In a perverse way, there is possibly no better means of trying to get our 21st century heads around anti-Semitism than looking through a collection of anti-Semitic postcards. This was quite a popular pre-Hitler genre with one of the biggest collections being held at Vienna’s Jewish museum. Zeno, a digital publisher based in Germany has offered a similar collection of 1100 cards on a CD-ROM and flicking through them, as I discovered when going through Vienna’s collection, is strangely instructive. The Zeno publication is based on a collection held by Wolfgang Haney in Berlin and is international, dating from 1893-1845. The Vienna collection avoided Nazi propaganda postcards, which I can understand, but when seen in context, it makes more sense (in a perverse way) to include them. There are a number of general observations to make: the cards from the Haney collection come from everywhere including the UK and America .They were thus a world-wide phenomenon. In the UK, tailors are mostly parodied whereas in America, it’s pawnshop merchants. Churchill is portrayed as a Jew, and so is Stalin – yet Communist propaganda is just as relentlessly anti-Semitic as the propaganda of National Socialism. From the late 19th century onwards, Jews are shown as hilariously fat or sinisterly thin; fantastically rich or miserably poor – German postcards show scenes from a mythical anti-Semitic character called ‘Der kleine Cohn’ – or ‘little Cohen’ with songs to sing at his funeral or another ‘hit’ which was frequently reproduced called ‘Have you seen little Cohen?’. Everyone is indescribably ugly with exaggerated physical attributes as seen in the Kikeriki caricature of Offenbach elsewhere on this page. But in another postcard, extrapolating from these exaggerated physical features is a cartoon showing naked recruits being examined for military service in 1914 with the medical officer holding his hands apart as if to show the size of a recently caught fish – only he’s gazing at the endowments of a Jewish recruit. There is much more along the line of sexual incontinence, with gorgeous blond women marrying hideously ugly Jewish men and variations on the theme of Susannah in her bath surrounded by drooling men in Hasidic garb. Oddly enough, there is very little parodying of Jewish support for the arts or investments in local community, though there is a vicious photo of Rothschild’s enormous hospital in Vienna which manages to twist even the most altruistic gestures into an object of ridicule.
Such unbridled representations of Jews were meant to stir up hatred and were used in equal measure from the left and the right. One of the most offensive themes, played on hundreds of postcards, is that of the Jew at the Spa resort. Having taken the waters at Karlsbad (or wherever) they promptly crap themselves. Dreyfus is the subject of many French cards – and indeed, the French nearly outdo the Germans, Russians and Poles for grotesque vulgarity. As early as the turn of the century, there are frequent representations of Jews being forced to move to Palestine. Occasionally, there is a postcard that genuinely stirs the soul such as a portrayal of a young man (not the usual Jewish persiflage) weeping over his murdered wife and child with the caption ‘After the Pogrom’ – but equally, there are a number of cards showing Jews from the Pale of Settlement fleeing to Germany where they are shown not only to find security, (‘what more should they expect?’ being the apparent implication) but also enormous financial success (the cheek!) – of course, non-Jewish Germans are shown in rags. The cards dating from the Nazi years are particularly intriguing as they often show soldiers ‘clearing’ villages of Jews or erecting signs designating quarters where only Jews are allowed to live. Others show men with swastikas sweeping Jews away, usually with letters spelling ‘Palestine’ in the background. Despite all of the deep unpleasantness, there seems to be no actual portrayal of mass-murder. That the intentions imply that this must be the unavoidable outcome is far more apparent today than it perhaps was at the time. It could be argued that the cards inspire and encourage the deepest imaginable hatred, but at no time instruct to kill. How wise we think ourselves in retrospect – and casually, I wonder if today’s equivalent of these hateful cards aren’t computer games where people run riot massacring everyone they deem to be ‘an enemy’. Only time will tell – but I’m quite sure that the people who considered it ‘harmless fun’ to show ugly, fat Jewish women dirtying themselves in Karlsbad would have answered with similar arguments that such petty vulgarities were merely allowing people to let off steam. Indeed, by laughing at such caricatures, it fused the anger that might have led to violence. One of the most cynical cards in the collection shows a young blond man walking past a couple of anti-Semitic caricatures and a cross between a music-hall Gollywog and a spiv. It carries a quote from the much admired Jewish poet Heinrich Heine that comes from his 1824 ‘Aus der Harzreise’ (‘Extracts from a Journey to the Harz Mountains’) with the verses ‘…Alle Menschen, gleichgeboren/ Sind ein adliges Geschlecht’ (‘…Equal, all mankind is born/ And form a noble race’. I’m no psychologist, so I can only speculate – but looking through such a collection that was no-doubt deemed ‘harmless fun’ when produced, one sees the equivalent of many tiny stones, that when taken together, present us with a gigantic mosaic portraying mass-murder and cultural annihilation.