Millions of Germans saw Hitler’s appointment as a positive development. They agreed with Goebbels’ judgement that Germany was at ‘a turning point in her history’.1 Manfred von Schröder, a student, says, ‘the young people were enthusiastic and optimistic, and believed in Hitler, and thought it was a wonderful task to overcome the consequences of the First World War, and especially the Treaty of Versailles. So we were all in high mood … So there was a feeling of national liberation, a new start.’2
‘Naturally we were excited,’ confirms Gabriele Winckler, a young secretary. ‘We thought now everything will be different, and everything will be better.’ She remembers that ‘all the young people … were all beaming, because they were all happy.’3 Günter Lohse, nineteen years old in 1933, believes that ‘it was Hitler’s personality which you trusted – that he would not only keep his promises, but also realize them. There was already a myth about him.’4
Torchlight celebration parades were held in many cities, and Luise Solmitz watched the one in Hamburg on 6 February 1933. Her description of what was happening in front of her was made against the background of a family history that was out of the ordinary – though she was a staunch nationalist and not Jewish, her husband had converted from Judaism to Christianity. ‘It turned 10 o’clock by the time the first torches came,’ she wrote in her diary, ‘and then they followed each other, like waves in the sea, about 20,000 Brownshirts, their faces glowing with enthusiasm in the torchlight.’ She recalled that Nazi Stormtroopers called out ‘Death to the Jews’, shouted ‘The Republic is shit,’ and sang of ‘the Jewish blood which would squirt from their knives’. Alongside that last remark, Luise Solmitz subsequently wrote, ‘who took that seriously then?’5
For many German Jews the impact of Hitler’s Chancellorship was immediate. Eugene Leviné, a student at a mixed-religion school, remembers that a non-Jewish boy who had previously been friendly came up to him and asked, ‘Well, Leviné, have you got your ticket to Palestine?’ Eugene was shocked: ‘But, you see, anti-Semitism’s always there beneath the surface. And I knocked him down. But the interesting thing is he didn’t get up and start a fight. I made him realize how angry I was and he felt guilty, and he just slunk away. So you see people’s feeling depends very much on circumstances, and what you can do at any one time varies.’6
Arnon Tamir, in Stuttgart, faced a similar confrontation: ‘The stupidest boy in the class, who was already coming to school in his Stormtrooper uniform, offered me a piece of cardboard, with writing on it: “Ticket to Palestine, out and no return, ever.” And I got ready to lay into him, but the senior boys of the class intervened. One was the son of a general and another the son of an officer – they were the “noble” anti-Semites in the class. They intervened and said: “That’s not an issue … it’s nothing to do with him. He’s nothing to do with the Bolshevik Jews, with the capitalist Jews, he’s nothing to do with it.” And then I was, for the first time, invited to their homes as a demonstration that there were also decent, honourable opponents. Of course I didn’t accept that. In response to this honour, of being invited, I declined.’7
In Hamburg, the Jewish schoolgirl Lucille Eichengreen and her sister also experienced sudden discrimination: ‘Hitler came to power in January 1933. The children that lived in the same building … no longer spoke to us. They threw stones at us, they called us names, and that was maybe three months after Hitler came to power. And we couldn’t understand what we had done to deserve this. So the question always was why? And when we asked at home the answer pretty much was, “Oh it’s a passing phase, it won’t matter, it will normalize.” What that actually meant we did not know. But we couldn’t understand the change … The first thing they [her parents] told us was on the way home, in the bus or in the street car don’t draw attention to yourself, stand in the back, don’t talk loudly and don’t laugh, just sort of disappear. And we couldn’t understand, it didn’t make sense to us. And questions were not answered … It made us afraid because when we walked to school it was a forty-five-minute walk. And we were shouted [at], other children were spitting at us. The adults were looking away. Although we had no markings we felt marked.’8
What these experiences demonstrated was how easy it was for many Germans who had never previously expressed anti-Semitic views to fall into the behaviour now expected of them by the regime. For some, these beliefs had always been latent; others just decided to follow the path of least resistance – especially since the mighty German state now had a Chancellor who was known to be a dedicated anti-Semite.
However, even though he had been appointed Chancellor, Hitler was not yet the undisputed dictator of Germany. His actions were constrained by a number of powerful forces – all of which he sought to control. To begin with, he knew he needed the support of the military. So it was no accident that one of his first decisions – just four days after his appointment as Chancellor – was to meet with leading figures in the armed forces. On 3 February he told them that he was committed to a massive programme of rearmament, and that they need have no fear that he would attempt to merge the regular army with the Nazi Stormtroopers. This message, unsurprisingly, was a welcome one to the professional soldiers. ‘An army was to be built which was capable of really defending Germany,’ says Johann-Adolf Graf von Kielmansegg, then a young army officer. ‘Here was a revolutionary action.’ What was also reassuring, and ‘played a big role for the soldiers’, was that President von Hindenburg ‘had given his blessing to Hitler’s behaviour. That was the important thing for us. You know, for the army, Hindenburg was not Hitler.’9
On 10 February 1933 Hitler delivered a lengthy speech at the Sportpalast in Berlin that was broadcast nationwide on radio. He was careful to be vague about the details of any specific policies that his government might implement, remarking that when his opponents said, ‘Show us the details of your programme,’ his response could only be, ‘after your fine state of affairs, after your dabbling, after your subversion, the German Volk must be rebuilt from top to bottom, just as you destroyed it from top to bottom! That is our programme!’ He did reiterate, however, that nothing would distract him ‘from stamping out Marxism’.10
Hitler was proceeding with care. He had called an election for 5 March in an attempt to legitimize his new regime and to pass an Enabling Act that would allow him to govern both without parliament and without each piece of legislation needing the approval of President von Hindenburg. So he had to make a number of compromises. In order to ensure the support of the Centre Party, for instance, he promised that he would never enter an alliance with any party that wanted to destroy Christianity.11
On 27 February 1933, there was a surprising development. A Dutch Communist called Marinus van der Lubbe set fire to the German parliament, the Reichstag. Initially, as Goebbels recorded in his diary, Hitler was ‘in a rage’ as he saw the flames. ‘Now is the time to act!’ wrote Goebbels. A few hours later they had discovered the perpetrator – a man who encapsulated the dangers of Marxism. ‘Just what we needed,’ said Goebbels, ‘a Dutch Communist.’12 The convenient timing of the attack, one week before the election, together with the equally convenient political affiliation of the perpetrator, has led to a raft of conspiracy theories alleging some kind of Nazi involvement in the burning of the Reichstag. But the participation of the Nazis in the crime has never been proved conclusively.
What is certain is that this act of arson was of immense benefit to Hitler. The next day Hindenburg signed legislation that curtailed basic human rights in Germany, such as the right to assembly and the right to free speech, and a new impetus was given to the rounding up of German Communists. Hermann Göring, as Prussian Minister of the Interior, had already recruited large numbers of Nazi Stormtroopers as Auxiliary Police in order to target the Nazis’ former political opponents.
As for the German Jews, while there were sporadic attacks against individuals over the next weeks and months as the Stormtroopers celebrated their victory, they were not detained en masse, and most often the assaults were humiliating and distressing rather than murderous. In Nuremberg, for instance, Rudi Bamber’s father was one of a number of Jews taken by the Stormtroopers to a sports stadium where they were made to cut the grass with their teeth. Rudi Bamber learnt about the attack only because the children of others who had suffered the same treatment told him that his father had been targeted as well. ‘My father couldn’t talk about it or wouldn’t talk about it,’ he says, ‘he just came back very grey and ashen faced and that was that … I didn’t think there was a coherent plan of anti-Semitism, it was simply every now and then an opportunity arose and some action would be taken against the Jews just to show them where they stood in relation to the Germans as such, to humiliate them, really. There were sort of vague instructions given which people could interpret in any way which they wanted to, and they knew they had carte blanche and they did whatever they felt like – if some people were anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish or had strong feelings or wanted to show-off to their colleagues.’13
But while Rudi Bamber’s assessment of the actions of the Stormtroopers in Nuremberg during those early months of 1933 may well be correct – there was certainly little coherence in the way the Nazis chose to persecute individual Jews – there was shortly to be a nationwide action against the Jews that was very much a deliberate act of state-sanctioned terror. It occurred after the Nazis had won nearly 44 per cent of the vote in the 5 March election. Starting on 7 March in the Rhineland and then moving across Germany in the next few days, Stormtroopers and other Nazi supporters demonstrated outside Jewish shops, harassed Jewish shopkeepers and often forced the shops to close for the day.
