In pursuit of what he called the ‘völkische state’,1 Hitler sought to change the consciousness of the entire German nation. ‘The völkische state’, he wrote in Mein Kampf, ‘must perform the most gigantic educational task. And some day this will seem to be a greater deed than the most victorious wars.’2 A crucial part of this ‘educational task’ was awakening ‘Aryan’ Germans to the danger of the Jews. But while Hitler could legislate for persecution of the Jews via new laws, he could not so easily change the mentality of the nation. And in September 1935, the same month as the announcement of the Nuremberg Laws, it was clear that he was some way from achieving his self-appointed ‘gigantic educational task’.
That September one supporter of the Social Democratic Party in Saxony wrote: ‘the majority of the population, however, ignore the defamation of the Jews; they even openly choose to shop in Jewish department stores and adopt a rather unfriendly attitude to the Stormtrooper on duty there …’3The situation had not changed nearly two years later, when the Gestapo in Bavaria reported that Jewish cattle dealers still controlled most of the market and large numbers of peasants remained content to do business with them.4
Hitler had always known that the ‘re-education’ of the nation would take time, and that it was vital, in particular, to target the young so that they would be prepared for the exacting tasks ahead. ‘In our eyes,’ he said to an audience of 54,000 Hitler Youth at Nuremberg in September 1935, ‘the German youth of the future must be slender and supple, swift as greyhounds, tough as leather, and hard as Krupp steel. We must cultivate a new man in order to prevent the ruin of our Volk by the degeneration manifested in our age.’5
Many of the young were receptive to Nazi propaganda because life seemed to be getting better – both for them and for their parents. ‘When Hitler got to power, suddenly we had work,’ says Wilhelm Roes, who grew up in Germany during the 1930s. ‘The bad mood at home [changed], it was always a bad mood at home when I was a child, because my mother at eleven o’clock didn’t know what to put on the table at twelve. In ’34 my father got work. I think he earned 380 marks. Our situation greatly improved. And he said that’s what the Führer did. Well, what was I supposed to feel? You didn’t really have to brainwash me at all. I’d taken it up at my mother’s knee.’6
Teachers within the Nazi education system spent a great deal of time telling their ‘Aryan’ pupils that they were superior to the Jews, so that the overall context in which anti-Semitism was taught was one of positivity. Maria Mauth, for instance, remembers her teachers in north Germany in the 1930s telling her that ‘only Germans were valuable human beings – there was a little booklet called German Inventors, German Poets, German Musicians – nothing else existed. And we devoured it. We were absolutely convinced that we were the greatest.’7 Erna Krantz, a schoolgirl in Munich at the same time, thought that ‘A lot was done in the educational field, the young had many opportunities … everything was being organized. We weren’t living in affluence like today, but there was order and discipline. And we also had very many role models. That was encouraged. Good writers, they were being emphasized, philosophers too were emphasized … Well, I have to say it was somewhat contagious, you used to say that if you tell a young person every day, “You are something special,” then in the end they will believe you. Well, I mean they tried to breed the so-called German race. Again and again they were saying, we want this, and that, we want healthy people, we want strong, working people, fit people. Above all the Germanness came through, which had been drilled, strengthened, in those years, the Germanness.’8
Although it was relatively easy to tell children that they were better than others, it was harder to get across the message that Jews were dangerous, especially if the pupils knew Jews who were benevolent. Wilhelm Roes, for example, had trouble relating the anti-Semitism that he was taught to the real world around him. In the town where he lived there were Jewish shops, and he remembers how the Jewish owners donated ‘clothes for orphans’. As a result he ‘didn’t like those caricatures in Der Stürmer. I couldn’t understand them.’9
One way teachers countered this disconnect between the Jews of Nazi propaganda and the flesh-and-blood Jews that pupils encountered was to emphasize the alleged deceitful nature of the Jews.10 The most infamous example of this was the children’s book Der Giftpilz (The Poisonous Mushroom), published by Julius Streicher’s own publishing company in Nuremberg in 1938.11 The title story in the collection tells how a child learns from his mother that just as it can be hard to distinguish good mushrooms in the forest from poisonous mushrooms, so it can be difficult to spot the evil nature of Jews, especially when they try to ‘disguise’ themselves. The advantages for the propagandist of this story are obvious. Jews are seen to be at their most treacherous when they are charming and helpful – just as, by implication, the poisonous mushroom in the forest appears to be the most attractive, but in reality is the most dangerous.
The Jews were thus presented as the antithesis of ‘Germanness’. True Germans had no need to hide their genuine nature, while the Jews felt compelled to conceal their duplicitousness. While the ‘Aryan’ pupils were ‘something special’, the Jews were something poisonous. In a pamphlet entitled The Jewish Question in Education, written in 1937 by Fritz Fink and publicized in Der Stürmer, teachers were told that they must ‘plant the knowledge of the Jew deep in the hearts of our youth from their childhood’ as it was vital that the young learnt about ‘the true depravity and danger of the Jew’. For Fink, a school inspector, the ‘racial and Jewish question’ was the ‘central’ issue of Nazism. The most powerful way to get the message across that contact with Jews was to be avoided, he argued, was via the teaching of ‘science’. For just as a ‘herd of wild horses’ is never led by a ‘wild boar’, so ‘each kind sticks with its own, and seeks a leader of the same species.’ Children should learn that animals naturally know what is best for them. It is only human beings who subvert nature by breeding with different races. ‘Only inferior members of various races mix with each other,’ wrote Fink, ‘the bad mixes with the bad. It is thus clear that the bastard always gets the worst of it, that is, he unites only the bad characteristics of the races he comes from. A teacher who presents his students with such ideas will have an easy time in explaining the meaning of the Nuremberg Laws to the youth. The children will see in the Nuremberg Laws nothing other than a return to the natural, to the divine, order.’12
Hitler understood that it was easier for Nazi propagandists to influence impressionable children than less pliable grown-ups. For adults it could prove harder – but not impossible – to reconcile their theoretical understanding of the Nazi case against the Jews with their personal encounters with Jewish Germans. Karl Boehm-Tettelbach, for instance, as a young Luftwaffe officer, had good reason to be grateful to a German Jew in 1935. Boehm-Tettelbach crash-landed his plane in a field and was rescued by a German Jew. Wanting to say thank-you, he took his rescuer to dinner and was surprised when the man ‘suddenly said he is a Jew’ and asked ‘if I was afraid of being with Jews’. Boehm-Tettelbach told the man that he wasn’t – after all, this man had saved his life. ‘That’s the first time I realized that something could happen with the Jews,’ says Boehm-Tettelbach. But this incident didn’t make him alter his desire to support the regime. ‘In Berlin especially,’ he says, ‘they [the Nazis] claimed that the lawyers were mostly Jews, so when they said they had too many lawyers, one understood that. To be anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that you kill the people. You might not get socially close together, you might not like them very much, but that doesn’t mean that you kill the people …’13 While feeling ‘sorry’ for the German Jews in the wake of the Nuremberg Laws, Boehm-Tettelbach admits that ‘it didn’t worry me much.’
