The Nazis had unleashed a revolution in Germany, but not an economic one. Hitler was not interested in economics and certainly did not intend to turn the rabid social revolutionary rhetoric of the party into reality. For all the insistent talk about Volksgemeinschaft, his view of the economy was strictly instrumentalist: he needed a strong industrial base and a powerful army to realize his dreams of expansion, of Lebensraum in the East. The fate of the small shopkeeper, farmer, or artisan, stalwart elements of the party’s national support before 1933, held little interest for him. As if to drive that point home, the party leadership announced on July 7, 1933, that “active measures” to nationalize the department stores—one of the party’s most strident promises before 1933—“were not indicated for the present.” No action against the department stores was undertaken, then or later, and the big chains continued to operate as before, although under different—“Aryan”—management.
Property relations in the Third Reich remained largely untouched, except for the expropriation of Jewish property. Instead, the Nazis undertook a fundamental reordering of status, the most obvious expression of which was their effort to elevate the social standing of peasants and workers, two groups traditionally considered to inhabit the lower reaches of German society. National Socialism, Hitler and Goebbels were at pains to emphasize, was not defined by wealth or property, by possessions, bank accounts, stock portfolios, and income, mere material things. Nazi socialism was much deeper, more profound than Marxism, they claimed. It did not change the external order of things, but sought to fundamentally transform the relationship of man to the state. They were going to create a new man, a new people, strong and vigorous and untainted by the weaknesses of the past. The Nazis did not need to socialize the banks and factories; they were socializing the people.
Creating a united Germany liberated from the traditional divisions of class, religion, and region was merely one dimension of Hitler’s agenda to establish a fundamentally new German nation. The National Socialist Volksgemeinschaft was to be a society bound together by blood, a nation built on a utopian vision of racial purity, cleansed of hereditary weakness and freed from the taint of foreign, especially Jewish, blood. The Third Reich would build national, by which the Nazis meant racial, solidarity by expunging the biological contaminants infecting the German people. They would cultivate a healthy, vigorous, racial community that would unchain the vast energies of a proud, revivified people.
History, Hitler believed, was driven by remorseless struggle, nation against nation, culture against culture, and ultimately race against race. In his thinking, a hierarchy of races existed, and Aryans, which he never defined in any serious anthropological way, were the most valuable race. They alone possessed the capacity “for creating and building culture.” In fact, “all the results of art, science, and technology that we see before us today are almost exclusively the creative product of the Aryan.” But if the Aryans bred with people of inferior racial stock, their blood would be hopelessly polluted, and the Aryan race would gradually descend into extinction. History offered overwhelming evidence “that in every mingling of Aryan blood with that of lower peoples, the result was the end of the cultured people.” Indeed, “all great cultures of the past perished only because the originally creative [people] died out from blood poisoning.”
The situation had now reached the tipping point. A sense of urgency prevailed. Germany stood on the brink of irreversible racial degeneration. Drastic measures had to be taken immediately to halt this defilement of Aryan blood and to improve the health of the race. This was the historic mission of the National Socialist movement. Struggle, Hitler declared, “is always a means for improving a species’ health and power of resistance and, therefore, a cause of its higher development.” And in this struggle between the superior and inferior, there could be no half measures, no compromises; there could be no pity. “The stronger must dominate and not blend with the weaker.”
The greatest threat to Aryan purity, as it had always been, was posed by the Jew, who was responsible for all Germany’s misfortunes. Hitler devoted a chapter of Mein Kampf to a fantastic history of the Jews, drawing on every racist stereotype, myth, and crackpot theory that had circulated in the Vienna of his youth. Invoking the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion, he claimed that the Jews were engaged in a global conspiracy to undermine existing states and cultures, and to seize world power. The Jews were the very incarnation of evil, parasites that feasted on the blood of their racially superior hosts. Germany’s otherwise inexplicable collapse in the Great War was due to its “failure to recognize the racial problem and especially the Jewish menace.” The old Reich’s downfall was not the result of setbacks on the battlefield but “was brought about by that power which prepared these defeats by systematically over many decades robbing our people of the political and moral instincts and forces which alone make nations capable and hence worthy of existence.”
Germany, all Europe, stood on the cusp of a great precipice; the Jewish revolution that would lead to world domination was imminent. The Jews were behind Bolshevism, liberalism, plutocratic capitalism, and pacifism, but “in gaining political power the Jew casts off the few cloaks that he still wears. . . . The democratic people’s Jew becomes the blood Jew and tyrant over peoples,” enslaving them, depriving them of their freedom and their strength. But “a racially pure people that is conscious of its blood can never be enslaved by the Jew,” and raising that racial consciousness was the first task of National Socialism.
That last point was particularly crucial since Germany, Hitler believed, was the last best racial hope of humankind, and it was threatened by a world teeming with dangers. Racial regeneration of the German people was a precondition for a powerful state that would guarantee Germany’s racial survival and would allow it to assert itself in a world driven by merciless racial struggle. Although the Nazi campaigns of the pre-1933 era had focused largely on the economic and political failures of the Weimar system, mass unemployment, and the threat of Bolshevism, the party’s ultimate aim, as became quickly apparent upon Hitler’s assumption of power, was to launch a racial revolution.
The outlines of such a vision had been there all along, in the pages of Mein Kampf, in innumerable party publications, and campaign speeches without number, but it still came as something of a surprise, even a shock to some, that among the myriad, fantastic, and contradictory promises made by the Nazis before 1933, eliminating Jews from German life would emerge as the defining element in Hitler’s agenda. But this shouldn’t have been a surprise. Fanatical racial anti-Semitism lay at the very core of National Socialist ideology and remained Hitler’s most enduring and passionate obsession. If the German people were not ready for his radical vision before 1933—and both he and Goebbels were convinced they were not—he could wait. But once in power, the Nazis did not hesitate to begin translating that racial fixation into policy. National Socialist racial thinking followed two inextricably interwoven threads in which ferocious hatred of Jews commingled with a pseudoscientific biological interpretation of the dynamics of world history. Anti-Semitism was the most visible and vicious component of Nazi racial policy, but it represented only one dimension of a broader racist agenda. Brutal, gutter anti-Semitism, found in the pages of Der Stürmer and in the ranks of the SA, merged with an obsession with eugenics, referred to in the Nazi lexicon as “racial hygiene.” The pseudoscientific approach to issues of race was articulated in a variety of Nazi publications such as the People and Race, New People, the SS’s The Black Corps, and numerous medical journals. This spurious “scientific” racism was enthusiastically adopted by the SS, which viewed itself as the ideological vanguard of National Socialism, standing above the sort of vulgar Jew baiting found among the party’s militants and the SA.
With Hitler installed in the chancellor’s office, the Nazis wasted little time in initiating a series of measures aimed at “cleansing the body of the people.” This was to be accomplished by purging “racially inferior” elements from German life—from Jews and Gypsies to the mentally defective, the physically handicapped, and finally to the “socially deviant.” The National Socialist regime viewed itself as a “therapeutic state” that would guarantee public health through racially driven policies of pronatalism, compulsory sterilization, and finally, in 1939, a top secret program of euthanasia.
The Nazis initiated their racial offensive in the spring of 1933 with a barrage of decrees aimed at eliminating Jews from participation in the life of the nation. Against a backdrop of daily harassment, humiliation, and violence against Jews, the Nazis introduced the Civil Service Law in April, with its Aryan Paragraph that declared that anyone with one Jewish grandparent was not an Aryan and hence was to be retired from the civil service. (In May all non-Aryan public employees were dismissed.) Regional and local governments soon followed suit. A follow-up decree in March limited non-Aryan access to the practice of medicine, and another, the Law to Prevent the Overcrowding in German Schools and Universities, restricted the matriculation of new Jewish students in any German school or university to 1.5 percent of the total applicants. At no educational institution could Jews constitute more than 5 percent of the total student body. The boycott of Jewish businesses on April 1 was an attempt to incite the public to displays of anti-Jewish sentiment, though the public response was disappointing.
In June a decree prohibited Jews from working as dentists or dental technicians in public insurance programs, then another extended that ban to Germans in the medical field who were married to non-Aryans. In September the Hereditary Farm Law prohibited Jews from owning land or engaging in agriculture. The Aryan Paragraph was also extended to the armed forces, banning Jews from conscription and prohibiting Jews already in the military from serving as officers. Later measures were introduced that sought to drive Jews from the press, especially forbidding Jews from working as newspaper editors, just as Goebbels’s newly created Reich Culture Chamber took steps to expunge Jews from all areas of German cultural life. These laws promulgated at the national level represented only the tip of the iceberg; states, municipalities, and private institutions imposed additional restrictions on the Jewish community so that numerous regional variations existed. These laws served another purpose: through them, Achim Gercke, a specialist on racial matters in the Interior Ministry, argued “the entire national community becomes enlightened about the Jewish question; it learns that the national community is a community of blood; for the first time it understands race thinking and, instead of an overly theoretical approach to the Jewish question, it is confronted with a concrete solution.”
