Peasants and Jews: Anti-Semitism and Rural Politics in Northwest Germany

Project Findings


The Great War was a profound caesura in all aspects of German life. One should not overestimate the continuities between the pre-War and post-War agrarianism, conservative politics, or anti-Semitism. The Bund der Landwirte was strong in prosperous Marsch areas and very weak in poorer Geest areas. In East Friesland, the German Conservative party was essentially non-existent outside of Norden-Emden, where it was dependent upon the charismatic personality of Prince Edzard zu Innhausen und Knyhausen. In the constituency of Neuhaus-Hadeln in the Elbe-Weser Dreieck, another charismatic conservative, Diederich Hahn, only joined the Conservative party in 1908 and never campaigned as a Conservative. In Oldenburg, the functional equivalent of the German Conservative party was the National Liberal party. Both the post-War Landbund and German Nationalist Peoples party had larger, more socially and economically diverse memberships than their pre-War antecedents.


Before the Great War, political anti-Semitism was contained within a broad-based conservative/agrarian coalition because of the means by which parliamentary deputies were chosen. The change from single member constituencies to proportional representation in 1919 freed anti-Semites from their subordinated political role and allowed their parties to compete as independent entities. Before the War, there were Christian Socials in the Calvinist areas and as worker-outreach in city of Leer. Small German Reform associations existed in Leer, Norden and Wilhlemshaven, where there was also a small German Social group. Reformers and Socials competed with each other in Neuhuas-Hadeln and Stade-Bremervörde, although the Reformers were the larger group. Anti-Semites had little presence in Oldenburg outside of the capital. Naumann’s National Socials were attacked for their leader’s earlier anti-Semitism. In the rare instances when candidates associated with the anti-Semitic parties were nominated by the agrarian coalition, it lost votes. After the War, a host of competing anti-Semitic parties and grouplets were formed, banned, dissolved and reformed between 1920 and 1928, but by 1930 the NSDAP had emerged as the major actor on the anti-Semitic stage.


By December 1924, the German Nationalist Peoples party and the Landbund had established themselves as the hegemonic political and interest group representatives of the protestant, northwestern German countryside. This hegemony was destroyed by a succession of sector specific micro-crises that metastasized in 1928 into a general crisis of the rural economy. The Landbund was not uniformly the rural agent of the DNVP. It was a confederation of interests and parties, even at the local level, and regularly endorsed multiple parties. The Stahlhelm, at least before 1930, was more closely linked to the DNVP, but it was ostensibly non-party. In 1928 and again in 1930, various elements within the DNVP, DVP and RLB broke off to found their own parties. The creation of the Christian Nationalist Peasants party in 1928, for instance, was an attempt by elements within the Landbund apparat to come to grips with the agricultural crisis.


Jewish relations with gentiles were mainly restricted to the economic sphere, which was characterized by a useful symbiosis. Most families supported themselves through livestock trading and slaughtering; later department stores and capital services. Businesses tended to be self-financing, which made them initially more resistant to economic contractions. The degree of cultural and social mixing varied, generally being greater the farther west one moved.


Rural anti-Semitism experienced a vast change as a result of the War, moving from résentiment and crankiness to a powerful explanative, mobilizing concept. The trauma of war and revolution set off a renewed wave of anti-Semitism, but this did little to negatively impact the physical well being of the region’s Jews or Jewish communities. Despite a latent anti-Semitism that is difficult to quantify, it is clear that the majority of rural inhabitants shunned pre-War anti-Semites as cranks. The prominence of (non-observant) Jews in the revolution and fear of “Jewish Bolshevism” added urgency and a patina of credibility to the movement that it had lacked prior to 1914. Anti-Semites were able to brand the Republic and the Versailles treaty as part of an international Jewish conspiracy, while casting the controlled economy, hyperinflation, and stabilization in racialized terms. Post-War Racists were increasingly able to explain rural economic distress to peasants in ways that could be understood and offered a way out through the destruction of the entire “system”.


There was minimal organizational continuity before and after the Great War. Most pre-War anti-Semites who did not eschew party politics, joined the DNVP in 1919, and then left to form the German Racist Freedom Party in 1922. Pre-War racists such as Otto Telschow and young veterans like Jaques Groeneveld, who wanted a more activist anti-Semitism, migrated during the 1920s to the NSDAP. By 1930, nearly all politically active anti-Semites had become Nazis, while the remainder dwindled into non-importance.


Jews, both before and after the War, saw the Prussian government as a protector of their rights. When confronted with examples of public anti-Semitism (none of which involved injury to individuals), Jews felt that they could efficaciously complain to the government. The Racists Nazis saved their rowdy behavior for the Communists, who reciprocated in a similarly violent fashion. Active Prussian government protection of the civil rights of Jews ended with Papen’s coup in June 1930.