In his relaxed attitude to the persecution of the German Jews during the 1930s, Boehm-Tettelbach captures the mood of many non-Jewish Germans. They were open to the suggestion that ‘something should be done’ about the alleged power and influence of the Jews, and if they subsequently felt uneasy about any excesses in anti-Semitic actions, they just looked the other way. As for the Jews they knew and liked, they were treated as a class apart.
Leading Nazis emphasized not just what they claimed were the practical aspects of the ‘Jewish problem’ – like the number of Jewish lawyers in Berlin – but also the underlying issue of race. To them, issues like the disproportionate number of Jews in the legal profession were the symptom of this ‘problem’ but race was always the cause. ‘We shall gather together the best blood,’ said Walther Darré, the Agriculture Minister. ‘Just as we are now breeding our Hanover horse from the few remaining pure-blooded male and female stock, so we shall see the same type of breeding over the next generation of the pure type of Nordic German.’14
Statements like these didn’t just allow the Nazis to promote their virulent anti-Semitism. They also helped link their racial anti-Semitism with their eugenic beliefs – or, in Nazi terminology, ‘racial hygiene’. The connection between ‘racial hygiene’ and the persecution of the Jews was not immediately apparent at the start of the Third Reich, but the two ideas were always intertwined for the Nazis. For just as they thought it was essential that Jewish blood was not allowed to mix with ‘Aryan’ blood so it was also vital that those ‘Aryans’ who were the weakest were not allowed to breed at all. Just as, to use Walther Darré’s analogy, a Nazi believer would not mate a Hanover horse with an inferior breed of horse, he would not mate a healthy Hanover horse with a sick one.
So important to Hitler was this belief that only healthy ‘Aryan’ Germans should be allowed to reproduce that at the 1929 Nuremberg party conference he had warned: ‘Through our modern sentimental humanitarianism, we make an effort to maintain the weak at the expense of the healthy … Criminals are allowed to reproduce, degenerates are laboriously coddled in an artificial way. Thus we slowly grow the weak and kill the strong.’15 He even went as far as to say: ‘If Germany gained a million children a year and eliminated 700,000–800,000 of the weakest, then the final result would probably be an increase in strength. The most dangerous thing is for us to cut ourselves off from the natural process of selection …’ The idea that Hitler was suggesting in 1929 – just four years before he became Chancellor – the possibility of murdering seven or eight out of every ten new babies born in Germany is hugely revealing. For Hitler, the creation of the völkische state meant, in principle, killing enormous numbers of ‘weak’ Germans.
Given his belief that Germany should be genetically remodelled, it was scarcely surprising that less than six months after he came to power Hitler signed the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring. This legislation called for Genetic Health Courts to order the compulsory sterilization of any individual who had one of a number of named disorders. Some of these disorders were not ‘genetic’ at all, and allowed Germans deemed socially undesirable, such as alcoholics, to be sterilized.
The Nazis were not the first to pass legislation on forced sterilization – many states in America had already done so – but they did push the idea forward with greater zeal than anyone else. Paul Eggert, from the Rhineland, for instance, was forcibly sterilized as a child under this legislation. He did not have a ‘genetic’ illness, but was simply an objectionable citizen as far as the Nazis were concerned. He came from a deprived background and his father was an alcoholic. As a child he begged from local farmers, and if he didn’t return home with food then his father beat him. Eventually, as he puts it, ‘the [local] people had enough of it.’16 So he was taken away from his parents and put in a special children’s home near Dortmund where he was told that he needed to have a hernia operation. It wasn’t until after the war that he learnt that he had not had an operation for a hernia, but had been sterilized.
From Hitler’s perspective, the sterilization law was only a beginning. While the new legislation meant that future generations would be spared the ‘burden’, as he saw it, of caring for some of the state’s most needy citizens, it did not deal with the immediate situation. Hitler’s own aspirations were encapsulated in the film Opfer der Vergangenheit (Victims of the Past), released in 1937. This documentary, shown in every cinema in Germany, argued for the killing of the mentally disabled. There were two reasons, the film’s commentary said, why this action was necessary. First, because it offended the ‘Creator’s law of natural selection and order’ to keep these people alive, and second, because ‘the money it takes to care for these people could be put to better use helping strong and healthy children.’17
Some German doctors approved of this murderous idea. In 1935 the psychiatrist Dr Karl Knab wrote that German ‘asylums’ contained not just ‘idiots on the lowest level’ but ‘spiritual ruins’. Moreover, this ‘patient material … as mere cost-occasioning ballast, should be eradicated by being killed in a painless fashion’. This was ‘justifiable’, said Dr Knab, for financial reasons in the context of ‘a nation fighting for its very existence’.18
Gerhard Wagner, Reich Doctors’ Leader, spoke in support of Opfer der Vergangenheit at the film’s premiere. He, more than anyone, knew his Führer’s own views on this subject, since in 1935 Hitler had told him that during a future war they should plan on murdering the seriously mentally ill.19 It is significant that Hitler believed that a forthcoming war would allow him to pursue such a radical course of action – not least because it would be under cover of this war that he would also preside over the mass extermination of the Jews.