On 24 March the Enabling Act Hitler had wanted was finally passed. This ‘law to remedy the distress of the people and the Reich’ gave Hitler sweeping powers to rule without the Reichstag, and was the legal basis for what became the Nazi dictatorship. Just four days later, on 28 March, Hitler instigated a call for a countrywide boycott of Jewish shops and businesses. The form of this appeal to ‘National Socialists’ and ‘Party Comrades’ is significant for a number of reasons. First, now that his new powers had been agreed, Hitler felt comfortable coupling the word ‘Marxist’ with ‘Jewish’ once again. The ‘German Volk’, he said, had put a ‘lightning end to the Marxist-Jewish nightmare’. Second, the Nazis claimed that Jews who had fled from Germany were ‘unfolding an unscrupulous, treasonous campaign of agitation’ from abroad. And third, he argued that ‘the parties responsible for these lies and slander are the Jews in our midst,’ since the German Jews had the ‘power to call the liars in the rest of the world into line’.14 It was the same belief in a conspiracy of Jews across national boundaries that Hitler had talked about in the early 1920s, but which in recent years he had refrained from openly proselytizing. Hitler clearly wanted to demonstrate to the international community that foreign criticism of the Nazi regime, particularly of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policy, would not be tolerated. The German Jews were thus used as ‘hostages’ to try and stop foreign Jews denigrating the Nazis. It is the earliest example of what was to become a common Nazi response to criticism from abroad – the worse the attacks on Germany were in the foreign press, the more the Jews in Germany would be at risk. Finally, Hitler did not sign the document himself. It bore only the signature ‘National Socialist German Workers’ Party Leadership’. But we can be certain that Hitler was involved, not just because the content so mirrors his own previously expressed views, but because the Völkischer Beobachter reported that, at the first cabinet meeting to be held since the passing of the Enabling Act, Hitler had remarked that the measures to combat ‘Jewish atrocity propaganda abroad’ had been made necessary because otherwise ‘the Volk itself’ would have acted against the Jews, and that this would have ‘perhaps assumed undesirable forms’.15
This pattern, of capitalizing on the desire of Nazi supporters to initiate anti-Semitic actions, sanctioning the attacks and then ensuring that his own name was never explicitly used on any formal order to attack the Jews, is – like the use of Jews as ‘hostages’ – one that we will see repeated a number of times in this history. Hitler later said that he wanted his generals to be like bull terriers on chains, and they should want ‘war, war, war’ and ‘I should have to put brakes on the whole thing.’16 That method of leadership – whereby those below called for action in areas of policy for which Hitler had already expressed support in principle – applied just as much to his Stormtroopers in the context of the attack on the Jews as to his generals with the approach of war. There were many advantages to Hitler in operating in this way – not least that he could preserve a certain distance from any policy that later proved unpopular or damaging, if necessary blaming what happened on ‘hotheads’ who could not be restrained. But Hitler was always ultimately in control. If he wanted something stopped, it stopped at once.
After he had learnt of protests held abroad by foreign Jews, Hitler almost certainly did believe that there was some kind of international Jewish conspiracy at work. Most famously, on 27 March 1933 a mass protest rally was held at Madison Square Garden in New York, with more than 50,000 protesters attending inside and outside the hall. Three days before, on 24 March, the front page of the Daily Express in Britain had read ‘Judea Declares War on Germany – Jews of All the World Unite in Action’.
Two groups of German Jews – the Organization of German Zionists and the Centralverein (the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith) – sent delegations at Göring’s request to London at the end of March to try and prevent the imposition of trade restrictions against Germany.17 While their actions were understandable, in the warped world that Hitler inhabited they proved that there was a link between Jews that extended beyond nations. Jewish groups outside Germany were also well aware of the similar paradox they faced. If they said nothing, it looked as if they were abandoning the German Jews; if they spoke out, they fuelled Hitler’s fantasy of the existence of an ‘international conspiracy’ of Jews. It was an impossible situation for them, and one that prevented a unified international response to Nazi anti-Semitic actions during the early years of Hitler’s rule.
The Centralverein issued a press release on 24 March that illustrated the delicate line that this most influential of Jewish groups in Germany sought to tread. On the one hand, they dismissed as ‘pure fiction’ reports that were allegedly in the foreign press claiming that the bodies of Jews had been found dumped outside a Jewish cemetery in Berlin, and that there had been a round-up of Jewish girls. On the other hand, they did admit that ‘some’ Jews had been the subject of ‘acts of political revenge and violence’. The situation for Jews in Germany was bad, they seemed to be saying, but not as bad as some people abroad were claiming.18
On the eve of the planned Jewish boycott Goebbels, authorized by Hitler, announced that the action would now take place only for one day – Saturday 1 April – but it would be reimposed if foreign attacks on the regime did not stop. Once again the Nazi regime sought to demonstrate that the welfare of German Jews depended on the behaviour of other countries towards Germany. Hitler and Goebbels were attempting to build a mental construct within which their assault on the German Jews could be seen as an act of self-defence against attacks by foreign Jews.
In Stuttgart, fifteen-year-old Arnon Tamir awaited the imposition of the boycott with trepidation. He had already heard ‘stories of friends who had been beaten up. And I also had a friend, an older friend, who just happened to be home at the time. He told me that SA men [Stormtroopers] from outside the village came into the village to beat up and thrash all the Jews so badly that they were unable to sit down for weeks. One heard things like that. It was their [the Nazis’] particular technique not to have SA men from the same village attack the Jews but to bring in people from outside.’19
On 1 April, Arnon felt ‘a deep chasm opened up inside’ him: ‘The SA marched and positioned themselves in front of all the Jewish shops. They daubed paint all over the shop windows and then one or two or three SA men stood outside each shop. The public was gathering around or passed by and it was said “Germans do not buy in Jewish shops,” “the Jews are our misery” and so on. We were standing there and looked on, and it did happen that one or two Germans did enter the shop anyway and were not to be stopped, they went in demonstratively, that was still in ’33 … And that’s when the penny dropped, that if you could treat Jews like that, then all the stories suddenly came together, the stories about arrests … about beatings and manslaughter … I felt as if I was falling into a deep hole. That’s when I intuitively realized for the first time that the existing law did not apply to Jews. Meaning that you could do with Jews whatever you liked, that nobody stood up for them, that a Jew was an outlaw. That’s when I realized for the first time what it meant that anybody can do to you whatever they like, even beat you to death. That was deeply terrifying for me. I was a young lad, not even sixteen years of age. That’s when it clicked, that’s when I began to distance myself from the Germans. Basically, my parents did not really believe that something like this was possible. There were also German neighbours who said: “This is just a horrific episode, it will pass, they don’t mean you, they mean the others, the big Jews, the moneyed Jews, the international Jews.” ’20
From the Nazis’ point of view, the boycott was a mixed success. While it allowed the Stormtroopers to vent their splenetic hatred in an organized way, it also revealed the lack of broad public support for anti-Semitic actions of this brutish kind. Arnon Tamir’s experience – that a number of Germans braved the Stormtroopers outside the shops and went inside as normal – was a common one. Few Germans appeared to relish the idea of Nazi thugs targeting defenceless shopkeepers – even if they were Jewish – and such a visible, state-sanctioned boycott was never repeated.
