Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Transforming Hatred

Vox just published a new piece by Nico Voigtländer and me on anti-Semitism in Germany:

Hatred Transformed: How Germans Changed Their Minds about Jews, 1890-2006

The persecution of Jews during WWII is one of the darkest and most puzzling chapters of recent history. This column asks how economics can help our understanding, particularly of how people’s attitudes to Jews have changed over time. It argues that ‘cultural economics’ shows that there is more to understanding how people behave than looking at their incentives.

How and when do people change their minds? For example, watching a popular television series like AMC’s Mad Men seems to transport us straight to another planet. It shows the lives of advertising executives on Madison Avenue in the 1960s who spend their days drinking heavily (from 9am), chain-smoking, and fornicating. While not necessarily an accurate portrayal of corporate life in the middle of the 20th century, it reminds us how deeply cultures can be transformed in a relatively short space of time. In the Western world today, attitudes towards homosexuals, pre-marital sex, and women working outside the home are radically different from what they were a generation ago (Fernandez-Villaverde et al. 2011).
At the same time, culture seems to persist over long periods of time. Italian towns that were self-governing in the middle ages are still more prosperous, citizens give more blood, and are more trusting (Guido et al. 2008). Areas of Africa affected by the slave trade continue to show lower levels of interpersonal trust (Nunn and Watchekon 2011). What accounts for the two-faced nature of culture? Why does it change so radically some of the time, while remaining unaltered over long periods?

Anti-Semitism as an indicator

In the past, canaries were used in coal mining to detect the presence of toxic fumes. Anti-Semitism serves a similar function in our study. As an attitude, it is arguably puzzling – it is extreme, clearly-defined, and dysfunctional. Germany has not been home to Jews in any significant numbers since 1945 (despite some minor inflows after the 1990s). In recent research, we look at the persistence of Jew-hatred in Germany (see Voigtländer and Voth 2012). In earlier work, we show that towns that saw pogroms in 1350, at the time of the Black Death, were still more anti-Semitic in the 1920s and 1930s (Voigtländer and Voth 2011). In this column, we examine how much of the past still matters for the present. Specifically, we ask how much of the anti-Semitism we see based on data from 1996 and 2006 reflects attitudes in the same location as far back as the late 19th century. We also examine the conditions under which hatred of this kind can be accentuated or reduced.
Germans today are on average probably not much more anti-Semitic than other Europeans (Bergmann and Erb 1997). At the regional level, however, there are considerable differences. We use data from the German Social Survey (ALLBUS) to examine attitudes towards Jews. The survey asks a battery of questions, such as “Do you think that Jews partly brought persecution in the 20th century on themselves?” Answers range from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Figure 1 shows regional differences (at the district level) for answers to this question, based on the proportion of the population giving a score of 5, 6, or 7.
Figure 1. Distribution of extreme anti-Semitic views

you can read the rest here. If you want to read the article on which the VOX piece is based, look here. This research follows on from earlier work we did on the medieval origins of Jew-hatred in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany (now forthcoming in the QJE).

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