Already in 1933 Germans were expected to carry a “racial passport” (Ahnenpass) to prove their pure “Aryan” heritage. This quasi-official document was not issued by the state, but given the mounting offensive against the Jews, many felt it behooved them to establish proof of their undiluted Aryan identity. Germans feverishly researched their ancestry, scouring municipal archives, church records, and census reports to establish a family tree at least through their grandparents’ generation. SS personnel and their wives were required to prove their Aryan bloodlines back to 1800, and many nervous Germans thought it prudent to do the same, desperately hoping not to unearth a long-forgotten Jewish relative lurking in their past. Genealogists were in great demand. But just what constituted an “Aryan” remained unclear. Did the Civil Service Law’s definition of non-Aryan apply to all areas of German life? Was that the criterion to be used in every instance? “I looked up Aryans in the encyclopedia,” one puzzled woman reported to the authorities. “They live in Asia. We don’t have relatives there, we’re from Prenzlau.”
At the same time, the regime introduced another set of laws and regulations that would dramatically affect not only the tiny Jewish community but the entire Volk. In June 1933, Wilhelm Frick established a Committee of Experts for Population and Racial Policy within his Interior Ministry. Its immediate task was to prepare the public for a planned law permitting compulsory sterilization of persons suffering from “hereditarily determined” disabilities. In the last days of Weimar, the Prussian government, influenced by similar laws in a number of states in the United States, had considered legislation that would have allowed sterilization of the “hereditarily ill,” but this draft law, like the American versions, applied to a limited number of medical conditions and required the consent of the person in question or a legal guardian. On July 14, 1933, Frick announced the Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases, which differed in crucial ways from the draft Weimar legislation. The law dictated sterilization for individuals suffering from a significantly expanded list of allegedly inherited medical defects: schizophrenia, manic depression, hereditary blindness or deafness, hereditary epilepsy, and serious physical deformities. It was also compulsory. As the law made brutally clear, “if the court finally decides upon sterilization, the operation must be performed even if it is against the wishes of the person to be sterilized. . . . In so far as other measures prove insufficient, the use of force is permissible.”
Shortly after the introduction of the sterilization law, Interior Minister Frick sought to explain the rationale behind the new policy in a national radio broadcast. His message was blunt. In earlier times, the laws of nature had ensured that the weak would perish before reaching reproductive age, but with the advances in modern medicine, the weak had been artificially kept alive, a development that had damaged the long-term health of the people. It was now a moral obligation for the state to fulfill “nature’s wishes,” and it was the duty of the individual to comply with the new order of things.
To implement this invasive system, the regime enacted the Unification of Health Affairs Law, which brought the entire public health system under Nazi control. Local health officials, appointed by the regime, were empowered to monitor the genetic health of citizens and to issue certificates of genetic health. They were also authorized to order the sterilization of individuals who were genetically tainted. Hospitals, asylums, welfare organizations, and physicians were required by law to submit the names of patients who would fall into one of these categories. In 1934, 181 Hereditary Health Courts, each staffed by two physicians and one lawyer, were attached to the civil courts to examine the cases reported. Their proceedings were secret, and although the law established an appeal process, barely 3 percent of such appeals were successful.
In addition to these criteria, an intelligence test, based on dubious scientific criteria, was administered to those thought to be “feeble-minded.” It asked questions such as: Where are you? Where do you live? Who was Bismarck? Luther? When is it Christmas? How many days in the week? Reflecting on this test years later, Hitler wryly commented that having seen the questions, “at least three-quarters of [them] . . . would have defeated my own good mother. One I recall was: ‘Why does a ship made of steel float in the water?’ If this system had been introduced before my birth, I am pretty sure I should never have been born at all.” Feeble-mindedness provided the most common grounds for sterilization, especially when in 1934 the diagnosis was expanded to a new, more ambiguous category: “moral feeble-mindedness.” This new designation covered an elastic list of deviants: chronic alcoholics, habitual criminals, vagrants, and “the anti-community-minded,” among others. Women who had many sexual partners, for example, were declared morally feeble-minded and would be sterilized. Men exhibiting similar “promiscuous” behavior were not. Women were sterilized by undergoing an operation to tie their fallopian tubes, while men underwent vasectomy or, in some cases, castration. Abortions were forbidden by law, but in dealing with the genetically unfit, the regime quietly allowed it. An amendment to the sterilization law in June 1935 allowed abortions for “hereditarily ill” women within the first six months of pregnancy.
The law made no mention of sterilization on racial grounds, and Jews were not specifically targeted. Even Germans armed with a racial passport found themselves subjected to Nazi racial oversight. In 1935 the Interior Ministry drafted a law that would require all prospective newlyweds to obtain an official certificate of genetic health from local public health authorities. Couples who could not or would not produce a certificate of health were declared ineligible for government marriage loans, tax deductions, and other benefits. And failure to present a certificate of health might also prompt an official investigation into their backgrounds, and who knew what that would turn up. Might an ordinary childhood illness be interpreted as a hereditary flaw? Would it be enough to prohibit the marriage, or worse, lead to compulsory sterilization? If the marriage was allowed, couples were incessantly reminded of their racial duty. Beginning in 1936, newlyweds were presented a copy of Mein Kampf as well as pamphlets with advice on how to maintain good racial stock. Most of the prescriptive literature was couched in strictly “scientific” terms, but others, such as “The Ten Commandments for Selecting a Mate,” invoked both National Socialist ideology and religion. “1. Remember you are German. 2. If you are genetically healthy, you shall not remain unmarried. 3. Keep your body pure. 4. Keep your soul and mind pure. 5. As a German, select only a mate with Nordic blood. 6. When you select a mate, ask about ancestry. 7. Health is the precondition for external beauty. 8. Marry only for love. 9. Don’t select a playmate. Choose a partner for life. 10. Hope for as many children as possible.”
Scientific quackery also fused with Nazi prudery in advice literature. “In free love,” one Nazi racial hygienist wrote, “the mutual impulse to union is contained exclusively in erotic feelings, the confluence of the germ plasma endowments of both parents is left exclusively to chance, whereas monogamy, through the elaboration of perceptible biological hereditary stocks, enables human reason to bring together high-grade hereditary stocks for human breeding and to exterminate hereditary stocks of inferior grade. In this context free love means the admission of inferior biological ancestry to human breeding and the necessary squandering of high-grade germ endowments, whereas monogamy at least offers the opportunity for biological selection and preservation of high-grade germ plasma.”
In seizing control of the public health system, the Nazis had little trouble recruiting support from Germany’s internationally respected medical community. Doctors, part of the German social elite, had gravitated toward National Socialism early, becoming the most overrepresented profession in the Nazi party before Hitler’s assumption of power, far surpassing lawyers, teachers, and university professors. Many, especially young doctors, were happy to see Jewish competitors purged; many were deeply conservative and harbored anti-Semitic views and many were taken with Nazi ideas on race, eugenics, and preventive medicine. But the German medical profession, like the Nazi regime it served, was hardly a monolith. Many physicians were attracted by the Nazis’ aggressive approach to public health, their emphasis on prenatal care, on a healthy work environment, on physical fitness, on diet, and the regime’s efforts to curb alcohol and tobacco consumption. German scientists, concerned about asbestos in the workplace, were impressed by the regime’s Beauty of Labor program, which sought to create a healthy workplace. The Third Reich also launched what historian of science Robert E. Proctor has called a “war against cancer.” German medical scientists were leaders in identifying the link between tobacco and cancer; others researched the connection between diet and cancer, endorsing the consumption of fresh, organically grown vegetables and whole wheat bread.
These concerns found support from the nonsmoking, teetotaling, vegetarian Führer. Hitler endorsed a diet of raw vegetables and grains, and his private conversations were sprinkled with declamations, some of them crackpot, some prescient, about a healthy lifestyle. “In countries like Bulgaria,” he claimed, “where people live on polenta, yoghurt, and other such foods . . . men live to a greater age than in our part of the world.” Germans should eat more fish, less meat, as in Italy and the Mediterranean countries. “Japanese wrestlers, who are amongst the strongest men in the world, feed almost exclusively on vegetables. The same is true of a Turkish porter, who can move a piano by himself.” Abhorring smoking, he even toyed with the idea of ending soldiers’ cigarette ration during the war but wisely decided against it. None of these initiatives was very successful, but the regime was actively promoting a healthy new lifestyle for the Volksgemeinschaft.
For all of these reasons, German doctors quickly fell into line with the new order. They wrote ideologically tinged articles on eugenics in professional journals; they taught courses in racial hygiene, and they participated without demur in the regime’s new racially directed health system. Medical professional organizations were quickly coordinated, coming under the control of the National Socialist Physicians League, whose membership catapulted from 2,800 in 1932 to 11,000 by October 1933 as eager doctors clambered to get onboard. By 1934 the backlog of doctors waiting to join the league was so great that newcomers were advised to hold their application until those already awaiting admission were processed. In that same year, medical schools began requiring courses in racial hygiene, and serious medical journals published a steady stream of articles on eugenics. Racial hygiene also became a required subject at universities. In 1933 only one university had a faculty position in racial hygiene or eugenics; by 1935 more than a dozen of Germany’s most prestigious universities had appointed professors offering courses in the subject.
