nations: British and German Jews in Comparative Perspective (London, 1999).

53. Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstages, 819.

54. The 1886 Verband petition, which had been discussed in a commission, never reached the floor of the Reichstag due to the storm of responses from butchers and Jewish communities and due to the end of the legislative period.

55. More specifically there were 44 public abattoirs in Prussia, 36 in Bavaria, 3 in Saxony, and 5 in Baden.

56. However, such regulations were not very specific. For instance the Berlin slaughterhouse rules, which were probably among the most extensive in the Reich, simply stated in §15 that, “The killing of animals must be carried out in a professional manner, quickly, and without the infliction of unnecessary cruelty.” Ordnung für den Schlachthof auf dem Central-Viehhofe betreffend, vom 23. Februar, 1881, printed in Polizeiverordnungen und Anordnungen des Magistrats für den städtischen Central-Viehhof (Berlin, 1881), 67.

57. Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstages, 821.

58. Ibid.

59. Ibid., 823.

60. Ibid., 824.

61. The deliberations are printed in Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstages, VII. Legislaturperiode, 1. Session 1887 (Berlin, 1887), 631–39.

62. This became especially apparent since none of the speakers took up the interests of the butchers corporation, whose petition and concerns were basically ignored.

63. There has been much debate about the role of antisemitism in Center Party politics. See for instance, Blackbourn, David, “Catholics, the Center Party and Anti-Semitism” in his Populists and Patricians: Essays in Modern German History (London, 1987); Blaschke, Olaf, Katholizismus und Antisemitismus im Deutschen Kaiserreich (Göttingen, 1997); Mazura, Uwe, Zentrumspartei und Judenfrage 1870/71–1933: Verfassungsstaat und Minderheitenschutz (Mainz, 1994); as well as the special symposium Christian Religion and Anti-Semitism in Modern German HistoryCentral European History 27, no. 3 (1994): 261355.

64. Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstages, 633.

65. He proposed that the paragraph “the greatest possible protection of religious customs” be included again. In the vote, the majority of his fellow Reichstag members agreed.

66. Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstages. 633.

67. Ibid., 635.

68. Ibid., 636.

69. Protokolle über die Verhandlungen des Bundesraths des Deutschen Reichs, Jahrgang 1887, Berlin, 1988, 333.

70. The ordinance ruled that, “§1 All cattle must be securely tied before a hammer blow is administered. §2 Animals can only be put to the ground once the butcher is actually present. §3 Calves and sheep may not be hung up before being killed. §4 Pigs can only be killed after a prior blow to the head. §5 All killing has to occur immediately after all preparations are completed. §6 Any procedures contrary to this ordinance are punishable by a fine of 30M.” This ordinance regulated numerous aspects of slaughter, some like §2 specifically addressing Shehitah. It also enforced that all pigs had to be stunned, but the ordinance carefully refrained from expanding this demand to all types of livestock. Since Jewish dietary laws prohibited the consumption of pork, this did not affect Jewish religious practice. See “Gutachten,” LAB/STA 13–02/2 Magistrat Berlin Finanzbüro, no. 1488, vol. 1, “Das Schlachtverfahren,” 40.

71. It pronounced that, “to prevent unnecessary cruelty in the Jewish method of slaughter, the following rules have been laid down: §1 The throwing down of large animals should be done through winches or comparable apparatuses. §2 During this procedure, the head of the animal must be protected and held so that their hitting the ground and the breaking of horns etc. is prevented. §3 The Shohet must already be present when the animal is put down, and killing must follow immediately thereafter. §4 The head of the animal must be tightly secured. §5 Only practiced Shohets are allowed to perform this act.” Berlin, 14 January 1889, LAB/STA 13–02/2 Magistrat Berlin Finanzbüro, no. 1488, vol. 1, “Das Schlachtverfahren,” 52.

72. The ruling in Saxony was an exceptional case. It was cited extensively in the reform literature for several decades. The law itself remained in effect until December 1910. Ibid., 52.

73. The most widely acclaimed work on this subject during the 1890s was I. A. Dembo's extensive study of numerous methods of slaughter. Dembo had traveled across Europe to interview different experts, and he had conducted his own research in the St. Petersburg abattoir. His ninety-four page research report offered the most detailed descriptions and tables depicting the specifics of each method to date. Shehitah was not any more cruel than other existing methods. His conclusions were widely publicized, and Dembo himself was invited by many organizations and agencies, including societies for public health and academic institutions, to report on his findings. Dembo, Isaak Aleksandrovich, Das Schächten im Vergleich mit anderen Schlachtmethoden, vom Standpunkte der Humanität und Hygiene (Leipzig, 1894). See also, Weichmann, Friedrich, Das Schächten (Leipzig, 1899).

