Modern history

THE FIT AND THE UNFIT

I

If there was one achievement through which the Weimar Republic could claim the loyalty and gratitude of the masses, it was the creation of a new welfare state. Of course, Germany did not lack welfare institutions before 1914, particularly since Bismarck had pioneered such things as health insurance, accident insurance and old age pensions in an attempt to wean the working classes away from Social Democracy. Bismarck’s schemes, which were elaborated and extended in the years following his departure from office, were pioneering in their day, and cannot be dismissed simply as fig-leaves for governmental authoritarianism. Some of them, notably the health insurance system, covered millions of workers by 1914 and incorporated a substantial element of self-governance that gave many workers the chance of electoral participation. Yet none of these schemes reached anywhere near the bottom of the social scale, where police-administered poor relief, bringing with it the deprivation of civil rights including the right to vote, was the norm right to the end of the Wilhelmine period. Still, even here, the operation of the system had been reformed and standardized by 1914, and the new profession of social work that had emerged on the back of the Bismarckian reforms was busy assessing and regulating the poor, the unemployed and the destitute as well as the ordinary worker.167

On the basis of this modern version of Prussian bureaucratic paternalism, however, the Weimar Republic erected a far more elaborate and comprehensive structure, combining, not without tension, the twin influences of social Catholicism and Protestant philanthropy on the one hand, and Social Democratic egalitarianism on the other.168 The Weimar constitution itself was full of far-reaching declarations of principle about the importance of family life and the need for the state to support it, the government’s duty to protect young people from harm, the citizen’s right to work, and the nation’s obligation to provide everybody with a decent home.169 On the basis of such principles, a whole raft of legislation was steered through the Reichstag, from laws dealing with youth welfare (1922) and juvenile courts (1923) to regulations providing relief and job training for the war disabled (1920), decrees replacing poor relief with public welfare (1924) and above all, as we have seen, the statutory provision of unemployment benefits in 1927. Existing schemes of health insurance, pensions and the like were further elaborated and extended to all. Massive housing schemes, many of them socially innovative, were initiated, with over 300,000 new or renovated homes being provided between 1927 and 1930 alone. The number of hospital beds increased by 50 per cent from prewar days, and the medical profession also expanded accordingly to keep pace. Infectious diseases declined sharply, and a network of clinics and social welfare institutions now supported socially vulnerable individuals, from single mothers to youths who got into trouble with the police.170

The creation of a free and comprehensive welfare system as the entitlement of all its citizens was one of the major achievements of the Weimar Republic, perhaps in retrospect its most important. But for all its elaboration, it failed in the end to live up to the grandiose promises made in the 1919 constitution; and the gap between promise and delivery ended by having a major effect on the legitimacy of the Republic in the eyes of many of its citizens. First, the economic difficulties that the Republic experienced almost from the outset placed a burden on its welfare system that it was simply unable to sustain. There were very large numbers of people who required support as a result of the war. Some 13 million German men served in the armed forces between 1914 and 1918. Over two million of them were killed. According to one estimate, this was the equivalent of one death for every 35 inhabitants of the Reich. This was nearly twice the proportion of war deaths in the United Kingdom, where one soldier died for every 66 inhabitants, and almost three times that of Russia, where there was one war death for every III inhabitants. By the end of the war, over half a million German women were left as war widows and a million German children were without fathers. About 2.7 million men came back from the war with wounds, amputations and disabilities, to form a permanent source of discontent as the politicians’ promised rewards for their service to the nation failed to materialize to anyone’s satisfaction.