Already in 1933 Prussian educational authorities required that instruction in racial studies be added to the curriculum, and soon all German states followed Berlin’s example. Secondary schools were required to teach heredity, racial science, and family as well as population policies. The essentials of these subjects were to be integrated into instruction in biology. Students were being groomed to think in biological categories, to distinguish between “valuable life” and its lesser, “degenerate” forms. Classrooms, indeed all of public discourse, resounded with fatuous theories about Aryan, Germanic, and Nordic peoples, the last of whom were highly praised by the Nazis.
Nazi racial hygienists offered secondary school teachers advice on how to organize their instruction on racial matters. One sample assignment for students was to compose an essay on “How We Can Learn to Recognize a Person’s Race.” Students were required, among other things, to
summarize the spiritual characteristics of the individual races. . . . What are the expressions, gestures, and movements which allow us to make conclusion as to the attitude of the racial soul? Determine also the physical features which go hand in hand with specific racial soul characteristics of the individual figures. Try to discover the intrinsic nature of the racial soul through the characters in stories and poetical works. Collect propaganda posters and caricatures for your race book and arrange them according to a racial scheme. . . . Observe people whose special racial features have drawn your attention also with respect to their bearing when moving or when speaking. Observe their expressions and gestures. Observe the Jew: his way of walking, his bearing, gestures, and movements when talking. What strikes you about the way a Jew talks and sings? What are the occupations engaged in by the Jews of your acquaintance?
The ultimate goal of this intense indoctrination was to condition Germans to think racially, to view the world through a biological lens, and to infuse German society with a new racial ethos. Germans were constantly reminded that they were no longer merely Germans; they were Aryans, and their first duty was to the Volk, defined in racial terms. Doctors, too, needed to adjust their priorities. They were no longer tending to the individual but to the Volk. There was no higher moral obligation. In this new biological society there could be no outmoded sympathy for the weak or for the racially inferior. Feelings of “false humanity,” “exaggerated pity,” and brotherly love were no longer operable values. As Walter Gross, a major figure in the articulation and implementation of Nazi racial policy, explained in a radio broadcast to the nation in July 1933, “the [Nazi] revolution that has just begun not only creates new political norms, but also new human beings and a new understanding of history. . . . New values and judgments change our views of not only the future but of the past.” Borrowing terminology from Nietzsche, he explained that “this transvaluation of values marks our times and justifies it as a genuine spiritual revolution.” He called on Germans to join him in “a crusade” to create “a new moral order.”
To further justify the sterilization measures, the regime launched a public relations campaign emphasizing that “we do not stand alone,” pointing out that the United States, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland had similar laws, neglecting, of course, to mention that in each case sterilization was voluntary. The campaign also stressed the staggering financial burden the German taxpayer was compelled to bear in caring for the severely handicapped. With stunning callousness, the Nazis produced photographs of desperately disabled children juxtaposed with rosy-cheeked healthy children, accompanied by charts that purported to document the exorbitant costs of maintaining the unfit. These illustrated charts appeared in newspapers, journals, and as posters, ostensibly documenting the drain posed by the disabled on the economy and reminding taxpayers that they were footing the bill for this false “humanitarianism”—and that in a stressful time of economic recovery. As one poster frankly stated, “The genetically ill damage the community. The healthy preserve the Volk.”
To coordinate and unify all schooling and propaganda in the areas of population and racial matters, the Nazis created the Office of Racial Policy (Rassenpolitisches Amt) in May 1934. The Rassenpolitisches Amt was a party office, not a formal government department or ministry, but its influence reached into every corner of German life. Headed by the fanatical physician Walter Gross, it would become one of the most important organizations in the Third Reich. In addition to maintaining an ongoing campaign to “enlighten” the public on racial matters, it operated a training school for doctors and medical students and provided instruction for members of the SS. More than any other agency it carried Nazi racial ideology into the public arena. The range of its activities was breathtaking. In one three-month period in 1938, it sponsored 1,106 public meetings attended by 173,870 people and held 5,172 school functions in which a total of 330,972 pupils participated. It organized thousands of week-long retreats and seminars for party members; it produced 350 films whose explicit message was to belittle the “soft-headed humanism” of those who harbored moral reservations about sterilization, a message also carried in its glossy illustrated journal, New People. By 1939 it was staffed by 3,600 workers.
Like all organizations in Nazi Germany, it found competitors at every turn: the SS maintained its own racial section, as did the Propaganda Ministry, the party’s Office for Public Health, the Interior Ministry, the Labor Front, the Physicians League, and the Education Ministry, which authorized the National Socialist Teachers League to organize retraining camps to equip teachers with educational material on heredity and race for the classroom. It is estimated that 215,000 of the Reich’s 300,000 teachers attended these retreats at fifty-six regional camps and national centers that combined athletics, military exercises, and instruction in the National Socialist ideology. Even the army established an office to deal with racial affairs. By 1934 German society was thoroughly immersed in organizations and events devoted to Nazi racial indoctrination. There was no escape from it, no way to shut it out.
In 1934, the first year in which the sterilization law went into full effect, 56,000 sterilizations were performed. In subsequent years the pace did not slacken. Between 1934 and 1939 the number of sterilizations performed averaged 50,000 per year, almost equally divided between women and men. There was no public dissent or opposition. By 1941 between 350,000 and 400,000 involuntary sterilizations had been performed in the Reich. Hitler was a strong advocate of the program but early expressed the view that euthanasia would be more effective in ridding the Volk of its weakest elements. Such an undertaking, he observed, would be best undertaken under the cover of war, and if war came, he would authorize a nationwide program of euthanasia.
In 1939 he commissioned Dr. Karl Brandt to appoint an advisory committee to prepare for the selection and extermination of physically deformed and mentally defective children. In the chilling terminology of the National Socialist state, these candidates for liquidation represented “le-bensunwertes Leben”—“life unworthy of life”—and should be eliminated to improve the racial health of the Volk. Hitler’s Chancellery would be directly responsible for the operation, which was to take place in the utmost secrecy. According to the plan, physicians were required to report to local health authorities all cases of newborns with congenital defects or deformities of any kind. Doctors were also to register any child under their care up to the age of three suffering from these conditions. Lengthy questionnaires were then sent to the Berlin headquarters, located in a villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4, from which the entire operation derived its code name, T4. There they were evaluated by a committee of three physicians who would mark those chosen for “selection” with a plus sign, those allowed to live with a minus sign. The committee never examined the children in person or made follow-up inquiries with local doctors. The decisions were made solely on the basis of the questionnaires. The children selected were transported to one of twenty-eight specially equipped medical institutions. Parents were told that the transport to these facilities was necessary to improve treatment for their child. No visitations were permitted.
Methods of killing varied—lethal injections and gassing were the most common. Six of the hospitals were equipped with specially constructed gas chambers, where the first experiments with poison gas took place. At some installations the children slowly starved; in others they were left unattended in unheated rooms to die of exposure, allowing the doctors to maintain that death came of natural causes. Within a year the age parameters of the program expanded, so that children up to seven, then eight, twelve, and finally seventeen years of age could be killed.
In July 1939, the program came to include the adult population. People who might have been sterilized under the old program would now be disposed of once and for all. In 1940, specially equipped gas vans were developed that could move from installation to installation. Victims were herded into the enclosed vans and carbon monoxide introduced. Dr. Leonardo Conti, working with Brandt, had drafted a plan for the extermination of all Germany’s mental patients as well as those with severe physical handicaps. It was administered by Philipp Bouhler, head of the Führer Chancellery, operating under the cover of an ad hoc front organization, the Committee for the Scientific Treatment of Severe, Genetically Determined Illness.
Parents and loved ones received a standardized form letter regretfully informing them that their son or daughter, brother or sister had died suddenly of pneumonia, brain edema, appendicitis, or other fabricated causes. Due to concerns about an epidemic, the letters read, the bodies were cremated immediately. They would receive their loved one’s ashes in due course. After a time, suspicions began to be raised when relatives came to notice that other families received the identical letter with the identical cause of death and the identical date. Rumors spread, and one local police official even made arrests at one of the hospitals, only to be informed that the policy came directly from the Führer. As a result of rising public suspicions, Martin Bormann ordered T4 personnel to draft a number of different form letters, and the furor died down until July 1941, when Cardinal Clemens von Galen of Münster, in a series of blistering sermons, made public charges of forced euthanasia. The state’s policy of euthanasia was “pure murder,” he argued, and his sermons sparked a public sensation. The program was temporarily suspended, but by that point plans were already being made for a far more drastic solution. In fact, after a brief pause, the program resumed its operations and continued to 1945. By the time T4 was briefly suspended on July 14, 1941, 70,000 German adults and 20,000 “racially valueless children” had been exterminated. It is estimated that by the end of the war, the euthanasia program had claimed 200,000 victims in Germany and beyond.
