Consenting Elites, Threatened Elites


About thirty SA men from Heilbronn arrived in Niederstetten, a small town in southwest Germany, on Saturday, March 25, 1933. Breaking into the few Jewish homes in the area, they took the men to the town hall and savagely beat them while local policemen kept watch at the building entrance. The scene was repeated that morning in neighboring Creglingen, where the eighteen male Jews found in the synagogue were also herded into the town hall. There the beatings led to the deaths of sixty-seven-year-old Hermann Stern and, a few days later, fifty-three-year-old Arnold Rosenfeld.

At the Sunday service the next day, Hermann Umfried, pastor of Niederstetten’s Lutheran church, spoke up. His sermon was carefully phrased: It began with standard expressions of faith in the new regime and some negative remarks about Jews. But Umfried then turned to what had happened the previous day: “Only authorities are allowed to punish, and all authorities lie under divine authority. Punishment can be meted out only against those who are evil and only when a just sentence has been handed down. What happened yesterday in this town was unjust. I call on all of you to help see to it that the German people’s shield of honor may remain unsullied!” When the attacks against Pastor Umfried started, no local, regional, or national church institution dared to come to his support or to express even the mildest opposition to violence against Jews. In January 1934 the local district party leader (Kreisleiter) ordered Umfried to resign. Increasingly anguished by the possibility that not only he but also his wife and their four daughters would be shipped off to a concentration camp, the pastor committed suicide.

Seven years and eight months later, at 2:04 P.M. on November 28, 1941, the first transport of Jews left the Niederstetten railroad station. A second batch boarded the train in April 1942, and the third and last in August of that year. Of the forty-two Jews deported from Niederstetten, only three survived.1

The boycott of Jewish businesses was the first major test on a national scale of the attitude of the Christian churches toward the situation of the Jews under the new government. In historian Klaus Scholder’s words, “during the decisive days around the first of April, no bishop, no church dignitaries, no synod made any open declaration against the persecution of the Jews in Germany.”2 In a radio address broadcast to the United States on April 4, 1933, the most prominent German Protestant clergyman, Bishop Otto Dibelius, justified the new regime’s actions, denying that there was any brutality even in the concentration camps and asserting that the boycott—which he called a reasonable defensive measure—took its course amid “calm and order.”3 His broadcast was no momentary aberration. A few days later Dibelius sent a confidential Easter message to all the pastors of his province: “My dear Brethren! We all not only understand but are fully sympathetic to the recent motivations out of which the völkisch movement has emerged. Notwithstanding the evil sound that the term has frequently acquired, I have always considered myself an anti-Semite. One cannot ignore that Jewry has played a leading role in all the destructive manifestations of modern civilization.”4

The Catholic Church’s reaction to the boycott was not fundamentally different. On March 31, at the suggestion of the Berlin cleric Bernhard Lichtenberg, the director of the Deutsche Bank in Berlin and president of the Committee for Inter-Confessional Peace, Oskar Wassermann, asked Adolf Johannes Cardinal Bertram, chairman of the German Conference of Bishops, to intervene against the boycott. Himself reticent about intervening, Bertram set about asking other senior German prelates for their opinions by stressing that the boycott was part of an economic battle that had nothing to do with immediate church interests. From Munich, Michael Cardinal Faulhaber wired Bertram: HOPELESS. WOULD MAKE THINGS WORSE. IN ANY CASE ALREADY DYING DOWN. For Archbishop Conrad Gröber of Freiburg, the problem was merely that converted Jews among the boycotted merchants were also being damaged.5 Nothing was done.

In a letter addressed at approximately the same time to the Vatican’s secretary of state, Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, Faulhaber wrote: “We bishops are being asked why the Catholic Church, as often in its history, does not intervene on behalf of the Jews. This is not possible at this time because the struggle against the Jews would then, at the same time, become a struggle against the Catholics, and because the Jews can help themselves, as the sudden end of the boycott shows. It is especially unjust and painful that by this action the Jews, even those who have been baptized for ten and twenty years and are good Catholics, indeed even those whose parents were already Catholics, are legally still considered Jews, and as doctors or lawyers are to lose their positions.”6

To the clergyman Alois Wurm, founder and editor of the periodical Seele (Soul), who asked why the church did not state openly that people could not be persecuted because of their race, the Munich cardinal answered in less guarded terms: “For the higher ecclesiastical authorities, there are immediate issues of much greater importance; schools, the maintaining of Catholic associations, sterilization are more important for Christianity in our homeland. One must assume that the Jews are capable of helping themselves.” There is no reason “to give a pretext to the government to turn the incitement against the Jews into incitement against the Jesuits.”7

Archbishop Gröber was no more forthcoming when he stated to Robert Leiber, a Jesuit who was to become the confessor of Pius XII: “I immediately intervened on behalf of the converted Jews, but so far have had no response to my action…. I am afraid that the campaign against Judah will prove costly to us.”8

The main issue for the churches was one of dogma, particularly with regard to the status of converted Jews and to the links between Judaism and Christianity. The debate had become particularly acute within Protestantism, when, in 1932, the pro-Nazi German Christian Faith Movement published its “Guidelines.” “The relevant theme was a sort of race conscious belief in Christ; race, people and nation as part of a God-given ordering of life.”9 Point 9 of “Guidelines,” for example, reads: “In the mission to the Jews we see a serious threat to our people [Volkstum]. That mission is the entry way for foreign blood into the body of our Volk…. We reject missions to the Jews in Germany as long as Jews possess the right of citizenship and hence the danger of racial fraud and bastardization exists…. Marriage between Germans and Jews particularly is to be forbidden.”10

The German Christian Movement had grown in nurturing soil, and it was not by chance that, in the 1932 church elections, it received a third of the vote. The traditional alliance between German Protestantism and German nationalist authoritarianism went too deep to allow a decisive and immediately countervailing force to arise against the zealots intent on purifying Christianity of its Jewish heritage. Even those Protestant theologians who, in the 1920s, had been ready to engage in dialogue with Jews—participating, for example, in meetings organized under the aegis of Martin Buber’s periodical, Der Jude—now expressed, more virulently than before, the standard accusations of “Pharisaic” and “legalistic” manifestations of the Jewish spirit. As Buber wrote in response to a particularly offensive article by Oskar A. H. Schmitz published in Der Jude in 1925 under the title “Desirable and Undesirable Jews”: “I have once again…noted that there is a boundary beyond which the possibility of encounter ceases and only the reporting of factual information remains. I cannot fight against an opponent who is thoroughly opposed to me, nor can I fight against an opponent who stands on a different plane than I.”11 As the years went by, such encounters became less frequent, and German Protestantism increasingly opened itself to the promise of national renewal and positive Christianity heralded by National Socialism.

The German Christian Movement’s ideological campaign seemed strongly bolstered by the election, on September 27, 1933, of Ludwig Müller, a fervent Nazi, as Reich bishop—that is, as some sort of Führer’s coordinator for all major issues pertaining to the Protestant churches. But precisely this election and a growing controversy regarding pastors and church members of Jewish origin caused a widening rift within the Evangelical Church.

In an implementation of the Civil Service Law, the synod governing the Prussian Evangelical Church demanded the forced retirement of pastors of Jewish origin or married to Jews. This initiative was quickly followed by the synods of Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein, Braunschweig, Lübeck, Hesse-Nassau, Tübingen, and Württemberg.12 By the early fall of 1933, general adoption of the so-called Aryan paragraph throughout the Reich appeared to be a foregone conclusion. A contrary trend, however, simultaneously made its appearance, with a group of leading theologians issuing a statement on “The New Testament and the Race Question,” which clearly rejected any theological justification for adoption of the paragraph13 and, on Christmas 1933, Pastors Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller (a widely admired World War I hero), founded an oppositional organization, the Pastors’ Emergency League (Pfarrernotbund), whose initial thirteen hundred adherents grew within a few months to six thousand. One of the league’s first initiatives was to issue a protest against the Aryan paragraph: “As a matter of duty, I bear witness that with the use of ‘Aryan laws’ within the Church of Christ an injury is done to our common confession of faith.”14 The Confessing Church was born.

