Borderlands and Antisemitism in Weimar Germany: Evidence from Children’s Stories

Growing up in the Zaanstreek, a green and water-rich suburban part of the Netherlands, best known for its windmills, I spent a lot of time playing outdoors.  A reoccurring concern for my parents was that I would not make it back in time for dinner or get lost altogether. To make sure I would not stray away too far from home, they would often warn me about the “guy with the bowtie” who lived in one of the nearby mills. If I would pass a certain street or park line, my parents assured me, this gentleman would pick me up and throw me in his well. I was quick to comply, as my parents intended. One should not underestimate the impact this tall tale had on my cognitive development. Every time I pass a person with a bow tie in the halls of an Ivy league campus or on a conference escalator, my most primitive defense mechanisms are activated for a split second.

My parents’ narrative strategy may seem pedagogically irresponsible to a contemporary audience, but it was widespread in North-Central Europe in the 19th and 20th century. Linguists refer to this genre of stories as Kinderschreck, an oral tradition of storytelling deployed by parents to discipline children through the inducement of fear. As the above example indicates, the set-up of Kinderschreck stories was brief and basic, involving only two components: a spatial location and a bogeyman. Parents would tell their children to stay away from a certain place (water line, park, street, etc.) because otherwise a bogeyman (e.g. the with the bow tie) would come and get them. Kinderschreck tales frequently featured rather innocent depictions of fantasy figures or animals (such as the Kornmutter depicted above), but in some villages the bogeymen deployed ethnic stereotypes reflecting a range of imagined enemies that threatened local communities. The best example of this are the stories that featured anti-Semitic bogeys such as the “Forest Jew”, “Blood Jew” or “Wandering Jew.”

Kinderscheck as a measure of antisemitism  

Reflecting on the bogeymen from my own childhood sparked the idea that systematically studying these antisemitic themes in Kinderschreck could improve our understanding of the spatial spread and evolution of antisemitism. Existing subnational analyses of antisemitism in Europe before the Holocaust often rely on pogrom data. This measurement strategy has several limitations. Pogrom data firstly measures an extreme form of antisemitism. Yet, Anti-Jewish sentiments are likely to exist even in the absence of pogroms. Second, pogroms cannot take place in the absence of Jewish targets. Deploying pogroms as a proxy therefore assumes a local Jewish presence as a precondition for the emergence of antisemitism, something that remains an open empirical question. Third, pogroms are not a pure measure of local sentiments towards Jews as they also tap the capacity to organize collective action.

Whereas data on pogroms is too narrow, electoral data is overly broad. Openly antisemitic parties often had more comprehensive policy platforms that were anchored in economic and cultural issues unrelated to Judaism. As a consequence, it is not clear whether a vote for a party that openly embraces antisemitism does indeed capture xenophobic sentiments of the voter or not. This is further complicated by the fact that one and the same political party would often vary the extent to which they played up their antisemitism at a local level.

Given these shortcomings, I decided to build on extensive data collection efforts by folklorists to map when and where Jewish bogeymen started appearing in Germany history. Folklore studies was established as a professional discipline by the Grimm brothers, who, in addition to collecting and publishing children stories, had a deep interest in documenting different oral and material traditions that existed in German lands. With time the collection of materials became more and more professional. The work of the Grimm’s student Wilhelm Mannhardt is particularly noteworthy as he was probably the first who started collecting folklore through systematic surveys in a large number of European villages in 1865. Mannhardt’s approach inspired many and culminated in the Atlas Der Deutsche Volkskunde (ADV).

This research project funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (the German equivalent of the National Science Foundation) was grandiose for its time. The study was based on expert surveys in almost 20,000 German localities in 1930. For each of these localities, the ADV send questionnaires to pre-screened and pre-selected local experts who were able to write independently and lived in the surveyed community for a prolonged period of time. The Nazi takeover and World War Two abruptly ended the analysis of the data, but the original surveys survived the war and are currently located in the basement of the Abteilung Kulturantropologie of the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms University in Bonn, Germany. During the summer of 2017 and 2018, I received permission to access the survey material, which had not been touched for over twenty years. During this period, I hand-coded the answers to specific Kinderschreck questions in the survey conducted before the Nazis seized power. The resulting dataset included information on Bogeyman reported by 50,356 experts living in 19,828 localities all over Weimar Germany. For 5,620 of these localities at least one expert reported the presence of a Jewish bogeymen.