The Third Reich’s commitment to “racial hygiene” was cold-blooded and callous, rendered no less vicious by its claim to “objectivity” and its veneer of pseudoscience. Nazi anti-Semitism blended that same biological fixation with a venomous hatred that only grew more intense as the regime matured. Both obsessions were inextricably intertwined and mutually reinforcing, an ideological fusion that found explicit expression in the so-called Nuremberg Laws of 1935. Throughout 1934 the regime refined its eugenics and anti-Semitic legislation, chipping away at the exemptions for Jewish war veterans that Hindenburg had insisted upon. To their chagrin, the Nazis had discovered that those exemptions turned out to be the rule rather than the exception. Given their relentless propaganda claims that Jews had shirked their duty during the Great War, the Nazis were nonplussed to discover that 100,000 Jews had served in the military, 78,000 at the front; 12,000 Jews had died in combat, and 30,000 had received decorations for bravery. The result was that 60 percent of Jewish doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other civil servants were exempt from the Aryan Paragraph of the Civil Service Law. Not to be deterred by inconvenient facts, the regime began a rollback of those exemptions that continued piecemeal until, by the close of 1938, there were none.
After the initial burst of racial legislation in 1933–34, a relative lull in the campaign against the Jews followed—at least on the national level. No major new discriminatory laws were enacted, but the violent anti-Semitic rhetoric of the regime remained as savage as ever. “We know him, the Jew,” Himmler thundered at a public ceremony for German farmers in 1935, “this people composed of the waste products of all the people and nations of this planet on which it has imprinted the features of its Jewish blood, the people whose goal is the domination of the world, whose breath is destruction, whose will is extermination, whose religion is atheism, whose idea is Bolshevism.”
The regime’s reluctance to take radical action against the Jews during 1934 into the early months of 1935 was the result of a number of different factors, some domestic, others in the realm of foreign relations. The crisis with the SA and its violent resolution in the summer of 1934 absorbed much of the regime’s energy at home, while Hitler’s decision to withdraw from the League of Nations in October 1933 and subsequent complicity in a failed coup d’état by Austrian Nazis in July 1934 put a weak Germany in an increasingly isolated international position. With a plebiscite scheduled for the Saar region to determine whether the strategically important area in the west would vote to return to Germany after fifteen years of League of Nations administration, Hitler meant to emphasize the stability of the Third Reich and downplay Nazi radicalism that might frighten away many who were not committed Nazis.
Rather than issuing new discriminatory laws, the regime tolerated, indeed, tacitly encouraged the Storm Troopers and party militants to step up grassroots harassment of Jews, and in the spring of 1935, following Hitler’s landslide victory in the Saar plebiscite (90.8 percent of the vote), a new wave of anti-Semitic violence swept across the country. Local radicals organized demonstrations before Jewish shops, shattered their windows, assaulted their owners, and threatened shoppers who dared enter them. They accosted Jews on the streets, fired shots into Jewish homes, painted anti-Semitic slogans—“Death to the Jews,” “Jew Perish”—on walls, vandalized synagogues, overturned gravestones in Jewish cemeteries; they intimidated Jewish children on their way to school and branded anyone who associated with them as “a slave of the Jews” (Judenknecht). To the police they reported the names of Jews and their Aryan partners suspected of having a romantic or intimate relationship—which was, at this time, a violation of no existing law. To all of this, the regime turned a benevolent eye. Party leaders viewed these independent actions against Jews as a much needed safety valve for radical elements of the party who were frustrated by what they considered the slow pace of the state’s anti-Semitic actions. A stepped-up campaign against the Jews would then provide the Storm Troopers with a new mission and revive their flagging spirits, much shaken in the wake of the Röhm purge.
These very public acts of persecution reached a crescendo in the early months of 1935. Poisonous anti-Jewish rhetoric spewed from the party press, and a “pogrom atmosphere” settled over the country. Police in Cologne reported stones thrown through the windows of Jewish homes, Jews beaten in taverns, a synagogue trashed, its sacred objects desecrated and thrown into the street. In Rhina, a village in eastern Hesse, a gang of some twenty men, dressed in black and wearing masks, burst into a synagogue just as services were ending. Wielding rubber truncheons, they savagely attacked the male members of the congregation.
Pressure was building among party activists for some sort of government action against interracial marriages and sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews—“racial defilement” (Rassenschande), as the Nazis branded it. In Mannheim, during August, the regional Nazi paper published a steady stream of articles under such blaring headlines as “A Heidelberg Jew as Race Defiler,” “Jewish Doctor and His Jew Love Partner in Custody,” “Jewish Sadists and Race Defilers,” “Race Defilers Will Be Rooted Out.” In Kiel, movie owners announced that Jews would no longer be admitted to theaters.
By late summer, Nazi hooliganism directed at Jews was proving unpopular with the broader German public, unsettled by the flagrant violations of the dictatorship’s much touted commitment to law and order. The chief of the state police in Aachen stated in early September that “in my district the handling of the Jewish question has provoked the greatest resentment, since the mentality of the Catholic population chiefly views Jews as human beings and only secondarily thinks to judge the matter from a racial political viewpoint.” That attitude was apparent in their tepid response to the boycott, the sterilization laws, and other National Socialist initiatives in racial policy. The good citizens, he remarked sarcastically, were actually tolerant of Jews in general and emphatically rejected actions taken against individual Jews. “In the future it is therefore advisable to avoid independent action in dealing with the Jews.” As the Social Democratic underground in the Palatinate put it, “it is no exaggeration to say that four-fifths of the population rejects this persecution of the Jews,” but that displeasure was confined to the privacy of their homes or close family friends.
Still, the radical, often violent actions of the party militants were also proving increasingly awkward for the government. Economics Minister Schacht was concerned that these outbursts of lawlessness and instability were having a negative impact on Germany’s international business relationships. The Nazis were also confronted with another restraint: with tourists and the world press descending on Germany for the Olympic Games in Berlin and Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936, the regime was anxious to avoid embarrassing scenes. In August, after a particularly ugly SA rampage through the Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s main shopping street, Hitler called a halt to this behavior. “JEWS NOT WANTED” signs, ubiquitous in shop windows only shortly before, were tucked discreetly away; the Nazi press toned down its anti-Semitic tirades; public displays of Jew baiting slipped into the background. The Third Reich wanted to make a good impression, to show the world this new, confident, well-ordered, and happy Germany.
But given the pressure from local militants and calls for legislation regulating the status of Jews in Germany, Hitler felt that some sort of legal action was necessary for the Reich government to regain the initiative and direct militant radicalism into manageable channels. Since 1933 the Interior Ministry had been considering measures that would strip Jews of their citizenship—it had, after all, been one of the party’s original Twenty-five Points—and Hitler was quite keen on the idea. Several desultory efforts were made to draft legislation to that effect, but for a variety of reasons little progress had been made. Likewise, Roland Freisler, an influential state secretary in the Ministry of Justice and later the fanatical judge of the dreaded People’s Court, had long agitated for a law that would ban marriage between Jews and Aryans and also make sexual relations between them a criminal offense—another of Hitler’s long-cherished ideas.
Although the Reich government had not moved on these issues, party officials at the local level did, arresting Jews suspected of having sex with Aryans, an offense referred to as “racial treason.” In some areas mobs seized suspected transgressors and turned them over to the authorities, although just what law they were breaking was not at all clear. In some communities registrars refused to issue marriage licenses to mixed couples and reported them to local Nazi authorities. To bring some order and uniformity to the situation, the Gestapo intervened, directing registrars to report all such proposed marriages, so that its agents could “enlighten” the Aryan partner of his or her impending blunder.
Such was the situation as the party prepared for the 1935 rally at Nuremberg, set to begin on September 9 and run through the 15th. The climax of the great extravaganza was always the Führer’s address on the final day of the festivities, and Hitler planned to announce a new law, the Reich Flag Law, which would formally make the party’s swastika banner Germany’s national flag. Adding a special ideological twist to the law, Jews would be forbidden to raise the flag or show the national colors. In the Third Reich German Jews could never be accused of being unpatriotic—they were forbidden to be patriotic. It was thought that perhaps Hitler would also offer some remarks on foreign policy. To lend the occasion some additional gravitas, the virtually forgotten Reichstag was summoned to Nuremberg for a special session on the 15th. Its role in the performance was to act as chorus, chanting its superfluous approval at the appropriate moments before rubber-stamping the legislation.