But the steadfastness of the Confessing Church regarding the Jewish issue was limited to support of the rights of non-Aryan Christians. And even on this point Martin Niemöller made it abundantly clear, for example in his “Propositions on the Aryan Question” (“Sätze zur Arierfrage”), published in November 1933, that only theological considerations prompted him to take his position. As he was to state at his 1937 trial for criticism of the regime, defending converted Jews “was uncongenial to him.”15 “This perception [that the community of all Christians is a matter to be taken with utter seriousness],” wrote Niemöller in the “Propositions,” “requires of us, who as a people have had to carry a heavy burden as a result of the influence of the Jewish people, a high degree of self-denial, so that the desire to be freed from this demand [to maintain one single community with the converted Jews] is understandable…. The issue can only be dealt with…if we may expect from the officials [of the Church] who are of Jewish origin…that they impose upon themselves the restraint necessary in order to avoid any scandal. It would not be helpful if today a pastor of non-Aryan origin was to fill a position in the government of the church or had a conspicuous function in the mission to the people.”16

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s attitude changed over the years, but even in him a deep ambivalence about the Jews as such would remain. “The state’s measures against the Jewish people are connected…in a very special way with the Church,” he declared with regard to the April boycott. “In the Church of Christ, we have never lost sight of the idea that the ‘Chosen People,’ who nailed the Saviour of the world to the cross, must bear the curse of the action through a long history of suffering.”17 Thus it is precisely a theological view of the Jews that seems to have molded some of Bonhoeffer’s pronouncements. Even his friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge could not escape the conclusion that in Bonhoeffer’s writings “a theological anti-Judaism is present.”18 Theological anti-Judaism” was not uncommon within the Confessing Church, and some of its most respected personalities, such as Walter Künneth, did not hesitate to equate Nazi and Jewish interpretations of the “Jewish election,” as based on race, blood, and Volk, in opposition to the Christian view of election by God’s grace.19 Such comparisons were to reappear in Christian anti-Nazi polemics in the mid-thirties and later.

The “Aryan paragraph” applied to only twenty-nine pastors out of eighteen thousand; among these, eleven were excluded from the list because they had fought in World War I. To the end of the 1930s the paragraph was not centrally enforced; its application depended on local church authorities and local Gestapo officials.20 From the churches’ viewpoint, the real debate was about principle and dogma, which excluded unconverted Jews. When, in May 1934, the first national meeting of the Confessing Church took place in Barmen, not a word was uttered about the persecutions: This time not even the converted Jews were mentioned.21

On the face of it the Catholic Church’s attitude toward the new regime should have been firmer than that of the Protestants. The Catholic hierarchy had expressed a measure of hostility to Hitler’s movement during the last years of the republic, but this stance was uniquely determined by church interests and by the varying political fortunes of the Catholic Center Party. The position of many German Catholics toward Nazism before 1933 was fundamentally ambiguous: “Many Catholic publicists…pointed to the anti-Christian elements in the Nazi program and declared these incompatible with Catholic teaching. But they went on to speak of the healthy core of Nazism which ought to be appreciated—its reassertion of the values of religion and love of fatherland, its standing as a strong bulwark against atheistic Bolshevism.”22 The general attitude of the Catholic Church regarding the Jewish issue in Germany and elsewhere can be defined as a “moderate anti-Semitism” that supported the struggle against “undue Jewish influence” in the economy and in cultural life. As Vicar-General Mayer of Mainz expressed it, “Hitler in Mein Kampf had ‘appropriately described’ the bad influence of the Jews in press, theater and literature. Still, it was un-Christian to hate other races and to subject the Jews and foreigners to disabilities through discriminatory legislation that would merely bring about reprisals from other countries.”23

Soon after he took power, and intent on signing a Concordat with the Vatican, Hitler tried to blunt possible Catholic criticism of his anti-Jewish policies and to shift the burden of the arguments onto the church itself. On April 26 he received Bishop Wilhelm Berning of Osnabrück as delegate from the Conference of Bishops, which was meeting at the time. The Jewish issue did not figure on Berning’s agenda, but Hitler made sure to raise it on his own. According to a protocol drafted by the bishop’s assistant, Hitler spoke “warmly and quietly, now and then emotionally, without a word against the church and with recognition of the bishops: ‘I have been attacked because of my handling of the Jewish question. The Catholic Church considered the Jews pestilent for fifteen hundred years, put them in ghettos, etc., because it recognized the Jews for what they were. In the epoch of liberalism the danger was no longer recognized. I am moving back toward the time in which a fifteen-hundred-year-long tradition was implemented. I do not set race over religion, but I recognize the representatives of this race as pestilent for the state and for the church and perhaps I am thereby doing Christianity a great service by pushing them out of schools and public functions.’”24 The protocol does not record any response by Bishop Berning.

On the occasion of the ratification of the Concordat, in September 1933, Cardinal Secretary of State Pacelli sent a note to the German charge d’affaires defining the church’s position of principle: “The Holy See takes this occasion to add a word on behalf of those German Catholics who themselves have gone over from Judaism to the Christian religion or who are descended in the first generation, or more remotely, from Jews who adopted the Catholic faith, and who for reasons known to the Reich government are likewise suffering from social and economic difficulties.”25 In principle this was to be the consistent position of the Catholic and the Protestant churches, although in practice both submitted to the Nazi measures against converted Jews when they were racially defined as Jews.

The dogmatic confrontation the Catholic hierarchy took up was mainly related to the religious link between Judaism and Christianity. This position found an early expression in five sermons preached by Cardinal Faulhaber during Advent of 1933. Faulhaber rose above the division between Catholics and Protestants when he declared: “We extend our hand to our separated brethren, to defend together with them the holy books of the Old Testament.” In Scholder’s words: “Faulhaber’s sermons were not directed against the practical, political anti-Semitism of the time, but against its principle, the racial anti-Semitism that was attempting to enter the Church.”26 Undoubtedly this was the intention of the sermons and the main thrust of Faulhaber’s argumentation, but the careful distinctions established by the cardinal could mislead his audience about his and the church’s attitude toward the Jews living among them.

“So that I may be perfectly clear and preclude any possible misunderstanding,” Faulhaber declared, “let me begin by making three distinctions. We must first distinguish between the people of Israel before and after the death of Christ. Before the death of Christ, during the period between the calling of Abraham and the fullness of time, the people of Israel were the vehicle of Divine Redemption…. It is only with this Israel and the early biblical period that I shall deal in my Advent sermons.” The cardinal then described God’s dismissal of Israel after Israel had not recognized Christ, adding words that may have sounded hostile to the Jews who did not recognize Christ’s revelation: “The daughters of Zion received their bill of divorce and from that time forth, Ahasuerus wanders, forever restless, over the face of the earth.” Faulhaber’s second theme now followed:

“We must distinguish between the Scriptures of the Old Testament on the one hand and the Talmudic writings of post-Christian Judaism on the other…. The Talmudic writings are the work of man; they were not prompted by the spirit of God. It is only the sacred writings of pre-Christian Judaism, not the Talmud, that the Church of the New Testament has accepted as her inheritance.

“Thirdly, we must distinguish in the Old Testament Bible itself between what had only transitory value and what had permanent value…. For the purpose of our subject, we are concerned only with those religious, ethical and social values of the Old Testament which remain as values also for Christianity.”27

Cardinal Faulhaber himself later stressed that, in his Advent sermons, he had wished only to defend the Old Testament and not to comment on contemporary aspects of the Jewish issue.28 In fact, in the sermons he was using some of the most common clichés of traditional religious anti-Semitism. Ironically enough, a report of the security service of the SS interpreted the sermons as an intervention in favor of the Jews, quoting both foreign newspaper comments and the Jewish Central Association’s newspaper, in which Rabbi Leo Baerwald of Munich had written: “We take modest pride that it is through us that revelation was given to the world.”29

Discussion of the Concordat with the Vatican was item 17 on the agenda of the July 14 cabinet meeting. According to the minutes, the Reich chancellor dismissed any debate about the details of the agreement. “He expressed the opinion that one should only consider it as a great achievement. The Concordat gave Germany an opportunity and created an area of trust which was particularly significant in the developing struggle against international Jewry.”30

This remark can hardly be interpreted as merely a political ploy aimed at convincing the other members of the government of the necessity of accepting the Concordat without debate, as the fight against world Jewry was certainly not a priority on the conservative ministers’ agenda. Thus a chance remark opens an unusual vista on Hitler’s thoughts, again pointing toward the trail of his obsession: the “developing struggle” against a global danger—world Jewry. Hitler, moreover, did indeed consider the alliance with the Vatican as being of special significance in this battle. Is it not possible that the Nazi leader believed that the traditional anti-Jewish stance of the Christian churches would also allow for a tacit alliance against the common enemy, or at least offer Nazism the advantage of an “area of trust” in the “developing struggle”? Did Hitler not in fact say as much to Bishop Berning? For a brief instant there appears to be an ominous linkage between the standard procedures of politics and the compulsions of myth.


