Triumph on the Periphery: Political Anti-Semitism in Rural Northern Germany

Paper presented in December 2008 at the Association for Jewish Studies conference in Washington, D.C.

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    In the elections to the Reichstag in May 1924, the racist Völkisch-Sozial Block won 47% of the votes cast in the northern German county of Wittmund. Seven months later, the Nationalsozialistische Freiheitsbewegung took 30% of the votes - in each instance these totals were the highest percentage of votes either party received in any county in the Reich. In 4 of the 7 elections between 1924 and 1933, Wittmund was among the top five counties with the highest percentage of votes cast for a Racist party. How could it be that a county that sent Radicals to the Reichstag in the 1880s and provided a parliamentary seat for Gustav Stresemann in 1914 became the earliest and strongest bastion of the Hitler movement in northern Germany? Herbert Reyer, dean of East Friesian historians, insists that anti-Semitism was not at the root of völkisch success in Wittmund. In a tightly argued micro-study, Inge Lüpke-Müller agrees, finding the local press climate and government officialdom more to blame. If these assessments are correct, exactly what role did anti-Semitism play in the electoral success of stridently anti-Semitic political parties?

    In this paper, I examine village voting patterns in Kreis Wittmund from 1881 to 1933 with respect to landscape and settlement pattersn, crop growing and lifestock holding regimes, taxation levels, voter participation, and confessional data. I argue that the success of anti-Semitic parties in the Weimar era cannot be understood without reference to the success of party/political anti-Semitism in the county before 1914, the traumas of the Great War, social and economic dislocation, and the dissolution of liberal notable hegemony in the hyperinflation. Using my GIS, I have identified a völkisch "hotspot" in the southern portion of the county (in Amt Friedeburg) and have drawn conclusions from early Racist success there. I argue that while anti-Semitism was not the sole reason for völkisch success in Wittmund, it provided the essential ideological glue that fastened together diverse communities of discontent under the leadership of a handful of highly committed Racist activists.