Hate Over the Very Long Term: An Unexpected Link Between Medieval Anti-Semitism and the Nazis
Nico Voigtländer is Assistant Professor, UCLA-Anderson, and a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Hans-Joachim Voth is ICREA Research Professor of Economics, UPF and CREI, Barcelona and a CEPR Research Fellow.
When the Black Death struck in Europe in 1348-50, between thirty and seventy percent of the population died. There were no precedents within living memory. Jews were accused of poisoning wells across the continent, often confessing after being tortured. A wave of pogroms occurred throughout Northern Europe. Switzerland, northern France, Germany, and the Low Countries saw attacks. In Strasbourg, the local city council opposed persecuting the Jews, but, under massive pressure by the guilds and the populace at large, it was subsequently deposed. The first act of the new council was to burn the Jews of Strasbourg. Thousands were put to death on St. Valentine’s Day, 1349.
And yet, not all towns with Jewish communities saw pogroms. Attacks occurred in 73 percent of all the towns we track in our study (“Persecution Perpetuated”). Some princes and city authorities succeeded in saving “their” Jews; elsewhere, local feelings ran particularly high, and the Jews were brutally murdered.
Anti-Semitism in Interwar Germany
Jews largely disappeared from Germany after the end of the Middle Ages. They did not return in large numbers before the eighteenth century. Anti-Semitic agitation increased in strength in late Imperial Germany. Between 1900 and World War I, however, anti-Semitism declined in Germany and its electoral support largely disappeared.
During the Weimar Republic, anti-Semitism grew in strength. Several Jews like Rosa Luxembourg were involved in leading roles in the German revolution of 1918 which brought World War I to an end, and many Germans blamed the lost war on Jews in general. There were hate speeches, desecrations of graveyards, and violent attacks on Jews. In some resorts, as early as the 1920s, Jews were declared “unwelcome.”
In our research, we examined data on 1920s pogroms from an encyclopedia on Jewish life in Germany, and check if they are correlated with medieval attacks. Table 1 shows how the frequencies stack up, depending on whether a locality had witnessed attacks in the fourteenth century, and restricting the sample to towns with documented medieval Jewish settlements:
Table 1: Pogroms in 1349 and the 1920s
Pogrom in 1349
Pogroms in 1920s
Of the nineteen pogroms recorded, fully eighteen took place in towns and cities with a record of medieval violence against Jews. The chances of attacks on Jews went up from 1/79 (1.3 percent) in locations without attacks in the fourteenth century to 18/215 (8.4 percent), an increase by a factor of six. Votes for the Nazi Party point in the same direction. In its early years, it emphasized its anti-Semitic side. In 1928, for example, when the NSDAP did not garner many votes overall—only some 3.3 percent—we find that in places with a history of Jew-burning, the Nazi Party received 1.5 times as many votes as in places without it.
Letters to Der Stürmer, a famously anti-Semitic Nazi paper, tell a similar story. Many of these urge more drastic action against Jews, denounce neighbors still having contact with Jews, etc. We hand-collected the location of each writer of a letter to the editors published in 1935-37, and after adjusting for differences in city population there is a clear, strong association with fourteenth-century attacks on Jews.
The deportation of Jews after 1938 also partly reflects the energy of local party officials of finding those in hiding, and the strictness with which racial criteria were applied, appeals for exceptions turned down, etc. There is a clear increase in the frequency of deportations where there was a history of medieval violence. Finally, we also find that towns and cities where Jews were murdered in 1348-50 saw more attacks on synagogues in 1938, during the so-called Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht in German). In combination, there is a consistent pattern of association across all five indicators of anti-Semitism between attitudes and actions in the 1920s and 1930s on the one hand, and medieval pogroms on the other.
Understanding the Persistence of Hatred
How does racial hatred persist over centuries? The question is all the more puzzling since Jews largely vanished from Germany after the fifteenth century, and only returned in large numbers in the nineteenth.
Three factors help to rationalize the link between the centuries. First, the typical locality which we included in our study was quite small. The median town had around 18,000 inhabitants in the 1920s, and no more than a few thousand in the Middle Ages. Migration was limited, and marriage occurred largely within the same location. Accordingly, we found that the persistence of anti-Jewish sentiment was substantially weaker in cities with large population inflows. Second, Jew-hatred may have formed part of a broader pattern of beliefs about the role of outsiders vs. insiders. Where local populations generally educated their children to mistrust foreigners (to think of mishaps as caused by outsiders, etc.), the inclination to blame the Jews in times of misfortune may have persisted for quite a long time. Where interaction with foreigners was frequent, anti-Semitic sentiment did not persist. We documented this pattern in the Hanseatic cities that engaged in long-distance trade. In these cities, medieval pogroms do not predict twentieth-century anti-Semitism. Third, Christians had to have some view on Jews, whether physically present or not. The question over the responsibility for the death of Jesus was, at one point, central to Christian beliefs, and many passion plays, like the famed one in Oberammergau in Bavaria, perpetuated the belief that the Jews were to blame for the death of the Christian savior.
We are not the first to argue for the long-term persistence of discriminatory culture. Raquel Fernandez and Alessandra Fogli demonstrated that the fertility of the children of immigrants to America today is influenced by the home countries whence their parents came; Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon found that areas in Africa affected by the slave trade in the nineteenth century still show lower levels of trust; and Saumitra Jha demonstrated that Indians living in places with a history of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Hindus had lower levels of inter-ethnic violence in the recent past. In this context, our findings are striking because they concern anti-Semitism, a trait without any direct economic benefit (and probably with harmful economic consequences over the long run), and because we document persistence over a much longer time horizon than earlier studies.
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