Meanwhile, compulsory sterilization was carried out in Germany on an enormous scale – between 300,000 and 400,000 people suffered as a result.20 This led to a seismic shift in the role of the medical profession. No longer was the sole interest of doctors the health of their patients. If doctors decided they wished to sterilize a patient under the criteria set by the new legislation, they were legally obliged to ignore their patient’s objections. Gerhard Wagner saw no conflict of interest here, because he believed the prime consideration for doctors should be the wellbeing of the nation.21As a consequence, the Nazis claimed that doctors had a greater responsibility than previously – no longer ministering merely to the needs of the individual, but now to the entire Volkskörper, the body of the people, all in pursuit of the goal of the ‘völkische state’.22
What the ‘völkische state’ represented was a country in which the state now had the legal right to question every life choice that you made. Nazis could inquire into your detailed family background to determine whom you could and could not marry in order to assess whether or not you had the ‘right’ to reproduce. If you became pregnant and the baby you carried was deemed racially useful, you were forbidden from having an abortion. No longer could you choose not to work; that would make you ‘work shy’ and liable to ‘protective custody’. You could not even choose your friends, for if your neighbours disapproved of the company you kept you could be denounced as ‘asocial’ – someone who was not a reliable member of the racial community.
Yet, despite all of these restrictions, the majority of Germans still supported Hitler. In the 1934 referendum on the merging of the posts of President and Chancellor, for example, 88 per cent of the electorate wanted Hitler to become head of state after Hindenburg’s death. At the elections in 1936, which also contained a referendum question asking if voters approved of Hitler’s action in ordering the military reoccupation of Germany’s Rhineland, support for the Nazis was more than 98 per cent. These elections, we should remember, were held in a non-democratic state with none of the safeguards present in truly free elections, and the data cannot be used to imply a precise statistical level of support for the regime – but nonetheless the results remain enlightening. It is easy to see why the leading scholar on Hitler concludes from all the available evidence that the 1936 result represented ‘an overhelming show of acclamation for Hitler’.23 Many Germans in the 1930s would no doubt have agreed with Erna Krantz, who, looking back after the war, said, ‘It was, I thought, a better time [than today]. To say this is of course taking a risk. But I’ll say it anyway.’24
For a young woman like Erna Krantz in the 1930s it was not just a question of the positives of life under the Nazis outweighing the negatives. To a large extent the negatives of the regime as we see it – the concentration camps, the isolation of minority groups targeted by the Nazis and so on – were perceived as part of the positive. The concentration camps were thought necessary to remove the undesirables from the streets; the new racial-based teaching was welcomed as it told the young they were special; and as for the exclusion of the Jews, well, as the banker Johannes Zahn says, there was a perception among a section of the population that they had ‘gone too far’25 in Germany. So as long as you conformed to the Nazi ideal – and millions of Germans did just that – it was possible to enjoy yourself in Hitler’s Third Reich during the 1930s. Many of those who did would later say that they had no idea that the persecution of the Jews, encapsulated in the Nuremberg Laws and other restrictive legislation, would lead to the Holocaust. And while in one sense that is true – there is no evidence at this point that Hitler had a blueprint for what was to come – it is also misleading. Because a fundamental reason that millions of Germans could enjoy life in Hitler’s Germany was that they enthusiastically supported the racial theories that were at the core of Nazi thought. They embraced the idea that they were better than others. As a consequence, it was possible to treat as lesser human beings those they were told weren’t like them. The argument was not about others being inferior – that was accepted by large numbers of people – the argument was about how these ‘lesser’ people should be treated.
As for the Jews, the Nuremberg Laws confirmed that they were to be excluded from the new Germany. Increasingly, Jews confined themselves to their own communities. There, life was tolerable for many of them. Günther Ruschin, a teenager living in the heart of the Jewish community in Berlin, remembers that he had a ‘good home’ and ‘we had no difficulties … We went to [a Jewish] school, we came home.’ His father, who had fought in the German Army during the First World War, was a cantor at the local synagogue and ‘told everybody, I’m a German Jew, nothing will happen to me’.26
Günther’s father, along with many other German Jews, remained convinced that it would be best for them all to remain at home, safe – as he saw it – within the Jewish community in Berlin. And, broadly speaking, the evidence around them from the summer of 1935 to the summer of 1937 seemed to support that view. Though there were still isolated actions against Jews, and regulations further excluding the Jews continued to be issued – for example, from October 1936 civil servants were banned from visiting Jewish doctors – there was no systematic mass violence against the German Jews. But what many took to be a sign of the regime settling down was merely a pause before the implementation of more radical measures.
One reason for the relative inaction of the regime in relation to the Jews during this period was Hitler’s desire to ensure the success of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In the United States there had been calls – supported by public figures like Mayor La Guardia of New York – for America to boycott the games. But the president of the American Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, convinced the American Athletic Union to send a team to Berlin. With the participation not just of the Americans, but forty-eight other countries, the Berlin games were a coup for the Third Reich. Not only did Germany win the most medals, but the event was a propaganda triumph for the Nazis, as they succeeded in subverting the Olympic ideal and turning it into a vehicle for the aggrandizement of their racist state. The Nazi message was encapsulated in the opening images of Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the games, Olympia, in which the Olympic torch is carried into the Berlin Olympic stadium by a blond-haired athlete, the epitome of the ‘Aryan’ ideal, and welcomed by Nazi salutes.
Even more extraordinary, from the perspective of today, is the assessment of Hitler made by the former British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, after he had visited the Berghof, Hitler’s Alpine retreat near Berchtesgaden, in September 1936. Writing in the Daily Express, Lloyd George said that Hitler was ‘a born leader of men. A magnetic dynamic personality with a single-minded purpose, a resolute will, and a dauntless heart.’27 He had observed that Hitler was worshipped as a ‘national hero who has saved his country from utter despondence and degradation’. In Germany, Lloyd George had detected ‘a passion for unity’ and now ‘Catholic and Protestant, Prussian and Bavarian, employer and workman, rich and poor, have been consolidated into one people.’ He wrote that ‘There was a revivalist atmosphere. It has had an extraordinary effect in unifying the nation.’ As a result ‘the people are more cheerful.’
