The dark history of antisemitism in board games
Tabletop games have been used to express hate in ways both explicit and shockingly mundane for centuries.
In 2011 German authorities revealed the activities of the National Socialist Underground, a terrorist group of white supremacists that were responsible for several acts of murder and violence since the early 1990s. Among the objects confiscated by police were the expected extremist literature and Nazi memorabilia, but one peculiar object made headlines across Germany.
Content warning: This article contains discussions of antisemitism and antisemitic violence. External links may also contain similar content.
The homemade board game Pogromly was first printed in the late ‘90s, partially to help fund the group’s terror activities. No-one is sure exactly how many copies were made, but at least a dozen games have been discovered following arrests of Neo-Nazis in Germany and abroad. It is, in short, a Nazi-themed Monopoly clone featuring antisemitic tropes and violent slurs in place of the usual properties and utilities. The game is, even aside from its horrific themes, awful - but its intention was never to be fun; rather the game hoped to revive a long-standing history seen throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, that of the antisemitic game.
Pogromly was not the first game of its kind. As early as 1807 British gamemakers produced The New and Fashionable Game of the Jew, a variation of the traditional Glückshaus (House of Fortune) which had been played across Europe since at least the 15th century. The traditional gambling game sees players rolling dice and adding into the “fortune house” until one player takes home all the money. In this British variant, however, the house is replaced by a stereotypical money-hoarding Jewish man.
As printing and manufacturing became easier, more games with similar themes were seen throughout Europe. In 1837 Dutch gamemakers began to sell the earliest mass-produced antisemitic game, a cheaply printed version of Glückshaus. Antisemitic themes and tropes became commonplace in games for both adults and children.
This trend however stalled at the turn of the century. In 1897 a slight break from the norm was seen with the creation of The Dreyfuss Affair, a board game that set out with the explicit message that an attack on one minority was an attack on all. The game was made by supporters of Alfred Dreyfuss, a French artillery officer who was wrongly accused of treason following criticisms that he as a Jew could not be fully loyal to the French nation.
In the early 1900s antisemitism in games and toys was becoming less common. According to historian Pamela Nelson, however, it wasn’t a less antisemitic society that led to this change, but a change in how Jews and other minorities were typically viewed within the mainstream.
“African-American images predominated in early manufactured toys in part because the white-created stereotype of African Americans as comical, entertaining, and child-like was particularly suited for use in toys. The stereotyped Jew, on the other hand, being associated with money and business, was less comical.”
The early 20th century saw an explosion in racist toys and games. As manufacturing became easier, small gamemakers could create new products not based on traditional games, and in these new games stereotypical images of Black and Asian people became commonplace. The trope of the greedy and untrustworthy Jew still remained strong throughout society, but no longer sold games in the way other forms of racism now did.
Players, typically young children, were no longer just passively experiencing antisemitic tropes; they were actively engaging in simulated violence against Jews.
The years preceding the 1930s were a high-point for antisemitism across Europe. In Germany the nascent Nazi party began publishing propaganda blaming Jews for the ills of their country, while in countries across the continent hate crimes and heavy marginalisation were also seen. The position of Jews rapidly shifted from outsiders to scapegoats, and with this shift new antisemitic depictions became part of everyday existence.
In 1936, less than a year after the Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews and other minority groups of rights within Germany, one small game company went one step further in their antisemitic designs. Juden Raus (Jews Out) features no swastikas, no Nazi symbology, no militaria of any kind. To a casual observer it resembles a colourful child’s game with wooden figures and a medieval walled city, but its reality is something far more hateful and shocking.
In Juden Raus children take turns moving around the board collecting pieces representing Jews from their homes and businesses. Players deposit the pieces at the edge of the board into spaces labelled “Auf nach Palästina!” (off to Palestine) where they are, presumably, deported from the country.
Juden Raus marked a first in antisemitic games. Players, typically young children, were no longer just passively experiencing antisemitic tropes; they were actively engaging in simulated violence against Jews.
Two copies of the game exist in the Wiener Holocaust Library’s collection. A handful of examples remain in museums and private collections, but it is believed the creators sold relatively few copies. “Antisemitic toys and games appear to have been less widely used as propaganda in Nazi Germany compared to books,” says Dr Barbara Warnock, a senior curator of the museum. “Games and toys usually found people through shops rather than in schools.”
Juden Raus suggests that antisemitism was alive and well and deeply rooted in Germany, since both the company and the Nazis assumed there would be a buying public for this game.
Juden Raus was not a commercial success, largely in part due to authorities at the time condemning the game for trivialising the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies. But the potential for a new form of indoctrination was quickly understood. The party later produced their own games and toys, but these more often focused on military glory and indoctrination of children.
Rather than a successful piece of propaganda, Juden Raus reflected the extreme forms of prejudice that were seen at the time. “[The game] suggests that antisemitism was alive and well and deeply rooted in Germany, since both the company and the Nazis assumed there would be a buying public for this game,” says Dr Warnock. Reacting to the world around them, the creators saw the potential to profit from the casualised hatred that children were exposed to on a daily basis. Just one month after Kristallnacht, a night of violent attacks on Jews across Germany and their occupied territories, the game was sold in shops at a discounted price.
60 years after the release of Juden Raus, neo-Nazis seeking to revive the heights of German antisemitism saw the potential that the game represented. Pogromly reflected their own hate-filled world, an echo chamber of people like them that exchanged bigoted ideas behind closed doors. But it also represented their inflated sense of importance.
Games reflect the most casual of social norms. They show what is acceptable fodder for fun-making, and through them many social and political ideas are introduced and normalised to children. It is no coincidence that the NSU modelled their game on Monopoly, the most widely-known game in the world. The group created Pogromly not just as a twisted in-joke for other bigots, but as part of an ideology that imagined their ideas as so commonplace that they were accepted within the mainstream.
Pogromly and Juden Raus show us that games mean more than the sum of their parts. They are never apolitical or entirely neutral, but reflect the politics of the day and show us in some small way what can and should be acceptable. In understanding why games such as these should be considered offensive we must also question why and how racism of other forms might be reflected in our play. We must ask ourselves how we as a hobby might aid in normalising violence and discrimination and how we should stand against it. In this sense these games are more than just a reflection of the past. Like many objects of the Wiener Museum, they are a warning for today and for the future.