Having harassed the Jews in a physical way, the Nazis turned to the law. On 7 April 1933 Hitler’s government passed their first pieces of anti-Semitic legislation. The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service called for officials who were not of ‘Aryan descent’ to be removed, and a similar law ordered ‘non-Aryan’ lawyers to cease practising. But, at the request of President von Hindenburg, a number of exemptions were made, chiefly for those who had fought in the First World War or whose close relatives had been killed in the conflict. This dulled the effect of the legislation and large numbers – including more than half the Jewish lawyers – were able to continue to practise. At the end of April a third law was announced, which limited the number of Jewish students in state schools and universities.
Tension continued between the wishes of fervent Nazi supporters for widespread anti-Semitic actions and the desire of Hitler and the Nazi leadership to minimize disruption to the economy. Jewish doctors, for example, had been excluded from the restrictive legislation in April 1933, but some local Nazi groups targeted them regardless. It was obvious that a number of Hitler’s followers – no doubt influenced by their Führer’s previous hate-filled rhetoric about the Jews – wanted swifter change.
Many Jewish businessmen suffered immensely. Arnon Tamir’s father, for instance, owned a small cigarette factory in Stuttgart, and shortly after the April boycott the cigarette dealers in the city told him that they couldn’t sell his cigarettes any more. This wasn’t an ‘official’ action – the government would have known nothing about it – but that made little difference to Arnon Tamir’s father who lost his business and was plunged into a deep depression.
However, there were other German Jews who found that their daily routine was relatively unaffected by the arrival of the Nazis. The quality of their life depended to a large extent on the attitude of the non-German Jews they lived among. Rudi Bamber in Nuremberg, for instance, felt that ‘outside school hours’ he was perfectly safe walking around the city. But in the months after Hitler came to power he did notice that the teaching changed at the mixed religious school he attended: ‘A biology teacher began to teach German biology and the racist approach – the Jews were a different race to the Germans and lots of racist theories were held forth.’ On one occasion he discovered that an anti-Semitic cartoon, torn from Der Stürmer, had been left on his desk: ‘Everybody was looking and watching to see what my reaction would be to this, and I can’t remember exactly what I did but it was quite clear to me that I’d have to be careful what I did – or didn’t do – in order not to give too much gratification to the people. I think I probably lifted the lid up and shoved it inside the desk and left it there. But the teachers were keen to maintain control in the class so the pupils were aware that they couldn’t go too far.’21
Just as there were Germans who expressed open anti-Semitism, so there were others who did what they could to help the Jews. Eugene Leviné discovered that good Samaritans could sometimes be found in unexpected places. Shortly after Hitler came to power Eugene was warned by a non-Jewish family friend that the flat he was living in was being watched. Eugene was particularly vulnerable, both as the son of one of the most prominent Communist revolutionaries and as a member of the Berlin Young Communists. But what surprised him was that the family friend who came to tell him he was in danger was a member of the Nazi party. Eugene has always been grateful to him, not least because ‘he took quite a risk to do that.’22 Subsequently, he discovered that other Jewish refugees had ‘similar stories to tell’.
Around 37,000 German Jews left Germany in 1933 – 7 per cent of the country’s 520,000 Jews.23 Many of the German Jews who left went to neighbouring countries like France or the Netherlands; it was notoriously problematic to arrange a visa for the United States. Jews who wanted to emigrate also had to contend with stringent laws restricting the amount of wealth that they could take out of Germany – most left with virtually nothing. The Central Committee of German Jews for Relief and Reconstruction warned against a mass exodus: ‘It will not help anybody to go abroad aimlessly … but only increase the numbers there who are without work and means.’24
There were also a whole series of emotional reasons why flight remained an unattractive option. ‘My mother’s parents were living with us,’ says Rudi Bamber, ‘and while it might have been possible for my parents perhaps to find something abroad, they couldn’t take the old people, that would be impossible … my mother didn’t feel that she wanted to abandon them to their fate. I was perhaps [also] influenced by my parents’ optimism – the optimism of various people – that it’s not going to get worse.’25
Today, we know how much worse life was going to get for the Jews who remained in Germany, which is why it is so important to remember that at the time it didn’t even seem certain that Hitler would survive in office for more than a few months. After all, the last three Chancellors had struggled to control events and had been replaced – why wouldn’t Hitler just be another in that long list? ‘Many people thought, “Ah well! He can’t cope with unemployment,” ’ says Eugene Leviné. ‘ “He can’t do anything. He’ll be finished. He’ll make a lot of promises – he’ll be finished …” That’s why so many Jews stayed on, despite the pleading of their relatives and children to leave. Because who wants to become a refugee and live on next to nothing, when you’ve still got your comfortable flat?’26
The Jewish experience in Germany thus varied considerably during this period, to a large extent depending on geography. The majority of German Jews lived in big cities, particularly Berlin and Frankfurt – in Frankfurt nearly 5 per cent of the overall population was Jewish.27 In these large metropolises, German Jews were less subject to arbitrary attack than those who lived in the countryside. Away from the cities, signs reading ‘Jews are not welcome here’ sprouted in a number of villages and towns, particularly in the area of northern Bavaria known as Franconia. Julius Streicher was Gauleiter of Franconia, and this was a district where anti-Semitic sentiment ran high. Indeed, it was no accident that during these early years of Nazi rule the most infamous example of an attack against the Jews occurred here in Franconia – in the small town of Gunzenhausen, 30 miles south-west of Nuremberg.
On the evening of 25 March 1934, Kurt Bär, a twenty-two-year-old Stormtrooper, went with a number of his comrades to a pub in Gunzenhausen that was run by a Jewish landlord. It was Palm Sunday, a date of considerable religious significance to Christians, and the Stormtroopers had heard a rumour that an ‘Aryan’ might be drinking in the pub – something they considered outrageous. Once the Stormtroopers were in the pub, Bär claimed that Julius Strauss, the son of the landlord, spat on him – though Julius Strauss denied this ever happened. Bär proceeded to beat up not just Julius but his father and the rest of the Strauss family.
A crowd gathered in front of the pub and Bär stopped hitting the Strauss family long enough to give an impromptu speech. He asked how it was possible ‘even in these days’ that ‘a Christian drinks his beer at a Jew’s place, since the Jews are our mortal enemies and have nailed our Lord to the cross. Furthermore, the Jews are to blame for the two million dead of the world war and the 400 dead and 10,000 severely injured of the [Nazi] movement. Plus, how many Jews have already raped German girls and how many bastards run around in Germany now? Nowadays, if a Jew still dares to spit at an SA man it is as if he spits on Adolf Hitler and the whole movement.’28 One witness said that ‘around 200’ people listened to Bär’s speech and ‘they all agreed’ with it.29
The beating of Julius Strauss now resumed, with the crowd egging on the Stormtroopers, shouting ‘Hit him! Hit him!’30 Afterwards the whole Strauss family was taken to the local jail. According to an official report of the incident, once in the jail Mrs Strauss protested that she had done nothing wrong, and ‘Kurt Bär struck her across the face and said, “You Jewish hussy, keep your trap shut.” Mrs Strauss tried to hide behind the prison administrator and grabbed hold of his arm. This gave Bär an excuse to strike her another blow, saying, “you Jewish hussy, you must not touch a Christian.” ’31
Several hundred – some reports say more than a thousand – citizens of Gunzenhausen now roamed the streets, yelling ‘The Jews have to go!’ Jewish property was attacked, around thirty Jews were arrested and two Jews died. One committed suicide when a mob threatened him. The other, Jacob Rosenfelder – who was found hanging in a shed – had almost certainly been murdered.
