A history of visual expressions of antisemitism, emotions and morality

A joint research project by the Leo Baeck Institute London and the Fritz Bauer Institut Frankfurt

In the German Kaiserreich, during the late 19th and early 20th century, postcards were a popular means of communication. In 1900, Berlin bookseller “Antisemitic Bookshop Emil Keil” produced a postcard entitled “Jewish Prowess”, showing a Jewish man in his prime, of stocky build, hiding behind his corpulent wife after an encounter with a bear in the mountains. He bends down and uses his wife as a shield from the animal, displaying what is typically considered ‹female› behaviour – taking shelter behind a (male) body – and indicating an inversion of gender roles.

The ugliness and shapelessness of the Jewish body on these postcards is striking. Not only do the cards show unattractive bodies, they also speak of correlated moral inadequacies, such as cowardice, dishonesty, lecherousness. These postcards were eagerly collected and posted – they met with approval, inspired positive emotions and feelings.

But what was it that aroused those feelings? Was it the picture itself, or the concept of the cowardly Jew, or the fact that recipient and sender knew they shared common values? These questions are at the core of our project: what kind of feeling is generated, how does it unite observers, and how does it interact with antisemitic visual signals?

In the humanities, examining emotions and feelings means entering uncharted territory. The same is true for the study of visual sources. Looking back at the history of antisemitism, it is obvious that visual sources are vital to the formulation of antisemitic narratives, shared emotions and shared common values. The postcard is a case in point.

What is still missing in present-day research is an approach that combines emotion, morality, visual language and antisemitism. This is a crucial question today as visual media – in particular the internet – have become ubiquitous. This project, using Germany as an example, is intended to clarify how these connections work. The project will cover the Kaiserreich, the Weimar Republic, the Nazi era and the Federal Republic of Germany, and investigate visual products such as postcards, films and TV productions.

We believe that visual media play a central role in the communication of moral standards and an individual’s self image. Pictures per se do not trigger emotions or feelings, but interact with the viewer’s mental predispositions. How does this work? How does a film, for instance, appeal to emotions and moral sentiments? Cinema can function as a “moral laboratory” (Vinzenz Hediger), enabling us to experience, share, or reject, the protagonist’s emotions or feelings.

By positioning postcards and films in their historical, political and cultural context, we will point out the continuities and discontinuities of moral values and shed a light on what happens in this laboratory.

The project will enable us to develop criteria for discussing the emotional impact of visual representation, which will be useful in present-day discourse on antisemitism in film and caricatures.

The project will be carried out by Dr Daniel Wildmann (Director LBI London) and PD Dr  Werner Konitzer (Deputy Director FBI Frankfurt).