But two days before he was to deliver his address, Hitler changed his mind. The Flag Law was not substantial or stirring enough. He needed something else, something with greater ideological clout. In a speech earlier in the rally, Gerhard Wagner, leader of the Nazi Physicians League, had proposed a law that would forbid mixed marriages between Jews and Aryans, and late in the night of the 12th Hitler decided that dramatic new race legislation would do. State and party officials were sent scrambling to come up with a draft. Bernhard Lösener, who manned the Interior Ministry’s desk for Jewish affairs, was flown in from Berlin, and a small team of officials worked frantically through the night to craft a preliminary draft. Several versions of the proposed law, one of which was written on the back of a menu, were presented to Hitler, and at 2:30 in the morning of the 15th, only hours before his closing speech, he chose the most “moderate.” At eight that evening, standing before the assembled Reichstag Hitler announced what came to be known as the Nuremberg Laws. Göring was given the honor of reading out the text.
The Reich Flag Law, by now virtually an afterthought, was overshadowed by two others, the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor. The Reich Citizenship Law deprived Jews of their German citizenship; they were now to be considered “subjects” of the Reich, aliens in their own country. Although aside from political rights, of which there were precious few in Nazi Germany, the law did not remove any specific rights, it left the tiny Jewish community utterly vulnerable to the whims of the regime—and to their neighbors. Of far greater consequence was the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, often simply called the Blood Protection Law, which forbade marriage and “sexual intercourse outside of marriage between Jews and Aryans.” It also prohibited the employment in Jewish households of German women under the age of forty-five—an expression of the prevailing Nazi stereotype of Jewish men as sexually voracious creatures who could not be trusted with Aryan women of child-bearing age.
Hitler’s last-minute decision to enact these measures was characteristic of his leadership as it was of so much in the governance of the Third Reich. He had not come to Nuremberg intending to announce a new initiative in Nazi race policy, nor were the laws a carefully calculated escalation of the regime’s persecution of the Jews, a planned step in an inevitable march to genocide. Instead, their sudden announcement in September 1935, after a frenzied thirty-six hours of formulation in Berlin and Nuremberg, is a prime example of the improvisational nature of Nazi decision making—spontaneous and portentous action taken within an ideological context. And yet, if the timing of the laws was not calculated, their substance was hardly improvisational or spontaneous. Hitler—and many other party leaders—had long favored some sort of discriminatory legislation outlawing mixed marriage and sexual relations between Jews and Aryans, and stripping Jews of their citizenship had been a recurrent demand since the earliest days of the NSDAP. Fragmentary work on such ideas had been conducted within state and party bureaucracies since the summer of 1933.
It was also symptomatic of Hitler’s modus operandi that after firing off a sweeping ideological barrage against the Jews, party and state officials were left to translate his pronouncements into practical policy, and here—again typically—little agreement could be found. In their haste to draft the laws, Nazi officials left many questions unanswered. The most important—and most vexing—was exactly who was to be classified a Jew and how. Neither Hitler nor the Nazi bureaucracy had addressed this question. Was it anyone with one Jewish grandparent, as the Civil Service law of 1933 had dictated? Two Jewish grandparents? Three? State officials, especially Economics Minister Schacht and Foreign Minister Constantin von Neurath, insisted on three grandparents; party radicals, led by Rudolf Hess, on only one. The army, concerned about manpower needs, also hoped for a more restrictive definition.
Once his broadside had been fired, Hitler, as usual, could not be bothered with the details. When, several weeks after his dramatic announcement at Nuremberg, Hitler was asked to decide the issue once and for all at a meeting of the warring factions, he typically refused to take a stand—or even address the issue. Instead, he launched into a lengthy diatribe against the nefarious role of Jews in German history and then stalked from the room, leaving party and state officials to thrash matters out. It was vintage Hitler. A month later when he discovered that an agreement over who was considered Jewish had still not been reached and that he was again expected to decide the issue at a similar gathering, he abruptly canceled the meeting, and State Secretary Hans Lammers announced to frustrated officials that the Führer had far more important things to do than officiate at a debate between clashing Nazi factions. The message was get it done, and don’t bother the Führer about the details.
In the end, the state position prevailed—three Jewish grandparents was determined to be decisive. The status of racially mixed individuals—half Jews (two Jewish grandparents) or quarter Jews (one Jewish grandparent)—remained a source of conflict and confusion within the regime for years. In November a supplement to the Law for the Protection of German Blood classified anyone with two Jewish grandparents “a Mixture of the first degree” (Mischling erster Grad), except where the grandparents were religiously practicing, in which case the individual was declared “a full Jew.” The introduction of religious practice as a consideration came as something of a surprise since it was utterly inconsistent with the party’s official position that religious and environmental factors were irrelevant; blood was all. Anyone with one Jewish grandparent—a quarter Jew—was declared a Mischling second degree. An inquiry by the Jewish umbrella organization the Central Association of German Jews determined that 502,200 full Jews were living in Germany in May 1935, and using the categories that would be formally established as a result of the Nuremberg Laws, the study calculated the number of half Jews at 70,000 to 75,000, and quarter Jews at 25,000 to 130,000.
The classifications would have serious implications. Quarter Jews were to be treated as virtual Aryans: they were permitted to serve in the military and to marry Aryans; half Jews were not. Although Mischlinge of the first degree were forbidden to marry an Aryan, they could appeal to Hitler himself for a special dispensation. Few such appeals were ever successful. The Mendelian complexities created by the laws led to a plethora of unanticipated problems, as Nazi jurists gathered again and again to debate whether this or that anti-Semitic law could or should be applied in the case of Mischlinge. How would a child of a quarter Jew and half Jew be classified? What about the child of two quarter Jews? And what did “religiously practicing” actually mean? The permutations were myriad and were the subject of interminable debate within the party and the state bureaucracy. In all there were five supplements to the Blood Protection Law between 1935 and 1939, each attempting to clarify the status of Mischlinge. The question of how to treat them was still being vigorously discussed at the infamous Wannsee Conference in January 1942.
Nor was this all. Many in the party felt that forbidding “intercourse outside of marriage,” as defined in the Blood Protection Law, was far too narrow to protect Germany’s racial stock. That law had explicitly mentioned sexual intercourse, but this, Nazi legal specialists came to argue, was merely the starting point. As battles flared in the lower courts, the statute was extended to cover a broad range of sexual practices, and the resulting cases led regularly to extraordinarily graphic proceedings. In December 1935, the matter reached the German Supreme Court, which issued a ruling declaring that “the term sexual intercourse” included “all forms of natural and unnatural sexual intercourse—that is, coition as well as those sexual activities with the person of the opposite sex which are designed, in the manner in which they are performed, to serve in place of coition to satisfy the sex drive of at least one of the partners.” Under National Socialism, German jurisprudence had come to this.
The first trials arising from the Nuremberg Laws began in December 1935, and the number rose steadily in the following years. Between those first trials and the close of 1940 German courts sentenced 1,911 persons for the crime of miscegenation. All were men; most were Jews, a reflection of Hitler’s belief that in sexual matters women were essentially passive. The sentences ranged from incarceration of two or so weeks to two years. These numbers probably understate the number of cases, since in June 1937 Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Security Service (SD) and the second most powerful man in the SS, issued a decree that a suspect could be sent directly to a concentration camp without first being sentenced in court.
Under the circumstances, any sort of normal social interaction between Jews and non-Jews became impossible. “Aryan” Germans became cautious, ducking their former Jewish friends; Jews withdrew into themselves. There were some brave souls, “who carry on a friendly, neighborly relationship in Germany,” but they were isolated and scorned as “servants of the Jews.” In Breslau, the local Nazi newspaper published the names and addresses of “Aryan women and girls, who carry on intimate relations with Jews.” Storm Troopers posted placards throughout the city, on which the names of such women and Jews were printed, and local Nazis snapped photographs of Aryan customers entering Jewish businesses.
Most of these cases were the result of anonymous denunciations. And everything was suspect. A handshake, a touch on the shoulder, a perfunctory wave of the hand, even a glance might cause someone to be turned in to the Gestapo or local police. So swamped were the authorities by these anonymous denunciations, many of which were dismissed out of hand, that the Gestapo had to issue warnings against frivolous denunciations. Still, the result was that Jews increasingly withdrew from ordinary social interaction with their German neighbors, and even longtime friendships between “Aryans” and Jews gradually disintegrated. Jews were not forced into physical segregation—there were no ghettos—but their social and psychological isolation was virtually complete. Ostracized by their neighbors, terrorized by Nazi militants, unprotected by the police, Jews kept their heads down.
The Jewish community in Germany did not collapse or wither up and die. Officials from all over the country reported increased activity by Jewish organizations—Jewish veterans, Jewish sports clubs, Jewish youth groups, Jewish welfare societies were particularly active; even Jewish newspapers, such as the widely distributed Jüdische Rundschau, continued to be published into 1938. Lecture series were launched; cultural evenings were held; as were concerts by Jewish musicians. Talks were held on Palestine and the possibilities of settlement there, a subject that before 1933 had drawn little interest in the German Jewish community. Some Jews held out the hope that the Nuremberg Laws, as odious as they were, would bring an end to the SA terror and set a legal framework for continued Jewish life in Nazi Germany. Now, perhaps, there would be stability and the possibility of living unmolested in their homeland.