What, one might ask, about the German Jews? Lloyd George knew that they were subject to persecution within Germany – he even made a passing reference to it in his article.28 So how could he say that ‘the people are more cheerful’ – unless, perhaps, he did not consider German Jews truly ‘German’? The very possibility of this might appear surprising, given that Lloyd George had supported the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 in which the British government had said that they viewed ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. However, the exact motives of the politicians behind the Declaration have long been the subject of controversy. Indeed, one historian has concluded that ‘the men who sired it [the Balfour Declaration] were Christian and Zionist and, in many cases, anti-Semitic. They believed the Jews controlled the world.’29
In Britain, Lloyd George was not alone in lauding Hitler despite the Nazi persecution of the Jews. While it is certainly the case that neo-Nazi beliefs never became widespread in the country – Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists did not come close to achieving an electoral breakthrough in the 1930s – there was still a good deal of casual anti-Semitism. For instance, Johannes Zahn, the German banker, remembers hearing anti-Semitic remarks from British financiers on a trip to London.30 As for Eugene Leviné, he believes that he encountered more anti-Semitism in Britain in the 1930s than he had experienced in Germany in the 1920s. ‘I feel that in the social way the English are more anti-Semitic [than the Germans]. As people so often very kindly say, “After all, we don’t gas Jews.” No … but they certainly don’t let them join their golf club. And, if you say to people with whom you’re quite friendly, why won’t they let so and so into a golf club? [they answer] “Well you see, dear, if you let one of them in, they’ll bring all their friends.” ’31 Sentiments against admitting Jews from abroad could also be detected in newspapers – a Sunday Expresseditorial in 1938, for example, announced that ‘just now there is a big influx of foreign Jews into Britain. They are over-running our country.’32
The prejudice that the Jews were a group apart – as described by Eugene Leviné – was behind much of the anti-Semitic rhetoric. As for Lloyd George, he appears to have subscribed to the view that the Jews were immensely powerful and operated across national boundaries – a view also held in an extreme way by Adolf Hitler.33 Such common ground may have helped Lloyd George form his eulogistic assessment of the German leader – we can’t know for sure. What is certain is that while in the afterglow of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Hitler had been able to charm Lloyd George and reassure him about Germany’s development, the following year he would present an altogether different face to the world.
Nineteen-thirty-seven was in many ways a turning point. With the Olympics behind him, Hitler’s rhetoric returned to the fevered levels it had last reached in the early 1920s in the beer halls of Bavaria. In a speech at the Nuremberg rally on 13 September 1937, he claimed that Bolshevism was ‘the greatest menace with which the culture and civilization of the human race have been threatened since the collapse of the nations in Antiquity’.34 Crucially, he raised once again the link that he believed existed between the Jews and the Bosheviks. The ‘increasing upheaval’ that the world faced, he said, was caused by the ‘rulers of Jewish Bolshevism in Moscow’. In case anyone had missed this linkage, he added, ‘when I quite intentionally present this problem as Jewish, then you, my party comrades, know that this is not an unverified assumption, but a fact proven by irrefutable evidence.’ Hitler proceeded to give his audience a history lesson – albeit a distorted and twisted one – starting with his views on ‘Russia’. (Hitler persisted in referring to ‘Russia’ even though Russia was just one of a number of republics within the Soviet Union.) He claimed that the Jews had managed to ‘penetrate’ the ruling elite in ‘Russia’ and had succeeded in ‘exterminating’ the previous leadership. The Jews were a ‘foreign race’ who had seized ‘utter control’ of Russian civilization and now wanted to use Russia as a ‘bridgehead’ to conquer other peoples.
Hitler conjured up an almost depraved fantasy, in which ‘insane masses’ supported by ‘asocials’ would go wild and take the indigenous people to the ‘scaffolds to bleed to death’. And behind all this mayhem were the Jews. That was because Jews found it necessary to ‘undertake the extermination’ of the elite within any country that they sought to control. Hitler reminded his audience that in Germany ‘we have all experienced the same thing’ – by which he meant the Spartacist uprising in Berlin, orchestrated by Communists and socialists in 1919, and the Bavarian Soviet Republic later that same year.
Hitler said that Germany had ‘a serious interest in preventing this Bolshevist plague from spreading even further in Europe’. He recalled that although Germany had fought against other European nations in the past, these wars had always been between ‘civilized’ nations. But Bolshevism was something different. The rulers in Moscow were an ‘uncivilized, Jewish-Bolshevik, international league of criminals’. The Nazis deserved praise for having prevented Jewish ‘scum’ from dictating their demands to German workers. Moreover, Germans today were ‘even better’ soldiers than before, and stood ready to confront anyone who sought to bring the Bolshevik ‘menace’ into Germany.
It was the situation in Spain, claimed Hitler, where a civil war raged, that had motivated his bellicose speech, especially since Stalin had supplied weapons and a small number of combatants to the republicans in their struggle against the nationalists. But once again Hitler was being disingenuous, for he had held these views since the early 1920s but for a whole variety of reasons had not thought it expedient to voice them so aggressively in public for years. It was all a question of tactics, as he explained to a meeting of party leaders in April 1937, six months before his bloodthirsty Nuremberg speech. In this private forum, he said that he understood why there were those who wanted stronger measures to be taken against the Jews, such as ‘marking’ Jewish businesses with a special insignia, but activists needed to recognize that his ‘main concern’ was ‘always to avoid taking a step that I might later have to retrace and not to take a step which could damage us in any way. You must understand that I always go as far as I dare – but no further. It is vital to have a sixth sense which tells you broadly: “What can I still do, what can I not do?” ’ Thus, while they all agreed about the danger the Jews posed, he always had to bear in mind what was possible at any given moment.35 It’s a speech that offers a vital insight into Hitler’s mentality – he admitted that he would like to be more radical in his persecution of the Jews, but saw that it was politically necessary to advance slowly towards his ultimate goal. Goebbels in his diary entry of 30 November 1937 reveals just what that goal was: ‘Talked about the Jewish question [with Hitler] for a long time … The Jews must be ejected from Germany, from the whole of Europe. This will take a while, but it will happen and it must happen. The Führer is completely committed to this.’36
In parallel to this tactical approach to the ‘Jewish question’, Hitler was also careful about how he spoke of his other deeply held conviction – his wish to create a German empire in the western regions of the Soviet Union. He never voiced this desire in public during the 1930s. But in private, the year before his 1937 speech at Nuremberg, he had made clear his intention to confront the ‘danger’ of Bolshevism. In a memorandum he wrote in August 1936, at the time he appointed Hermann Göring head of the economic programme known as the ‘Four Year Plan’, Hitler reiterated that – on the military front – it was the destiny of Germany to deal with Bolshevism. Since Germany was overpopulated, it was necessary to gain more land, thus ‘the final solution [to this problem] lies in extending our living space.’37 The use of the words ‘final solution’ in this context is worth noting – since the plan to exterminate the Jews would also come to be known by the same two words. Here they are meant to distinguish the transitional phase, during which the Germans would build up their military strength, from the ‘final solution’ phase, when the actual military conflict would commence.