The questionnaire addressed to university professors (in Germany they were civil servants) reached Hermann Kantorowicz, professor of the philosophy and history of law at the University of Kiel, on April 23, 1933. To the question about the racial origins of his grandparents, he replied: “Since there is no time to inquire as to which sense of the term ‘race’ is being utilized, I shall limit myself to the following declaration: as all four of my grandparents died a long time ago and the necessary measurements, etc., were never made, I am unable to ascertain scientifically (anthropologically) what racial group they belonged to. Understood in its common significance, their race was German, as they all spoke German as their mother tongue, which means that it was Indo-European or Aryan. Their race in the sense of the first supplementary decree to the Law of April 7, 1933, section 2, paragraph 1, sentence 3 was the Jewish religion.”31 One may wonder what made a greater impression on the official who received the filled-out form: the sarcasm or the thoroughness?

It was somewhat gratuitous to send the questionnaire to Kantorowicz, since Minister of Education Bernhard Rust, citing paragraph 3 of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, had already dismissed him on April 14, along with a number of other, mainly Jewish, professors. Sixteen prominent names among them were published in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung on that same day.32 During the year 1933, about twelve hundred Jews holding academic positions would be dismissed.33

In Göttingen, where some of the most illustrious members of the theoretical physics and mathematics faculties were Jews (or, in one instance, married to one), each of the three main figures chose a different response: Nobel laureate James Franck sent a public letter of resignation (published in the Göttinger Zeitung) but planned to stay in Germany, Max Born (who, after the war, would also receive a Nobel Prize in physics) left the university quietly, and Richard Courant decided to utilize the exception clauses of the law in order to keep his position. Within a few months, however, all three emigrated.34 In his letter Franck rejected the exemption granted to him as a war veteran because, in his words, “we Germans of Jewish origin are being treated like foreigners and like enemies of our country.” Franck’s letter led to a public declaration by forty-two of his Göttingen colleagues describing the Jewish physicist’s statement as an “act of sabotage” and expressing the hope that “the government would speed up the necessary cleansing measures.”35

At Tübingen old traditions and new impulses neatly converged. The number of Jewish faculty members dismissed was distinctly low—for a simple reason: No Jew had ever been appointed to a full professorship at this institution, and there were very few Jews among the lower-ranking appointees. Nonetheless, whoever could be expelled was expelled. Hans Bethe, a future Nobel Prize winner in physics, was told to go because of his Jewish mother; the philosophy professor Traugott Konstantin Oesterreich was dismissed on the pretext that he was not politically reliable, but in reality because his wife was of Jewish origin. The same fate almost befell the non-Jewish art historian Georg Weise. The suspicion that Weise’s wife was Jewish led to his dismissal, until unimpeachable documentary evidence of Frau Weise-Andrea’s Aryan origins was produced and led to Weise’s reinstatement.36

What happened in Freiburg seems paradigmatic. On April 1 the local Nazi paper, Der Allemanne, published lists of Jewish physicians, dentists, and so on, who were to be boycotted; some days later the same paper ran a list of Jewish members of the university medical faculty (the list had been provided by the head of psychiatry). In the meantime, on April 6, the Reich governor of Baden, Robert Wagner, moving ahead of decisions about to be taken in Berlin, ordered the dismissal of Jewish civil servants. On April 10 a delegation of Freiburg University deans and professors traveled to Karlsruhe to plead on behalf of the mayor of Freiburg, who was being threatened with dismissal on political grounds. During their meeting at the ministry, the delegation was reminded that dismissals of Jewish faculty members had to be carried out promptly. According to notes taken by the official in charge of university matters, “The professors promised that the decree would be loyally implemented.” It was. On the same day the rector instructed the deans of all schools to dismiss all faculty members of Jewish religion or origin and, for verification, to obtain their signatures on the notices of dismissal. On April 12 the ministry in Karlsruhe was informed that “by 10 A.M. the order had been completely fulfilled.” The notification to the Jewish members of the medical school faculty read in its entirety: “According to the order of the academic rectorate, I inform you that, with reference to Ministry Order No. A 7642, you are placed on indefinite leave. Signed: the Dean, Rehn.”37

In Heidelberg, where the number of professors of Jewish origin was particularly significant, there were attempts at procrastination by the academic senate and the rector, but to no avail. At the beginning of the summer semester of 1933, forty-five “non-Aryans” were still teaching; by August of the same year, only twenty-four were left (those who benefited from the various exception clauses).38 No organized or individual protests were recorded.

The attitude of some of the privileged non-Aryan scholars was often ambiguous—or worse. On April 25 the Kaiser Wilhelm Society administration in Berlin had been notified by the Ministry of the Interior that all Jewish and half-Jewish department heads and staff members had to be dismissed; directors of institutes were exempted from this measure. Fritz Haber, a Jew and a Nobel laureate, who would have had to dismiss three of his four department heads and five of his thirteen staff members, resigned on April 30. “The other directors (including those who were themselves Jewish) reported their Jewish employees according to instructions.”39 Among those who thus conformed, the Jews Jakob Goldschmidt and Otto Meyerhof, and the half-Jewish Otto Warburg, were the most prominent. For the geneticist Goldschmidt, “Nazism was preferable to Bolshevism,” and Otto Warburg, it seems, thought the regime would not last beyond 1934,40 a belief that did not hamper his retaining his position throughout the whole Nazi period. Warburg’s case was strange indeed. His cancer research was so highly valued by the Nazis—apparently even by Hitler himself—that in 1941, when the possibility of dismissal arose because of his half-Jewish origins, he was turned into a quarter Jew on Göring’s instructions.41 As for Meyerhof, he apparently tried to shield some of his Jewish employees, only to be denounced by his codirector, Professor Richard Kuhn.42 He emigrated in 1938.

It seems, therefore, safe to suggest that when, in January 1934, on the anniversary of the foundation of the German Empire, the Göttingen professor of ancient history Ulrich Karstedt declared that “one should not grumble…because in a Jewish shop a window pane has been smashed or because the daughter of the cattle dealer Levi was refused admission to a student corporation,”43 he was making something of an understatement, not only with regard to the general situation of the Jews in Germany but in the universities as well.44

There were a few mild petitions in favor of Jewish colleagues, such as the praise bestowed in May 1933 by the Heidelberg medical faculty on its Jewish members: “We cannot overlook the fact that German Jewry is contributing to great scientific achievements and that major medical personalities come from its midst. Precisely as physicians we feel the duty, keeping in mind the requirements of people and state, to represent the viewpoint of true humanity and to express our worries, as the danger threatens that all sense of responsibility is being pushed aside by emotional or impulsive violence….”45 This careful declaration was in fact atypical, as the medical schools of German universities showed a much higher percentage of party members than other disciplines.46 And in its attitude toward Jews, Heidelberg was not basically different from the other German universities.47

In April 1933 twelve professors from various fields expressed support for their Jewish colleague, the Munich University philosopher Richard Hönigswald; addressed to the Bavarian Ministry of Education, their letter was backed by the dean of the Munich philosophical faculty. The ministry solicited additional advice and received a set of negative answers, including one from Martin Heidegger, and Hönigswald was dismissed.48

Some individual interventions have become well known. There was, for example, Max Planck’s (unsuccessful) intervention with Hitler in favor of Fritz Haber’s reinstatement49 and, paradoxically, Heidegger’s intervention against the dismissal of Siegfried Thannhauser and Georg von Hevesy. The dismissal of such eminent scientists, Heidegger explained to the Baden authorities, would have negative consequences abroad and harm Germany’s foreign policy.50