The government increased taxes on the better-off to try and cope, until the real tax burden virtually doubled as a percentage of real national income, from 9 per cent in 1913 to 17 per cent in 1925, according to one admittedly biased estimate.171 Yet this was in no way enough to cover expenditure, and governments dared not go any further for fear of being accused of raising tax revenues to pay reparations and alienating even further those who paid the most taxes. Not only did the economy have to bear the burden of unemployment insurance after 1927, it was in 1926 still paying pensions to nearly 800,000 disabled former soldiers and 360,000 war widows, and supporting over 900,000 fatherless children and orphans, and all this on top of an existing system of state support for the elderly. The payment of pensions took up a higher proportion of state expenditure than anything apart from reparations.172 Finally, the welfare system boosted an already swollen bureaucracy in the Reich and the federated states, which increased in size by 40 per cent between 1914 and 1923, almost doubling the cost of public administration per head of the German population in the process.173 Such massive expenditure might have been feasible in a booming economy, but in the crisis-racked economic situation of the Weimar Republic it was simply not possible without printing money and fuelling inflation, as happened between 1919 and 1923, or, from 1924, by cutting back on payments, reducing the staffing levels of state welfare institutions and imposing ever more stringent means-testing on claimants.

Many claimants thus quickly realized that the welfare system was not paying them as much as they needed. Local administrators were particularly stingy, since local authorities bore a sizeable proportion of the financial burden of welfare payments. They frequently demanded that claimants should hand over their savings or their property as a condition of receiving support. Welfare snoopers reported on hidden sources of income and encouraged neighbours to send in denunciations of those who refused to reveal them. Moreover, welfare agencies, lacking the staff necessary to process a large number of claims rapidly, caused endless delays in responding to applications for support as they corresponded with other agencies to see if claimants had received benefits previously, or tried to shift the burden of supporting them elsewhere. Thus, the Weimar welfare administration quickly became an instrument of discrimination and control, as officials made it clear to claimants that they would only receive the minimum due to them, and enquired intrusively into their personal circumstances to ensure that this was the case.

None of this endeared the Republic to those whom it was intended to help. Complaints, rows, fisticuffs, even demonstrations were far from uncommon inside and outside welfare offices. A sharp insight into the kind of problems which the welfare system was confronting, and the way it went about dealing with them, is provided by the example of a saddler and upholsterer, Adolf G.174 Born in 1892, Adolf had fought in the 1914- 18 war and sustained a serious injury - not in a heroic battle against the enemy, however, but from a kick in his stomach by a horse. It required no fewer than six intestinal operations in the early 1920s. An old industrial accident and a family with six children put him into further categories of welfare entitlement apart from war injury. Unable to find a job after the war, he devoted himself to campaigning for state support instead. But the local authorities in Stuttgart demanded as a condition of continuing his accident benefits after 1921 that he surrender his radio receiver and aerial, since these were banned from the municipal housing in which he lived. When he refused to do this, he was evicted with his family, a move to which he responded with a vigorous campaign of letter-writing to the authorities, including the Labour Ministry in Berlin. He acquired a typewriter to make his letters more legible and tried to acquire other kinds of benefits reflecting his situation as a war invalid and a father of a large family. The conflict escalated. In 1924 he was imprisoned for a month and a half for assisting an attempted abortion, presumably because he and his wife thought that in the circumstances six children were enough; in 1927 he was fined for insulting behaviour; in 1930 his benefits were cut and restricted to certain purposes such as the purchase of clothes, while his housing allowance was paid direct to his landlord; he was charged in 1931 with welfare fraud because he had been trying to make a little money on the side as a rag-and-bone man, and again in 1933 for busking. He approached political organizations of the right and left in order to get help. An attempt to persuade the authorities that he needed three times more food than the average man because his stomach injury left him unable to digest most of what he ate was rebuffed with stony formality. In 1931, at the end of his tether, he wrote to the Labour Ministry in Berlin comparing the Stuttgart welfare officials to robber barons of the Middle Ages.175

What angered the somewhat obsessive Adolf G. was not just the poverty in which he and his family were condemned to live, but still more the insults done to his honour and standing even in the lower reaches of German society by a welfare apparatus that seemed determined to question his motives and his entitlements in seeking the support that he felt he deserved. The anonymous, rule-bound welfare bureaucracy insulted his individuality. Such feelings were far from uncommon among welfare claimants, particularly where their claim for support resulted from the sacrifices they had made during the war. The huge gulf between the Weimar Republic’s very public promises of a genuinely universal welfare system based on need and entitlement, and the harsh reality of petty discrimination, intrusion and insult to which many claimants were exposed on the part of the welfare agencies, did nothing to strengthen the legitimacy of the constitution in which these promises were enshrined.176