Although a large number of people had participated in the riot, only a handful of Stormtroopers were ever put on trial. In June 1934 the district court at Ansbach also decided that – despite evidence to the contrary – both the Jews who died had committed suicide. So the defendants only had to face charges of breach of the peace and causing minor injuries. Five of the defendants were discharged, seventeen received sentences of between three and seven months in jail, and Bär was told he would go to prison for ten months. None of those found guilty were taken into custody straight away, and on 21 August 1934 every sentence – apart from Bär’s – was quashed on appeal.
During the investigation into the crime, the deputy of the ‘Supreme SA leader of the government of Central Franconia’ tried to shift the blame for the whole incident on to the Jews themselves. He wrote that despite the ‘National Socialist Revolution no stop has been put to the dirty game of the Jews’. Furthermore, ‘the Jews in this district nowadays are just as arrogant, brazen, barefaced and brash as they were before the revolution. A large number of inhabitants of the town of Gunzenhausen as well as the district of Gunzenhausen have been legitimately annoyed by this for some time.’32
The authorities in Berlin were concerned that local Nazis had taken the law into their own hands. ‘I strongly request’, wrote the Reich Minister of the Interior to the authorities in Bavaria, ‘that measures be taken so that these riots don’t repeat themselves, and that the police intervene to stop the singing of the song “And when Jewish blood splatters from the knife, everything will be fine again! SA comrades, hang the Jews, put the fat cats against the wall!” The Jewish question is to be handled by the government of the Reich, not by the SA of Gunzenhausen.’33
That wasn’t the end of the incident. On 15 July 1934 Kurt Bär together with two of his comrades returned to the pub in Gunzenhausen where the riot had started. According to the subsequent indictment against him, ‘Kurt Bär entered the room shouting, “Hands up”,’ and immediately fired two shots at Simon Strauss [the landlord] who sat directly in front of him and who was hit in the head by both shots.’ Julius Strauss, the landlord’s son, tried to escape, but Bär shot him as well. Bär was taken to the local jail where he shouted out through a window to a crowd that had gathered in the street ‘I have shot two Jews. Be contented, I defended the honour of my SA comrades!’34
Simon Strauss died of gunshot wounds but his son survived, so Bär faced one charge of murder and one of attempted murder. In October 1934 he was sentenced to ten years in prison, but he was released just four years later. Julius Streicher had called for Bär to be treated leniently, saying, according to one eyewitness, ‘It is wrong, naturally, that this Jew was killed, but I am naturally glad about every Jew that is being killed.’35
The events in Gunzenhausen were at the extreme end of the spectrum of anti-Semitic action against Jews during the first two years of Hitler’s Chancellorship. Nothing like this happened again in Bavaria until the attacks of Kristallnacht in 1938. But it remains instructive. It reveals, first of all, how spontaneous the attacks against the Jews could be. There is no evidence that this level of violence was pre-planned. If Kurt Bär had not lost his temper in a pub then it is hard to see how the attacks would have happened. But while Bär’s actions were the catalyst, the pogrom was only possible as a result of underlying tensions. The reason so many of the local population rose up in support of Bär was because they themselves were predisposed to hate Jews. It is also worth noting that Bär in his speech outside the pub focused on traditional Christian-based anti-Semitism. This part of Franconia was staunchly Protestant, and the content of Bär’s verbal attack on the Jews would have been familiar to Martin Luther.
The disagreement between the local Nazis, who felt they could take whatever action they liked against the Jews, and the central government, with their response that ‘The Jewish question is to be handled by the government of the Reich, not by the SA of Gunzenhausen,’ is also revealing. As is the fact that Bär instinctively felt that Hitler would have supported his actions, when he said that spitting on an SA uniform was akin to spitting on Adolf Hitler. Finally, this unpleasant story also demonstrates the extent to which the German courts had already been tainted by the advent of the Nazi state. While it was the case that some of the Stormtroopers were initially put on trial and found guilty, the legal system subsequently failed the victims of the crime by releasing the Stormtroopers on appeal. Such a pattern would soon become commonplace, as the rule of law was corrupted by the Nazis.
In May 1934, two months after the Palm Sunday attack in Gunzenhausen, Julius Streicher demonstrated once again where he stood on the question of the Jews by publishing the notorious ‘Jewish murder plot’ edition of Der Stürmer. A cartoon on the front page showed two grotesquely caricatured Jewish men, one of them holding a bloodstained knife, collecting the blood of children. The text underneath said that the Jews practised ‘superstitious magic’ and sought to collect Christian blood in order to mix it into unleavened bread. Other illustrations showed Jews sucking the blood of a prostrate child through straws, and a reproduction of a stone relief on an Oberwesel church which featured an alleged thirteenth-century ritual murder of a sixteen-year-old boy – a youth later canonized as St Werner of Oberwesel. Another article claimed that the history of the Jews was ‘an unbroken chain of mass murders and blood baths’.
This special edition of Der Stürmer also emphasized the link between the Jews and Communism, alleging that after the 1917 Russian revolution ‘35 million’ people had been ‘shot, murdered, tortured and starved’, and that today in ‘Jewish Bolshevik Russia’ mass murders still continued, with the murderers ‘mostly Jewish’. Over 100,000 copies of this ‘Jewish murder plot’ edition were sold, while other copies were pinned on display boards in the streets.
There was widespread protest about the lurid content of Der Stürmer’s special edition – not just from abroad, but from Christians within Germany. So much so that Hitler eventually ordered it banned. Significantly, he said that he had banned this edition not because of the lies it propagated about the Jews, but because it could also be construed as an attack on ‘Christ’s holy communion’.36 It is revealing that despite recognizing the political necessity of distancing himself from the extreme content of this edition of Der Stürmer, Hitler still couldn’t bring himself to criticize the paper for attacking the Jews.
While there was no official policy of physically segregating German Jews from the rest of the population, immense pressure could nonetheless be placed on Jews, particularly in the countryside, to move away from areas in which they were no longer wanted. The Fränkische Tageszeitung, for instance, reported on 26 May 1934 that ‘on Thursday at 5 p.m. the swastika flag was hoisted on the property of the last Jew to leave Hersbruck [in Franconia]. The Hersbruck district is now definitely purged of Jews. With pride and satisfaction the population takes cognizance of this fact.’37The paper went on to say that it was to be hoped that other areas ‘will soon follow suit and that the day is not now far off when the whole of Franconia will be rid of Jews, just as one day that day must dawn when throughout the whole of Germany there will no longer be one single Jew’.
Equally, though there was as yet no law prohibiting Jews from marrying or having sexual relationships outside marriage with non-Jews, there were a number of instances of local Nazi groups humiliating couples that were in a mixed relationship. The Jewish lawyer Kurt Rosenberg wrote in his diary in August 1933 how in Cuxhaven, in Lower Saxony, ‘an Aryan girl and a non-Aryan man are led through the city wearing signs around their necks, “I am a pig because I took up with a Jew,” etc. In other locales the names of Aryan girls who have been seen in the company of Jews are published. And elsewhere Jews are prohibited from entering streets and town squares.’38
However, amid all of these instances of state sanctioned and locally inspired persecution, it is also important to notice what was not happening. The German Jews were not being sent en masse to concentration camps. The first makeshift camps were created to hold the Nazis’ political opponents, not the Jews. In Prussia, thousands of Stormtroopers hired by Hermann Göring as Auxiliary Police arrested their former political adversaries and took them to improvised jails in disused factories and warehouses, even to basements in the houses of the Stormtroopers themselves. Those captured were often beaten and humiliated in an orgy of celebratory revenge. In March 1933 Wilhelm Murr, the Nazi state president of Württemberg, said memorably: ‘We don’t say: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. No, if someone knocks out one of our eyes, we will chop off his head, and if someone knocks out one of our teeth, we will smash in his jaw.’39
In March 1933 Heinrich Himmler became acting police chief in Bavaria. By now he was also head of a specialized protection unit called the Schutzstaffel, or SS, originally formed as a group of bodyguards to protect Nazi speakers at public meetings. Himmler was in the process of turning the organization into an elite group of Nazi believers, albeit one still within the overall structure of the Stormtroopers under SA leader Ernst Röhm. Many members of the SS had been sworn in as Auxiliary Police and in this capacity staffed the first concentration camps in Bavaria.
