Hate is heritable. But can hate be handed down gene-like from one generation to the next for over half a millennia? The answer, according to Nico Voigtländer and Hans Joachim Voth of UCLA and the Catalan Institution of Research and Advanced Studies, respectively, may well be yes.
The two offer disturbing evidence of intergenerational bigotry in Persecution Perpetuated: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Semitic Violence in Nazi Germany, a bland title for a remarkably intriguing bit of scholarship. The study examines anti-Semitism in Germany, both in the 14th century during an outbreak of the plague and six hundred years later just before the Holocaust. Overlaying indicators of relative intolerance by era revealed that anti-Semitism in Germany after World War One was more intense in those places that witnessed pogroms during the Black Death six-centuries earlier (blame for the scourge was often placed on Jews).
How were Voigtländer and Voth able to demonstrate the migration of hate from medieval to modern Germany? First, the two scholars drew on the Germania Judaica, a veritable census of Jewish inhabitance in Germany going back centuries that also contains data on anti-Jewish violence, to determine where pogroms occurred in Germany between 1348-50 during the outbreak.
Next, Voigtländer and Voth gauged relative intensity of anti-Semitism across Germany in the 1920s and 1930s by using several barometers: incidences of major attacks on Jews, including during Reichskristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”); polling results from a number of elections; data on Jewish deportations drawn from the German Federal Archive; and the location of editorial contributors to Der Stürmer, the virulently anti-Semitic newspaper published by notorious Nazi propagandist, Julius Streicher.
The results are striking. Consider Würzburg and Aachen, two mid-sized cities with histories of Jewish inhabitance dating to the 13th century. Würzburg experienced at least one pogrom during the Middle Ages, while Aachen saw none before or during the Black Death. Würzburg witnessed anti-Jewish violence in the 1920s; Aachen did not. Over 900 Jews were deported from Würzburg after 1933. A signficant percentage of Aachen’s Jews were also forcibly removed (502 of 1,345, or 37 percent of the total, but no early deportations occured). The Nazi Party received 6.3 percent of the vote in Würzburg in 1928 (above the district average); the National Socialists garnered just one percent of ballots cast in Aachen. Der Stürmer published more than twice the number of letters from readers in Würzburg than from Aachen, which was significantly larger.
The tale of these two cities parallels nation-wide trends. Voting patterns bear this out. “On average, Black Death pogroms increase [support for a party that ran Nazi candidates after the National Socialists were temporarily banned in 1924] by 2-3 percentage points,” Voigtländer and Voth write. Four years later, in 1928, the then-legal Nazi Party received just 1.6 percent of the vote in Königheim, a small hamlet of 1,549 in 1933 that did not experience a pogrom in the 14th century. Meanwhile, the National Socialists polled 8.1 percent in Wertheim, a neighboring town of 3,971 located 10 kilometers away that did. Interestingly, reactionary parties that abstained from overt anti-Semitism were not more popular in areas with ancient histories of violence against Jews, suggesting that bigotry was a key variable determining how well fascist elements fared electorally in those localities.
The statistically significant correlation between ancient and modern anti-Semitism holds even when other factors are controlled for, such as unemployment and religious orientation (Catholic or Protestant). Strangely, the correlation is even stronger in cities whose Jewish population was extinguished in the 14th century.
Whether Voigtländer and Voth’s study can withstand scrutiny is unclear. It might not. But their work does align with other scholarship lending credence to the notion that culture can have long-term impacts on people and thus societies. Research has demonstrated, for example, that Italian cities free in medieval times have higher levels of trust today, and that places formerly colonized by the Ottoman Empire tend to experience more corruption today than those once subsumed by the Hapsburg Empire. So-called cultural transmission remains controversial, however. The jury is still out.
But even if Voigtländer and Voth’s study is vindicated by peer review, it raises more questions than it answers. Principle among them: Why exactly should anti-Semitism have been more intense over the centuries in some German communities than others whose differences were otherwise negligible? And why should such hate have been more acute in places that had long since purged their Jews? Shouldn’t the opposite have been true? All of this is likely to remain a mystery, however. Much about the Holocaust always will.