One surprising finding of this research is the paucity of threatening anti-Semitic incidents. There were three noteworthy incidents of anti-Semitism in the study area. In the first, an anti-Semitic schoolteacher in Jever was accused of making public anti-Semitic utterances. He was disciplined by the Oldenburg ministry of education. In 1926, an anonymous handbill was circulated outside churches in Norden during the Christmas season in 1926 urging parishioners to boycott Jewish merchants. In the same year, a group of students provoked a confrontation at the cattle market in Leer. In both incidents, the local Jewish communities successfully prompted government prosecution of the malefactors. None of these cases involved injury to individuals. The physical intimidation or vandalism that Dirk Walter has found in southern Germany was unknown on the study area. The Nazis saved their rowdy behavior for the Communist, who reciprocated in a similarly violent fashion.


The Jewish response to anti-Semitism was illustrated by an increase number of local chapters of the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens is the clearest indicator of local community response to post-War anti-Semitism. When confronted with examples of public anti-Semitism, Jews felt that they could efficaciously complain to the government. The government, for its part, was pro-active in defending Jewish civil rights, and was especially vigilant in monitoring anti-Semitic groups. Was there a demographic response? I do have suggestive mapping data showing that the portion of Jews within the total regional population declined, as did absolute numbers in smaller communities. Whether these population shifts were the result of declining professional and familial opportunities in the small towns or factors other than an increasingly hostile environment towards Jews is impossible to quantify. It is also impossible to trace the voting behavior of North Coast Jews as Pulzer has done for Berlin and Frankfurt. There weren’t enough Jews living in specific neighborhoods (save Bremen, which I do not include) to do that form of analysis.


The Nazis emerged as the most important anti-Semitic group because they successfully created a youthful, dynamic coalition infused with anti-Semitism that explained the crises of Weimar Germany and offered a solution. The organizational growth of the NSDAP (both in terms of infrastructure and membership) did not proceed but rather followed the electoral “breakthrough” of 1930. The victory of 1930 was based on message and image, not strong-armed tactics (since in any case the party lacked sufficient strong arms). By 1932, that growth would make elections in many villages non-competitive, but in 1930, when they could still choose without compulsion, rural voters freely chose the NSDAP.


The areas where the pre-War Agrarian movement was strongest were the same areas where the NSDAP had the least success, while the Nazis achieved their first and strongest support in pre-War liberal areas. Agrarian areas were more politically advanced (sophisticated) than traditionally Liberal areas. The Agrarian revolt of the 1890s accented aggressive interest group representation, thoroughgoing local organization, and charismatic personalities. Traditionally Liberal areas had for the most part missed out on all of this. The Racist success first in Wittmund in May 1924 and then on the Stader Geest, and in the Ammerland bear this out.


The inability of traditional political and institutional actors to solve the intractable problems of the German countryside, contrasted with the Nazis, hwo offered a dynamic, youthful solution. After 1928, the NSDAP functioned as a Sammlungspartei of anti-Republican, anti-Socialist discontent. The party represented a negation of sectoral interest representation as articulated by traditional agrarian interest groups. The organizational growth (infrastructure, membership) of the NSDAP did not proceed but rather followed the victory of 1930. By 1932, that growth would make elections in many villages non-competitive, but in 1930, rural voters freely chose the NSDAP. The victory of 1930 was based on message and image, not strong-armed tactics.


The Nazi “coalition of grievance” was about more than anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitism was the glue that cohered its Weltanschauung. As parties were created in the crisis of 1928 that tried to appeal to tightly specific sets of grievances, the Nazis understood that to form a majority it was necessary to bring disparate groups together. The Nazi party represented a negation of sector-specific interest representation as articulated by traditional agrarianism. After 1928, the NSDAP functioned as a Sammlungspartei of anti-Republican, anti-Socialist discontent. Anti-Semitism was the integrative ideology that brought together a broad coalition. The problem wasn’t the other interest groups; it was the “other”.


An unexpected finding of this study is the importance of local initiative in advancing Nazi electoral success (much as current scholarship highlights the importance of local initiative in the formulation of the Holocaust). Shift in Stade from courting workers to courting peasants in 1928; preceded in Wittmund in 1924 by same phenomenon. I am surprised at the extent to which local activists set the Nazi agenda in their areas, even when it was at odds with what came out of Munich. An example of this was the work with the peasantry, which preceded the recruitment of Darré and the writing of the rural platform in 1930. Interesting that folks like Telschow were drawn to the Nazis by the dynamism of what Munich had to offer, but functioned as independent actors on many occasions. Also, part grew strongest first where it had capable and energetic actors, i.e., Blankemeyer and Münchmeyer in Wittmund.