It is important to remember that when the Nazis came to power, many of the Jews in Germany were highly assimilated. They held positions in most of the professions, many were decorated veterans of World War I, and generally, most thought of themselves as patriotic Germans, not as outsiders.
Some were professors at the best German universities, others were doctors, writers, businessmen and bankers, artists and philosophers. They did not look at all like the exaggerated and distorted figures shown on Nazi posters; instead, Jews were often indistinguishable from other Germans.
We are left with an important question: if there was such a significant discrepancy between reality and the message of the propaganda, how could it succeed?
Part of the answer is that there is a very long history of anti-Judaism (eventually called anti-semitism) in Europe that has origins in the late Roman Empire and became strongly rooted by the Middle Ages. The growth of the Christian Church led to the marginalization of Jews and, during the Middle Ages, centered as it was around Christian ideals, Jews were seen as outsiders and, often, as heretics.
During the Crusades of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Jews were targeted by waves of loyal Christian soldiers who sought to forcibly convert or destroy Jewish communities and their members. Misperceptions and distorted beliefs about Jews led Christians to falsely accuse them of ritual murder, the alleged killings of Christian children in order to use their blood in supposed Jewish rituals.
All of these charges were eventually proven to be untrue, though not before scores of Jews were persecuted and executed as punishment for the alleged crimes. Nevertheless, the accusations left indelible impressions on people of the Medieval era.
As Europe came out of the Middle Ages, Jews found themselves migrating to cities and towns. During the Renaissance, many were forced to reside in segregated neighborhoods - ghettoes - often living under less than ideal conditions. Jews were also limited in the professions in which they could work. Many were forced by necessity to become moneylenders, one of the few professions open to them. This led to the image of the Jew as moneygrubbing and greedy, principal characteristics of the figure of Shylock, one of the most anti-Jewish characters in literature, from William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.
Propaganda is rarely crafted out of completely new cloth. It is linked to existing stereotypes and exploits them. It builds on a foundation of what everybody already "knows," a prejudice or bias that already exists at some subterranean level in the culture.
The nineteenth century was a period when Jews in many parts of Europe were liberated. Policies of toleration were endorsed by many countries. This was certainly true in most of Germany, where Jews had been largely integrated into every town and city. Jews occupied positions in most professions and were largely very successful.
Yet the image lingered that Jews were greedy, exotic or somehow "different" in appearance, with prominent noses and long, flowing beards, and engaged in all sorts of nefarious activities - the legacy of centuries of anti-Jewish ideology. These presumed characteristics served as the foundation for the Nazi propaganda, onto which they grafted additional negative associations.
Exaggerated and transformed into grotesque images, the Nazi caricatures, widely distributed and frequently seen, morphed into the popularperception of the Jew, believed by many and serving as the lens through which modern Jews were seen.
The drawing at the right is an example of French anti-Semitism that dates to the period in the latter half of the nineteenth century when a visual tradition of anti-Jewish imagery emerges. It appeared in the publication La Libre Parole, Dec. 23, 1893. It's entitled "Jewish Virtues According to Gall's Methods.