In 1933, approximately 38,000 Jews left Germany; in 1934, 22,000 followed. In 1935 the number actually dropped to 21,000, and there was even a small trickle of Jews returning from immigration—Jews who found living a reduced existence in exile more traumatic than living in their own country, where they had roots, community, and their own German culture. The introduction of conscription and the creation of a German army in the spring of 1935 even prompted some Jews to express their interest in joining the military as good German patriots. So many had served honorably in the Great War. Their inquiries were scornfully rebuffed, amid Nazi suspicions that such offers to enlist were nothing more than a crafty Jewish tactic to infiltrate the military and would provide an opportunity to slip back into the German mainstream.
Still, in the mid-1930s it seemed possible, albeit under drastically reduced circumstances, to live in Germany, and Jews struggled to interpret the ambiguous signals they received from the state and the public. In the years before the war, Jews confronted different local and regional practices, some of which deviated slightly from national directives. They were left to interpret mixed signals not only from the state but also from sympathetic “Aryans,” a confusing situation that at least gave Jews a glimmer of hope. Despite the remarkable tenacity of Jewish organizations and a modicum of Jewish public life, Jews lived on a knife’s edge. Ostracized, determined to do nothing that could draw attention to themselves, to make no open criticism of the regime, some burned their papers, letters, newspaper clippings, anything that might be construed as anti-Nazi or subversive. Many were convinced that their telephones were tapped, their correspondence opened—a fear they shared, although in a more heightened fashion, with much of the German public. Fear was their constant companion. It was dangerous even to be in the presence of anyone, “Aryans” included, who complained about any aspect, no matter how trivial, of the regime. One Jewish woman, upon hearing an Aryan neighbor in a shop grumble about the price of butter—didn’t she think so?—“did not answer and hurried away without buying anything. I was frightened. Fear, fear, fear—morning, noon and night. Fear followed us into our dreams, racking on our nerves. How imprudent, how inconsiderate of the woman to speak like that in public.”
In the aftermath of the Nuremberg Laws, the regime introduced no new initiatives in racial policy in 1936–37, which has led many to speak of a lull in Nazi persecution of the Jews. To some it appeared that the regime’s racial harassment of the Jews had lost momentum. That was only superficially true. While no major legislation in Jewish policy was undertaken in 1936 and 1937, five supplements to the Blood Protection Law were introduced between 1935 and the close of 1938, each further constricting the lives of Germany’s Jews. Jews were banned from the practice of dentistry, from the practice of law, from the distribution of stamps, from operating as druggists, from owning restaurants or pubs; Jews were forbidden to serve as auditors, dieticians, land surveyors; and the fifth supplement issued in September 1938 liquidated Jewish law firms and put an end to any form of medical practice by Jewish doctors. The status of Mischlinge was a major target, and with each new supplement their position deteriorated.
In these years, Nazi racial initiatives took a backseat to Hitler’s dramatic foreign policy moves, which held the nation’s attention and added greatly to his popularity. In 1935 he announced that Germany would build an army and an air force; he signed a naval agreement with Great Britain, which allowed Germany to begin building a high-seas fleet, including submarines. In March 1936 he sent troops into the Rhineland, German territory that according to the Versailles Treaty was to remain a demilitarized zone. And that summer the Olympic Games in Berlin brought Germany a tremendous boost in international prestige. At home they were viewed as a glowing accomplishment of the Third Reich. The year 1938 was a year of international crises and spectacular triumphs for Hitler. In March, the Anschluss, the absorption of Austria, brought an additional ten million ethnic Germans into the Reich along with around 200,000 Jews, an action that would have profound implications for Nazi racial policy. (Nazi foreign policy is treated in the following chapter.)
Another development occurred in the mid-1930s that would have enormous impact on the evolution of Nazi racial policy. In June 1936 Hitler named Heinrich Himmler Reichsführer-SS and placed him in command of all German police, yet another profound incursion of the party into the competencies of the state. Gradually the SS began to play an increasingly prominent role in the formulation and enforcement of the regime’s Jewish policy. The dreaded Gestapo, officially a branch of the state police, was absorbed by the SS, which now engaged in its own surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations. Officially Jewish policy was directed by the Interior Ministry, but in typical Nazi fashion, other state ministries—Justice, Health, the Office of Racial Policy—and various party agencies laid claim to jurisdiction in various areas of the policy. In 1936 the SS began to assert itself, relentlessly claiming leadership in all matters relating to the Jewish community. The SS of the mid- to late 1930s functioned virtually as a government ministry, with departments for Administration, Internal Intelligence, and Foreign Intelligence. These departments in turn had numerous subsections for Ideological Opponents (the Left), Freemasons, Political Churches, and “the Opponent Jewry.” The Jewish subsection was by far the most active, and Heydrich’s Security Service, the SD, assumed the leading role. The Jewish section was composed of several desks, one each for Assimilationist Jewry, Orthodox Jewry, and Zionists. The Zionist desk was presided over by an obscure ex–traveling vacuum cleaner salesman, Adolf Eichmann, who claimed, falsely, as it turned out, to have a passable knowledge of Hebrew.
Among the duties of the Jewish section was the compilation of a card index that would locate and identify every Jew living in Germany—name, address, occupation, racial classification, memberships in clubs and organizations. Where possible, the SD also unearthed the names of friends and associates for cross-reference. An effort was also made to catalogue all Jewish organizations still operating in Germany and their possible connections to similar organizations abroad. A second Jewish card index was created to determine the most important Jews in foreign countries and the contacts they might have with German Jews. The zealous ideologues of the SD, many of whom were in their twenties or early thirties—Himmler was but thirty-two, Heydrich thirty—were convinced that an international network of Jewish conspirators existed and was plotting world domination. They repeatedly uncovered evidence, all of it imaginary, of Jewish plots to assassinate Hitler, Schleicher, and other Nazi leaders, large and small.
The SS/SD claimed to prefer a policy of “rational anti-Semitism,” not the emotional, violent anti-Semitism found among the Storm Troopers and party militants. It was a point Hitler had made in Mein Kampf and in numerous party gatherings before 1933. The SS/SD’s solution to the Jewish problem at this time was “the complete emigration of the Jews.” An SD memorandum underscored that position in the usual cold-blooded language of the SS: “The life opportunities of the Jews have to be restricted, not only in economic terms.” The “old generation may die off . . . but . . . the young generation should find it impossible to live, so that the incentive for emigrating is constantly in force. Violent mob anti-Semitism must be avoided. One does not fight rats with guns but with poison gas.”
Throughout this relatively quiet period, the violent anti-Semitic rhetoric of the regime remained as scurrilous as ever, and after a comparative lull, persecution of the Jews was once again ratcheted up. In November 1937 the largest anti-Jewish exhibition, The Eternal Jew, opened with great fanfare in Munich at the Deutsches Museum, with Goebbels and Streicher giving speeches to launch the exhibit. Goebbels’s bloodcurdling rhetoric set the tone: The Jew “is the enemy of the world, the destroyer of cultures, the parasite among the nations, the son of chaos, the incarnation of evil, the ferment of decomposition, the visible demon of the decay of humanity. . . . This Jewish pestilence must be eradicated. Totally. None of it should remain.” By the close of 1937 a palpable radicalization of tone and content was evident in Nazi propaganda and actions toward the Jews, with increasingly shrill threats and occasional violence against the small and shrinking Jewish community on the rise.
The extremist rhetoric rose to an almost hysterical pitch, contributing palpably to an air of crisis that hung over the country through much of 1938. A mounting fear of war prevailed. The Austrian crisis in February and March and the attenuated and far more dangerous confrontation with Czechoslovakia in the late summer produced a virtual state of emergency. Germany, the Social Democratic secret reports emphasized, was suffering from a “war psychosis,” which together with a sharp escalation in radical anti-Semitic action by local and regional party formations, left the population perpetually on edge.
At the same time, the regime was becoming more self-confident, more radical, more confrontational both at home and abroad. From 1936 onward, moderating influences on Hitler began falling away. In the following year he removed prominent conservatives in both the administration and the military who had acted as a restraint on Nazi radicalism. With the brakes, such as they were, removed, and all the high offices of the state and military now firmly in the hands of committed Nazis, Hitler could pursue a far more aggressive policy, one that would lead to expansion in Eastern Europe, confrontation with the West, and a concomitant surge of violent anti-Semitic activity at home. Those developments converged in dramatic fashion in the winter of 1938, when Germany annexed Austria, a move that set the international community on edge and was accompanied by a profound radicalization of Nazi Jewish policy. The announcement of the Anschluss in March triggered a storm of ferocious anti-Semitic activity by Austrian Nazis and other Jew haters that far exceeded anything that had yet occurred in Germany. Given “freedom of action” by Hitler, party radicals immediately went on the offensive, smashing Jewish houses and shops, torching synagogues, parading Jews through the streets. Public humiliations of Jewish men—and women—became an everyday occurrence. Jews, on hands and knees, scrubbing the sidewalks in front of their shops while obviously satisfied spectators surrounded and taunted them, became a shameful part of life in Austrian cities. Nazi leaders at every level simply seized Jewish property, enriching themselves in a noxious display of avarice and corruption.