More ominous by far, however, was the fact that health and welfare agencies, determined to create rational and scientifically informed ways of dealing with social deprivation, deviance and crime, with the ultimate aim of eliminating them from German society in generations to come, encouraged new policies that began to eat away at the civil liberties of the poor and the handicapped. As the social welfare administration mushroomed into a huge bureaucracy, so the doctrines of racial hygiene and social biology, already widespread among welfare professionals before the war, began to acquire more influence. The belief that heredity played some part in many kinds of social deviance, including not only mental deficiency and physical disability but also chronic alcoholism, persistent petty criminality and even ‘moral idiocy’ in groups such as prostitutes (many of whom were in fact forced into sex work by economic circumstances), hardened into a dogma. Medical scientists and social administrators began to compile elaborate card-indexes of the ‘asocial’, as such deviants were now commonly called. Liberal penal reformers argued that, while some inmates in state prisons could be reclaimed for society by the right sort of educational programmes, a great many of them were completely incorrigible, largely because of the inherited degeneracy of their character.177 The police played their part, too, identifying a large number of ‘professional criminals’ and ‘habitual offenders’ to place under intensive surveillance. This frequently became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as surveillance and identification left released prisoners no chance of engaging in an honest trade. In Berlin alone, the police fingerprint collection numbered over half a million ten-finger cards by 1930.178

The spread of such ideas through the professional worlds of medicine, law enforcement, penal administration and social work had very real consequences. Psychologists asked to assess the mental health of convicted criminals began to use biological criteria, as in the case of an unemployed vagrant, Florian Huber, convicted of armed robbery and murder in Bavaria in 1922: ‘Huber’, concluded a psychological assessment of the young man, who had suffered severe injuries in war action, earning him the award of the Iron Cross,

although in other respects he cannot be proven to be hereditarily damaged, demonstrated some physical evidence of degeneracy: the structure of his physiognomy is asymmetrical to the extent that the right eye is situated markedly lower than the left, he has a tendency towards full-thfoatedness, his earlobes are elongated, and above all he has been a stutterer since youth.179

This was taken as evidence, not that he was unfit to stand trial, but that he was incorrigible and should therefore be executed, which indeed he was. Legal officials in many parts of Germany now made liberal use of terms such as ‘vermin’ or ‘pest’ to describe criminals, denoting a new, biological way of conceptualizing the social order as a kind of body, from which harmful parasites and alien micro-organisms had to be removed if it was to flourish. In the search for more precise and comprehensive ways of defining and applying such concepts, a medical expert, Theodor Viernstein, founded a ‘Criminal-Biological Information Centre’ in Bavaria in 1923, to gather information about all known criminal offenders, their families and their background, and thereby to identify hereditary chains of deviance. By the end of the decade Viernstein and his collaborators had collected a vast index of cases and were well on the way to realizing their dream. Soon, similar centres had been founded in Thuringia, Württemberg and Prussia as well. Many experts thought that once such dynasties of ‘inferior’ human beings had been mapped out, compulsory sterilization was the only way to prevent them reproducing themselves further.180