Heidegger had become rector of Freiburg University in April 1933. He was already on record regarding the presence of Jews in German academic life. In a letter of October 20, 1929, to Victor Schwörer, acting president of the Emergency Fund, established to support needy scholars, the philosopher had stated that the only existing option was either the systematic strengthening of “our” German intellectual life or its definitive abandonment “to growing Judaization in the wider and narrower sense.”51 When Heidegger’s mathematics professor, Alfred Löwy, was compelled as a Jew to take early retirement in April 1933, the newly appointed rector wished him “the strength to overcome the hardships and difficulties carried by such times of change.”52 Elfride Heidegger used almost exactly the same words in her letter of April 29, 1933, to Malvine Husserl, the wife of her husband’s Jewish mentor, the philosopher Edmund Husserl; she added, however, that although the Civil Service Law was hard, it was reasonable from a German point of view.53

Shortly before her departure from Germany in the summer of 1933, Hannah Arendt had written in what was possibly her strongest letter to Heidegger, her teacher and lover, that rumors had reached her about his ever more distant, even hostile attitude toward Jewish colleagues and students. The tone of his answer, as paraphrased by Elzbieta Ettinger, in what would be his last letter to Arendt until after the war, is revealing enough: “To Jewish students…he generously gave of his time, disruptive though it was to his own work, getting them stipends and discussing their dissertations with them. Who comes to him in an emergency? A Jew. Who insists on urgently discussing his doctoral degree? A Jew. Who sends him voluminous work for urgent critique? A Jew. Who asks him for help in obtaining grants? Jews!!”54

On November 3, 1933, Heidegger announced that economic support would be denied to “Jewish or Marxist” students, or to anyone else defined as a “non-Aryan” according to the new laws.55 On December 13 he sought financial aid for a volume of pro-Hitler speeches by German professors to be distributed worldwide; he concluded his request with an assurance: “Needless to say, non-Aryans shall not appear on the title page.”56 On the sixteenth of that month, he wrote to the head of the Nazi Professors Association at Göttingen about Eduard Baumgarten, an ex-student and colleague of his: Baumgarten “frequented, very actively, the Jew Fränkel, who used to teach at Göttingen and was just recently fired from here.” Simultaneously Heidegger refused to continue the supervision of doctoral dissertations by Jewish students and referred them to Martin Honecker, a professor of church philosophy.57

Heidegger’s attitude toward Husserl remains unclear. Although, according to his biographer Rüdiger Safranski, it is untrue that Heidegger forbade Husserl access to the philosophy department, he actually broke all contact with him (as he did with all other Jewish colleagues and disciples) and did nothing to alleviate Husserl’s growing isolation. When Husserl died, Heidegger was ill. Would he otherwise have attended the funeral, along with the single “Aryan” faculty member who thought fit to do so, the historian Gerhard Ritter?58 The dedication of his magnum opus Being and Time to Husserl was omitted from the 1941 edition at the publisher’s demand, but Heidegger’s footnote expression of gratitude to his Jewish mentor was left in. Contradictions abound, with possibly the strangest of them all being Heidegger’s praise, in the mid-thirties, for Spinoza, and his declaration that “if Spinoza’s philosophy was Jewish, then all philosophy from Leibniz to Hegel was also Jewish.”59

On April 22, 1933, Heidegger sent an entreaty to Carl Schmitt, by far the most prestigious German political and legal theorist of the time, pleading with him not to turn his back on the new movement. The entreaty was superfluous, as Schmitt had already made his choice. Like Heidegger—and this seems to have been the first rule to follow—he had stopped answering letters from Jewish students, colleagues, and other scholars with whom he had previously been in close touch (in Schmitt’s case, one of the striking examples is the abrupt end he put to his correspondence with the Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss).60 And, to make sure that there was no misunderstanding about where he stood, Schmitt introduced some outright anti-Semitic remarks into the new (1933) edition of his Concept of the Political.61 In any event, Schmitt’s anti-Jewish positions were to be definitely more outspoken, extreme, and virulent than those of the Freiburg philosopher.

During the summer semester of 1933, both Schmitt and Heidegger took part in a lecture series organized by Heidelberg students. Heidegger spoke on “The University in the New Reich”; Schmitt’s theme was “The New Constitutional Law.” They were preceded in the same series by Dr. Walter Gross, head of the racial policy office of the Nazi Party, who spoke on “The Physician and the Racial Community.” On May 1, in Freiburg, Heidegger had become party member 3-125-894; on the same day, in Cologne, Schmitt joined the party as member 2-098-860.62

Hannah Arendt left the country and, by way of Prague and Geneva, reached Paris; there she soon started working for the Zionist Youth Emigration Organization. The main reason for her early emigration, she later said, was more than anything else the behavior of her Aryan friends, such as Benno von Wiese, who—subject to no outside pressure whatsoever—adhered enthusiastically to the new system’s ideals and norms.63 Yet, in general, her criticism of Heidegger remained muted.

The responses of Jewish academics to the new regime’s measures and to the new attitudes of colleagues and friends varied from one individual to another. Within that broad spectrum, a peculiar situation was that of Jews who had been long-standing militant German nationalists but, unlike Felix Jacoby, did not opt for total blindness to the regime’s actions. On April 20 Ernst Kantorowicz, a medieval historian at Frankfurt University, sent a letter to the minister of science and education of Hesse that tellingly expresses the great slowness, hesitancy, and regretfulness—despite the harsh new Nazi policies—of the retreat of such Jews from their former positions. “Although,” Kantorowicz wrote, “as a war volunteer from August 1914 on, as a frontline soldier throughout the war, as a postwar fighter against Poland, against the Spartacists, and against the Republic of the Councils [of workers and soldiers] in Posen, Berlin, and Munich, I am not obliged to expect dismissal because of my Jewish origins; although in view of my publications on the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II, I do not need any attestation from the day before yesterday, yesterday, or today regarding my attitude toward a nationally oriented Germany; although beyond all immediate trends and occurrences, my fundamentally positive attitude toward a nationally governed Reich has not been undermined even by the most recent events; and although I certainly need not expect student disturbances to interrupt my teaching—so that the issue of unhampered teaching at the level of the entire university need not be considered in my case—as a Jew, I see myself compelled nonetheless to draw the consequences of what has happened and give up my teaching for the coming summer semester.”64 Kantorowicz was not tendering his resignation; he was merely withdrawing from the next semester. The implication was that he would wait for the policies of the new national Germany to change.

Whereas the attitude of the majority of “Aryan” university professors could be defined as “cultured Judeophobia,”65 among the students a radical brand of Judeophobia had taken hold. At the end of the nineteenth century, some Austrian student corporations, followed by German ones, had already excluded Jews on a racial basis—that is, even baptized Jews were not accepted.66 Michael Kater attributes a portion of extreme student anti-Semitism to competition—mainly in the remunerative fields of law and medicine, in which the percentage of Jewish students was indeed high, as was the percentage of Jews in these professions. In any case, in the early years of the Weimar Republic the majority of German student fraternities joined the German University League (Deutscher Hochschulring), an organization with openly völkisch and anti-Semitic aims, which soon came to control student politics.67 Membership in the league was conditional on fully Aryan origin, with racial Germans from Austria or the Sudetenland accepted despite their not being German citizens. The league dominated the universities until the mid-1920s, when it was replaced by the National Socialist Students Association (Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund).68 And demonstrations and acts of physical aggression by right-wing students against their enemies became common on German campuses from the late twenties on.69

Soon professors who were too explicitly pacifist or anti-nationalist, such as Theodor Lessing, Günther Dehn, Emil Julius Gumbel, Hans Nawiasky, and Ernst Cohn, came under attack.70 Gumbel was driven out of Heidelberg even before the Nazis came to power. In 1931 Nazis gained a majority in the German Student Association (Deutsche Studentenschaft); this was the first national association to come under their control. Within a short time a whole cohort of young intellectuals would put its energy and ability at the disposal of the party and its policies.71

After January 1933 student groups took matters into their own hands, not unlike the SA. The national leader of the Nazi student organization, Oskar Stabel, announced shortly before the April 1 boycott that student pickets would be posted that day at the entrances to Jewish professors’ lecture halls and seminar rooms in order to “dissuade” anyone from entering.72 Such was the case, for example, at the Technical University in Berlin. Later on Nazi students with cameras positioned themselves on the podiums of lecture halls so as to take pictures of students attending classes taught by Jews.73 This kind of student agitation was strongly encouraged by a violently anti-Jewish speech delivered on May 5 by Education Minister Rust in the Berlin university auditorium, and by such comments on the speech as these in the official Preussische Zeitung: “Science for a Jew does not mean a task, an obligation, a domain of creative organization, but a business and a way of destroying the culture of the host people. Thus the most important chairs of so-called German universities were filled with Jews. Positions were vacated to allow them to pursue their parasitic activities, which were then rewarded with Nobel Prizes.”74

In early April 1933, the National Socialist Student Association established a press and propaganda section. Its very first measure, decided on April 8, was to be “the public burning of destructive Jewish writing” by university students as a reaction to world Jewry’s “shameless incitement” against Germany. An “information” campaign was to be undertaken between April 12 and May 10; the public burnings were scheduled to start on university campuses at 6:00 P.M. on the last day of the campaign.

