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The Consuming Temple: Jews, Department Stores, and the Consumer Revolution in Germany, 1880-1940.


Paul Lerner. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015. xi + 266 pp.

The rise of the department store has been intimately linked to the history of modernity in the Atlantic world (United States, France, Britain). In Germany, as many other aspects of modernity, the full-fledged department store arrived relatively late, around 1890, but expanded exceptionally fast, surpassing all but the American stores in both number and sales within only a decade. Around 1900, the German department stores had also the highest percentage of Jewish owners, and nowhere else was the association between department stores and Jews as strong and persistent as in Germany.

Paul Lerner's monograph on the department store in Germany between 1890 and 1940 fills sizable gaps in both the history of consumer culture in Germany and Jewish cultural history. It attends, in the words of the author, "not only to the shaping of discourse by reality, but also to the shaping of reality by discourse." Thus, The Consuming Temple digs happily into an extremely rich and varied body of material and media, both nonfictional and fictional. Key sources include articles in the daily and illustrated press, advertisements, professional treatises on the psychology of kleptomania, and studies of mass consumption, retail, and marketing. The author has combed also through an impressive number of unpublished archival materials from department store firms and other family collections. He does not shy away from using ample antisemitic material (agitation pamphlets, political propaganda, etc.) that--despite its malicious and deceitful rhetoric--drew on images of Jews and anxieties about social change that were shared across the ideological spectrum in the time before and after World War I. Particularly noteworthy are Lerner's abundant references to fiction--I counted over three dozen novels, revues, plays, short stories, and even songs and cartoons--where the plots and characters orbit around the daily functioning of a department store and reflect the public's conflicting attitudes toward this form of consumer revolution. The novels, ranging from Vicky Baum's Der grofie Ausverkauf to Emile Zola's The Ladies' Paradise, from Erich Kohrer's Warenhaus Berlin to Manfred Georg's Aufruhr im Warenhaus, and from Maria Gleit's Abteilung Herrenmode to Sigfrid Siwertz's Das grofie Warenhaus, offer valuable perspectives on how the department stores were seen, experienced, and represented during their heyday between 1890 and 1933. Within Lerner's own compelling narrative and analysis, references to fiction and nonfiction texts intersect in astonishing ways and form a cohesive discursive field around recurring themes that become the center of the respective chapters in the book.

The first chapter situates the spread of the department store within the broader economic, sociological and political picture in the 1880s and 1890s, including developments in France, Britain, and America that served partially as a model for the entrepreneurs in Germany. The author is very precise in outlining the specificity of the German case. It was predominantly Jewish families, newcomers that had migrated between 1824 and 1871 from the East (territories that are now in Poland) into central and western Germany, who were looking for new economic opportunities. Unlike France and Britain, where the department stores emerged in the centers of Paris and London, the early departments stores in Germany started modestly in the provinces, outside of the capital, in medium-sized cities--with the retail of dry goods and textiles--before entering the bigger metropolitan markets; also, they catered mainly to working-class and lower-middle-class customers by offering quality goods at reasonable prices. With the bold move to Berlin and other big cities, however, most German department stores underwent a major shift. They became palatial structures, grandiose temples of consumption.

Along with awe and admiration, the department store provoked fear and fierce rejection. Thus, the rest of the chapter is dedicated to a detailed analysis of the Warenhaus-Debatte and the antisemitic discourses surrounding the transformation of consumer culture in Wilhemine Germany. Lerner's incisive rereading of articles, especially of the antisemitic Hammer newspaper, reveal many observers' profound unease not only with the rising power of Jewish businesses within German economic life but also with the department store's perceived detrimental influence over women as employees or customers. Originating in the 1880s, anti-department store propaganda coated with vitriolic antisemitism persisted without much variation into the 1930s. Thus, the theme of antisemitism directed at the Jewish-owned retail industry returns repeatedly in the subsequent chapters of Lerner's book.

Chapters 2 and 3 include fascinating studies of various aspects of the department's store emblematic metropolitan modernity, key elements of which are the notions of mobility, circulation, and traffic, as well as the changing dynamic of local, national, and cosmopolitan identities. Although stationary, made of iron, glass, and concrete, the department store represented a "hub of concentric circulatory networks" supporting an unceasing flow of goods, money, and people. This emphasis on relentless motion intersected with a tradition of characterizing Jews as circulating, mobile, cosmopolitan economic actors, which is another aspect of the perception of the department store's Jewishness.

According to psychiatric, psychoanalytic, journalistic, and fictional writings that Lerner has revisited, the department store became also a locus of "uncanny encounters," a staging ground for theft, surveillance, seduction, and other kinds of compulsive or deviant behavior. The scientific writings of the time as well as numerous fictional works shed light on enormous impact of the department store on women, and more specifically on the ways in which both the masses of female shoppers and the large cohorts of saleswomen ("shopgirls") were seen in the public imagination.

In chapter 4, Lerner detours from the fictional treatments of department stores set in real or imaginary Berlin and focuses on the rise of Leonhard Tietz and S. Schocken concerns, two major firms that had no presence in the capital throughout the 1920s and were proud of bringing modernity to the provinces. It is in this part of the book that the author offers the most detailed analysis of the architecture of the department store and its evolution from the pre-World War One period to the Weimar years. Here, too, Lerner argues convincingly that the history of the department store was not only a case of German-Jewish elites' assimilation, but also an aspiration for dissimilation as exemplified by Zionism in the life and work of Salman Schocken.

Although the author has chosen an interesting thematic, rather than chronological, structure for his monograph, there is a certain expectation that the book's last chapter would zoom in on the decline and demise of the Jewish department store during the rise of National Socialist dictatorship. Indeed, by focusing on the interrelated themes of "fire," "violence," and "destruction," the author arrives eventually at the November pogroms of 1938, but not before dwelling at length on the representation of these motifs in several novels and fictional works of the earlier decades of the twentieth century. By comparison, the four-page account of the physical assails and the political action against department stores by the Nazis is somewhat terse and condensed--perhaps short-shifted. In that sense, 1940 as the date marking the end of the period under consideration is somewhat misleading. Rather than detailing the demise of the Jewish department store, Paul Lerner's Consuming Temple prefers to devote the bulk of its rich, engaging, lucid narrative to the golden age of the business, from the late nineteenth century through the early 1930s. This was the time when it was both marveled and feared, greeted with concurrent excitement and concern, embraced by some as an occasion for cosmopolitan consumption and rejected by others as a treacherous Jewish invasion. Lerner's book captures this complexity with unrivaled elegance and subtlety.

Mila Ganeva

Miami University
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Author:Ganeva, Mila
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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