The persistence of hate: German communities that murdered Jews in the Middle Ages were more likely to support the Nazis 600 years later.
The persistence of hate: German communities that murdered Jews in the Middle Ages were more likely to support the…
The search for better economic policy.
June 1 2011 7:52 AM

The Persistence of Hate

German communities that murdered Jews in the Middle Ages were more likely to support the Nazis 600 years later.

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Fast-forward nearly 600 years. Pogroms were rare prior to Hitler's election in 1933, but not unheard of. Würzburg was among the 37 communities that targeted their Jewish communities with Weimar-era attacks. In national elections in 1928 the Nazi Party, running on an emphatically anti-Semitic platform, received 6.3 percent of the vote in Würzburg, close to double the Nazi vote share in the rest of the district. In Aachen, about 1 percent of the vote went to the Nazis. Once the Nazis took power, 44 percent of the population of Wurzburg was deported to concentration camps. In Aachen, 37 percent of the population was deported—still a tragically high figure, but notably lower than for Würzburg.

Voigtländer and Voth find that these patterns generalize to German cities more broadly. In cities with Black Death pogroms, Jews were six times more likely to have been targeted with attack during the 1920s than in places like Aachen. Similarly, the Nazi party vote share was 1.5 times higher in communities with Black Death pogroms. To the best of their ability, the authors base their calculation on an "apples-to-apples" comparison of communities with fairly similar geographies and other attributes. (In their introduction, Voigtländer and Voth highlight the sharp differences in the treatment of Jews through the ages in communities no more than 20 miles apart.)


Not all cities like Würzburg were so unwavering in their anti-Semitism, however. Those with more of an outward orientation—in particular, cities that were a part of the Hanseatic League of Northern Europe, which brought outside influence via commerce and trade—showed almost no correlation between medieval and modern pogroms. The same was true for cities with high rates of population growth—with sufficient in-migration, the newcomers may have changed the attitudes of the local culture.

This gets us back to what's become of North-South racism in the United States since the 1950s. America is a country of immigrants, and more important, a country with high mobility within its borders, particularly over the last century. This doesn't mean that racism has disappeared, though perhaps we can expect it to be distributed more evenly. There's some evidence that America's melting pot is having exactly this effect. For example, in response to the 2005-07 World Values Survey, whites living in South Atlantic states were no more likely than New Englanders to say that they wouldn't want a black neighbor. Germany's Hanseatic League cities seem a better comparison for the shifting landscape of American cultures than Würzburg or Aachen.

What of Würzburg today? It was flattened in a March 1945 firebombing that left little standing and thousands dead. By the end of the war, the city's men were mostly dead or in POW camps, leaving the women to rebuild from the rubble. One might at least hope for a fresh start. I asked professor Voth about whether Würzburgers' culture of anti-Semitism has changed in the postwar years. The city has had its share of neo-Nazi rallies, though City Hall has tried (unsuccessfully) to shut them down. In the 2009 election, nearly half of its votes went to the conservative Christian Social Union party, often associated with anti-immigrant policies. Does this suggest that there are anti-Semitic sentiments simmering beneath the surface as well? Professor Voth isn't sure but plans on finding out: Using 21st-century survey data, he and co-author Voigtländer hope to see whether a culture of hatred in Würzburg and elsewhere can survive even the pounding of nearly 1,300 tons of Allied bombs.

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Ray Fisman is the Slater family chair in behavioral economics at Boston University and author, with Tim Sullivan, of The Org.