Mapping stories about Jewish bogeymen in Weimar Germany

I mapped all the localities in the dataset and marked those with Jewish bogeymen in Figure 1. The top half of the figure reveals that Jewish bogeymen tend to cluster near the border with Denmark, France, Belgium, Switzerland, parts of Austria, the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia. In total 71% of all 1,114 towns reporting Jewish bogeymen are located within 10 kilometers of border crossings, while only 17% of the Weimar population lived within this radius. The lower half of the same figure displays the geographical distribution of Jewish citizens living in Weimar Germany in 1925. There does not seem to be a particularly strong overlap between the presence of antisemitic themes in children stories and the presence of a local Jewish population, suggesting that antisemitism without Jews was quite prominent.

Jews and Jewish Bogeymen in Weimar Germany.

This suggests that antisemitism was particularly widespread in national border regions. Is there a relationship between proximity to national borders and antisemitism? Not necessarily. It is plausible that Weimar’s border regions were already more antisemitic before the establishment of the German nation-state. To investigate this, I turn to Mannhardt, mentioned above, who conducted local expert surveys on Kinderschreck in 1865, six years before German unification. Based on his data, I was able to obtain information about Kinderschreck in 1,609 localities before (1865) and after unification (1930). Pairing the Weimar data from the ADV with Mannhardt’s 1865 survey also allows us to explore the clustering of Jewish bogeyman before and after the introduction of national borders. Figure 2 summarizes findings from a simple difference-in-difference analysis and shows the percentages of localities with Jewish bogeyman in 1865 and 1930 by region. Two things immediately stand out. First, one can note the overall increase in Jewish bogeyman between 1865 and 1930. A second thing is that regardless of the distance threshold, the upward trend in antisemitism is much stronger in localities near Weimar’s border. This indicates that proximity to newly created national borders had an independent and positive influence on the production of antisemitism.

Villages with Jewish bogeymen by region before and after German unification with 95% confidence intervals.

How borders between nations activate borders within nations

What accounts for this shift? Because the quantitative data on bogeymen cannot provide a full answer to this question, I complement it with local reports on the evolution of antisemitism compiled by the Centralverein, the largest secular Jewish organization in the Germany, dedicated to monitoring and combating the rise of anti-Jewish thought and behavior since 1893. While the Kinderschreck data provides an opportunity to compare fine-grained variation in antisemitism before and after the introduction of national border crossings, the Centralverein reports provide more qualitative detail and allows us to unpack the key processes and actors involved in the production of resentment towards Jews. The research so far identifies two key processes.

First, border crossings make the nation visible and prime people to perceive international influences on their lives. As such, border crossings produce a nationalist lens through which local, vulnerable groups perceive their social problems. Second, border crossings often symbolize international threats and therefore attract xenophobes in general and mobilization by radical political movements in particular. Whereas the latter, top-down mechanism, shapes resentment towards outsiders by attracting political movements whose ideologies provide xenophobic scapegoats, the former, bottom-up mechanism shifts local population’s perceptions of social problems to make these scapegoats stick. The concurrence of the attraction and perception mechanisms turn ethnic outsiders – groups that transcend the nation – into likely scapegoats. Hence, it is the confluence of political and economic processes in a distinct spatial setting that produces xenophobic hotbeds. Geography thus conditions the influence of political threats, movement instigation, economic discontent and social class on xenophobic discourse.     


I am only beginning to unpack the socio-economic dynamics underlying these spatial patterns and to understand how borders shaped the content of children’s tales in the first place. My project on the interaction between space and political mobilization will have important implications for the study of ethnic conflict, antisemitism, and German history. At a general level, this research joins a growing body of work that situates intergroup dynamics in the context of broader cleavage structures by showing that borders between nations activate borders within nations. While existing research often looks at how relationships between insiders and outsiders influence mutual resentment, my analysis suggests that intersections within one insider group (i.e. national borders between Christian gentiles) can activate hatred towards a third group (i.e. Jews) by shaping the perception of social problems and activating ethnic mobilization.

My study also provides the micro-foundations for macro-sociological theories on the rise of nationalism and ethnic conflict. The shift from empire to nation state has produced intensified political exclusion along ethnic lines. I suggest that this shift was particularly strong in border regions between different nations. Mechanisms that specify how this shift materialized at a local level identify how cognitive and mobilization processes at the margins are important in shaping the forms that ethnic exclusion can take in the political center.


  • Robert Braun is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Political Science at UC Berkeley. His first book Protectors of Pluralism (CUP 2019) aimed to explain the local level variation in resistance against genocide. His second project tentatively titled Bogeymen studies the relationship between state formation and political fear in Central Europe.

2 thoughts on “Borderlands and Antisemitism in Weimar Germany: Evidence from Children’s Stories

Leave a Reply