Himmler justified the mass arrest of the Nazis’ political opponents in a speech in March 1933 with an early example of the kind of paternalistic double-speak for which he would later become infamous: ‘I have made quite extensive use of protective custody … I felt compelled to do this because in many parts of the city there has been so much agitation that it has been impossible for me to guarantee the safety of those particular individuals who have provoked it.’40
Himmler thus claimed that those who had been thrown into concentration camps had been sent there for their own good, as their ‘safety’ could not be assured on the streets because the rest of the population might turn on them. It was similar to the reasoning Hitler would attempt to use later that same month for the Jewish boycott – the Nazi state had to act or else the Volk would take matters into their own hands.41 According to Himmler, ‘protective custody’ worked in two ways: the population were ‘protected’ from those the Nazis arrested, and those who were arrested were ‘protected’ from the rest of the population. This was the logic behind the otherwise bizarre statement which prisoners were required to sign on their release from concentration camps: ‘I am aware that I may at any time apply for a further period of protective custody if I consider my physical well being to be in jeopardy.’42
Protective custody did not replace the existing system of justice in Germany but operated in parallel to it, as Hermann Göring explained at his trial in Nuremberg in 1946: ‘You must differentiate between the two categories; those who had committed some act of treason against the new state or those who might be proved to have committed such an act, were naturally turned over to the courts. The others, however, of whom one might expect such acts, but who had not yet committed them, were taken into protective custody, and these were the people who were taken to concentration camps.’43 It was an idea that went against all rules of natural justice. But it was consistent with the principles that Hitler had expressed in Mein Kampf. People should be judged for who they were, just as much as for what they did. It was all part of the same worldview that said that a Jew could never become a Christian by being baptized, because inherently that individual remained a Jew.
There was another consequence of this thinking. Prisoners in concentration camps did not serve a specific sentence – how could they when they had not necessarily committed any offence? Therefore no prisoner knew the date when they would be released. Maybe they would be released tomorrow – or maybe they would never be released. As one concentration camp commandant later said, ‘the uncertainty of the duration of their confinement was something with which they could never come to terms. It was this that wore them down and broke the strongest wills.’44
Nor were these camps intended to be similar to normal prisons where the punishment was the incarceration itself. That was because, according to Nazi theory, the prisoners’ detention was not supposed to be an act of retribution but an opportunity for them to change. ‘We had to rescue these people,’ said Göring, ‘to bring them back to the German national community. We had to re-educate them.’45
The first concentration camp in Bavaria opened on 22 March 1933 in a town just 10 miles from the centre of Munich. The name of this place would become infamous – Dachau. Himmler had personally inspected the site, on the outskirts of the town in a disused factory, and decided that this would be the location for the camp. The nature of the institution was clear from the outset. ‘Now we’ve got the power,’ said Johann-Erasmus von Malsen-Ponickau, an SS commander, to the new SS guards at Dachau. ‘If these swine had taken over, they’d have made sure our heads rolled in the dust. So we know no sentimentality. Any man in our ranks who can’t stand the sight of blood doesn’t belong here, he should get out.’46 They were words that demonstrated the hypocrisy of Göring’s claim that the role of the camps was to ‘rescue’ misguided Germans, or Himmler’s assertion that the SS sought to ensure the ‘safety’ of those they imprisoned.
On Christmas Eve 1934, Josef Felder, the SPD (Social Democratic Party) politician, discovered personally what form this lack of ‘sentimentality’ could take. He had bravely voted against the Enabling Act in March the previous year, and – as one of the Nazis’ political opponents – was a prime candidate for ‘protective custody’. He was arrested and taken to Dachau where he was thrown into one of the cells in a building known as the ‘bunker’: ‘They took away the bag of straw which was lying there … on the wooden boards [of the bed]. They took it out and said, “You won’t be needing that, because you’ll only be leaving this bunker as a corpse!” ’47 Left alone in the dark cell, he could hear the guards becoming ‘raucous’ as they indulged in a drunken Christmas celebration. Around midnight one of the guards came back, opened the iron flap in the cell door and held out a plate with white sausages and pretzels on it in front of Josef Felder’s face. ‘That would make a nice meal before your execution,’ he said. ‘But you’re not even worth this, you bastard! We know a lot about you! We’ll take care of you!’ The guard slammed the flap shut and left. Later that night he returned, holding a rope, and demonstrated to Josef the ‘best way’ to hang himself. Josef replied that he had a family, and if they wanted him to die they would have to kill him themselves. ‘Yes,’ said the guard, ‘we’ll do that! But we’ve got [plenty of] time!’
The psychological torture continued. After several days in the bunker Josef was told, ‘You’re getting out tomorrow,’ but the words were a sick joke. ‘They kept saying,’ he recalls, ‘ “You’re getting out tomorrow.” They were just messing around with me.’ For three days out of four he had only water to drink and a piece of bread to eat. Every fourth day he would be given tea and, if he was lucky, one hot meal. As he lay in a dark insanitary cell, deprived of proper sustenance, his mind tormented by anxiety, it was scarcely surprising that Josef found that his health started to break. A lung disease that he had first contracted several years before reappeared and then intensified. As a consequence, the guards locked him in a segregation area of the bunker along with ten other prisoners, all suffering from lung disease. ‘The Nazis were very afraid of pulmonary tuberculosis,’ he says, ‘which was a serious disease in those days.’
Josef Felder recovered from his lung condition and was released after just over a year in Dachau. Most prisoners in the camp served a similar length of time, though some were freed after just a few months and others were never released. It depended on the whim of the Nazis. All the prisoners who were eventually freed were required to declare that they would never reveal what they had experienced inside the camp. If they did, they would be sent back.
As for the relationship between the German Jews and the first concentration camps, it was not a straightforward one. In his speech in March 1933, Himmler went out of his way to stress that Jews would not be targeted simply for being Jews: ‘I must emphasize one point in particular: for us a citizen of the Jewish faith is just as much a citizen as someone who is not of the Jewish faith and his life and property are subject to the same protection. We make no distinction in this respect.’48 It was an odd statement for Himmler to make, especially when his own party’s programme denied that the Jews were ‘true’ Germans. He probably made these disingenuous remarks as much for a foreign audience – in order to counter the alleged ‘atrocity propaganda’ – as for a domestic one. In any case, his Stormtroopers did not follow his instruction. A proportion of the Communist and socialist politicians sent to the camps were Jewish, and these Jews were often singled out for harsher treatment than was imposed on the other prisoners. Max Abraham, for example, wrote Juda verrecke. Ein Rabbiner im Konzentrationslager (Death to Juda: A Rabbi in a Concentration Camp) after he managed to leave Germany. In the book, published in 1934, Abraham recorded his own treatment at the hands of the Nazis, just months after Hitler came to power.
Abraham was arrested in June 1933 for allegedly assaulting a Stormtrooper, but since he was a member of the Social Democratic Party and had been active in the small Jewish community in his hometown of Rathenow it is likely that the Nazis were already looking to pick him up. The Nazis also bore a personal grudge against him because a Stormtrooper had been sentenced to five months in jail back in 1930 for attacking him.