At a cabinet meeting on 4 September 1936, Göring read out Hitler’s memo and stated that the logic of it was clear – ‘the showdown with Russia is inevitable.’38 Two months later, in November 1936, Goebbels confirmed that he too was aware that the time was rapidly approaching when Germany would have to confront the Soviet Union. After lunch with Hitler, he had a ‘thorough talk alone with the Führer’ and concluded that ‘Rearmament continues. We’re investing fabulous sums. In 1941 we’ll have completed it. The confrontation with Bolshevism is coming … Dominance in Europe for us is virtually certain.’39
In his fiery speech at Nuremberg ten months later, in September 1937, Hitler made an attempt to close the gap between what he was saying in private and what he was saying in public, though he never went as far as to say that Germany would invade the Soviet Union. Instead, he told the world that it was necessary for Germany both to rearm and to be prepared to fight against the Bolshevik menace should the ‘Russians’ attack. And since, according to Hitler, behind the Bolsheviks stood the Jews, a military conflict with the Russians would also mean an armed conflict with the Jewish ‘menace’. Even at this early stage, it was obvious that any war between Germany and the Soviet Union would be no ordinary fight, but a struggle between different ideologies, and – as Hitler saw it – different ‘races’.
Those in the German government who did not enthusiastically embrace this vision were soon discarded. Hjalmar Schacht, the Reich Minister of Economics, who had done so much to make rearmament possible by his creative reorganization of the German economy, was fired in November 1937. He was simply not radical enough. Schacht remained as President of the Reichsbank until he was sacked from that post too in January 1939. He was finally removed from the meaningless post of Minister without Portfolio at the start of 1943. The following year, after the 20 July attempt on Hitler’s life, he was sent to a concentration camp.
Schacht’s fall from power was characteristic of the fate of a number of those in the traditional right-wing elite who had supported Hitler in the early 1930s. Schacht’s trajectory may have been extreme – not many of them gained such a high position in the Nazi state, and few fell so low as to see the inside of a concentration camp – but the journey from initial euphoria at the creation of the Third Reich to disillusionment at the subsequent aggressive policies of the regime was not uncommon. On 5 November 1937, a few weeks before Schacht lost his job as Economics Minister, Hitler briefed several more members of the old-school German elite on his radical thinking; and when subsequently they failed to manifest fervent approval of his ideas, their careers suffered the same fate as Schacht’s. Present at the meeting in the Reich Chancellery that day were the commanders-in-chief of the army (Generaloberst Werner von Fritsch), the navy (Generaladmiral Erich Raeder) and the air force (Reichsminister of Aviation Hermann Göring), together with the War Minister (Generalfeldmarschall Werner von Blomberg) and the Foreign Minister (Konstantin von Neurath). The infamous Hossbach Memorandum – notes of this meeting taken by Colonel Hossbach, Hitler’s military adjutant – reveals that Hitler openly expressed his desire to gain more territory for Germany in the next few years, and to risk war in order to achieve this end. He didn’t mention at the meeting his most grandiose ambition, the invasion of the Soviet Union, most probably because he wanted to focus on shorter-term goals like the seizing of Austria and Czechoslovakia.
Hitler’s statement at the meeting that ‘the aim of German policy was to make secure and to preserve the racial community and to enlarge it. It was therefore a question of space …’ was consistent with the worldview he had expressed as far back as Mein Kampf in 1924.40 Hitler said that Germany should push forward as quickly as possible with an aggressive foreign policy, because the lead that had been established in rearmament would not last much longer. He also revealed that he had finally grasped how unlikely it would be that Germany could form a partnership with Great Britain. This was unsurprising, given that Ribbentrop, sent as German ambassador to London in the summer of 1936, had failed to deliver the hoped-for alliance. Hitler now said that Great Britain would more likely be an adversary in the coming conflict.
Göring, as usual, supported Hitler in the discussion that followed, but the others were sceptical. In particular they feared, presciently, that Germany might be trapped in a war on two fronts between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies. These reasoned arguments were not what Hitler wanted to hear from his underlings, and all of those who voiced doubts at the meeting were to leave office within the next few months. Blomberg resigned on 27 January 1938 after making an unsuitable marriage to a young woman who had once posed for pornographic photos; Fritsch was forced out on 4 February after he was falsely accused of a homosexual liaison; and Neurath was moved from the Foreign Office on the same day and ‘promoted’ to the post of President of a new Cabinet Council, a consultative committee that never met.
All the replacements for these key positions within the Nazi state were either more compliant than their predecessors or more bellicose – or both. Ribbentrop, the former ambassador to Great Britain, became Foreign Minister, the obliging Walther von Brauchitsch took over from Fritsch as head of the army, and Hitler replaced Blomberg himself, abolishing the title of Minister of War. There is no evidence that Hitler planned to make every one of these changes in the wake of the Hossbach meeting, but he did seize on various opportunities, such as Blomberg’s inopportune marriage, when they were presented to him. As a result of these moves his ability to push forward with a more radical foreign policy was considerably strengthened.
The first manifestation of that more aggressive approach came little more than four months after the Hossbach meeting, as tensions grew between Hitler and the government in the land of his birth – Austria. This confrontation would, in turn, lead to a seismic change in Nazi anti-Semitic policy.
The recent history of the Austrian Jews was similar in many ways to that of the neighbouring German Jews, prior to Hitler’s Chancellorship. The status of Viennese Jews in the first half of the nineteenth century was illustrated by the building of the ornate Stadttempel in the centre of the city in the 1820s. On the one hand the interior, with ionic columns and domed ceiling, boasted of the wealth and success of the Viennese Jewish community, and on the other the understated entrance – largely concealed from the street – demonstrated their oppression, since the Jews were forbidden from building an open place of worship by the Edict of Tolerance issued by Emperor Joseph II in 1782.