The notorious twelve theses the students prepared for ritual declamation during the burnings were not exclusively directed against Jews and the “Jewish spirit”: Among the other targets were Marxism, pacifism, and the “overstressing of the instinctual life” (that is, “the Freudian School and its journal Imago”). It was a rebellion of the German against the “un-German spirit.” But the main thrust of the action remained essentially anti-Jewish; in the eyes of the organizers, it was meant to extend anti-Jewish action from the economic domain (the April 1 boycott) to the entire field of German culture.

On April 13 the theses were affixed to university buildings and billboards all over Germany. Thesis 7 read: “When the Jew writes in German, he lies. He should be compelled, from now on, to indicate on books he wishes to publish in German: ‘translated from the Hebrew.’”75

On the evening of May 10, rituals of exorcism took place in most of the university cities and towns of Germany. More than twenty thousand books were burned in Berlin, and from two to three thousand in every other major German city.76 In Berlin a huge bonfire was lit in front of the Kroll Opera House, and Goebbels was one of the speakers. After the speeches, in the capital as in the other cities, slogans against the banned authors were chanted by the throng as the poisonous books (by Karl Marx, Ferdinand Lassalle, Sigmund Freud, Maximilian Harden, and Kurt Tucholsky, among many others) were hurled, batch after batch, into the flames. “The great searchlights on the Opera Square,” wrote the Jüdische Rundschau, “also threw their light onto the swallowing up of our existence and our fate. Not only Jews have been accused, but also men of pure German blood. The latter are being judged only for their deeds. For Jews, however, there is no need for a specific reason; the old saying holds: ‘The Jew will be burnt.’”77

The Nazi students did not limit their activities to disrupting the lectures of Jewish professors and burning dangerous books. They attempted to impose their will at every level when it came to the hiring of teachers or their reinstatement as war veterans. On May 6 the leader of the Nazi student association of the Superior Professional School in Hildburghausen, Thuringia, sent an anything but subservient letter to the Thuringian education minister in Weimar. The students had been told that a Jewish teacher named Bermann was to be reinstated. After casting doubt on the validity of Bermann’s claim to frontline service during World War I, the student leader went on: “Agitation among the students is very strong, as some forty percent are members of the National Socialist Student Association, and to be taught by a racially alien teacher is incompatible with their convictions. The National Socialist Student Association addresses the urgent demand to the National Socialist government of Thuringia not to reinstate the Jewish teacher.”78Whether Bermann was reinstated or not is not known, but even seasoned Nazis considered the student activism something of an embarrassment. “I have been informed by State Minister of the Interior, Party member Fritsch,” wrote one of the district leaders for central Germany to Manfred von Killinger, prime minister of Saxony, on August 12, “that the State Ministry is not pleased with the situation at the University of Leipzig…. Over the last three months I have fought rigorously and consistently against any radicalization of the university. According to your wishes, I have therefore forbidden the National Socialist students to boycott any professors.”79

Sometimes students themselves perceived that they had gone too far: They had even blacklisted H. G. Wells and Upton Sinclair. The Foreign Ministry was up in arms because among the authors whose works had been burned in front of the Kroll Opera House on May 10 was the then famous promoter of European union, Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi. The student leader Gerhard Gräfe confided to a correspondent that he was denying that Coudenhove’s writings were burned, but that precautions would have to be taken in the future.80 Such reservations also took other forms: In his diary entries for 1933, Victor Klemperer, a Jewish professor of Romance literature at Dresden’s Technical University who had been exempted from dismissal owing to wartime combat service, several times mentioned that the most assiduous participant in his seminar was the female leader of the university’s Nazi student cell.81

A comparison between the attitudes of the churches and those of the universities toward the regime’s anti-Jewish measures of 1933 reveals basic similarities along with some (very) minor differences. Although outright supporters of National Socialism as a whole were a small minority both in the churches and in the universities, those in favor of the national revival heralded by the new regime were definitely a majority. That majority shared a conservative-nationalist credo that easily converged with the main ideals proclaimed by the regime at its beginning. But what distinguished the churches’ attitudes was the existence of certain specific interests involving the preservation of some basic tenets of Christian dogma. The Jews as Jews were abandoned to their fate, but both the Protestant and Catholic churches attempted to maintain the preeminence of such fundamental beliefs as the supersession of race by baptism and the sanctity of the Old Testament. (Later, at times, the private attitudes of Catholics and of members of the Confessing Church toward the persecution of the Jews would even be critical, mainly because of growing tension between them and the regime.) Nothing of the kind hampered acceptance by university professors of the regime’s anti-Jewish acts. In principle the German academic elite was committed to pursuit of learning unimpeded by state intervention, but, as has been seen, other values and beliefs weighed far more heavily with it in the twenties and early thirties. The enthusiastic “self-coordination” (Selbstgleichschaltung) of the universities demonstrated that there was no fundamental opposition but rather a substantial measure of convergence between the inner core of the mandarins’ faith and National Socialism’s public stance as it appeared at the outset. In such a context, motivation for taking a stand in favor of Jewish colleagues and students was minimal. The consequences of such an overall moral collapse are obvious. In many ways elite groups were a bridge between National Socialist extremism and the wider reaches of German society; thus, their ready abandonment of the Jews sets their attitudes and responses in a fateful historical light.

When Pastor Umfried criticized the attack on the Jews of his town, no church authority supported him; when Jewish businesses were boycotted, no religious voice was heard; when Hitler launched his diatribe against the Jews, Bishop Berning did not respond. When Jewish colleagues were dismissed, no German professor publicly protested; when the number of Jewish students was drastically reduced, no university committee or faculty member expressed any opposition; when books were burned throughout the Reich, no intellectual in Germany, or for that matter anyone else within the country, openly expressed any shame. Such total collapse is more than unusual. As the first months of 1933 went by, Hitler must have seen that he could count on the genuine support of church and university; whatever opposition may have existed, it would not be expressed as long as direct institutional interests and basic dogmatic tenets were not threatened. The concrete situation of the Jews was a litmus test of how far any genuine moral principle could be silenced; although the situation was to become more complex later on, during this early period the result of the test was clear.


While Germany’s intellectual and spiritual elites were granting their explicit or tacit support to the new regime, the leading figures of the Jewish community were trying to hide their distress behind a façade of confidence: Despite all difficulties, the future of Jewish life in Germany was not being irretrievably endangered. Ismar Elbogen, one of the most prominent Jewish historians of the time, expressed what was probably the most common attitude when he wrote: “They can condemn us to hunger but they cannot condemn us to starvation.”82 This was the spirit that presided over the establishment of the National Representation of German Jews (Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden), formally launched in 1933, on the initiative of the president and the rabbi of the Essen community.83 It would remain the umbrella organization of local and national Jewish associations until 1938, headed throughout by the Berlin rabbi Leo Baeck, the respected chairman of the Association of German Rabbis and a scholar of repute,84 and by the lay leader Otto Hirsch. Despite opposition from “national German Jews,” ultra-Orthodox religious groups, and, sporadically, from the Zionist movement, the National Representation played a significant role in the affairs of German Jewry until its transformation, after a transition period in 1938–39, into the National Association of Jews in Germany (Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland), an organization very closely controlled by the Gestapo.