In 1920 two such experts, the lawyer Karl Binding and the forensic psychiatrist Alfred Hoche, went one crucial step beyond this and argued, in a short book in which they coined the phrase ‘a life unworthy of life’, that what they called ‘ballast existences’, people who were nothing but a burden on the community, should simply be killed. The incurably ill and the mentally retarded were costing millions of marks and taking up thousands of much-needed hospital beds, they argued. So doctors should be allowed to put them to death. This was an ominous new development in the debate over what to do with the mentally ill, the handicapped, the criminal and the deviant. In the Weimar Republic it still met with impassioned hostility on the part of most medical men. The Republic’s fundamental insistence on the rights of the individual prevented even the doctrine of compulsory sterilization from gaining any kind of official approval, and many doctors and welfare officers still doubted the ethical legitimacy or social effectiveness of such a policy. The very considerable influence of the Catholic Church and its welfare agencies was also directed firmly against such policies. As long as economic circumstances made it possible to imagine that the Republic’s social aspirations could one day be realized, the continuing debate on compulsory sterilization and involuntary ‘euthanasia’ remained unresolved.181

II

Middle-class Germans reacted to the 1918 Revolution and the Weimar Republic in a wide variety of ways. Perhaps the most detailed account we have of one man’s response is from the diaries of Victor Klemperer, whose experience of the inflation we have already noted. Klemperer was in many ways typical of the educated middle-class German who just wanted to get on with his life, and relegated politics to a relatively small part of it, though he voted at elections and always took an interest in what was going on in the political world. His career was neither entirely conventional nor outstandingly successful. After making a living as a newspaper writer, Klemperer had turned to the university world, qualifying shortly before the war with the obligatory two theses, the first on German, the second on French literature. As a relative newcomer and outsider, he was obliged to start his academic career in a post at the University of Naples, from where he observed the deterioration of the international situation before 1914 with concern. He supported the German declaration of war in 1914 and considered the German cause a just one. He returned to Germany and joined up, served on the Western Front and was invalided out in 1916, working in the army censorship office up to the end of the war.

Like other middle-class Germans, Klemperer saw his hopes for a stable career dashed with the defeat of Germany. For such a man, only a return to orderly and political circumstances could provide the basis for a steady income and a permanent job in a German academic institution.182 The events of the last two months of 1918 were upsetting to him in more than one respect. He wrote in his diary:

The newspaper now brings so much shame, disaster, collapse, things previously considered impossible, that I, filled to bursting with it, just dully accept it, hardly read any more ... After all I see and hear, I am of the opinion that the whole of Germany will go to the Devil if this Soldiers’ and Workers’ Un-Council, this dictatorship of senselessness and ignorance, is not swept out soon. My hopes are pinned on any general of the army that is returning from the field.183

Working temporarily in Munich, he was alarmed by the antics of the revolutionary government early in 1919 - ‘they talk enthusiastically of freedom and their tyranny gets ever worse’ - and recorded hours spent in libraries trying to do his academic work while the bullets of the invading Free Corps whizzed past outside.184 Normality and stability were what Klemperer wanted; yet they were not to be had. In 1920, as we have seen, he managed to obtain a professorship at Dresden Technical University, where he taught French literature, researched and wrote, edited a journal and became increasingly frustrated as he saw younger men obtain senior positions at better institutions. In many ways he was a typical moderate conservative of his time, patriotic, bourgeois, German through and through in his cultural attitudes and identity, and a believer in the notion of national character, which he expressed at length in his historical work on eighteenth-century French literature.

Yet in one crucial respect he was different. For Victor Klemperer was Jewish. The son of a preacher in the extremely liberal Reform Synagogue in Berlin, he had been baptized as a Protestant, one of a growing number of German Jews who acculturated in this way. This was more a social than a religious decision, since he does not seem to have had a very strong religious faith of any kind. In 1906 he provided further evidence of his acculturation by marrying a non-Jewish German woman, the pianist Eva Schlemmer, with whom he came to share many intellectual and cultural interests, above all, perhaps, an enthusiasm for the cinema. The couple remained childless. Yet, through all the vicissitudes of the 1920s, it was his marriage that gave stability to his life, despite the couple’s increasingly frequent bouts of ill-health, exaggerated perhaps by growing hypochondria. 185 Throughout the 1920s he lived a stable, if less than completely contented life, disturbed early on by fears of civil war, although this never materialized and looked less likely after 1923.186 He filled his diary with reports of his work, his holidays, his amusements, his relationships with his family, friends and colleagues, and other aspects of the daily routine. ‘I often ask myself’, he wrote on 10 September 1927, ‘why I write such an extensive diary’, a question to which he had no real answer: it was simply a compulsion - ‘I can’t leave it alone.‘187 Publication was dubious. So what was his purpose? ‘Just collect life. Always collect. Impressions, knowledge, reading, events, everything. And don’t ask why or what for.’188

