During the 1920s and 1930s, Europe saw the outbreak of an aggressive and anti-Semitic nationalism that made racial and social claims and which saw the Jews as an inferior and dangerous race. It sought to limit Jewish economic activity and distance Jews from public life in their countries. With Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany this racial anti-Semitism became the official ideology and policy of the German regime. In 1938, an organised campaign, later named Kristallnacht, took place that included destroying synagogues, mass arrests, destruction and looting of Jewish-owned businesses, and official registration of Jewish property in preparation for eventual confiscation. It was a real turning point as it changed the nature of persecution from economic, political and social to physical with beatings, incarceration, and murder; the event is sometimes referred to as the beginning of the Holocaust. In the words of the historian Max Rein, “Kristallnacht came… and everything was changed.” It can be easily compared to the violent and murderous pogroms incited by Imperial Russia in the 1880s, it was in fact one of the biggest attacks on Jews in Europe since the pogroms. In addition to Jews, other groups who were deemed enemies of the Reich, such as Roma and Sinti gypsies, homosexuals and the mentally ill, were also persecuted.
Hatred of Jews had long been entrenched in Europe. The image of the Jew as the murderer of Jesus (to be fair it even says in the Talmud that he was put to death by a Jewish court for the crimes of sorcery and sedition) and the fact that Jews had rejected Christianity’s embrace led to widespread hatred and suspicion. Jews in Christendom were humiliated, banished from their places of residence, forced to wear identifying marks, and confined to separate residential quarters. They were portrayed as offspring of the Devil and accused of the ritual murder of Christian children, yet the Church prevented their destruction.
In the modern period, anti-Semitism that emphasised economic, social or political differences gained strength. A combination of racial anti-Semitism and social Darwinism, however, invested this traditional anti-Semitism with a new and dynamic image. Racial theories became prevalent in Europe and, especially in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century. The very term “anti-Semitism”, which signals antipathy towards Jews not as practitioners of a different faith or holders of a separate nationality, but as members of a special race, was first coined by anti-Semites in Germany in the 1870s.
Not until the 1930s, however, with the ascendancy of National Socialism and Adolf Hitler’s accession to power in Germany, did racial anti-Semitism become a political instrument in the hands of the masses and, later on, the official policy of a modern state. From then on, the essence of Jewishness was believed to be biological. In the past, a Jew could theoretically avoid persecution by assimilating, renouncing the customs of his tradition, or adopting a non-Jewish faith. However, the racial element eliminated these possibilities. The new racial outlook defined the German people as the finest and purest branch of the Aryan-Nordic race (along with Nordic-Scandinavian peoples) and labelled Jews as a subhuman race that strove to challenge the “correct” world order and deprive the “supreme race” of its position of dominance and leadership. Unless the “Aryan” race won the struggle and established its dominion, Jews would bring about the extermination of the human race.
Rise of the Nazis and Beginning of Persecution
Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power due to the social and political circumstances that characterised the interwar period in Germany. Many Germans could not concede their country’s defeat in World War I, arguing that “backstabbing” and weakness in the rear had paralysed and, eventually, caused the front to collapse. The Jews, they claimed, had done much to spread defeatism and thus destroy the German army. Democracy in the Weimar Republic, they argued, was a form of governance that had been imposed on Germany and was unsuited to the German nature and way of life. They construed the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty and the steep reparation payments that it entailed as revenge by the victors and a glaring injustice. This frustration, together with intransigent resistance and warnings about the surging menace of Communism, created fertile soil for the growth of radical right-wing groups in Germany, spawning entities such as the Nazi Party.
In 1925, a transitory economic upturn and a promising political dialogue brought relative calm into sight. However, the severe international economic crisis that erupted in 1929 carried the instability to new heights.
In 1919, Adolf Hitler, a released soldier wounded in WWI, joined a small and insignificant group called the National Socialist Party. He became the group’s leader and formulated the racial and anti-Semitic principles in its charter. In 1923, party activists led a revolt to seize power in Munich, the Munich Putsch as it’s known, but they failed. Hitler was imprisoned, during which time he wrote his venomous book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), in which he expressed his ideas about racial theory and Nazi global dominion. Hitler realised that he must employ legitimate democratic means in his struggle to seize power. However, he and his associates left no doubt about their belief in democratic freedoms as mere tools with which power might be attained. After his release, Hitler reorganised the party.
In the 1924 Reichstag elections, the Nazi Party received three percent of the votes cast and was represented in the parliament by fourteen delegates. In the 1928 elections, its support declined; the party was able to send only twelve delegates to the legislature. The turnaround came in 1930, the first elections after the economic crisis began. Surprisingly, the Nazis received 18.3 percent of the vote and sent 107 delegates to the Reichstag, the German Parliament. In July 1932, with 230 mandates, they became the largest faction in the House – a political force that made an impact and acceded to power legitimately. President Paul von Hindenburg gave Hitler the mandate to form a government, and Hitler became Chancellor on January 30, 1933.
The Beginning of the Persecution of Jews in Germany
In the 1930s, Germany’s Jews – some 500,000 people – made up less than one percent (0.8%) of the German population. Most considered themselves loyal patriots, linked to the German way of life by language and culture. They excelled in science, literature, the arts, and economic enterprise. 24% of Germany’s Nobel Prize winners were Jewish. However, conversion, intermarriage, and declining birth rates, led some to believe that Jewish life was doomed to disappear from the German scene altogether.