There was not any greater sense of urgency at the National Representation than there was among most individual Jews in Germany. In early 1934 Otto Hirsch would still be speaking out against “hasty” emigration: He believed in the possibility of maintaining a dignified Jewish life in the new Germany.85 That Alfred Hirschberg, the most prominent personality of the Central Association, denied “any need at all to enlarge upon the utopia of resettlement [in Palestine]” was true to type, but that a publication of the Zionist Pioneer organization defined unprepared immigration to Eretz Israel as “a crime against Zionism” comes as a surprise, perhaps because of the vehemence of its tone.86

Not all German Jewish leaders displayed such nonchalance. One who insistently demanded immediate emigration was Georg Kareski, head of the right-wing [Revisionist] Zionist Organization. A vocal but marginal personality even within German Zionism, Kareski was ready to organize the exodus of the Jews from Germany by cooperating, if need be, with the Gestapo and the Propaganda Ministry. He may indeed have maneuvered to establish his own authority within German Jewry by exploiting his collaboration with the Nazis,87 but his sense of urgency was real and premonitory.

Even as the months went by, the leaders of German Jewry did not, in general, gain much insight into the uncompromisingly anti-Jewish stance of the Nazis. Thus, in August 1933, Werner Senator, who had returned to Germany from Palestine in order to become a director of the newly established Central Committee for Help and Reconstruction (Zentralausschuss für Hilfe und Aufbau), suggested, in a memorandum sent to the American Joint Distribution Committee, that a dialogue be established between the Jews and the Nazis. In his opinion, such a dialogue “should lead to a kind of Concordat, like the arrangements between the Roman Curia and European States.”88

No Roman Curia and no Concordat were mentioned as examples in the “Memorandum on the Jewish Question” that the representatives of Orthodox Jewry sent to Hitler on October 4. The signatories brought to the Reich chancellor’s attention the injustice of the identification of Jewry with Marxist materialism, the unfairness of the attribution to an entire community of the mistakes of some of its members, and the tenuousness of the connection between the ancient Jewish race and the modern, uprooted, ultrarationalistic Jewish writers and journalists. Orthodox Jewry disavowed the atrocity propaganda being directed against Germany, and its delegates reminded Hitler of the Jewish sacrifices during World War I. The authors of the letter were convinced that the new government did not have in mind the annihilation of German Jewry, but in case they were wrong on this point, they demanded to be told so. Again, on the assumption that such was not the aim of the regime, the representatives of Orthodox Jewry demanded that the Jews of Germany be granted a living space within the living space of the German people, where they could practice their religion and follow their professions “without being endangered and insulted.” The memorandum was filed before it even reached Hitler’s desk.89

Thirty-seven thousand of the approximately 525,000 Jews in Germany left the country in 1933; during the four following years, the annual number of emigrants remained much lower than that (23,000 in 1934, 21,000 in 1935, 25,000 in 1936, 23,000 in 1937).90In 1933 about 73 percent of the emigrants left for countries in Western Europe, 19 percent for Palestine, and 8 percent chose to go overseas.91 Such seeming lack of enthusiasm for leaving a country where segregation, humiliation, and a whole array of persecutory measures were becoming steadily worse was due, first of all, to the inability of most of the Jewish leadership and mainly of ordinary German Jews to grasp an essentially unpredictable course of events. “I do not believe,” Klaus Mann wrote in his autobiography, “that the insights of shopkeeper Moritz Cohn differ basically from those of his neighbor, the shopkeeper Friedrich Müller.”92 Most of the Jews expected to weather the storm in Germany. In addition, the material difficulty of emigrating was considerable, especially in a period of economic uncertainty; it entailed an immediate and heavy material loss: Jewish-owned property was sold at ever lower prices, and the emigration tax (the Brüning government’s 1931 “tax on capital flight,” which was levied on assets of two hundred thousand Reichsmarks and up, was raised by the Nazis to a levy on assets of fifty thousand Reichsmarks and up) was prohibitive. The Reichsbank’s purely arbitrary exchange rate for the purchase of foreign currency by emigrants further depleted steadily shrinking assets: Thus, until 1935, Jewish emigrants exchanged their marks at 50 percent of their value, then at 30 percent, and finally, on the eve of the war, at 4 percent.93Although the Nazis wanted to get rid of the Jews of Germany, they were intent on dispossessing them first by increasingly harsh methods.

In one instance only were the economic conditions of emigration somewhat facilitated. Not only did the regime encourage Zionist activities on the territory of the Reich94, but concrete economic measures were taken to ease the departure of Jews for Palestine. The so-called Haavarah (Hebrew: Transfer) Agreement, concluded on August 27, 1933, between the German Ministry of the Economy and Zionist representatives from Germany and Palestine, allowed Jewish emigrants indirect transfer of part of their assets and facilitated exports of goods from Nazi Germany to Palestine.95 As a result, some one hundred million Reichsmarks were transferred to Palestine, and most of the sixty thousand German Jews who arrived in that country during 1933–39 could thereby ensure a minimal basis for their material existence.96

Economic agreement and some measure of cooperation in easing Jewish emigration from Germany (and in 1938 and 1939) from post-Anschluss Austria and German-occupied Bohemia-Moravia) to Palestine, were of course purely instrumental. The Zionists had no doubts about the Nazis’ evil designs on the Jews, and the Nazis considered the Zionists first and foremost Jews. About Zionism itself, moreover, Nazi ideology and Nazi policies were divided from the outset: while favoring, like all other European extreme anti-Semites, Zionism as a means of enticing the Jews to leave Europe, they also considered the Zionist Organization established in Basel in 1897 as a key element of the Jewish world conspiracy—a Jewish state in Palestine would be a kind of Vatican coordinating Jewish scheming all over the world. Such necessary but unholy contacts between Zionists and Nazis nonetheless continued up to the beginning (and into) the war.

One of the main benefits the new regime hoped to reap from the Haavarah was a breach in the foreign Jewish economic boycott of Germany. The Nazi fears of a significant Jewish boycott were, in fact, basically unreal, but Zionist policy responded to what the Germans hoped to achieve. The Zionist organizations and the leadership of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) distanced themselves from any form of mass protest or boycott to avoid creating obstacles to the new arrangements. Even before the conclusion of the Haavarah Agreement, such “cooperation” sometimes took bizarre forms. Thus, in early 1933, Baron Leopold Itz Edler von Mildenstein, a man who a few years later was to become chief of the Jewish section of the SD (the Sicherheitsdienst, or security service, the SS intelligence branch headed by Reinhard Heydrich), was invited along with his wife to tour Palestine and write a series of articles for Goebbels’s Der Angriff. And so it was that the Mildensteins, accompanied by Kurt Tuchler, a leading member of the Berlin Zionist Organization, and his wife, visited Jewish settlements in Eretz Israel. The highly positive articles, entitled “A Nazi Visits Palestine,” were duly published, and, to mark the occasion, a special medallion cast, with a swastika on one side and a Star of David on the other.97

Seen from the perspective of 1933 and in the light of Nazi interests at the time, the Angriff series may have looked less strange than they appear today. The same can be said about the memorandum sent to Hitler by the leaders of the Zionist Organization for Germany on June 22, 1933. In Francis Nicosia’s words, “It seemed to profess a degree of sympathy for the völkisch principles of the Hitler regime and argued that Zionism was compatible with these principles.”98 This compatibility was clearly defined: “Zionism believes that the rebirth of the national life of a people, which is now occurring in Germany through the emphasis on its Christian and national character, must also come about among the Jewish people. For the Jewish people, too, national origin, religion, common destiny and a sense of its uniqueness must be of decisive importance to its existence. This demands the elimination of the egotistical individualism of the liberal era, and its replacement with a sense of community and collective responsibility.”99 It further demanded for the Jews a place in the overall structure, based on the race principle, established by National Socialism, so that they too, in the sphere allocated to them, could make a fruitful contribution to the life of the fatherland.100

