The Consuming Temple: Jews, Department Stores, and the Consumer Revolution in Germany, 1880-1940
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Department stores in Germany, like their predecessors in France, Britain, and the United States, generated great excitement when they appeared at the end of the nineteenth century. Their sumptuous displays, abundant products, architectural innovations, and prodigious scale inspired widespread fascination and even awe; at the same time, however, many Germans also greeted the rise of the department store with considerable unease. In The Consuming Temple, Paul Lerner explores the complex German reaction to department stores and the widespread belief that they posed hidden dangers both to the individuals, especially women, who frequented them and to the nation as a whole.
Drawing on fiction, political propaganda, commercial archives, visual culture, and economic writings, Lerner provides multiple perspectives on the department store, placing it in architectural, gender-historical, commercial, and psychiatric contexts. Noting that Jewish entrepreneurs founded most German department stores, he argues that Jews and “Jewishness” stood at the center of the consumer culture debate from the 1880s, when the stores first appeared, through the latter 1930s, when they were “Aryanized” by the Nazis. German responses to consumer culture and the Jewish question were deeply interwoven, and the “Jewish department store,” framed as an alternative and threatening secular temple, a shrine to commerce and greed, was held responsible for fundamental changes that transformed urban experience and challenged national traditions in Germany’s turbulent twentieth century.
and with social, political, and economic dimensions. The book attends therefore not only to the shaping of discourse by reality, but also to the shaping of reality by discourse. Jews and the figure of “the Jew,” I argue, stood at the center of the raging controversies around consumer culture and the department store in Germany from the 1880s through the Nazi period and even into the postwar years. As I began researching this topic, I was struck by the absence of works that engaged with the
the German Empire was starting to play an increasingly active role in global affairs, becoming simultaneously more internationally engaged and more prone to nationalist fervor. 2 This chapter investigates the department store’s unique position in time and space, exploring its multiple and overlapping identities as local, national, and international, and German, Jewish, and cosmopolitan. Over the last several decades of intense scholarly interest in modern mass consumption, commodity culture has
offered a comprehensive shopping experience, with “everything under one roof” (Alles unter einem Dach), as a common slogan put it. Newspaper advertisements and publicity (which in the 1920s were increasingly text-based and sober in contrast to the fantastical imagery of the window displays) frequently featured A to Z lists—“everything from Anzugsstoff [material for suits] to Zimmereinrichtungen [room furnishings]” was a common formulation—to illustrate the stores’ extensive lines of products, and
classes all feel the attraction or pull that Wertheim exerts. The most elegant wives of officials from western Berlin or Charlottenburg give themselves over to the madness just as willingly as the petit-bourgeois or working-class wives from the east and north of Berlin, who put on their ‘good dress’ otherwise reserved for Sundays and holidays, when they go to Wertheim.”41 To be sure some department stores catered to particular social groups and reinforced hierarchies of wealth and status; the
urban fault line at the center of the metropolis’s vast, pulsating public transportation system: Here, where the bustling, industrious and commercial Berlin comes into contact with the elegant, primarily residential West, where numerous electric tram lines ceaselessly connect all parts of Berlin and points farther west, Charlottenburg, Schöneberg, and Wilmersdorf, and guide thousands upon thousands of people, and where the subways constantly release new streams of people into the light of day,