Pressure on the Jewish community in Germany escalated steadily as 1938 progressed. A new wave of discriminatory decrees began with a law requiring all Jews to turn in their passports—new ones would be issued only to those who were about to emigrate. In July the regime decreed that all Jews must apply to the police for an identity card, which was to be carried at all times and produced on demand. In August, the regime decreed that beginning in January 1939 Jews whose names did not appear on a list authorized by the state—names that any German would presumably recognize as Jewish—were required to add Israel or Sara to their names.
Eichmann, head of the SD’s Zionist section, was dispatched to Vienna to manage the emigration of Jews, at this time still the SS’s preferred solution to the “Jewish problem.” That problem was becoming acute. By the close of 1937 some 60,000 German Jews had emigrated, roughly 20,000 per year; now the Anschluss brought an additional 195,000 Jews into the Reich. Eichmann’s solution was forced emigration, developing a system whereby wealthy Jewish emigrants were extorted to subsidize poorer Jews who were desperate to get out of Austria. Eichmann created a Bureau of Emigration to organize the forced emigration. It worked, with staggering corruption at its sinister core, as Nazi officials coerced money from frantic Jews. By late November, Eichmann was able to boast that his policy had resulted in 350 Jews leaving Austria per day. The numbers were no doubt inflated, but impressive nonetheless to Heydrich and the SD. Later in the year, Himmler established a similar bureau in Berlin based on Eichmann’s Austrian model.
In the summer of 1938 Jewish emigration from the Third Reich was a matter of growing international concern, and an international conference to deal with the problem was held in the French spa Evian-les-Bains. Called on the initiative of President Franklin Roosevelt, the conference drew thirty-two participating nations and ended in utter failure. Although virtually all the participants expressed humanitarian concerns and agreed that the problem was pressing, all showed remarkable reluctance to accept Germany’s Jews. The Nazis were beside themselves with glee. The Western powers that so sanctimoniously condemned Nazi anti-Semitism had revealed themselves as hypocrites of the first order. Headlines in the Völkischer Beobachter screamed: “Nobody Wants Them.”
Against this backdrop of growing intimidation and violence, the Nazis moved decisively to expropriate the assets of Germany’s Jews. Beginning in January a series of edicts emanating from Göring’s Office of the Four Year Plan, a powerful ad hoc agency created in 1936 to organize and oversee the economy, aimed at assessing the extent of Jewish wealth in the country. All Jewish assets of over 5,000 RM were to be reported to Göring’s office; another regulation forbade Jews from changing family names to escape detection. It seemed ominously clear that the regime was conducting an inventory of Jewish assets in preparation for their seizure by the state. But what was a Jewish business? For small family shops determination of ownership posed few problems, but in larger enterprises, with multiple stockholders and Aryan managers or CEOs, the situation was more complex. Some Jewish owners had also struck upon the tactic of shifting the titular management of the business to a trusted “Aryan” employee or associate, some of whom proved not so trustworthy after all. Soon a decree against the camouflaging of Jewish businesses was put in place.
Many Jewish firms had already closed—“Aryanized,” was the operative term—their owners liquidating properties in bankruptcy; others, deemed too large, were being prepared for Aryanization. Corruption was epidemic. At every opportunity local Nazi leaders swooped in and bought up properties from Jewish owners, paying a mere fraction of their value. Aryanization of Jewish businesses was a moneymaker, not only for the state and the party but for individual Nazi leaders whose goal was more venal than ideological. The situation became so untenable that Göring was forced to remind party leaders that Aryanization was not intended as “a charitable scheme for incompetent party members.”
But it was a completely unforeseen event that would once again radicalize Nazi Jewish policy. On the afternoon of November 7, 1938, a seventeen-year-old Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, entered the German embassy in Paris and asked to meet with the ambassador on a passport matter. Only days before he had received a postcard from his sister bringing him distressing news that the family, which had lived in Germany since 1918, had been “relocated” and were living in deplorable conditions in a refugee camp on the German-Polish border. They were among some seventeen thousand Jews with Polish citizenship who were arrested and prepared for deportation to Poland. But the Polish government refused to take them in, and so, dumped in a dismal refugee camp, they waited, stateless, unwanted, without a country.
Grynszpan had been living in Paris with an uncle since 1936, but his Polish passport and German exit visa had expired in August, and the French authorities had ordered him to leave within four days. Powerless and despondent, he went into hiding. He decided to take a bold, desperate step. To his uncle, he wrote: “Jews have the right to protest. In a way that the whole world hears, and with your forgiveness this I intend to do. With god’s help, I couldn’t do otherwise. My heart bleeds when I think of our tragedy and that of the 12,000 [sic].”
The German ambassador was not available, and so Grynszpan was ushered into the office of Ernst vom Rath, a minor Foreign Service official. There he pulled out a revolver and shot Rath at point-blank range. He made no effort to escape and was arrested by French police on the spot. To them he sobbed, “Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have the right to live on this earth. Where I have been I have been chased like an animal.” Berlin demanded that Grynszpan be turned over to German authorities, but the French, noting that he was not a German citizen, refused. He would be held in France until his legal status could be clarified. Rath, mortally wounded, did not succumb immediately and while he lingered on the verge of death, Goebbels sensed a propaganda gold mine. He portrayed the attempted assassination in Paris as an act of war against the Reich by international Jewry, and the German press sizzled with white-hot fury.
November 9 was the fifteenth anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, and the party had gathered in Munich for the annual celebration. A social gathering for party leaders in the ornate Old Town Hall was to take place in the evening before the annual midnight swearing-in ceremony of new SS recruits. In the late afternoon, Goebbels received a telephone call from Dr. Brandt in Paris informing him that Rath had died. Goebbels passed on that information to Hitler, and the two held a lengthy discussion about some sort of nationwide action against the Jews—an assault against synagogues, businesses, homes, and individual Jews. Although Goebbels’s propaganda network would initiate the action, his agents were to do so in civilian clothes. The uprising was to appear to be a spontaneous action of an enraged nation.
During the meeting that evening, one messenger after another arrived to confer with Goebbels, and Goebbels left his seat to confer with Hitler. They spoke in hushed tones. Shortly thereafter Hitler left the Rathaus for his private apartment in the Prinzregentenstrasse, and at 9 p.m. Goebbels announced to the assembled leaders that Rath had died. Spontaneous riots were occurring throughout the Reich. Neither the SS nor the SA had been informed, and there was considerable confusion and consternation among the leadership about what was to be done. Meanwhile reports were arriving informing the leaders that synagogues were burning in several cities, and crowds of infuriated civilians were taking matters into their own hands, torching Jewish businesses and homes. Jewish men were being arrested by the hundreds. Goebbels also made it clear that the Führer ordered that the police and fire departments were not to interfere except to prevent flames from spreading to adjoining “Aryan” homes and businesses. Party leaders rushed to the telephones, calling their regional chieftains, issuing orders to launch their own operations. Both Göring and Himmler, neither of whom was present in the Old Town Hall, were furious at Goebbels’s failure to inform them of his plans. Himmler complained that “I suppose that it is Goebbels’s megalomania and his stupidity which are responsible for starting this operation now, in a particularly difficult diplomatic situation.”
In city after city crowds gathered in the streets to watch, sometimes in silence, sometimes cheering, as mobs of Storm Troopers, Hitler Youth, and other party radicals attacked every identifiable Jewish institution or dwelling. The scenes of destruction were shocking; rampaging Nazis invaded Jewish homes, smashed the furniture, crockery, ripped bedding, tossed expensive paintings out into the streets. Shards of shattered glass covered streets and sidewalks; the acrid smell of creosote hung in the air. The Swiss consul in Cologne reported seeing gramophones, sewing machines, and typewriters tumbling into the streets. A colleague of his “even saw a piano being thrown out of a second floor window.” Jewish men were dragged out of their beds and paraded through the streets by the mob before being formally placed in “protective custody” and dispatched to concentration camps. The police stood by, watching but not intervening.
Like so many Jews who would never forget that harrowing night, Simon Ackermann from a small town near Baden-Baden vividly recalled the terrifying details of this Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht). In the late afternoon “ten Gestapo men burst into our apartment and turned everything upside down looking for weapons.” A short time later a uniformed policeman and an SS man broke down the door. “The policeman threw my wife to the ground, while the SS man flailed away at me like a madman. The policeman wanted to throw my three year old daughter out the window but I held her tight.” Then he snarled that “he did not yet have an order to shoot, otherwise he would already have shot all the Jews.”