In the summer of 1933, one of the main Zionist leaders in Palestine, the German-born Arthur Ruppin, paid a visit to the Nazi race theoretician Hans F. K. Günther at the University of Jena. “The Jews,” Günther reassured him, “were not inferior to the Aryans, they were simply different. This meant that a ‘fair solution’ had to be found for the Jewish problem. The professor was extremely friendly, Ruppin recorded with satisfaction.”101 Thus, despite rapid awareness of the Nazis’ unmitigated hatred of Jews, some Zionist leaders’ early responses to the new German situation were not negative. There was a widespread hope that the Nazi policy of furthering Jewish emigration from Germany offered great opportunities for the Yishuv. A stream of important visitors came from Palestine to observe conditions in Germany. The Labor Zionist leader Moshe Belinson reported to Berl Katznelson, the editor of the main Labor daily, Davar: “The streets are paved with more money than we have ever dreamed of in the history of our Zionist enterprise. Here is an opportunity to build and flourish like none we have ever had or ever will have.”102

Zionist hopes were moderated by practical worries about excessive numbers of immigrants. “In order that the immigration not flood the existing settlement in Palestine like lava,” Ruppin declared at the Zionist Congress held in Prague in the summer of 1933, “it must be proportionate to a certain percentage of that settlement.”103 This remained the policy for several years to come, and well after the passage of the 1935 Nuremberg racial laws, both the German Zionists and the leaders of the Yishuv were still envisaging an annual rate of fifteen to twenty thousand German-Jewish emigrants, extending over a period of twenty to thirty years.104

Whatever the practical steps that were envisioned, Zionist rhetoric was clear: Palestine was the only possible haven and solution. This was not obvious to some of the German Jews, who, on arrival in the land of Israel, were suddenly faced with a new and unexpected reality. The novelist Arnold Zweig, a left-wing Zionist of long standing who had arrived in the summer of 1933, summed up his feelings about his new homeland in a diary entry on December 31: “In Palestine. In foreign parts.”105

Some leaders of German Jewry still believed in 1933 that the Nazis would be duly impressed by an objective presentation of Jewish contributions to German culture. A few months after the change of regime, and with Max Warburg’s and Leo Baeck’s encouragement, Leopold Ullstein, a younger member of the publishing family, launched the preparation of a wide-ranging study to that effect. Within a year a hefty volume was ready, but in December 1934 its publication was prohibited. “The naïve reader of this study,” the Gestapo report pronounced, “would get the impression that the whole of German culture up to the National Socialist revolution was carried by Jews. The reader would receive an entirely false picture of the real activity, particularly of the decomposing action of the Jews on German culture. Moreover, well-known Jewish crooks and speculators are presented to the reader as victims of their time and their dirty dealings glossed over…. In addition, Jews generally known as enemies of the state…are presented as remarkable carriers of German culture.”106 Jewish culture for Jews, however, was another matter, and whereas Ullstein had set his sights on an untimely enterprise, another Berlin Jew, Kurt Singer, the former deputy director of the Berlin City Opera, came up with a different kind of idea: the establishment of a Jewish cultural association (Kulturbund deutscher Juden).

Singer’s Kulturbund fitted Nazi needs. When Singer’s project of autonomous cultural activities by Jews and for Jews (only) was submitted to the new Prussian authorities, it received Göring’s approval. For all practical purposes, it was controlled on the Nazi side by the same Hans Hinkel who was already in charge of the de-Judaization of cultural life in Prussia. On the face of it the Kulturbund appeared to be a perfectly functional initiative to solve the problems created both for the regime and for the Jews by the expulsion from German cultural life of approximately eight thousand Jewish writers, artists, musicians, and performers of all kinds, as well as their coworkers and agents.107 Apart from the work it provided and the soothing psychological function it filled for part of the Jewish community, the Kulturbund also offered to the surrounding society an easy way to dismiss any potential sense of embarrassment: “Aryans who found the regime’s anti-Semitic measures distasteful could reassure themselves that Jewish artists were at least permitted to remain active in their chosen professions.”108

The Kulturbund also played another role, unseen but no less real, which pointed to the future: As the first Jewish organization under the direct supervision of a Nazi overlord, it foreshadowed the Nazi ghetto, in which a pretense of internal autonomy camouflaged the total subordination of an appointed Jewish leadership to the dictates of its masters. The Kulturbund was hailed by an array of Jewish intellectuals as offering the opportunity for a new Jewish cultural and spiritual life to a community under siege.109 This ongoing misunderstanding of the true meaning of the situation was compounded by the ambition of some of its founders: to create a cultural life of such quality that it would teach the Germans a lesson. The literary critic Julius Bab summed it all up with extraordinary naïveté when he wrote in a letter of June 1933: “It remains a bitter fact—it is a ghetto enterprise, but one that we certainly want to accomplish so well that the Germans will have to be ashamed.”110 Bab’s statement could also mean that the Germans would feel ashamed to be treating the carriers of such high culture so shabbily.

Sporadically Hinkel would inform his wards of works Jews were no longer allowed to perform. In the theater Germanic legends and performances of works from the German Middle Ages and German romanticism were prohibited. For a time the classical period was allowed, but Schiller was forbidden in 1934 and Goethe in 1936. Among foreign writers Shakespeare was allowed, but Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy was forbidden: In a Jewish theater in the Third Reich, “the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely” could have sounded subversive, hence that line led to the exclusion of the entire speech.111 Needless to say, despite the attachment of German Jews to the works of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, these composers were not to be performed by Jews. Beethoven was forbidden them in 1937, but Mozart had to wait until the next year, after the Anschluss.112

Such growing constraints notwithstanding, the activity of the Kulturbund, both in Berlin and, soon after, in all major German cities, was remarkable. More than 180,000 Jews from all parts of Germany became active members of the association. In its first year the Kulturbund staged 69 opera performances and 117 concerts, and, from mid-1934 to mid-1935, 57 opera performances and 358 concerts.113 The opera repertory included works by Mozart, Offenbach, Verdi, Johann Strauss, Donizetti, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, and Saint-Saëns, among others. Although, apart from the ideological and financial constraints, the choice of works performed was mainly traditional, in 1934 the Frankfurt Kulturbund organized a concert in honor of Arnold Schoenberg’s sixtieth birthday, and the Cologne branch organized a performance of Paul Hindemith’s children’s opera Wir bauen eine Stadt (We’re building a town)—locating it in Palestine.114

In principle the Jews were increasingly to be fed on “Jewish works.” But even this principle did not always satisfy the Nazi mind. On October 26, 1933, Rainer Schlösser, the Reich director of theaters of the Ministry of Propaganda, recommended to Hinkel that performances of Emil Bernhard’s (Emil Cohn’s) Die Jagd Gottes (God’s hunt) be forbidden, as the play was “a kind of ‘consolation for the Jews,’ a kind of ‘heartening’ for the Jews.” Moreover, the action took place against a background of mistreatment of Jews by Cossacks: “It is easy to imagine with whom these Cossacks would be identified.”115

Jewish audiences must have been partly aware that Kulturbund activities were intended to have a soothing effect on them. Nonetheless, Kulturbund theaters like the one on Berlin’s Charlottenstrasse (later Kommandantenstrasse became a spiritual lifeline. The tram conductors knew their public; “Charlottenstrasse,” they would call out. “Jewish culture—everybody off!”116

“The goal of our stage,” declared the director of theater activities of the Rhine-Ruhr Kulturbund in the November/December 1933 issue of its periodical, “is to bring to all the joy and courage to face life by letting them participate in the eternal values of poetry or by discussing the problems of our time, but also by showing lighthearted pieces and not rejecting them. We intend to keep the connection with the German Heimat [homeland] and to form at the same time a connecting link with our great Jewish past and with a future that is worth living for.”117


By the end of 1933, tens of millions of people inside and outside Germany were aware of the systematic policy of segregation and persecution launched by the new German regime against its Jewish citizens. Yet, as already noted at the outset, it may have been impossible for most people, Jews and non-Jews alike, to have a clear idea of the goals and limits of this policy. There was anxiety among the Jews of Germany but no panic or any widespread sense of urgency. It is hard to evaluate how much importance German society at its various levels granted to an issue that was not on any priority list. Political stabilization, the dismantling of the Left, economic improvement, national revival, and international uncertainties were certainly more present in the minds of many than the hazy outlines of the Jewish issue; for most Germans the issues and challenges of daily life in times of political change and of economic turmoil were the paramount focus of interest, whatever their awareness of other problems may have been. It is against this background that Hitler’s own obsession with the Jewish issue must be considered.

