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The geography of hate: How anti-Semitism in interwar Germany was influenced by the medieval mass murder of Jews

Is violence a cultural trait passed from one generation to the next? This column examines an extreme case – anti-Semitism in Germany. It shows that towns that murdered their Jews during the Black Death (1348-1350) were also much more likely to commit violence or engage in anti-Semitic acts in interwar Germany, nearly 600 years later. This suggests racial hatred can persist over centuries.

What causes some people to engage in hate crime, while others remain aloof? Scholars have examined the role of ignorance and political incentives in the formation of groups dominated by hatred (Glaeser 2005). What has remained underexplored is the extent to which cultural transmission predisposes people to act violently, in a fashion similar to that of their ancestors.

We explore this question for the case of German anti-Semitism. Since it led to the single most infamous case of industrialised mass-murder in human history, it is of particular interest. We exploit a natural experiment. Two events created similar conditions, 600 years apart. In the Middle-Ages, the Black Death was blamed on the Jews. This exogenously lowered the threshold for violence, resulting in a wave of systematic mass murder in vast parts of Northern Europe in 1348-1350. Similarly, after the First World War, growing anti-Semitism made the persecution of German Jews more likely. Again, this created persecution on a wide scale – both before and after 1933.

Crucially, while violence and examples of extreme hatred towards Jews were frequent on both occasions, they did not occur in all localities. We document that towns and cities that persecuted their Jews in the Middle-Ages were also much more likely to show signs of anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 1930s.

The burning of Jews during the Middle-Ages

When the Black Death struck in Europe, it caused a demographic catastrophe without precedent. Between 30% and 70% of the population died. No disease within living memory had spread so quickly causing such massive numbers of deaths. As populations searched for an explanation for this sudden epidemic, their attention turned to the Jews. After one tortured Jew “confessed” to poisoning the wells, pogroms occurred in many towns in Northern Europe. Switzerland, Northern France, Germany, and the Low Countries witnessed attacks, often before the Black Death reached them (Cohn 2007). The case of Basel is paradigmatic. On 9 January 1349, approximately 600 Jews were gathered in a wooden house, specially constructed for the purpose, on an island in the river Rhine. There they were burned. Contemporary chronicles recorded the events, and in some of them, elaborate wood-prints depict them in graphic detail (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. The burning of the Jews during the Black Death

Source: Liber Chronicarum, 1493

At the same time, not all towns with Jewish communities attacked them. Out of 293 towns with confirmed Jewish settlements in the 14th century, 214 recorded pogroms (73%), while 79 did not. The exact reasons for the absence of successful attacks on Jews are not known with detail. What is clear, however, is that in some towns the city authorities or the local prince opposed the burning of the Jews. Nonetheless, where local feelings ran particularly high, efforts to save the Jews failed (Foa 2000).

Anti-Semitism in interwar Germany

Long before the rise of the Nazi Party, anti-Semitism had mass support in Germany. Anti-Semitic agitation became stronger in Germany after unification in 1871. A petition in 1881, signed by over 200,000 people, urged the government to restrict the immigration of Jews, and to limit their occupational choices. Also, anti-Semitic parties gained seats in parliament. And yet, after 1900, anti-Semitism declined, and the anti-Semitic parties all but vanished. What created the conditions for its revival was the First World War. The revolution that followed it saw several Jews like Rosa Luxembourg take leading roles; the armistice that ended it – with large territorial losses and a heavy financial burden on Germany – was signed by Matthias Erzberger, a pacifist Jew. Many Germans blamed the lost war on Jews in general.

During the tumultuous early years of the Weimar Republic, several anti-Semitic parties were founded; some achieved a certain degree of electoral success. There was also a wave of hate speeches, desecrations of graveyards, and violent attacks on Jews. In some resorts, as early as the 1920s, Jews were declared “unwelcome”. We have collected data on 1920s pogroms from an encyclopedia on Jewish life in Germany (Alicke 2008), and use this as our first indicator for the strength of anti-Semitic sentiment (Voigtländer and Voth 2011). Table 1 shows how their frequency stacks up, depending on whether a locality had witnessed attacks in the 14th century.