In 1867 Austrian Jews finally received equal rights under the law, and a golden age of Jewish culture began in Vienna. This was the time of the composer Gustav Mahler, of the author Arthur Schnitzler and the psychiatrist Sigmund Freud – all of them born Jewish. But not every Austrian was pleased by the Jews’ newfound freedom. Two politicians in particular voiced virulent anti-Semitism. One was Georg von Schönerer, a parliamentarian obsessed with three ideas: the desire for closer union with Germany, a rejection of Catholicism and a hatred of Jews. His anti-Semitism was based more on racial than religious grounds. ‘Religion’s only a disguise,’ went one of his sayings, ‘in the blood the foulness lies.’41 The second was Karl Lueger, the populist mayor of Vienna. He criticized, in terms that would sound familiar to the Nazis, the over-representation of Jews in certain professions and the way Jews allegedly corrupted the body politic. ‘Whenever a state has allowed the Jews to become powerful,’ he said, ‘the state has soon collapsed, while in those states where they understood enough to isolate the Jews, the monarchical principle was saved …’42Lueger was quick to capitalize on Viennese fears about the influx of Jews from eastern Europe, in particular those fleeing from Russia. There were calls for the Austrian border to be closed to prevent Jews entering the country, and a fear that the Jews brought with them both disease and the seeds of political revolution. Lueger told the Jews of Vienna, in a speech in November 1905, ‘not to admit the [Jewish] Social Democrat revolutionaries. I warn the Jews, most expressly: for the same thing could perhaps happen [here] as in Russia. We in Vienna are anti-Semites, but are certainly not inclined to murder and violence. But if the Jews should threaten our fatherland, then we will show no mercy.’43
While a great deal of this Austrian anti-Semitic rhetoric would have been recognizable to anti-Semites in Germany, there was one major difference between the two countries when it came to the ‘Jewish question’ – the proportion of the population that was Jewish. In Germany fewer than 1 per cent of Germans were Jews, while in Vienna in 1890 around 12 per cent of the population was Jewish – about 100,000 out of 820,000. By the time the Nazis entered Austria in March 1938 there were more than 180,000 Jews in Vienna alone, perhaps as many as 200,000 – while in the whole of Germany there were now fewer than twice that number. Thus for the Nazis the Jewish ‘problem’ in Austria was proportionately even bigger than it was in Germany.
At the end of the First World War the victorious powers had decided to split the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Austria became a separate country. The new government in Vienna wanted Austria to become part of the German Republic, but by the Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1919 the victors forbade a union between the two. The Austrians would not forget that this request had been denied – a decision seemingly at odds with President Woodrow Wilson’s promise of national ‘self-determination’.
But there was no escaping geographical reality, and during the 1920s and 1930s Germany played a part in the affairs of Austria. In the 1920s Austria – like Germany – suffered economic difficulties, though not on the same scale as its larger neighbour. In 1934 amid an atmosphere of political crisis, Austrian Nazis assassinated the Austrian Chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss. Kurt Schuschnigg, who succeeded Dollfuss, struggled to establish an independent Austria in the presence of a Germany now led by a Chancellor who had been born an Austrian but considered himself a German – just as he believed every ‘Aryan’ Austrian was a German as well.
Hitler put political pressure on Austria and on Schuschnigg, but he was wary of taking direct military action in order to force a union – or ‘Anschluss’. His greatest anxiety was that such an adventure would antagonize Mussolini, since Italy had guaranteed Austria’s independence. Hitler hoped that some kind of union might still occur without violence, and this seemed possible after the signing in 1936 of an Austro-German agreement. Though under the terms of the agreement Hitler had recognized Austria’s ‘sovereignty’, in return Schuschnigg had said he would include one Nazi supporter in his cabinet.
In the early weeks of 1938, the German ambassador to Vienna – the ex-Chancellor Franz von Papen – suggested to Schuschnigg that he should visit Berchtesgaden for a meeting with Hitler in order to correct any ‘misunderstandings’ between the two countries. The resulting conference, held on 12 February that year, is one of the most instructive examples of how Hitler unsettled his opponents. In the first discussion between Hitler and Schuschnigg, in his study on the first floor of the Berghof, Hitler threw a whole series of accusations at the Austrian leader: that Austria should have withdrawn from the League of Nations; that Austria had historically sabotaged any attempt at union with Germany; that Austria was now trying to fortify the border with the Reich, and so on. He coupled these charges with the threat that he was determined to ‘make an end of all this’ and warned that, ‘Perhaps you will wake up one morning in Vienna to find us there – just like a spring storm. And then you’ll see something.’ Furthermore, said Hitler, after a successful invasion, the country would be occupied by Nazi Stormtroopers and the Austrian Legion, a paramilitary group formed by Austrian Nazis, and ‘nobody can stop their just revenge – not even I.’44
Like many of Hitler’s political opponents, Schuschnigg was something of an intellectual – a graduate in law who after the war became a professor of political science. For people like this, Hitler was an almost impossible adversary. He would pile false charge after false charge in such quick succession that they could not be answered. Schuschnigg was one of the first foreign statesmen to be thrown off balance by this tactic – and he would not be the last. He did not seem to understand that Hitler did not respond to intellectual argument. The German leader was not a ‘normal’ statesman. He did not want to come to a mutually agreeable compromise and it did not matter to him that his ‘facts’ were wrong.
Hitler used a similar rhetorical tactic in his attack on the Jews. His sweeping claim, for example, that various ‘foreign Jews’ were plotting to unsettle Nazi Germany was much the same as his blanket accusation to Schuschnigg that ‘the whole history of Austria is just one uninterrupted act of high treason’. Equally, his intimidating statement that ‘not even’ he could stop the ‘just revenge’ of fanatical elements within the Third Reich if they entered Austria was akin to his statement, at the time of the 1933 Nazi boycott of Jewish shops and businesses, that there was a danger of the people taking the law into their own hands and attacking the Jews themselves. In both cases Hitler presented himself as a moderating force, holding back even more radical groups. It was an obvious but effective threat. If you did not accept what Hitler offered now, worse would follow.