In a remarkable dispatch sent to Foreign Minister Sir John Simon on May 11, 1933, the British ambassador in Berlin, Sir Horace Rumbold, described the course taken by an interview with Hitler once he had alluded to the persecution of the Jews: “The allusion to the treatment of the Jews resulted in the Chancellor working himself up into a state of great excitement. ‘I will never agree,’ he shouted, as if he were addressing an open-air meeting, ‘to the existence of two kinds of law for German nationals. There is an immense amount of unemployment in Germany, and I have, for instance, to turn away youths of pure German stock from higher education. There are not enough posts for the pure-bred Germans, and the Jews must suffer with the rest. If the Jews engineer a boycott of German goods from abroad, I will take care that this hits the Jews in Germany.’ These remarks were delivered with great ferocity. Only his excitement, to which I did not wish to add, prevented me from pointing out that there were, in fact, two standards of treatment of German nationals, inasmuch as those of Jewish race were being discriminated against.” At the end of the dispatch, Rumbold returned to the issue: “My comment on the foregoing is that Herr Hitler is himself responsible for the anti-Jewish policy of the German government and that it would be a mistake to believe that it is the policy of his wilder men whom he has difficulty in controlling. Anybody who has had the opportunity of listening to his remarks on the subject of Jews could not have failed, like myself, to realize that he is a fanatic on the subject.”118

The American consul general in Berlin reached the same conclusion.” One of the most unfortunate features of the situation,” George S. Messersmith wrote to Secretary of State Cordell Hull on November 1, 1933, “is that, as I have already pointed out in previous dispatches and again in this one, Mr. Hitler himself is implacable and unconvinced and is the real head of the anti-Jewish movement. He can be reasonable on a number of subjects, but on this he can only be passionate and prejudiced.”119

Hitler did not express his obsession with the Jewish peril in major public utterances during 1933, but its lurking presence can be perceived in his remarks about the Concordat, in the last part of the letter to Hindenburg, in the discussion with Bishop Berning, as well as in outbursts such as those reported by foreign diplomats. It is no less apparent, however, that the new chancellor was not yet sure of the leeway granted him by the shifting political and economic situation. International reactions did concern him. As he put it in his meeting with the Reich district governors, on July 6, 1933, for Germany the most dangerous front at the time was the external one: “One should not irritate it, when it is not necessary to deal with it. To reopen the Jewish question would mean to start a world-wide uproar again.”120 Clearly the shaky economic circumstances of the Reich were also a major factor in his decisions, as already noted. Once the bumbling minister of the Economy, Alfred Hugenberg, and his ineffective successor Kurt Schmitt, had been eased out, Hitler, on July 30, 1934, appointed Hjalmar Schacht, the conservative “wizard,” as minister and overlord of the economy of the Reich. For practical economic reasons, Schacht insisted that no major interference with Jewish business would be allowed.121 In general terms Hitler backed Schacht’s position until the new transition period of 1936–37. Finally, on some matters such as the issue of Jewish physicians, Hitler certainly took into account German public opinion: In other words he understood the need for tactical pragmatism regarding immediate anti-Jewish measures, and thus his policy had to remain, for a time at least, close to the preexisting anti-Jewish agenda of the conservatives.

The extent to which Hitler was torn between hatred of the Jews and desire for radical action on the one hand, and the need for tactical restraint on the other, emerged clearly in the July 14 cabinet meeting, at which he declared that the Concordat with the Vatican would help the Reich in its struggle against world Jewry. When, during discussion of criteria for the continued exercise of the legal profession by Jews, several ministers suggested that the identification of frontline veterans should be based on membership in combat units, Hitler protested: “The Jewish nation in its totality was being rejected. Therefore all Jews had to be dismissed [from the professions]. One could make an exception only for those who had taken part in direct combat. Only participation in combat, and not mere presence in the combat zone, was decisive. A commission to check the rolls of the various units was necessary.”122 But how was this need for an ongoing struggle against the Jews to find its expression in the economic sphere, for example, without leading to the dangerous results of which Hitler was well aware? When the topic was raised at the same cabinet meeting, the Reich chancellor launched into an explanation that clearly laid bare the dilemma facing him. “The Jews were continuing their silent boycott of Germany,” Hitler explained, “and their aim was to bring about the downfall of the present regime. Therefore it was only just that the Jews in Germany be the first to feel the effects of this boycott. There were too many enterprises in Germany, and clearly some would have to disappear. In this situation the opponent, Jewish enterprises, had to be the first to go—equal treatment in this domain would be wrong.”123 In other words, Jewish enterprises had to be discriminated against—to a point: Within the category of those enterprises that had to disappear, the Jewish ones were to be the first on the list. Such a statement could be read in many ways.

That Hitler also manipulated the Jewish issue in order to achieve some general political goals is not impossible. Although the economic boycott of Jewish businesses had to stop, at least officially, the menacing party rhetoric clearly indicated that henceforward the Jews were considered potential hostages whose fate would depend upon the outside world’s attitude toward the new Germany. Such use of the Jews would, incidentally, remain as a threatening theme throughout the thirties and find its most violent expression after the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 and during the last months of peace, particularly in Hitler’s Reichstag speech of January 1939. Moreover, the April 1933 boycott and the other early anti-Jewish measures allowed for some release of the pent-up violence simmering among the “party radicals.” Throughout the coming months and years, but particularly in 1935, Hitler would use his anti-Jewish policies as a safety valve against a buildup of ideological or material resentment among the party rank and file and the more extreme of his underlings.

Finally, as far as the regime’s first year is concerned, were there any indications that—beyond general ideological obsession and immediate tactics—Hitler was already considering further systematic steps against the Jews of Germany? It seems indeed that the idea of establishing a fundamental legal distinction between German (Aryan) citizens and the Jews living in Germany, a staple demand of many conservatives in the past and an item of the Nazi Party program, was on both the conservative civil service’s agenda and Hitler’s mind from the very outset of his government.

The first draft of a new citizenship law appears to have emerged in the Ministry of the Interior at the end of May 1933, and was submitted to the Committee of Experts for Population and Racial Policy of the Ministry in the following month.124 No immediate results came of these efforts, but Hitler, it seems, was considering similar plans for the future. Thus, at a September 28 meeting with the minister of the interior and the Reich district governors, “Hitler explained that he would have preferred to take a step-by-step approach toward sharpening anti-Jewish measures; this could have been achieved had a citizenship law been established which would then have allowed him to take further, sharper steps. However, the boycott started by the Jews had called for an immediate and very sharp reaction.”125

As will be seen, even in the atmosphere of uncertainty following his accession to power, Hitler did not lose sight of his ideological goals with regard to the Jews, as well as in relation to the other issues that formed the core of his worldview. Although he avoided public statements on the Jewish issue, he could not restrain himself entirely. In his closing speech at the September 1933 Nuremberg party rally, called (for the occasion) the Congress of Victory, he launched into disparaging comments about the Jews in his expostulations on the racial foundations of art: “It is a sign of the horrible spiritual decadence of the past epoch that one spoke of styles without recognizing their racial determinants…. Each clearly formed race has its own handwriting in the book of art, insofar as it is not, like Jewry, devoid of any creative artistic ability.”126 As for the function of a worldview, Hitler defined it in his address: “Worldviews,” he declared, “consider the achievement of political power only as the precondition for the beginning of the fulfillment of their true mission. In the very term ‘worldview’ there lies the solemn commitment to make all enterprise dependent upon a specific initial conception and a visible direction. Such a conception can be right or wrong; it is the starting point for the attitude to be taken toward all manifestations and occurrences of life and thereby a compelling and obligatory rule for all action.”127 In other words a worldview as defined by Hitler was a quasi-religious framework encompassing immediate political goals. Nazism was no mere ideological discourse; it was a political religion commanding the total commitment owed to a religious faith.128

The “visible direction” of a worldview implied the existence of “final goals” that, their general and hazy formulation notwithstanding, were supposed to guide the elaboration and implementation of short-term plans. Before the fall of 1935 Hitler did not hint either in public or in private what the final goal of his anti-Jewish policy might be. But much earlier, as a fledgling political agitator, he had defined the goal of a systematic anti-Jewish policy in his notorious first political text, the letter on the “Jewish question” addressed on September 16, 1919, to one Adolf Gemlich. In the short term the Jews had to be deprived of their civil rights: “The final aim however must be the uncompromising removal of the Jews altogether.”129

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