Ackermann was taken to police headquarters, where a crowd of Jewish men had already been assembled. At shortly after nine o’clock they “were led by the police and SS through the streets. At the front of the procession were youths who chanted ‘Jew Perish.’ The whole town was on the streets. Many screamed like drunkards, yelling out ‘Beat the Jews to death.’ They threw stones and spit at us. . . . At the Leopoldplatz the SS men bellowed [to the crowd] ‘Here you have the Jews. Do what you want to do to them.’ In a flash hundreds of people gathered round and began beating us.” The SS then marched the battered men to the synagogue. As they trudged along, they were forced to sing the “Horst Wessel Song,” and once inside the synagogue “the SS led us one after another to the altar where we were forced to read aloud from the Stürmer.” Then the frightened Jews were herded to a local Jewish-owned hotel. The Nazis had disconnected the interior lighting, and the men sat in darkness waiting for the next blow to fall. At 2 a.m. the cantor “was taken from the hotel; he returned after a time covered in blood and cried: “ ‘Our synagogue is burning.’ ”
Meanwhile Ackermann’s wife appealed to the Gestapo chief for permission to leave the house. He refused, telling her that the people were demanding that she and her child be burned alive. Late in the afternoon she slipped away with her daughter and ran to the woods, where they hid until dark. Then they found their way to a friend’s house and took shelter for the night. She had no idea what had happened to her husband. Along with the other Jewish men of the town, he was being beaten on the railway platform, where they waited for a train that would carry them to Dachau.
Sally Schlesinger was a young girl in Koblenz on Kristallnacht.
It was a cold, dismal morning when I was awakened by a frightful noise in the house. . . . As I came down the stairs I saw several SA men beating my Stepfather and Uncle over the head as they drove them out of the house. . . . They had smashed in the glass house door and the glass door to my parents’ bedroom. My poor little mother stood in the bedroom which was so covered in glass that it was impossible to sit down and dangerous to walk. It was in the dining room where the SA had had their greatest fun. Every glass, every plate was pulled from the breakfront and shattered on the floor. Even the ceiling lamp was ripped down and smashed. Later my parents were held liable for the damages to their apartment and had to pay.
All over Germany, from cities to small villages, it was the same—a nightmarish orgy of violence, arson, looting, and beatings that left 7,500 Jewish stores demolished, 267 synagogues burned, 20,000 Jewish males arrested, and 91 Jews murdered, a figure that does not include the large number of suicides that followed. The Nazis tried to maintain that this nationwide pogrom was a spontaneous explosion of popular rage at the “cowardly Jewish attack on Germany,” but, as was plain to virtually everyone, this was no independent action by local radicals. The night of wanton violence was clearly ordered and coordinated from the top of the National Socialist regime. Now even the law was no protection.
Goebbels had planned and organized the pogrom, with Hitler’s apparent approval, but without consultation with Himmler or Göring. Some have speculated that Goebbels’s action was prompted by a desire to regain favor with Hitler. He had for some time been carrying on an affair with a movie actress and had asked Hitler for permission to divorce his wife. But divorce, Hitler responded, was out of the question. The Führer, after all, had himself been a member of the Goebbels wedding, and the Goebbels family, with its virtual assembly line of children, to whom Hitler was godfather, had assumed the unofficial role of first family of the Third Reich. Goebbels remained a dynamo of energy, publishing, writing articles for various Nazi journals and newspapers, giving radio addresses, and directing the party’s propaganda machine. But with Himmler’s appointment as top police official in the Reich and Göring’s new post as head of the Four Year Plan, both in 1936, the two men were fast becoming the most powerful players in the National Socialist state. Goebbels’s star was fading, and he needed to do something to reestablish himself in Hitler’s good graces. Be that as it may, Kristallnacht did not mark the onset of a new offensive against the Jews but the crest of a wave of anti-Semitic riots that had gathered momentum throughout the summer and early fall.
For the Jews of Germany, Kristallnacht was a sheer disaster, bringing the end of any lingering illusions about the Third Reich. Most Jews had insurance policies that should have covered much of the property damage, but the regime voided those policies and imposed a one-billion-mark indemnity on the Jews, forcing them to pay for the destruction visited on them during that terrible night. The beatings, the murders, the arson, the arrests, the concentration camps, and the failure of the police or fire departments to help made it appallingly clear that until then, German Jews still clung to the belief that the law protected them. For the most part, their incarceration in the camps was of short duration—a few weeks, a month—but it provided them with a menacing preview of a dark future.
Although many Germans complained about what they considered as irresponsible destruction of valuable property on that night, some local reports emphasized moral reservations. In what was a common refrain, the mayor of Borgentreich in Westphalia reported that “in many ways, the population didn’t understand the action, or put better, didn’t want to understand it. The Jews are the objects of sympathy. Especially because they lost house and home and [because] male Jews were taken to a concentration camp . . . I estimate that here at least sixty percent of the population thought like this.”
Although Kristallnacht provoked shock in much of the German public, there were few public displays of sympathy for the Jews; open expressions of disapproval were dangerous and usually took the form of criticism of the “senseless destruction of property” and “pogrom anti-Semitism.” The response of the people was definitely divided, with widespread rejection of the pogrom coexisting with a general approval of the regime’s “legal” actions against the Jews. The Nazi leadership took notice and drew several important conclusions from the public’s ambivalent reaction. The people, SD reports noted, were shocked by the government-sanctioned violence. Until Kristallnacht Germans could maintain the illusion that this kind of vicious terrorism was the doing of the unruly SA and other local radicals. Now they, like the Jewish victims of that night, were confronted by the ugly realization that this was no spontaneous “excess” by party militants. This was a savage assault on the Jews conceived, fomented, and conducted by the regime itself. To Heydrich, the lessons of that night were quite clear: there could be no more open violence against the Jews, no more vigilante action. In the future, the SS insisted, anti-Jewish measures should follow a “more rational course.” Emigration—forced emigration—was the key, and since the SS had seized the initiative in Jewish emigration policy, Himmler would henceforth stake his claim to leadership in the regime’s overall Jewish policy.
While the ruins of Germany’s synagogues still smoldered, the regime moved quickly to complete the exclusion of the Jews from the German economy. On November 12, Göring, with Hitler’s approval, convened a meeting on the “Jewish question” with leading figures in the regime as well as various police officials. Still fuming at Goebbels’s reckless action and the destruction of valuable property, Göring made it clear that “something decisive must be done. . . . I have had enough of these demonstrations. It is not the Jew they harm but myself as final authority for coordinating the German economy.” The solution to the “Jewish question,” Göring asserted, was to be found in the complete elimination of Jews from the German economy, and since the problem was “mainly an economic one, it is from the economic angle that it will have to be tackled.”
At that meeting and in subsequent days Göring issued a series of stringent economic decrees meant to drive Jews completely out of the German economy. Life was to be made so miserable, so unsustainable for the Jews that they would have no choice but to leave the country. According to the decrees of November 12, Jews were compelled to sell their retail businesses and any export mail order firms; they could not work as independent craftsmen; they could not sell any goods and services; they could not act as managers of businesses or be members of consumer cooperatives; they could not participate in the welfare system. In addition, all Jewish children were expelled from public schools, and Jews were forbidden access to certain public sites (parks, movie theaters, among others), or limited to a few hours each day; Jews were also deprived of their driver’s licenses and were forbidden to own radios. At the conclusion of the November 12 meeting, Göring commented: “I would not wish to be a Jew in Germany tonight.”
That meeting also marked Göring’s assertion of leadership in all matters related to Jewish policy. Although he would face relentless pressure from the SS/SD, Göring confirmed his claim by issuing a December directive to all government departments that stated: “to ensure uniform treatment of the Jewish question, upon which rests the handling of economic matters, I am asking that all decrees and other important orders touching upon Jewish matters be cleared through my office and that absolutely no independent initiatives on the Jewish question be undertaken.”
By the close of 1938, the economic destruction of the Jewish community was virtually complete. Aryanization was intensified, and Jews were entirely thrown back upon their own shrinking community to survive. The events of 1938 did produce a dramatic surge of Jewish emigration—more than eighty thousand fled the country. But leaving was not easy. While the SS was pursuing a policy of Jewish emigration—increasingly forced—other state ministries were, in typical Nazi fashion, making it more and more difficult for Jews to leave. Jews were forced to pay an exorbitant emigration tax and a special “Jew tax” that, along with Aryanization, Nazi extortion at the grass roots, and other exploitative economic measures, left most Jews lacking the funds necessary to acquire visas. And it was also increasingly difficult to find countries willing to take impoverished refugees from Germany, especially since most countries were still dealing with the effects of the Great Depression.
In its annual report for 1938, the SD concluded that “as far as laws and edicts are concerned, the Jewish question in Germany has been resolved.” From January 1 through November 8, legislation and administrative directives were designed to exclude Jews from German society. With the action of November 9–10, the report proudly proclaimed, the removal of Jews from “all areas of public and private life has for all practical purposes been realized.” Four years earlier an SD memorandum had asserted that for Jews their existence must be rendered so unbearable, so impossible that they would find Germany “a country without a future.” In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, that dark vision had become stark reality.