Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, January 27, 2012

International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2012: Jew-Hunting Fun for the Whole Family

(Photos from BoardGameGeek of the board game "Juden Raus!")

This year for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I wanted to look at a Nazi-era board game titled Juden Raus! (Jews Out!) It was not made or marketed by the Nazis themselves, but the game company thought it would sell well in the climate of the time. The Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide in London has a copy, and its director, Ben Barkow, has discussed it with a couple of media outlets. If you head over to the BBC site, you can see a short video that gives the best look at the board game's design and game play. The BBC's Mario Cacciottolo explains:

It requires the players to roll dice and move smiling, brightly-coloured figures about a village, picking up conical yellow figures - depicting Jews with grotesque faces - which fit on their heads.

The writing on the board declares that whoever carries six Jews out of their shops and properties and out of the village is the winner. It is a well-made, brightly coloured creation, and serves as a depressing reminder of man's ability to be fiendishly creative in his inhumanity to others.

Mr Barkow points out that the game was not produced by the Nazi party but was an opportunistic business venture by a German company, which simply seized upon the political mood of the country in the 1930s.

In the game, the collected Jews would then be shipped off to Palestine.

(The game pieces. The smiling figures are the player-controlled (presumably good) Germans. The conical "hats" with caricatured faces they are wearing are the Jews "captured" in the course of game play. Photo from BoardGameGeek.)

Juden Raus! was also featured on PRI's The World in December 2011. (Follow the link to listen to the audio.) Barkow and host Lisa Mullins discussed the climate in Germany in 1936 when the game came out, and the heavy proliferation of anti-Semitic materials, including those aimed at young children.

Barkow describes the game as "a considerable commercial success" and that "possibly up to a million copies" were sold, but there's some dispute about this. BoardGameGeek has an entry on the game, and Andrew Morris-Friedman and Ulrich Schädler wrote an article about it for the journal Board Games Studies. Their abstract is:

Board games can be used by cultural historians to gain insights into the values of different cultures. Many modern games have been based on the theme of teaching moral values of the cultures that produce them. One game of moral values however, stands out as the most infamous board game of all time. The game from Germany, “Juden Raus!” (Jews Out!) depicts the policy of racial hatred that defines the Nazi era. It was designed as a family board game that simulates the start of the persecution against the Jewish people of that era. As to the surprise of the producer of the game he had miscalculated: heavily criticized by the Nazis, the announced “bestseller” flopped, even before it was properly marketed.

Martin Solomon provides some quotations from the full article, including a negative review the game received in an SS newspaper. Apparently, the Nazis felt that Juden Raus! trivialized the "measures we have undertaken to fend off the Jewish rabble of murderers." In their minds, their cause was noble and the threat was dire, so it incensed them to see all that reduced to a:

…parlor game, where tiny little figures of Jews are slowly but surely deported to Palestine by the help of the dice cup. The political slogan “Jews Out” is exploited here as a big seller for all toy shops and trivialized to an amusing pastime for little children!

This invention (DRGM. Nr. 1 446 399!) is almost a punishable idea, perfectly suitable as grist to the mills of hate of the international Jewish journaille, who would show around such a piece of mischief as a proof for the childish efforts of the nazistic Jews-haters with a diabolic smirk, if it would appear before her crooked nose.

We do not slave ourselves away with the solution of the Jewish question, to relieve able manufacturers of toys of their worries about a great big seller or to help children with an amusing little game. We don’t push out the black Jews, and how often has it to be said, to make room for the not less dubious thirst for action of the white Jews. Let this be told to the Fabricius Company, before it dedicates itself to the realization of its somewhat rash dream to publish its completely unwelcome big seller for Großdeutschland at the forthcoming fairs in spring!

Jews out! yes of course, but also rapidly out of the toy-boxes of our children, before they are led into the dreadful error that political problems are solved with the dice cup.

The insistence of the zealot (the zealously, violently bigoted in this case) that their cause is deadly serious is striking but not surprising. The idea that "the political slogan “Jews Out” is [being] exploited here" is particularly astounding, and about as darkly ironic as one can get. So, too, is the indignation of a Nazi complaining that "We do not slave ourselves away with the solution of the Jewish question…" given the horrors of the slave labor and death camps instigated by the Nazis later on. (I wonder how common this word choice/metaphor was, and if there are any idiomatic translation issues, since I can't recall other instances of it, although the persecuted bully complex certainly is familiar.) I'm further fascinated by the hateful projection of sneering onto "the international Jewish journaille." This is a staple of authoritarianism, bigotry, and right-wing "literature": Those Other People? They're laughing at you. (There are a few exchanges in the excellent film Conspiracy that touch on these dynamics as well.)

The article's authors conclude:

…“Juden Raus!” is not a “Nazi board game” as it is sometimes called. There is no Nazi symbolism used in the game design and the article published in Das Schwarze Korps shows that the game was disdained – at least officially – in a major publication of the most important Nazi organization. But its true history may never be known for certain and many unsubstantiated rumors about the game exist.