Table 1. Pogroms in 1349 and the 1920s

Pogrom in 1349
Pogroms in 1920s

Of the 19 pogroms recorded, fully 18 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%) in locations without attacks in the 14th century to 18/214 (8.4%), an increase by a factor of 6.

Other indicators point in the same direction. We use the Nazi Party’s performance at the polls in 1928 as an alternative indicator. This is the last election before it became a mass-movement attracting many protest voters – anti-Semitism was a relatively more important factor behind its appeal in 1928 than in later years (Heilbronner 2004). While the overall share of the vote was not high (3.3%), 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 (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Votes for the Nazi Party, 1928

Letters to Der Stürmer, a famously anti-Semitic Nazi paper, tell a similar story. Many of these urge more drastic action against Jews, denounce neighbours still having contact with Jews, etc. We hand-collected the location of each writer of a letter to the editors published in 1935-1937. After adjusting for differences in city population, there is a clear, strong association with 14th century attacks on Jews.

Similar effects exist for the number of Jews deported after 1939, which in our view reflects at least in part the energy of local party officials in finding those in hiding, and the strictness with which racial criteria were applied, appeals for exceptions turned down, etc (Figure 3). 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. 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.

Figure 3. Frequency of deportations of Jews (controlling for initial Jewish population), in locations with and without 14th century pogroms

Understanding the link

How can racial hatred persist over centuries? The question is all the more puzzling since Jews largely vanished from Germany after the 15th century, and only returned in large numbers in the 19th. If parental investment in the attitudes of children is costly, perpetuating racial hatred after the “enemy” has disappeared is non-sense.

To explain the link we find we emphasise three factors.

  • First, Jew-hatred may have formed part of a broader pattern of beliefs about the role of outsiders vs. insiders. Where local populations generally convinced their children to mistrust foreigners, blame mishaps on outsiders, etc., the inclination to blame the Jews in times of misfortune, once they were present again, may have persisted for a long time.
  • Second, the typical locality in our study is 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.
  • Third, Christians had to have some view on Jews, whether physically present or not. The question of who killed Jesus is central to Christian beliefs, and many passion plays, such as the famous Oberammergau one, perpetuated the belief that the Jews were to blame for the death of the Christian saviour.

Our findings thus reinforce recent research in economics that documents just how persistent culture is. Raquel Fernandez and Alessandra Fogli (2009) show that the fertility of the children of immigrants to America is still influenced by what is happening in their parents’ home countries; Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon (2009) argue that areas in Africa affected by the slave trade in the 19th century still show lower levels of trust; and Saumitra Jha (2008) found that Indian cities with a history of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Hindus have 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 some harmful economic consequences over the long run), and because we document persistence over a much longer time horizon than other studies.


Alicke, Klaus-Dieter (2008), Lexikon der jüdischen Gemeinden im deutschen Sprachraum: Bd.1: Aachen - Groß-Bieberau, Bd.2: Großbock - Ochtendung, Bd. 3 Ochtrup - Zwittau. Gütersloher: Gütersloher Verlagshaus.

Cohn, Samuel Kline (2007), “The Black Death and the Burning of Jews”, Past & Present, 196(1):3-36. 

Fernandez, Raquel and Alessandra Fogli (2009), “Culture: An Empirical Investigation of Beliefs, Work and Fertility”, American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics, 1(1):146-177.

Foa, Anna (2000), “The Jews of Europe after the Black Death”, European Review, 9(02):237-238.

Glaeser, Edward (2005), “The Political Economy of Hatred”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 120(1):45-86.

Heilbronner, Oded (2004), “German or Nazi Anti-Semitism?”, in Dan Stone (ed.), The Historiography of the Holocaust, Palgrave Macmillan.

Jha, Saumitra (2008), “Trade, Institutions and Religious Tolerance: Evidence from India”, Stanford University Research Paper No. 2004.

Nunn, Nathan and Leonard Wantchekon (2011), “The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa”, American Economic Review.

Voigtländer, Nico, and Hans-Joachim Voth (2011), “Persecution Perpetuated: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Semitic Violence in Nazi Germany”, CEPR Discussion Paper 8365.

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