Kurt Schuschnigg was certainly disconcerted by his meeting with Hitler at the Berghof. Dr Otto Pirkham, an Austrian diplomat who accompanied him that day, remembers that ‘at luncheon, Schuschnigg was completely silent … very depressed, and his silence was due to the fact that what he had learned at the meeting with Hitler would not have been very agreeable.’45 Schuschnigg left Berchtesgaden that evening having been bullied into signing a document that made a number of concessions to Hitler, including an agreement to appoint the Austrian Nazi supporter Arthur Seyss-Inquart as Minister of the Interior. On 20 February, Hitler gave a lengthy speech to the Reichstag, in the course of which he praised Schuschnigg for his ‘great understanding and warm-hearted willingness … to find a way forward in the interests of both countries as much as in the interest of the German Volk – that entire German Volk, the sons of which we all are …’.46 Four days later in Munich, at a celebration of the anniversary of the forming of the Nazi party, Hitler linked together both the Austrian and Jewish questions, when he spoke out against the ‘filthy lies’ in the foreign press about Germany’s real intentions towards Austria. He singled out the British News Chronicle, which he said had claimed that German troops were massed on the border. These ‘brazen accusations’, he declared, according to a report in the Völkischer Beobachter, served to demonstrate ‘how the Jewish international poisoners manufacture and spread lies’. Furthermore, ‘we can learn a lesson from this. We shall vigorously combat the Jewish rabble-rousers in Germany. We know that they are agents of an International, and we shall treat them all accordingly.’47
Schuschnigg now attempted to outmanoeuvre Hitler by calling for a plebiscite in Austria on the question of unification with Germany. In response Hitler, with Göring urging him on, put more pressure on the Austrians by mobilizing troops in Bavaria. Schuschnigg resigned and Seyss-Inquart was appointed Chancellor of Austria. He ‘invited’ German troops into Austria and they crossed the border on the morning of 12 March. Austrian troops offered no resistance to the Germans as they moved through the country and millions of ordinary Austrians welcomed the Wehrmacht, garlanding them with flowers. Many Austrians thought the arrival of the Nazis offered hope of a new, stronger Austria no longer beset by economic problems. For example, Susi Seitz, an Austrian teenager, says that she and her family saw Hitler as their ‘saviour’ because ‘we really had to belong to Germany.’48 They had wanted Austria to be joined to Germany after the First World War, and now at last it seemed that this ‘dream’ would be fulfilled.
Emil Klein, an ‘old fighter’ in the Nazi party, who had taken part in the Beer-Hall Putsch back in 1923, could scarcely believe what was happening now, fifteen years later: ‘When I heard that the annexation march was under way – I was Senior Regional Commander of the Hitler Youth – I was so enthused, because I had some Austrian connections from my early years, and without permission from my superiors and without asking, I took my car and drove to Austria, following the troops through Passau. What I experienced there I will not experience a second time in my life. This enthusiasm! Neither I, nor the soldiers, I imagine, have ever received as many kisses as we did from the girls who rushed to us. Austria was stood on its head.’49
Hitler crossed the border into Austria on the afternoon of 12 March, just a few hours after his soldiers had made the same journey. His crossing point was symbolic – across the River Inn at his birthplace of Braunau am Inn. He drove in triumph, past cheering crowds, all the way to the city of Linz where he had gone to school. Reinhard Spitzy, an Austrian Nazi who had joined the German Foreign Office, was in the sixth car in the procession, driving behind Hitler. For Spitzy, this was a profoundly emotional moment: ‘All my dreams of reuniting Austria with Germany – don’t forget Austria was ruling Germany during 600 years and the German crown is in Vienna in the Hofburg. And so for me, after the defeat of the year 1918, for us it was a dream … I must tell you the enthusiasm was, I won’t say a hundred per cent but let us say eighty-five per cent, it was overwhelming … I saw even police and nuns with swastika flags. We all thought it is a new peaceful big Reich, because for the Austrians – I’m Austrian myself – war is something we don’t like. We lost so many wars against Prussia, against England and France, and so on, we are fed up with the wars … Anschluss was one of the successes of Hitler without war, like the occupation of the Rhineland, and what he did is perfectly in order.’50
At the time, claims Spitzy, he thought he knew exactly what Hitler’s ambitions were: ‘Hitler, from the very beginning, wanted to unite all German-speaking countries, except Switzerland or Luxembourg, in the old Holy Roman Empire of German nations. He wanted to restore the injustice of the Thirty Years War, of the peace of Münster and Osnabrück, he wanted to make Germany as big as it was in the Middle Ages.’
This idea that Hitler’s ultimate aim was to reunite German-speakers, rather than pursue a war of conquest in the east, was a common misconception – and one Hitler encouraged in his public pronouncements. Spitzy, who served in the German embassy in London in the 1930s, discovered first hand that plenty of members of the British ruling elite saw little problem in a Europe where all German-speakers lived together: ‘as long as he [Hitler] did that, he got an understanding from a great part of the British Establishment. They all had understanding. They told me.’