After his arrest, Abraham was first hit with truncheons by the guards, and then a special sadistic element was added – he and three other Jews were forced to beat each other up as the Stormtroopers watched. ‘We four Jews had to take turns maltreating each other with the truncheon,’ said Abraham. ‘When we wouldn’t hit hard enough, the Stormtroopers threatened us with an even worse torture.’49
Abraham was taken to a small camp at Papenburg, 35 miles west of Oldenburg in the north of Germany. The Jewish New Year was approaching, and the guards had been planning their own way of marking this Jewish festival. On the first day of the holiday, the SS guards forced Abraham and several other Jews into a manure pit. ‘SS Scharführer [Sergeant] Everling roared at me,’ wrote Abraham, ‘ “There, Rabbi, you can hold your service here!” Everything in me rebelled against literally having our faith sullied. I kept silent.’ Despite the SS man insisting he do as he was ordered, Abraham continued to resist, saying, ‘I do not hold services in a manure pit!’ As a consequence, he was dragged out of the pit and ‘truncheons and [rifle] butts rained down’ on him. When he passed out he was taken back to his bunk and ‘lay there without consciousness’ for two hours. In the afternoon, after he had recovered, Abraham was returned to the manure pit and ordered by Scharführer Everling to give a speech on Judaism to the other Jews and to the SS who were supervising them. ‘The Jewish religion is, like other religions, based on the Ten Commandments,’ said Abraham, ‘and the most beautiful biblical sentence: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself!” ’ At this point Everling interrupted, saying, ‘Knock it off, you pig, we will teach you our understanding of the grace of charity!’ Abraham was now ‘maltreated so horribly’ that he ‘developed a high fever and lapsed into convulsions. My body was made sore by beating; I could neither sit nor lie. I spent a horrible night like this in a cloudy and dreadful delirium. The next morning, I was in an alarming state and they brought me to the ward. Here I was among non-Jewish comrades, Social Democrats and Communists, who devotedly looked after me. I will never forget their comradely help.’50
Max Abraham was released after four months’ incarceration, and managed to leave Germany for Czechoslovakia in 1934. Eventually he settled in Britain where he died in 1977.51 His Juda verrecke. Ein Rabbiner im Konzentrationslager reminds us that Stormtroopers and SS treated Jews in sadistic ways in concentration camps long before the creation of the extermination centres of the Holocaust.
The Nazis did not hide the concentration camps. Their existence was well known and newspapers across the world carried stories about them. On 1 January 1934, for instance, the Manchester Guardian accurately described the reality of life in the so-called bunker in Dachau: ‘The cells are of concrete, they have one barred window each (which can be darkened), they are damp, and without heating arrangements.’ The article also revealed the nature of the beatings that the guards administered: ‘This consists of flogging with an ox-hide thong that has a strip of steel, three or four millimetres wide, running along its whole length (these are made by the prisoners). The blows – the number varies from twenty-five to seventy-five according to the sentence – are counted out by an SS man. Two other SS men hold the prisoner down, one by the hands and the other by the head, round which a sack is wrapped so that the prisoner’s cries are stifled … Some prisoners have also been beaten with lengths of rubber hosepipe. Some have been burnt with cigarette ends and some have been put to what Americans call the “water torture”.’52
Hans Beimler, a German Communist, published another early eyewitness account of the camp in 1933. He entitled his book Im Mörderlager Dachau (In the Murder Camp Dachau).53 But while Beimler was justified in calling Dachau a ‘murder’ camp, given that a small number of prisoners were killed there during this period, these concentration camps should not be confused with the later extermination camps – like Treblinka – whose only function was to kill. Appalling as the regime was at Dachau before the war, the majority of those who were sent to the camp at this time survived the experience.
When Beimler was arrested on 11 April 1933 the Stormtroopers could scarcely contain their glee at capturing such a prominent Communist. In prison he was savagely beaten with rubber truncheons. After fourteen days he was transferred to Dachau where he was hit about the head and thrown into a cell in the bunker. Just as with Josef Felder, one of the guards visited Beimler in his cell, gave him a rope and demonstrated the best way he could use it to hang himself. Soon afterwards Beimler heard screams as other prisoners were tortured, before his own cell door swung open and half a dozen guards entered. They beat him so badly that he could scarcely touch anything for days without feeling pain, and it was impossible for him to sleep.
Astonishingly, Beimler was able to escape from Dachau. He detached the wooden board over a small, high window in his cell, squeezed through the opening and, possibly with the collaboration of at least one guard, traversed the barbed-wire fence that surrounded the camp. An extensive manhunt was launched in an attempt to catch him, but he was able to cross the German border to freedom. He died in 1936 at the age of forty-one, fighting in the International Brigades in the Spanish civil war.
The consequence of works like Im Mörderlager Dachau and Juda verrecke. Ein Rabbiner im Konzentrationslager, together with articles in the Manchester Guardian and other newspapers, was that the brutal nature of the Nazi regime was known to the world from the beginning. However, in parallel to these truthful accounts, misinformation was also published, especially in Germany, which sanitized life in the concentration camps. For example, the local paper for Dachau, the Amper-Bote, claimed in September 1933 that the prisoners spent their spare time ‘contentedly’ playing sport or games and had been observed ‘cheerfully working’.54 Many other German citizens took a similarly benign view of the camps. Erna Krantz, a Munich schoolgirl in the 1930s, says: ‘You just knew of the existence of Dachau, but it was just a prison camp, wasn’t it? We knew that there were Communists there, and criminals.’55 Karl Boehm-Tettelbach, a young air force officer at the time, believed that ‘In Dachau he [Hitler] collected all the professional criminals … and they had to work there … in addition, he got all the gigolos, especially the homosexuals, away from the streets. And they were there in Dachau in that working camp, and the people didn’t object too much at this.’56
This idea that the inmates of camps like Dachau somehow deserved to be there – even though they had faced no criminal trial – was not uncommon. Walter Fernau, for instance, was a teenager when he first ‘heard the words concentration camp’ in 1935. He remembers that ‘a son of a friend of my father’s was flirting with a married woman in a café, and then her husband came in and he was an SS Hauptsturmführer. He took him to task. This son of my father’s friend, he was idle and just lived off his father’s fortune; his goal in life was just to mess around with women and hang around bars. He hit out and gave the SS man, who grabbed him, such a hook that he flew over two tables and slid down the wall. Then he took his girlfriend – that was the man’s wife – and went out. Of course, the police arrested him shortly afterwards. My father told my mother this story over lunch. We children, my sister and I, were listening. And then he said: “Imagine, Adelbert’s son, the big one, they’ve arrested him, he beat up an SS man and now he’s being sent to a concentration camp.” And then my mother said: “What’s that then?” And my father said: “He’ll finally learn the meaning of work there!” And so as a child of fifteen or sixteen I thought, “Oh, that wastrel who has done nothing all his life and just picks up strange women and drives around in fast cars, it’ll do him good to learn how to work for a change.” ’57
Others were more realistic about the political situation. Manfred von Schröder, the suave son of a banker who joined the Nazi party in 1933, believed that the concentration camps were the understandable by-product of a ‘revolution’. ‘Have you seen in history’, he says, ‘any revolution without nasty aspects on one side or the other?’58 The Austrian-born Nazi Reinhard Spitzy echoes this view: ‘In all revolutions – and we thought we have a revolution, a Nationalist Socialist revolution – blood is running.’59
At first sight it might seem strange that so many people welcomed this revolution, even with these ‘nasty aspects’. But it is less surprising if we remember that Germany had just experienced an existential crisis. The whole fabric of the country appeared to be coming apart as a result of the economic crash. Everyone knew what had happened in Russia in 1917 and there was a real fear of just such a revolution breaking out in Germany. As a result, enormous numbers of violence-hating Germans thought that the best way of gaining peace and security was to support Hitler and his Stormtroopers. They believed that a Nazi revolution was preferable to a Communist one, and that as a result of the actions of the Stormtroopers law and order would return once again. Many Germans also felt comfortable because the groups that the Nazis targeted seemed to be clearly defined, not just the Jews but Communists and socialists as well. So if you were not Jewish, or Communist or socialist, if you didn’t cross the new regime in any other way, if instead you were a good, solid German who wanted a new start, then you were almost certainly not only safe from persecution but it was perfectly possible that you approved of what the Nazis were doing.