The paradox was that Nazi ideology stemmed from Germany and the German people, among whom Jews eagerly wanted to acculturate. Indeed, there was a widespread disbelief amongst many Jews in the illusion that the role they played within industry and trade and their contributions to the German economy would prevent the Germans from completely excluding them.
Nazi anti-Jewish policy functioned on two primary levels: legal measures to expel the Jews from society and strip them of their rights and property while simultaneously engaging in campaigns of incitement, abuse, terror and violence of varying proportions. There was one goal: to make the Jews leave Germany.
On March 9, 1933, several weeks after Hitler assumed power, organised attacks on Jews broke out across Germany. Two weeks later, the Dachau concentration camp, situated near Munich, opened. Dachau became a place of internment for Communists, Socialists, German liberals and anyone considered and enemy of the Reich. It became the model for the network of concentration camps that would be established later by the Nazis. Within a few months, democracy was obliterated in Germany, and the country became a centralised, single-party police state.
On April 1, 1933, a general boycott against German Jews was declared, in which SA (Sturmabteilung, Storm Troopers or “Brown Shirts” were the Nazi Party’s militia) members stood outside Jewish-owned stores and businesses in order to prevent customers from entering.
Approximately one week later, a law concerning the rehabilitation of the professional civil service was passed. The purpose of the legislation was to purge the civil service of officials of Jewish origin and those deemed disloyal to the regime. It was the first racial law that attempted to isolate Jews and oust them from German life. The first laws banished Jews from the civil service, judicial system, public medicine, and the German army (then being reorganised). Ceremonial public book burnings took place throughout Germany. Many books were torched solely because their authors were Jews. The exclusion of Jews from German cultural life was highly visible, ousting their considerable contribution to the German press, literature, theatre, and music.
In September 1935, the “Nuremberg Laws” were passed, stripping the Jews of their citizenship and forbidding intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. Jews were banned from universities; Jewish actors were dismissed from theatres; Jewish authors’ works were rejected by publishers; and Jewish journalists were hard-pressed to find newspapers that would publish their writings. Famous artists and scientists played an important role in this campaign of dispossession and party labelling of literature, art, and science. Some scientists and physicians were involved in the theoretical underpinnings of the racial doctrine.
1938 – “The Fateful Year”
The events of 1938, which a German document termed “The Fateful Year”, were part of the radicalisation of the Nazi’s Jewish policy. During this year, German expansionism escalated, and domestic preparations for war accelerated. The crackdown on Jews took on an increased ferocity, viewed as part of the overall political and ideological course. Throughout the year registration of Jewish property and its forced expropriation increased. The Nazi Minister of Economics, Walter Funk, boasted that by 1938, the authorities had managed to steal Jewish property worth two million marks.
On October 5, 1938, Jews’ passports were invalidated, and those who needed a passport for emigration purposes were given one marked with the letter J (Jude – Jew). Another law from 1938 required Jews who did not have a “typically Jewish name” to add one. Men were forced to add the name Israel and women Sarah so that they would be easily recognised as Jews.
On October 27, 1938, Nazi Germany carried out the brutal eviction of Jews with Polish citizenship – the first mass deportation of Jews. SS men drove children, elderly, and the sick across the Polish border town of Zbąszyń, Poland. The deportation to Zbąszyń was directly connected with the pogrom of Kristallnacht – a central anti-Jewish event that took place on November 9-10, 1938 (previously mentioned above). While Nazi propaganda claimed it was a spontaneous outburst, in reality it had been planned and implemented by the highest echelons of the Nazi leadership. The signal was given by Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, and was carried out by members of the Nazi regime. During the pogrom, 91 Jews were murdered, more than 1,400 synagogues across Germany were torched, and Jewish-owned shops and businesses were plundered and destroyed. In addition, the Jews were forced to pay “compensation” for the damage that had been caused and approximately 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Jewish emigration surged from the beginning of 1938, but the authorities impeded these efforts and continued with the systematic expropriation of property – a process known as “Aryanisation”. Overall, of the half a million Jews who had been living in Germany when Hitler took power, about 300,000 managed to emigrate before the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” began. In the late 1930s, international Jewish organisations, national associations of German Jews, and the Zionist movement played an important role in encouraging emigration. After Kristallnacht, there was a marked increase in Jewish emigration from Germany as well as from Austria and the Czech areas of Czechoslovakia, which had been annexed to Germany in 1938 and early 1939. However, the severe limits imposed by various countries on the absorption of Jewish refugees prevented more Jews from emigrating from Germany and other areas under German control.
As a result of heightened pressure on the American administration’s immigration policy, President Franklin Roosevelt took the initiative of calling a conference in Evian, a French resort town on the shores of Lake Geneva. Representatives of thirty-two countries attended the conference, held in July 1938. All of them paid lip service to the refugees and expressed commiseration with their plight, yet stated in succession that their countries could not admit any more migrants. T.W. White, Australia’s delegate to the conference, claimed that, “under the circumstances, Australia cannot do more… As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.” The British government had severely limited Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine. The desperate Jews attempted to reach any possible destination, with thousands of Jews immigrating during this period to Shanghai, China, at a time when the gates of most countries had been locked before them.