Klemperer occasionally let slip that he felt his career blocked by the fact that he was Jewish. Despite his increasing output of scholarly works on French literary history, he was stuck in Dresden’s Technical University with no prospect of moving to a post in a major university institution. ‘There are reactionary and liberal universities,’ he noted on 26 December 1926: ‘The reactionaries don’t take any Jews, the liberal ones always have two Jews already and don’t take a third.’189 The growth of antisemitism in the Weimar Republic also posed problems for Klemperer’s political position. ‘It’s gradually becoming clear to me’, he wrote in September 1919, ‘how new and insurmountable a hindrance antisemitism means for me. And I volunteered for the war! Now I am sitting, baptized and nationalistic, between all stools.’190 Klemperer was rather unusual amongst middle-class Jewish professionals in his conservative political views. The increasingly rabid antisemitism of the German Nationalists, with whose general political line he rather sympathized, made it impossible for him to support them, despite all his nostalgia for the prewar days of the Bismarckian and Wilhelmine Reich. Like many Germans, Klemperer found himself ‘apathetic and indifferent’ when he contemplated the violent party-political conflicts of the Weimar Republic.191 Instinctively hostile to the left, Klemperer was none the less obliged to record in March 1920, as he heard the news of the Kapp putsch in Berlin:

My inclination to the right has suffered greatly ... as a result of permanent antisemitism. I would dearly like to see the current putschists put up against a wall, I truly cannot work up any enthusiasm for the oath-breaking army, and really not at all for the immature and disorderly students - but neither can I for the ‘legal’ Ebert government either and less still for the radical left. I find them all off-putting.

‘What an agonizing tragicomedy’, he wrote, ‘that 5,000-8,000 soldiers can overthrow the whole German Reich.’192

Surprisingly, perhaps, for a man who devoted his working life to the study of French literature, he was very much in favour of waging another war against the French - perhaps as a result of his experiences on the Western Front during the war, still more as a result of his evident outrage at the Treaty of Versailles. But this hardly seemed possible under the Weimar Republic. On 20 April 1921 he wrote:

The monarchy is my banner, I long for the old German power, I want all the time to strike once again against France. But-what kind of disgusting company one keeps with the German racists! It will be even more disgusting if Austria joins us. And everything we now feel was felt with more or less justification by the French after 70. And I would not have become a professor under Wilhelm II, and yet ...193

Already in 1925 he was regarding the election of Hindenburg as President as a potential disaster, comparable to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. ‘Fascism everywhere. The terrors of the war have been forgotten, the Russian terror is driving Europe into reaction.’194 As time went on, Klemperer grew weary of the constant political excitement. In August 1932, as the Weimar Republic entered its final turbulent phase, he wrote:

Moreover: I don’t need to write the history of my times. And the information I provide is dull, I am half repelled, half full of a fear to which I don’t want to surrender myself, completely without enthusiasm for any party. The whole thing is meaningless, undignified, miserable - nobody plays a part for himself, everyone’s a puppet ... Hitler before the gates - or who else? And what will become of me, the Jewish professor?

He preferred instead to write about the small black kitten that had wandered into their house, and instantly became their pet.195 Under the influence not only of the threatening political situation, but also of his wife’s serious, clinical depression and frequent illnesses, Klemperer wrote less and less, and seemed by the end of 1932 on the verge of abandoning his diary altogether.

