From The Academy: Paul Lerner

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.”


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.

Propagandists delighted in exposing (or in fact fabricating) the ragged Jewish merchants behind the modern, glitzy “retail palaces,” claiming that the stores, like their owners, were trying to mask their shtetl, peddler origins. More neutral and even sympathetic voices, gentile and Jewish alike, simply assumed the  “Jewishness ” of the stores and represented store entrepreneurs with what contemporaries understood as typically Jewish features and characteristics.

Why did department stores elicit such strong reactions? I argue that they revolutionized daily life. As enormous structures and architectural marvels, which rivaled only train stations and cathedrals in size and scale, they transformed urban landscapes and their presence shifted urban topographies. The stores drew people of vastly different backgrounds and classes into close contact with each other, and the open displays brought people into close contact with commodities too. The stores made a rich assortment of goods easily affordable and accessible, appearing to level social distinctions. They also gave women a space, a socially acceptable place to while away the hours. And most were owned by Jews.

While new openings were greeted with excitement by many city dwellers, for others the department stores represented a threat to traditional economic forms and a provocation to prevailing gender roles and social norms. Unlike smaller specialty shops, which consumers entered to make specific purchases, department stores welcomed casual browsers; they sought to attract as many people as possible and keep them inside for as long as possible. The stores’ success, as contemporaries observed, required luring potential customers in and inflaming their desire for goods.

Kauflust, literally, the desire to buy, became a leitmotif in department store representations of all kinds, an explanation for the stores’ power to attract teeming crowds of customers and excited throngs jostling to ogle their spectacular displays. These consuming desires were said to be aroused through low prices, made possible by the stores’ high volume and rapid turnover, and were allegedly furthered through techniques of display, presentation and marketing. Department stores’ opponents accused them of inciting Kauflust through fraud and deceptive advertising and of preying on naïve consumers through unethical business practices, making it impossible for upright businesses to compete.

That these claims contradicted economic realities—indeed a department store’s success often meant greater prosperity for all surrounding businesses—scarcely diminished their influence or rhetorical power.

Women’s behavior in department stores sparked particular concern, reflecting broader anxieties about how and where women spent their time and their (and their husbands’) money. Critics warned that department stores exerted a nearly irresistible, hypnotic effect on female shoppers. Simultaneously, psychiatrists diagnosed epidemic kleptomania around the turn of the century; their cases described shoplifters’ dreams of possession by department store demons compelling them to return again and again. In a parallel discourse, political agitators used religious and supernatural imagery to evoke the stores’ satanic powers, their seduction of unsuspecting customers and their parasitic effects on the German body politic.

Contemporary accounts commonly depicted erotic, dangerous and violent encounters in the department store. The amble through the aisles had a dark underside where threats of fire and sexual and political violence loomed. I’ve unearthed a trove of materials which use the department store as the setting for dark, even supernatural forces, for deviant and criminal acts, and for destructive, but purifying fires. Each of these motifs intersected with contemporary images of Jews and concerns about Jewish power over German women and over the German economy.

My project traces these themes across different media and over some 60 years. It treats the department store as a site for these highly fraught encounters, a space for the meeting and intersection of currents and forces, of people, goods, capital, styles and tastes from around Germany, Europe and other parts of the world. Department stores touted their cosmopolitanism in advertisements and display, yet for critics this very quality marked them as un-German and Jewish. Thus, I investigate the stores’ positions in transnational networks, which I relate on the one hand to representations of Jews as ultra-capitalists and cosmopolitans and on the other to a deeper history of supranational economic connections among Jews.

The sources I’ve collected include political writings and propaganda, from newspapers, parliamentary debates, and leaflets; professional writings, such as psychiatric studies and economic and sociological treatises; and department store materials from archives and libraries in New York, Berlin and Jerusalem. I also devote a great deal of attention to what I call department store fiction, i.e. novels, plays and stories where a good deal of the plot unfolds within and revolves around the functioning of a department store—I have gathered several dozen examples of this sub-genre, ranging in prominence from a story by best-selling author Vicki Baum to an unpublished novel fragment called “The Escalator.”

These materials and themes have largely been forgotten, as have the German department stores’ Jewish origins—despite the appearance of some good family histories and business biographies over the last few years. My project, therefore, aims to write Jews back into the history of German consumer culture and German urban landscapes. I try to integrate European cultural history, economic and business history, Jewish studies, gender history, and the emerging field of consumer culture studies, areas of inquiry which are only now being brought into dialogue with each other.

But still the place of Jews in the history of German mass consumption and the role of consumption in the history of German Jewry—once taboo topics due to the legacy of anti-Semitic portrayals—have yet to be treated in a serious monographic study. Furthermore, works on consumer culture, whether celebratory or critical, seldom address both economic developments and cultural representations, a gap my project strives to fill. Finally, scholars have generally overlooked the uniqueness of the German encounter with mass consumption.

While many Germans certainly shared in the excitement around these new sites of bourgeois luxury and leisure, in Germany the “Jewish department store” also stood for frightening changes. It provoked morbid, supernatural images and violent responses, both imaginary and real.

You can read more from Prof. Lerner here and here.

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