In Austria, while the state had not imposed similar anti-Semitic measures to those in Germany, there was still considerable ‘traditional’ prejudice of the kind that Kurt Lueger, the former mayor of Vienna, would have recognized. Walter Frentz, for instance, travelled to Vienna in 1928 and claimed that he experienced the attitude of some Viennese to Jews when he was travelling on a tram. ‘Suddenly the tram made an emergency stop in the street,’ says Frentz, who would later become Hitler’s cameraman. ‘And there was a man on the track who hadn’t seen the tram coming. And, after breaking, the tram driver said something that shocked me and left a deep impression. “Oh dear, it’s a Jew. If I had known, I would have continued driving!” And all the other Viennese said: “Yes, that’s what you should have done, the Jewish pig!” And they didn’t even know the man.’51Susi Seitz, who cheered as Hitler entered Linz in March 1938, was another Austrian who had issues with the Jews, though she expresses her feelings rather more diplomatically: ‘I must say that the Jews were not very much liked in Austria … We never had the feeling that they were the same as us, they were different, completely different.’52
From the moment the Germans entered Austria the Jews were at risk. ‘We heard the noises from the streets,’ says Walter Kammerling, a fifteen-year-old Austrian Jew living in Vienna, ‘the whole Viennese population, that is obviously the non-Jewish population, in jubilation and enjoyment. And then the first problem starts, the Jewish shops were smashed.’ In the immediate aftermath of the German invasion, ‘you already had people molesting you … You were completely outlawed. There was no protection from anywhere. Anybody could come up to you and do what they want and that’s it …’53
Infamously, Nazi thugs made Jews scrub the streets clean in a display of public humiliation. Walter Kammerling remembers watching a well-dressed woman hold up her little girl so that she could see a Stormtrooper kick an old Jew as he scrubbed. ‘They all laughed,’ he says, ‘and she laughed as well – it was a wonderful entertainment [for them], and that shook me.’54
William Shirer, an American correspondent, witnessed the abuse in Vienna. ‘All sorts of reports of Nazi sadism and from the Austrians it surprises me,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘Jewish men and women made to clean latrines. Hundreds of them … just picked at random off the streets to clean the toilets of the Nazi boys.’55
This initial upsurge of anti-Semitic action had been mostly spontaneous – a disorganized series of acts of local persecution similar, but on a larger scale, to those launched by Stormtroopers immediately after Hitler became Chancellor. But soon the Nazi leadership discouraged this impulsive brutality and instead the persecution became institutionalized. Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer SS, entered Austria shortly after the first German troops and established his headquarters at the Hotel Metropol in Vienna. Reinhard Heydrich, his close associate and head of the SD – the Sicherheitsdienst, the counter-intelligence operation of the SS – was also soon in the city. On the night of 13–14 March – just thirty-six hours after the German Army had placed their boots on Austrian soil – the Gestapo began to seize works of art from Jewish homes. The priceless art collection of the Rothschilds, for instance, was distributed between Hitler, Göring and the museum in Linz. Less than a week after the occupation of Austria, the Nazis closed down the offices of Jewish organizations and put their leaders behind bars. By the end of March, Jews had been sacked from jobs in professions like the theatre and academia, and banned from serving in the Austrian Army. Jewish property and businesses were also targeted, as the Nazis seized Jewish apartments and took over department stores and factories. This process of ‘Aryanization’ was shortly to be repeated within Germany.
The first train left Austria for Dachau concentration camp on 1 April 1938. By the end of the year nearly 8,000 people had been sent there from Austria.56 To begin with most were the Nazis’ political opponents, many of Jewish descent. But in May the Nazis began targeting Jews they called ‘asocial’, ‘criminal’ or simply ‘disagreeable’.57 The terror reached such an extreme that a Jewish Austrian was at risk of arrest for simply eating in a restaurant or sitting in a public park at the same time as the authorities launched a search for Jews. Overall, during 1938, more than 75 per cent of the prisoners sent to Dachau by the Nazis were Jewish. On the trains to Dachau, the Austrians were often beaten and otherwise abused. One estimate – made by the SS themselves – was that about 70 per cent of those on one transport they investigated had been attacked.58
Some Austrian Jews tried to reason with their tormentors. Dr David Schapira, a Viennese Jew who was both a lawyer and a shop owner, was blind as a result of injuries he had suffered during the war. After his legal practice had collapsed and his shop had been taken away from him, he went with his wife to visit Nazi officials in Vienna and hand in a petition, hoping that if they saw his war decorations they would show him mercy. But he was told, ‘Jewish scoundrel, you can shove that Habsburg stuff [his medals] up your ass. Shove off, and don’t come back, or I’ll throw you down the stairs – maybe then you’ll be able to see again.’59
Suicides were rife among the Jews of Vienna, as many chose death rather than life under Nazi rule. William Shirer wrote how a friend of his saw ‘a Jewish-looking fellow’ standing at a bar. ‘After a while he took an old-fashioned razor from his pocket and slashed his throat.’60 Goebbels noted cynically in his diary on 23 March 1938: ‘In the past, the Germans committed suicide. Now it is the other way round.’61
Adolf Eichmann, a thirty-two-year-old lieutenant in the SD, played an important role in the horror in Austria. He was familiar with the country and had gone to school in Linz – just as Hitler had. Afterwards, for six years he had worked in Austria for the Vacuum Oil Company. He joined both the Nazi party and SS in 1932 and the following year, having lost his job, returned to Germany, his country of birth.
Eichmann, by now specializing in ‘Jewish affairs’ in the SD, had been preparing for the Anschluss for some time, gathering intelligence on those Austrians the Nazis considered a threat. He recalled that ‘for weeks in advance every able-bodied man they could find was put to work in three shifts: writing file cards for an enormous circular card file, several yards in diameter, which a man sitting on a piano stool could operate and find any card he wanted thanks to a series of punch holes.’62 Eichmann thus arrived in Vienna in March 1938 with a list of people, including prominent Jewish figures, to be arrested. But the Nazi authorities discovered that locking up the leaders of the Jewish community led to problems. Since the Nazis were trying to force Jews to emigrate – having robbed them of their wealth – there was nobody, on the Jewish side, left in a leadership position to coordinate the expulsions. So Eichmann gained permission from his superiors to release some leading Jews so that they could help organize the exodus. In one case, Eichmann met Josef Löwenherz, a Jewish lawyer, for a discussion about how Jewish organizations could help the Nazis, and then sent Löwenherz back to his cell to work on the plans.63
Soon a radical solution emerged – a system Eichmann termed a ‘conveyor belt’.64 Jews seeking emigration would be summoned to one building and then passed between Nazi officials until their expulsion was finalized. In August 1938 this Central Office for Jewish Emigration started work, based in the Rothschild Palace. Altogether 80,000 Austrian Jews left the country between March 1938 and the end of the year.65 By the time the war started in September 1939 the total had risen to nearly 130,000. The Jews were forced to pay for their own departure, with wealthy Jews funding poorer ones through Jewish organizations.
The invasion of Austria and the subsequent union of the country with Germany was an undoubted success for Hitler’s regime. In particular, the way in which the Jews in Austria had been so quickly targeted, persecuted and expelled, demonstrated a way forward for the Nazis. As a consequence, the Jews within Germany were at greater risk than ever before.