From The Academy: Paul Lerner

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This installment of From the Academy, comes from University of Southern California Associate Professor of History Paul Lerner. The piece describes his current research, “Jews, Deparment Stores, and German Responses to Mass Consumerism, 1880-1940.”

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Years ago, while in Berlin doing research for my dissertation on the history of German psychiatry, I started to pay a lot of attention to department stores. What caught my eye in particular was the ubiquitous Wertheim department store chain, since the name sounded Jewish. I began to wonder about Wertheim’s history, and why its name had never been changed and I also wondered about the relevance of this history to the shoppers who frequented the stores and walked the streets and rode the subways with their Wertheim shopping bags.

Finding out that the KaDeWe [Berlin’s largest and most glamorous department store] and the Hertie and Kaufhof concerns had also been founded by Jews—only Karstadt among major German department store chains was not started by a Jew—only fueled my intrigue. Years later I returned to this topic and am now working on a book about it.

It turns out that I had stumbled onto something which would have been completely obvious in the early 20th century. In fact, to many Germans at that time the phrase “Jewish department store” would have sounded redundant. The great majority of department stores in Germany, perhaps some 80%, were actually owned by Jewish families, but beyond this demographic fact, writers, cultural critics, political agitators, and consumers associated department stores with Jews in a variety of ways.

The economist Werner Sombart famously argued that Jews possessed a particular, historically and racially determined, aptitude for commercial capitalism. He saw the department store as the embodiment of economic modernity which he associated with the Jewish role in economic life. Beginning in the 1890s, Germany’s anti-Semitic newspapers consistently reviled these businesses, and the Nazis targeted department stores in their 1920 party platform and in ongoing street actions.

Posted on April 23, 2009

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