An Economic Theory of Antisemitism? Exploring Attitudes in the New German State

By Legge, Jerome S., Jr. | Political Research Quarterly, September 1996 | Go to article overview

An Economic Theory of Antisemitism? Exploring Attitudes in the New German State


Legge, Jerome S., Jr., Political Research Quarterly


One of the most classical stereotypes of Jews is that they have a disproportionate influence in economic matters. As a consequence, they are often affixed with undeserved blame by those experiencing economic difficulties. Utilizing recent data gathered in Germany, this paper tests an economic explanation of antisemitism. A Linear Structural Relations (LISREL) analysis finds little support for an economic explanation of antisemitism. The especially strong impact of anti-foreign sentiment suggests that contemporary German antisemitism is largely a consequence of hostility toward foreign cultures and immigrants. In part, the Jews have been replaced by others as direct targets of prejudice.

Of the many explanations utilized to account for antisemitism, among the most prominent is the economic. In contemporary Germany, the belief that economic conditions generate such prejudice seems persuasive. Many German citizens are especially threatened economically with unemployment and inflation, causing greater concern than in more prosperous decades. In times of economic scarcity and decline, antisemitism has been more prevalent both in Germany and other Western nations. The large number of refugees and foreign workers in the new German state have not only generated fears of economic competition but have encouraged simultaneously the growth of a chauvinistic nationalism and an increase in extremist group activity (Betz 1990; Westle and Niedermayer 1992). In the past, German nationalism and xenophobia have been associated with antisemitism.

The purpose of this essay is to explore antisemitism in the new German state. Utilizing a Linear Structural Relations (LISREL) model, I attempt to determine the impact of economic variables on antisemitism.

ECONOMIC STEREOTYPING OF THE JEWS

There are a number of conflicting and distorted beliefs as to why the Jewish community may be perceived as being responsible for economic misfortune. The first and most traditional stereotype is "the Jew as the moneylender." Because clerical leaders in the Middle Ages viewed money lending for interest as sinful, Jews often assumed this role by default. Shakespeare illustrated this popular stereotype in The Merchant of Venice. Adorno and colleagues (1982: 330) confirmed the moneylender stereotype empirically, utilizing data gathered in the United States. These scholars contended that at least to the working class, the Jew is often viewed as a "misfit bourgeois" and as "an agent of the economic sphere of the middle man." It is the Jew who "presents the bill."

A second common economic stereotype is "the Jew as the capitalist" which was popularized largely by Werner Sombart, the German sociologist-economist ([1928] 1982). The widespread and often erroneous perception that Jews were influential disproportionately in the development of capitalism led to the assignment of responsibility when these modern economic systems experienced periodic failure, such as the harsh six-year depression in Germany which began in 1873 (Dawidowicz 1986: 33-34). In more recent times, Hitler blamed the economic and political failures of the Weimar Republic largely on the German Jewish community. Paradoxically, it was Jewish capitalism and Jewish bolshevism which were touted simultaneously by the Nazi party as the twin evils causing Germany's decline following World War I.

The Jew as "the economic power behind the throne" is a final antisemitic economic stereotype which concerns the exaggeration of the role Jews played in the financing of the modem state and their subsequent position in the modern polity Arendt (1978) believed that Jews were influential in the ascendence of absolute monarchies and in the development of the contemporary nation-state (Feldman 1978: 24). When old class structures declined, Jews financed the beginnings of the nation-state and linked their own futures to its development and success. Feldman (1978: 25) contends that because Jews were widely perceived as interested primarily in making money through this partnership, any appreciation for being a "statebuilder" was widely discredited. …

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