Klemperer’s political pessimism owed a lot to the personal troubles he was experiencing. Yet his attitude was shared by many patriotic, liberal-conservative German Jews who felt ill at ease amidst the conflicts of the Weimar Republic. Beyond that, his distaste for the extremes of politics and his disquiet at the violence and fanaticism that surrounded him was surely characteristic of many middle-class Germans, whatever their background. His Jewish ethnicity not only caused him to suffer some adverse discrimination, but it also gave him a sharp and sardonic eye for political developments that were ominous for the future, as he rightly guessed. Yet he did not suffer unduly from antisemitism, he did not experience any violence, indeed, he did not record a single instance of a personal insult in his diary at this time. In formal terms, Jews such as Klemperer enjoyed far more freedom and equality under the Weimar Republic than they had ever done before. The Republic opened up new opportunities for Jews in the civil service, politics and the professions as well as in government: a Jewish Foreign Minister like Walther Rathenau would have been unthinkable under the Wilhelmine Reich, for instance. The Jewish-owned parts of the press, particularly the newspapers controlled by the two liberal Jewish firms of Mosse and Ullstein, which together produced over half the newspapers sold in Berlin in the 1920s, strongly supported the liberal institutions of the Republic. The arts’ new-found freedom from censorship and official disapproval brought many Jewish writers, painters and musicians to prominence as apostles of modernist culture, where they mingled easily with non-Jewish figures like the composer Paul Hindemith, the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, or the artists Max Beckmann and George Grosz. Jews signalled their support for the Republic by voting particularly for the Democrats, and to a lesser extent for the parties of the left.196

On the other hand, partly in reaction to these developments, the 1920s also witnessed a broadening and deepening of the currents of antisemitism in German politics and society. Even before the war, the Pan-Germans _ and others on the right had pumped out propaganda accusing the Jews of undermining the German nation. This kind of racist conspiracy theory was more than shared by military leaders such as Ludendorff. It found notorious expression during the war in the so-called Jewish census of October 1916, ordered by senior army officers who hoped it would give them support in refusing Jews admission to the officer corps once the war was over. The aim was to reveal the cowardly and disloyal nature of the Jews by showing statistically that Jews were under-represented in the army, and that those who had joined up were over-represented in desk-jobs. In fact, it showed the reverse: many Jewish Germans, like Victor Klemperer, were nationalist to the core, and identified strongly with the Reich. German Jews were over- rather than under-represented in the armed forces and at the front. Confounding the expectations of antisemitic officers to such a degree, the results of the census were suppressed. But the knowledge that it had been ordered caused a great deal of anger among German Jews, even if the attitudes it revealed were not shared by the majority of rank-and-file troops.197

After the war, the widespread belief on the right that the German army had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by revolutionaries in 1918 translated easily into antisemitic demagogy. It was, men like Ludendorff evidently believed, ‘the Jews’ who had done the stabbing, who led subversive institutions like the Communist Party, who agreed to the Treaty of Versailles, who set up the Weimar Republic. In fact, of course, the German army was defeated militarily in 1918. There was, as we have seen, no stab-in-the-back. Leading politicians who signed the Treaty, like Matthias Erzberger, were not Jewish at all. If Jews like Rosa Luxemburg were over-represented in the Communist Party leadership, or, like Eugen Levine in the revolutionary upheavals in Munich early in 1919, they were not acting as Jews but as revolutionaries, alongside many non-Jews (such as Karl Liebknecht, whom many right-wingers thought instinctively must be Jewish because of his ultra-left political views). Most Jewish Germans supported the solid liberal parties of the centre, or to a lesser extent the Social Democrats, rather than the revolutionary left, whose violent activism shocked and appalled a respectable citizen like Klemperer. Nevertheless, the events of 1918-19 gave a boost to antisemitism on the right, convincing many waverers that racist conspiracy theories about the Jews were correct after all.198

