From Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., to the “Little Rock Nine,” who defied school segregation in Arkansas, most of the civil rights clashes of the 20th century played out on the turf where the Confederacy had fought to preserve slavery 100 years earlier.
If a century seems like a long time for a culture of racism to persist, consider the findings of a recent study on the persistence of anti-Semitism in Germany: Communities that murdered their Jewish populations during the 14th-century Black Death pogroms were more likely to demonstrate a violent hatred of Jews nearly 600 years later. A culture of intolerance can be very persistent indeed.
Changing any aspect of culture—the norms, attitudes, and “unwritten rules” of a group—isn’t easy. Beliefs are passed down from parent to child—positions on everything from childbearing to religious beliefs to risk-taking are transmitted across generations. Newcomers, meanwhile, may be attracted by the culture of their chosen home—Europeans longing for smaller government and lower taxes choose to move to the United States, for example, while Americans looking for Big Brotherly government move in the other direction. Once they arrive, these migrants tend to take on the attitudes of those around them—American-born Italians hold more “American” views with each subsequent generation.
“Good” cultural attitudes—like trust and tolerance—may thus be sustained across generations. But the flipside is that “bad” attitudes—mutual hatred and xenophobia—may also persist.
The authors of the new study, Nico Voigtländer of UCLA and Joachim Voth of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain, examine the historical roots of the virulent anti-Semitism that found expression in Nazi-era Germany. In a sense, their analysis can be seen as providing a foundation for the highly controversial thesis put forth by former Harvard professor Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Goldhagen argued that the German people exhibited a deeply rooted “eliminationist” anti-Semitism that had developed over centuries, which made them ready accomplices in carrying out Hitler’s Final Solution.
To compare medieval anti-Semitism to more recent animosity toward Jews, the researchers combine historical records from Germania Judaica, which documented the Jewish communities of the Holy Roman Empire, with data on the rise of anti-Semitism under Hitler, collected in Klaus-Dieter Alicke’s Encyclopaedia of Jewish Communities in German-speaking Areas.
To illustrate their approach, Voigtländer and Voth draw a comparison between the cities of Würzburg and Aachen, two small cities a couple of hundred miles apart with populations of little more than 100,000 in 1933 but with very different responses to Nazi ideology.
Each city had a Jewish community dating back to at least the 13th century. When the Black Death came in 1348, it wiped out about half the population of Europe. In Germany, the plague was widely blamed on Jews poisoning wells. Jews in Würzburg had already been targeted with a violent pogrom 50 years earlier, allegedly for “desecration of the hosts” in a local church, though it may have had more to do with the large sum owed to Jewish moneylenders by a local count. With another attack imminent, in 1349, the community chose mass suicide instead. In Aachen, no Black Death pogroms occurred, despite warnings from other communities that if the city failed to take action, its Jews might poison its wells.
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.