What insights are achieved from “Juden Raus!” about Nazi culture? It is hard to imagine a family sitting at a table playing a game that taught racial hatred. Yet it seems there were people like Rudolf Fabricius who imagined that some families would do just that. Fabricius was one of those mere supporters who thought to make some profit by following in the wake of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda. Today most people react with disbelief or disgust when informed of the game’s existence. “Juden Raus!” shows that after decades of propaganda, anti-Semitism was so deeply rooted in German society in the 1930s, that someone thought it would be a good subject for a children’s game. Racism is present in many board games, but “Juden Raus!” is unique in its portrayal of how racism manifests itself in society and is a terrifying example of the banality of evil.

If the board game was not a big success, that may be slightly comforting, but the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany obviously remains undeniable (even if the precise details continue to be studied). The Nazis really only objected to the style of anti-Semitism in the board game, as well the medium inculcating the bigotry. They did not object to anti-Semitic children's books, for example, where presumably their message could be finely calibrated for their intended audience. That the game company thought that Juden Raus! would sell at all – let alone well – remains disturbing. Similarly, it's instructive to look at the propaganda films the Nazis produced to try to sell the idea of "mercy killings" to the population (the subject of a 2008 post). The Nazis were not entirely successful in this, but their intent and techniques are important to study along with the public's reaction.

Casual, unconscious bigotry can be the hardest to fight. Studying U.S. history, it's informative to look at racial slurs in place names, products, and pop culture (and they were hardly limited to the South). Attitudes change, but the people in a given era and area might never give such things a second thought. This doesn't always mean they are (practicing) bigots (Jay Smooth's advice is pertinent), but it does illustrate how prejudice can become entrenched and the accepted norm. Unconscious does not mean unimportant… or innocuous. In addition to the many concrete, staggering crimes and explicit hate speech perpetrated by the Nazis, it's worth remembering and studying the more subtle forms of dehumanization, and their gradual (and terrible) acceptance. Juden Raus! is a striking case in point, in that its bigotry is taken as natural, a given and justified – so much so that its bigotry isn't just a regrettable and unnecessary flaw in an otherwise decent game; the bigotry drives the central game mechanic. Someone could make a game with similar game play but without bigotry, of course, but anti-Semitism – and making money off of it – were Juden Raus' entire reasons for being.

Cruelty and dehumanization exist on a continuum; such mindsets are not born overnight. Outright hatred from someone in a position of power is probably the most frightening form of bigotry, but treating hatred as a game is both absurd and appalling. There are other disturbing variations, too.

One of the most memorable passages in Primo Levi's memoir If This Is a Man (better known in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz, and the focus of a 2010 post) involves a kapo (guard), whose hands are dirty, and sees Levi merely as a rag:

Without hatred and without sneering, Alex wipes his hand on my shoulder, both the palm and the back of his hand, to clean it; he would be amazed, the poor brute Alex, if someone told him that today, on that basis of this action, I judge him... and the innumerable others like him, big and small, in Auschwitz and everywhere.

If we're discussing the banality of evil, this certainly qualifies. Perversely, demonizing one's perceived foes at least grants them some value, although negative; the zealot longs for the clash of battle, and this requires an adversary who may be seen as inferior, but at least dangerous enough to compel combat, and thus grant honor to his conqueror. (Fear-mongering requires a threat, however illusory.) The demagogue wants in some sense to be hated and feared by his chosen enemies, and the immoral opportunist wants to make money off of such hatred. Kapo Alex is too unreflective to get even that far. He would have to have these concepts explained to him first before he could even reject them. He does not hate Levi per se – he simply does not value him at all as a human being. Prejudice has completely subsumed him as the unquestioned natural order of things. It is this unthinking, unquestioning dehumanization, the casual dismissal of that which is most precious, that can be the most chilling and discouraging. The SS felt their anti-Semitic agenda was far too critical to be represented by a mere "parlor game," Juden Raus! – but in a sense, for unreflective, "poor brute Alex," the stakes do not even rise that high; human dignity is not even as important as a board game.


Jane said...

The "family fun" aspect of Juden Raus! reminds me of old magazines that I inherited from my great-grandmother.

They were Ladies Home Journals from 1905-1911 with a monthly cartoon strip called "The Coons" which caricatured and ridiculed black people. Advertising in the magazines featured blacks in the same way -- apparently making fun of black people sold products.

The LHJ was a national magazine with a wide circulation targeting housewives; it would have published what people enjoyed reading.

Batocchio said...

Thanks, Jane, that is a perfect example. It really is amazing...

Tom Allen said...

Thank goodness we don't have games that popularize the killing of people of other religions or races these days. These video games about killing Muslims and Arabs are all good fun, I'm sure. :-(



Batocchio said...

Gah, Tom, thanks for the reminder on those. Then there's the Left Behind and similar video games, which entail "converting" your foes to Christianity.

Tom Allen said...

Yeah, I checked out the Left Behind series. Only to find it wasn't gay porn. "Behind" my ass. :-P