Given that Hitler’s rhetoric had focused so much on fight, struggle and the crushing of enemies, it is also not surprising that controlling the guards who worked in the camps was a challenge for the regime. Himmler’s solution was not only to staff the camps he oversaw with members of his SS, but to replace the commandant of his showpiece camp, Dachau, just three months after it opened. The first commandant, Hilmar Wäckerle, had represented the old way of thinking. He was a veteran of the First World War and of service with the paramilitary Freikorps. He was the archetypal ‘old fighter’ who had been attracted by the revolutionary nature of the Nazi party and now that Hitler had gained power had been promoted beyond his abilities.
Wäckerle’s chief problem, as far as Himmler was concerned, was that he was attracting too much of the wrong kind of attention to Dachau. Emblematic of his leadership of the camp was the death of four Jewish prisoners on 12 April 1933. They had been taken outside the camp to nearby woods and shot ‘while attempting to escape’ – a euphemism for murder. It is still a mystery why these particular prisoners were selected and killed, though one officer, Police Lieutenant Schuler, later said that he thought Wäckerle had been frightened of a ‘communist revolt’ in the camp.60The Bavarian prosecutor’s office subsequently took an interest in the affair and the resulting inquiry was not helpful for Himmler, since the circumstances surrounding the death of the prisoners were at odds with his desire to portray Dachau as a disciplined institution with an emphasis on reform.
It was in the midst of this controversy, on 9 May, that Hans Beimler escaped from the camp. Not only did there appear to be a policy of extra-judicial murder in operation at Dachau, but the guards now seemed to be incompetent as well. By the end of the next month Wäckerle was gone. The new commandant, Theodor Eicke, would make his mark on Dachau, and indeed on the whole concentration camp system, in a way that Wäckerle never did.
The choice of Eicke to take over as commandant of Dachau revealed a great deal about the personal qualities Himmler thought important for a leading figure in the SS. Eicke was not an easy person to manage, and could scarcely have been more different in character from Himmler. Eicke was argumentative, passionate and dangerous, while Himmler was punctilious, organized and calm – some thought he looked like a village schoolteacher. In 1932 Eicke had been arrested for planning a bombing campaign in support of the Nazis. Sentenced to prison, he fled Germany while on bail and returned only after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. Believing that Josef Bürckel, Nazi Gauleiter of the Palatinate, had double-crossed him at the time of his arrest, Eicke wanted revenge. He organized an armed raid and captured Gauleiter Bürckel. Eicke’s victory didn’t last long, however, as Bürckel had powerful friends and Eicke’s actions appeared almost unbalanced. Eicke was arrested and sent to a psychiatric hospital, though the doctors said he was sane. It was Himmler who rescued him from this morass.
What Himmler now counted on, as well as the ability he saw in Eicke, was that Eicke would show immense personal loyalty to him. Without Himmler’s intervention his career at the age of forty was not just on a downward trajectory but in a vertical dive. Himmler offered him a second chance. He gave a similar opportunity to others, most notably Reinhard Heydrich, who would later have a close personal involvement with the extermination of the Jews. Himmler saved Heydrich in 1931, after he had been thrown out of the navy.
Under Eicke the guards at Dachau changed from the original band of street fighters to a professional corps within the newly formed SS Death’s Head Division. Eicke introduced a whole series of new regulations, not in order to eliminate the violence directed against inmates, but to clarify when it could be used. For instance, Eicke’s regulations stated that any prisoner could be executed ‘who attacks a guard or SS man, refuses to obey an order, refuses to obey an instruction in the workplace, incites or calls upon others to do so for reasons of rebellion, leaves a marching column or workplace or incites others to do so, or shouts, cries out, agitates or makes a speech while marching or during working hours’.61
Eicke emphasized that he wanted his men to be tough and uncompromising, especially in the presence of prisoners. ‘Anyone who shows even the slightest vestige of sympathy towards them’, he said, ‘will immediately vanish from our ranks. I need only hard, totally committed SS men. There is no place amongst us for soft people.’62 By such comments, Eicke not only articulated the qualities he demanded of the men under his command, he also sought to build an awareness that to be a member of the SS at Dachau was not just to be a jailer, but to be an elite soldier, fighting against ruthless enemies of the state. Eicke wanted the SS at Dachau to be a brotherhood, to be men who looked out for each other and fought in a noble, common cause. Eicke preached that the job of the officer was not just to lead the men under his command, but to care for them. As a consequence, Eicke’s men came, in the words of one of his soldiers, to ‘adore’ him.63 ‘The name “Papa Eicke” was coined even then,’ said Max von Dall-Armi, one of the SS men at Dachau. ‘He [Eicke] hates his enemies behind the barbed wire … He speaks of their destruction and annihilation. He instils this hatred into the SS through speeches and conversations. Eicke is a fanatical SS officer and ardent National Socialist for whom there is no compromise … “SS men must hate … the heart in their breasts must be turned to stone.” ’64
Eicke also employed a number of carefully chosen inmates – known as Kapos – in a supervisory role at the camp. The idea of employing selected prisoners to oversee other inmates was not new – prisoners had been appointed ‘trusties’ in ordinary jails and even concentration camps before – but Eicke embraced the idea as if it was his own. There were many advantages for the SS in such a system. Not only could the supervision of prisoners now extend to times when SS guards were not present, but the potential arbitrariness of the treatment meted out by the Kapos to their fellow inmates added a note of uncertainty and tension that would intimidate the prisoners still further. As for the Kapos, their lives in the camp were altered in a double-edged way by their promotion to the status of overseers. While they could exercise power over those in their charge, they still remained vulnerable. As Himmler said, speaking during the war, ‘His [the Kapo’s] job is to see that the work gets done … thus he has to push his men. As soon as we are no longer satisfied with him, he is no longer a Kapo and returns to the other inmates. He knows that they will beat him to death his first night back.’65
There was also one longer-term benefit for the SS in embracing the system of Kapos. Over time, the existence of Kapos allowed the SS more distance from the prisoners. It meant that instead of physically attacking inmates themselves, they could instruct the Kapos to do the beating for them. The guards could thus choose not to become covered in the sweat and blood of the prisoners as they were lashed. There were, of course, SS who remained directly involved in the physical abuse of prisoners, but the Kapo system allowed an alternative way of structuring supervision and punishment. It was a system that was to find its apotheosis at Auschwitz, where prisoners were at risk of the most appalling abuse – even murder – from the Kapos who were in charge of their individual barracks or work details.
Many of those who were later to obtain high positions within the concentration camp system trained under Eicke at Dachau – most notably Rudolf Höss, who became the first commandant of Auschwitz in 1940. He started work as an ordinary SS soldier at Dachau in 1934 and in many ways was the exemplar of the new hard man that Eicke sought to cultivate. He described how Eicke tried to convince his SS men that they were dealing with ‘dangerous enemies of the state’ and so had to treat the prisoners harshly as a consequence.66 But it would be wrong to take Höss’s words, written in the memoirs he composed after the war, entirely at face value. While no doubt Eicke’s methods did have an effect on him, they are not the whole reason why Höss could later oversee the largest site of mass murder in the history of the world. Like many of those who joined the SS and came to Dachau, he had a past that predisposed him to embrace the values that Eicke sought to impart.
Höss was thirty-three years old when he joined the SS, and he carried with him a bloody personal history. Born in 1900, he fought in the First World War – having joined up when he was under-age. He won several decorations for bravery, including the Iron Cross first class, and at the age of seventeen became the youngest NCO in the army. In the wake of Germany’s defeat he joined a paramilitary Freikorps and fought to suppress a left-wing uprising in the Ruhr in 1920. In November 1922 he became a member of the Nazi party and the following year participated in the murder of a fellow member of the Freikorps who was thought to be a traitor. He was caught shortly afterwards and sentenced to ten years in prison. Released as part of an amnesty in 1928 he joined the Artamans, a völkisch group that preached the importance of remaining close to the soil. Here, working as a farmer, Höss met his future wife Hedwig. He also came to the attention of Heinrich Himmler, who supported the ideals of the Artaman movement.