Alongside extreme right-wing propaganda scapegoating Jews for the catastrophes of 1918-19, there also emerged a more popular form of antisemitism, directed particularly at war profiteers and the small number of financiers who managed to get rich quick in the throes of the inflation. Antisemitism had always surged at times of economic crisis, and the economic crises of the Weimar Republic dwarfed anything that Germany had witnessed before. A fresh source of conflict arose in the gathering pace of immigration on the part of impoverished Jewish refugees fleeing antisemitic violence and civil war in Russia. There were perhaps 80,000 ‘Eastern Jews’ in Germany before the First World War, and their arrival, along with that of a much larger number of immigrant workers from Poland and elsewhere, had led the Reich government to introduce a virtually unique kind of citizenship law in 1913, allowing only those who could show German ancestry to claim German nationality.199 After the war there was a renewed influx, as the Bolshevik Revolution swept across Russia, prompting antisemitic pogroms and murders on a huge scale by the Revolution’s Tsarist opponents. Although the immigrants acculturated quickly, and were relatively few in number, they nevertheless formed an easy target for popular resentments. At the height of the hyperinflation, on 6 November 1923, a newspaper reporter observed serious disturbances in a district of Berlin with a high proportion of Jewish immigrants from the East:

Everywhere in the side-streets a howling mob. Looting takes place under cover of darkness. A shoe-shop at the corner of Dragoon Street is ransacked, the shards of the window-panes are lying around on the street. Suddenly a whistle sounds. In a long human chain, covering the entire width of the street, a police cordon advances. ‘Clear the street!’ an officer cries. ‘Go into your houses!’ The crowd slowly moves on. Everywhere with the same shouts: ‘Beat the Jews to death!’ Demagogues have manipulated the starving people for so long that they fall upon the wretched creatures who pursue a miserable goods trade in the Dragoon Street cellar ... it is inflamed racial hatred, not hunger, that is driving them to loot. Young lads immediately follow every passer-by with a Jewish appearance, in order to fall upon him when the moment is right.200

Such a public outburst of violence was symptomatic of the new preparedness of antisemites, like so many other groups on the fringes of German politics, to stir up or actively employ violence and terror to gain their ends, rather than remaining content, as they mostly had been before 1914, with mere words. A wave of still imperfectly documented incidents of personal violence against Jews and their property, attacks on synagogues, acts of desecration carried out in Jewish cemeteries, was the result.201

It was not just an unprecedented willingness to translate vehement prejudice into violent action that broadly distinguished post-1918 antisemitism from its prewar counterpart. While the overwhelming majority of Germans still rejected the use of physical force against Jews during the Weimar Republic, the language of antisemitism became embedded in mainstream political discourse as never before. The ‘stab-in-the-back’, the ‘November traitors’, the ‘Jewish Republic’, the ‘Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy’ to undermine Germany - all these and many similar demagogic slogans could be regularly read in the papers, whether as expressions of editorial opinion or in reporting of political incidents, speeches and trials. They could be heard day after day in legislative assemblies, where the rhetoric of the Nationalists, the second largest party after the Social Democrats during the middle years of the Republic, was shot through with antisemitic phrases. These were more extreme and more frequently employed than they had been by the Conservatives before the war, and were amplified by splinter groups of the right that collectively enjoyed much more support than the antisemitic parties of Ahlwardt, Böckel and their ilk. Closely allied to many of these groups was the German Protestant Church, deeply conservative and nationalist by conviction and also prone to outbursts of antisemitism; but Catholic antisemitism also took on new vigour in the 1920s, animated by fear of the challenge of Bolshevism, which had already launched violent attacks on Christianity in Hungary and Russia at the end of the war. There were large swathes of the German electorate on the right and in the centre that fervently desired a rebirth of German national pride and glory after 1918. They were to a greater or lesser degree convinced as a result that this had to be achieved by overcoming the spirit of ‘Jewish’ subversion that had supposedly brought Germany to its knees at the end of the war.202 The sensibility of many Germans was so blunted by this tide of antisemitic rhetoric that they failed to recognize that there was anything exceptional about a new political movement that emerged after the end of the war to put antisemitism at the very core of its fanatically held beliefs: the Nazi Party.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!