74. For more descriptions and illustrations of these tools, see Schwarz, Oskar. Bau und Einrichtung öffentlicher Vieh- und Schlachthöfe (Berlin, 1903), and also the essay by the slaughterhouse director of Stolp in Prussia, DrSchwartz, , “Tierschutz und öffentliche Schlacht- und ViehhöfeDer Deutsche Tierfreund 3 (05, 1899): 137–42.

75. Especially in the first decade of the twentieth century, a number of collections about the pros and cons of diverse methods of slaughter appeared so that soon testimony stood against testimony. The most influential among them were the 1902 collections of 578 testimonies by the Heidelberger animal protection society published by Mittermaier, R., Das Schlachten geschildert und erläutert auf Grund zahlreicher neuerer Gutachten (Heidelberg, 1902); Drvon Schwartz, , Das betäubungslose Schächten der Israeliten (Constance, 1905); and DrTereg, , Gutachten betreffend das jüdisch-rituelle Schlachtverfahren, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1911).

76. On the division and ultimate failure of antisemitic parties, see Levy, Richard. The Downfall of the Anti-Semitic Political Parties in Imperial Germany (New Haven, 1975).

77. Printed in Stenographischer Bericht, vol. 167, 1893/94, Document no. 81, 523.

78. For instance, directly preceding the anti-Shehitah law was a proposal to prohibit the immigration of Jews to Germany and to expel any who were not already German citizens, see ibid., no. 80.

79. The deliberations are printed in Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstages, X. Legislaturperiode, 1. Session 1898/1900, vol. 118 (Berlin, 1900), 1911–36 and 2105–23.

80. To underscore this point, Vielhaben had put some of these apparatuses on display in front of the podium.

81. These debates offer a rare glimpse into how antisemitic rhetoric increasingly linked the project of science to Jewish interests.

82. Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstages. 2108B.

83. Supporting Lieber's exposition, the National Liberal Ernst Kruse stated that unless livestock was chloroformed or cocained, it was to be expected that they would experience pain during the moment of slaughter (2115A).

84. Kayserling had made a similar argument about the use of the guillotine in 1867.

85. Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstages. 2114A.

86. Indeed, Liebknecht had been the first explicitly to mention the term antisemitism in the debates (1925D).

87. Both of their testimonies were mentioned over and over even though their reports were actually the shortest and least revealing.

88. Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstages. 2106A.

89. Ibid., 1921C.

90. One of them wrote, there is a stream of writing for and against the method of Shehitah and one seems to be so caught up in this endless dispute that the rest of the slaughter question is practically forgotten.” Anwalt der Tiere 3 (11, 1908): 167.

91. By 1910, he had published thirty such pamphlets, a copy of which he always mailed to the Ministry of Interior.

92. This was a clear departure from the Verband mission statement that anyone independent of class, gender, or religious affiliation could join the association as long as they were devoted to the cause of animal protection. In fact, the Verband distanced itself from this increasingly militant anti-semitic suborganization as it had done with the radical antivivisection movement. See Maehle, Andreas-Holger, “Anti-Vivisection in Nineteenth-Century Germany and Switzerland: Motives and Methods” in Rupke, Vivisection in Historical Perspective, 173.

93. When the Reichstag considered changes to the Reich penal code, cruelty against animals, alongside the mistreatment of children, was one of the crucial issues, and again Shehitah was the key point of contention.

94. The law also regulated which tools were to be used for this purpose. It explicitly endorsed the use of the Schussmaske, Bolzenschussapparat, and Schlagbolzenmaske, as well as electricity. The hammer, due to its limited reliability with large cattle, was only to be used for smaller animals. See “Gesetz über das Schlachten von Tieren vom 21. April 1933” reprinted in Cl. Griese, . Das deutsche Tierschutzrecht (Berlin, 1949), 156–61.

95. See Berman, , Shehitah, 234–50.

96. In his study of the everyday phenomenology of death, Meinhard Adler maintains that animal slaughter is one of the most telling examples to talk about violent killing. Butchering serves as his model to describe the modern strategies of objectifying and avoiding death. See his “Tod als Notwendigkeit, Töten als Alltäglichkeit” in Tod und Sterben, eds. Winau, Rolf and Rosemeier, Hans Peter (Berlin, 1984), 274. See also, Massehi, Armin and Weber, Georg. Tod, Modernität und Gesellschaft: Entwurf einer Theorie der Todesverdrängung (Opladen, 1989).

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Stunning Bodies: Animal Slaughter, Judaism, and the Meaning of Humanity in Imperial Germany

  • Dorothee Brantz


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