Thus, long before Höss came within the orbit of Theodor Eicke, he had not only made a number of life choices that demonstrated his commitment to the values espoused by Hitler and the Nazi party, but he had also participated in acts of extreme violence and experienced five years of imprisonment. If anyone was primed to develop ‘hatred and antipathy’ for the inmates of Dachau, it was Rudolf Höss. That is not to say, however, that Höss’s memoirs are entirely unreliable. His description of his feelings at first witnessing the flogging of prisoners in Dachau certainly rings true. He wrote how two prisoners were bound to the ‘whipping block’ in the camp and received twenty-five lashes each, because they had been convicted of stealing cigarettes. Höss recounts how ‘the first prisoner, a small impenitent malingerer, was made to lie across the block. Two soldiers held his head and hands and two block leaders carried out the punishment, delivering alternate strokes. The prisoner uttered no sound. The other prisoner, a professional politician of strong physique, behaved quite otherwise. He cried out at the very first stroke and tried to break free. He went on screaming to the end, although the commandant yelled at him to keep quiet. I was stationed in the front rank and was thus compelled to watch the whole procedure. I say compelled, because if I had been in the rear of the company I would not have looked. When the man began to scream I went hot and cold all over. In fact the whole thing, even the beating of the first prisoner, made me shudder. Later on, at the beginning of the war, I attended my first execution, but it did not affect me nearly so much as witnessing that first corporal punishment.’67
While Eicke attempted to mould the SS guards at Dachau into a professional yet heartless force, a parallel structure of concentration camps operated in the north of Germany. Hermann Göring as Minister President of Prussia oversaw this system – or rather tried to, since he had difficulty restraining the Stormtroopers and SS in his domain. In Prussia there was no Eicke to prevent the brutality of the guards turning to anarchy.
There were particular problems at the complex of camps in Emsland in north-west Germany. The SS were not cooperating with the Stormtroopers and both groups were causing unrest in the local area. In the nearby town of Papenburg the SS and the SA brawled in the open,68 and the SS were accused of invading ‘the area like a swarm of locusts. They were in hock to the small businesses, in the pubs they smashed the furniture, the girls were impregnated, and everywhere they went they met with animosity. Petitions for the withdrawal of the SS were addressed to the ministry from among the population.’69 In the camp itself there were disagreements among the guards over the appropriate amount of sadism that should be directed towards the inmates. ‘The prisoners had to jump off their beds in the middle of the night,’ wrote one political prisoner in the camp,70‘and were not allowed to get dressed. They had to line up naked’ and ‘were beaten without pity … It was abominable – so abominable that it was even too much for some of the SS. A group of the SS men involved in this “punitive action” became openly mutinous. They threatened their comrades with their guns, saying: “Enough already! Stop it, or we will shoot you down!” ’71
By November 1933, the situation was so bad that Hitler ordered the existing guards to be discharged from duty.72 They were not happy at the news. They ‘bellowed outside the camp, “We shit on the fat-cat republic!” ’73 Shortly afterwards they decided to take an even more radical step – and said that they would mutiny. ‘The SS [guards] announced, “We won’t let the police replace us, even if we have to wade through blood up to our knees.” ’74
According to another account, by Walter Langhoff, an inmate in the camp, the SS got ‘carried away by an enormous warlike mood’. Langhoff recalled: ‘The guards at the gate were strengthened, machine-gun emplacements were set up around the camp, and commandant Fleitmann issued the order: “Everybody who approaches the camp in a police uniform and ignores the request to stop will be shot at.” In the camp, the SS men took us [prisoners] aside: “You know, when they arrive, we will give you weapons, and we will put down the attack together! And after that we will found the ‘Freikorps Fleitmann’ and then we will struggle along until we are in Austria and there we will start the revolution!” ’75
The idea that the SS guards ever offered to arm the prisoners and start a ‘revolution’ seems bizarre. But a clue to their behaviour lies in the reference to the ‘Freikorps Fleitmann’. Individual paramilitary Freikorps groups, formed in the aftermath of the First World War, often took their names from their leader and it was to this commander – known as their ‘Führer’ – that each man pledged absolute loyalty, rather than to any abstract constitution or higher official. Here, in a throwback to those anarchic, revolutionary days, the SS were saying that they wanted to follow their own leader – Fleitmann – rather than trust anyone else.
It is also possible that the SS guards were never entirely serious in their threat to mutiny. Alcohol certainly played a part in their behaviour. The night before the police were due to arrive to replace them, the SS got drunk and caused mayhem within the camp: they ‘shat in the lockers, mixed salt into the sugar, smashed the windows in the troop barracks and the canteen and all kinds of other things’.76 The following morning, 6 November 1933, no doubt hung-over after the enormous quantity of alcohol they had consumed the previous night, the SS trudged out through the gates without putting up a fight and left the camp to a detachment of police.
While the violent excesses in Emsland had been perpetrated by those on the ground, it was the lack of leadership at the top that had been a necessary precondition of the lawless way the camps had operated. Now, just as Himmler had made Dachau into a place of orderly – rather than chaotic – cruelty, he would be given the authority to reform the concentration camps in Göring’s Prussian realm. Himmler also became responsible for all of the German police, although he remained as yet nominally subordinate to Göring within Prussia.
The big leap forward for Himmler came with the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ – the murder of Stormtrooper leader Ernst Röhm and others thought antagonistic to the regime. By June 1934 Röhm was a problem for Hitler that he wanted to solve. Hitler was anxious to avoid potential conflict between Röhm’s Stormtroopers and the German Army, and the ailing President von Hindenburg and Vice-Chancellor von Papen were also concerned about the lawless behaviour of Röhm’s Stormtroopers. Papen warned, in a speech on 17 June 1934, that ‘no nation that would survive before history can afford a permanent uprising from below … Germany cannot be allowed to become a train hurtling into the blue with no one knowing where it will stop.’77
On 30 June 1934, Röhm was arrested at the spa resort of Bad Wiessee and taken to Stadelheim prison in Munich. The next day he was visited in his cell by two SS officers – one of them, chosen for this historic mission, was Theodor Eicke. In an action reminiscent of the old Dachau conceit where pressure was placed on selected prisoners to commit suicide, they gave Röhm a pistol loaded with one bullet and told him to kill himself. When he refused, Eicke and his SS colleague Michel Lippert murdered him by firing three shots into his body. They travelled back to Dachau where more than twenty other people were shot as part of the purge. Afterwards, the SS at Dachau held a celebration and allegedly drank more than a thousand litres of beer.78 Eicke supposedly later said that ‘I am proud that I shot this faggot swine [the homosexual Röhm] with my own hands.’79
Members of the SS – and most especially their leader, Heinrich Himmler – had proven their loyalty to Hitler during the Röhm affair. Hitler had wanted Röhm to disappear and Himmler – without a second thought – had made it happen. The motto of the SS was Meine Ehre heisst Treue (My honour is called loyalty) and Himmler had lived up to that promise. It was the first manifestation of an important truth within the Third Reich. Whenever Hitler wanted a ruthless task undertaken by people who could be guaranteed to carry out the action without question, he turned to the SS.
The benefits to Himmler and the SS of their involvement in the Night of the Long Knives were immediate. On 20 July 1934 the SS were given the status of an equivalent organization to the SA – previously Himmler’s direct boss had been Röhm, now it was Hitler. Eicke was subsequently appointed inspector of the concentration camps and brought his organizational zeal to the entire network of protective-custody camps. Himmler and his band of followers were now at the centre of the security apparatus of the Nazi state.
As for Hitler, his hold over Germany was about to be consolidated still further.