Evolution of the antisemitic imagery

The stereotypical propaganda about ‘the Jew’ played an important role in the Holocaust during the Second World War. In order to fully understand this imagery, it is important to take a look at how the antisemitic image evolved over the centuries. The drawings, objects and posters from the Langerman collection, and selected by Kazerne Dossin for #FakeImages, focus on four major time periods.


desecration of the Host

Middle Ages-19th centurie: a religious antisemitism

In Europe, religious antisemitism first appeared in the wake of the Crusades. Jews were no longer stigmatised solely because of their faith; they were now accused of being responsible for nearly every misfortune that befell the world, including epidemics, natural disasters, children’s deaths, and desecration of the Host. The population set upon the Jews as scapegoats, often at the instigation of feudal or royal powers, who found in the Jews a convenient means of diverting popular anger away from state bodies and towards a defenceless minority. From the Middle Ages to modern times, tens of thousands of Jews have been executed, forced to convert, or exiled from their homelands as a consequence of religious emancipation.


the Dreyfus Affair

1886-1920: The Changing Antisemitic Image

Before the end of the 19th century, antisemitism was spread mainly via written texts. In 1880, such pieces begin to be accompanied by shocking images that were widely disseminated. Newspapers, songs, postcards and colourful Épinal prints stigmatised Jews. Various hateful stereotypes were disseminated by these new media. ‘The Jew’ was variously portrayed as the corrupter of society, as Christianity’s hereditary enemy, as a traitor to the homeland, as a deformed, dirty and ugly creature, as the incarnation of a ‘degenerate race’… All of these depictions contrasted sharply with the idealised image of the ‘native’ citizen.

In a climate of growing antisemitism, propagandists became aware of the potential of this anti-Jewish iconography. They revived certain stereotypes found in medieval Christian art, in particular the figure of the ‘diabolic Jew’, and disseminated them more widely thanks to new forms of media. These antisemitic and xenophobic stereotypes established a polarity between the ‘good’ Belgians (or French, Germans, etc.) and the Jewish population, which was always considered foreign despite the fact that Jews had been living in Europe for more than a thousand years.

During this first phase, the antisemitic image re-emerged at every crisis and with ever-increasing strength, hatred and impact. Consequently, the reverberations across Europe from the Panama Scandal, the Dreyfus Affair and the dissemination of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were considerable. The manipulation of public opinion was well underway.



1920-1939: The Antisemitic Image in the Conquest for Power

Antisemitism became stronger than ever in the aftermath of the First World War and was now often expressed openly. In the fight against communism ‘Jews’ were regarded as bloodthirsty revolutionaries. In the wake of the global economic crisis they were portrayed as capitalist profiteers. In the religious crisis they were seen as enemies of Christianity. The figure of the ‘imaginary Jew’ was to be found in every public discourse.

People believed more firmly than ever in the alleged truths of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as can be seen from Georges Simenon’s series of articles on the Jewish Peril, published in the Gazette de Liège.

Some states, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, adopted antisemitism as an official doctrine, promulgating discriminatory laws and following antisemitic policies. Race theorists contributed to such efforts by adding a supposedly scientific grounding to antisemitism. Their aim was to establish that Jewish difference was radical, indelible and biological, such that not even conversion could save the Jews.

Hitler’s election victory in 1933 bolstered this racial and biological antisemitism. In Mein Kampf, Hitler assigned propaganda a central role, arguing that it must enhance the founding myths and values of the ‘Germanic race’. In this case, propaganda aimed to win over its audience and to spread hatred against the Jews (as well as other groups) in order to unite the German Nation. The public sphere, the financial world and the education system were inundated with propaganda.

Illustrations, especially ones in colour, were an ideal platform through which to foster widespread hatred. Besides the frequent use of postcards, posters and illustrated newspapers were now displayed throughout public spaces. Even children were specifically targeted, with books being used to recruit the younger generation.



1939-1945: The Changing Antisemitic Image

In 1941, the war became global in scale when Nazi Germany launched an invasion of the USSR, its former ally, and, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States of America entered the conflict. The assault on the USSR, the supposed bastion of the ‘Judaeo-Bolsheviks’, marked the beginning of the systematic extermination of Europe’s Jews.

Propaganda was used not only to stoke hatred against the Jews, but also to justify their total extermination; moreover, this propaganda was targeted not just at the troops ordered to kill Jews, but also at civilians, both in Germany and elsewhere. The stigmatisation of communist Jews therefore became part of a policy to win over Eastern European populations by portraying these populations as having been ‘liberated from the Judaeo-Bolshevik yoke’. Collaborating regimes in both the East and West stepped up their pressure on the Jews.

The antisemitic discourse accused Jews of having triggered the war, of wanting to take over the world, and of looting and killing. It cleared the Nazis and their collaborators of any responsibility for their acts and put responsibility on the Jews.

“Today, I will be a prophet once again: if the international Jewish financiers in Europe and beyond were to successfully plunge the nations into another world war, the result would not be the Bolshevisation of the world, and thus the victory of Jewry but, rather, the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”Adolf Hitler, speech to the Reichstag (German Parliament), Berlin, 30 January 1939

The expressions of antisemitism did not speak so much about actual Jews as they did the obsessions of the antisemites themselves, in particular power, money and identity (‘race’). During this time of war, the graphic barbarisation of the imaginary Jew’s face reflected a radicalisation of antisemitism as it moved towards total dehumanisation of the Jews. It would ultimately lead to the utter negation of their identity as human beings.

More background