Advanced search

Antisemitism and Persecution

The Aryans were supposed to be the founders of humanity, incarnated in the Germans themselves, a people of masters who were to dominate the world.

On this page:

Nazi Ideology and Antisemitism

The Nazi Worldview

The National Socialist worldview as described in detail in Hitler's book Mein Kampf is based on the inequality of races, it subordinates the existence of each individual to his/her racial identity, which determines his/her position in the hierarchy of peoples and their fate.

At the top of the hierarchy the Aryans were supposed to be the founders of humanity, incarnated in the Germans themselves, a people of masters who were to dominate the world. Far down the hierarchy were the Slavs and way below them the Jews, for whom Hitler felt and expressed exceptional hatred.

Antisemitism was at the centre of the Nazi worldview. Although Hitler presented himself as being a novel theoretician, the myth that he used against the Jews took root in age-old Christian antisemitism as well as modern 19th century antisemitism. Jews were said to have "tainted blood and to be a negative, soiled race."

They were designated as absolute evil. For Hitler, Jews wanted "to enslave the world by using all the weapons at their disposal from capitalist exploitation to Bolshevism." "The Jewish conspiracy had succeeded in taking control of all the aspects of modern society. One must fight to the death against the Jewish peril."

The Preservation of the "Aryan Race"

In order to meet the prime requirement of preserving the purity of the race, the Ministry of the Interior set up an "Expert Committee for Population and Racial Policy" in May 1933, in charge of preparing the eugenics laws.

Antisemitic signs
Antisemitic signs

The law adopted on July 14, 1933 defined a policy of forced sterilisation of "individuals with hereditary diseases" and "dangerous and irretrievable criminals."

The definitions were very vague and included hereditary disabilities such as deafness, schizophrenia, physical deformations, chronic alcoholism and even feeble- mindedness. Hospitals, sanatoriums and old people's homes had to take a census of their patients so the Expert Committee could decide on each case.

The law of October 18, 1935 required all Germans to declare their racial characteristics. Couples intending to marry had to present a certificate and the Ministry of Public Health could oppose a marriage if a hereditary or sexual disease was revealed.

The medical profession did not protest against these laws and most physicians implemented the measures with docility. Between 1934 and 1945 about 400,000 Germans were forcibly sterilised. The pioneering X-ray sterilisation technique was later used on Jews in concentration camps.

[from 'Kristallnacht': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.15]

The Initial Anti-Jewish Measures


The initial anti-Jewish measures came into force in April 1933, two months after Marshal von Hindenburg called upon Hitler to form a government.

Economic Exclusion

Antisemitic signs
Antisemitic signs

On April 1, 1933 an unofficial committee chaired by Julius Streicher organised a major boycott of Jewish shops, lawyers, and physicians. This campaign was presented as a response to the protests that had taken place abroad "upon the initiative of the Jews" against the policy of the German government.

The SA stood guard in front of shops, law firms and medical offices belonging to Jews.

This day symbolised the beginning of the exclusion of Jews from economic life. On April 7, 1933 two laws excluded Jews from the civil service and from the bar association (with the exception of veterans and civil servants or lawyers in place before August 1, 1914).

Antisemitic flyer
Antisemitic flyer

The Jews in Germany were gradually banned from the liberal professions, the army, the law, the press and the cultural professions. A numerus clausus [closed number, or quota] was instituted in universities and as of 1938 Jewish children were expelled from school.

The Nazi Party and its militants made use of intimidation and devoted much effort to the Aryanisation of property that had belonged to Jews: 41,000 of the 50,000 retail shops were "voluntarily" sold by their Jewish owners between 1933 and 1938.

[from 'Kristallnacht': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.19]

The Nuremberg Laws

A non-Jewish wife humiliated by SA troops
A non-Jewish wife humiliated by SA troops

On September 15, 1935 the civil law of the Reich and the "Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour" forbade mixed marriages and all sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews, which were said to contaminate the race.

Jews were deprived of their citizenship, became inferior beings and were not allowed to fly the German flag. A Jewish family employing a Christian household servant under the age of 45 could be convicted of racial contamination, as could any couple circumventing the law by marrying abroad.

At the same time the application decree adopted on November 14, 1935 defined a Jew as someone who had at least three Jewish grandparents. A Jew was also someone who belonged to a Jewish religious community.

Antisemitic insults
Antisemitic insults

Both racial and religious criteria were taken into account. Application orders and provisions relating to the Mischlinge [mixed blood] or half-Jews were published a few weeks later. However, the German authorities never clearly settled the issue of how to deal with Christian descendants of converted Jews, as well as half- or quarter-Jews.

These laws led to a series of denunciations: in the city of Hamburg alone about 5,000 people were arrested then interrogated and 1,150 investigations were opened. After imprisonment for the crime against the protection of German blood these persons were usually interned in concentration camps.

[from 'Kristallnacht': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.20]

The German-Jewish Community

Among the most radical within the Nazi regime, some believed that the exclusion of the Jews was insufficient to really purify Germany and were in favour of mass departure. Jews who were more politicised were aware of the Nazi peril and chose exile early on, but most Jews felt that Germany had always been their country and tried to maintain the hope that Nazism would be short-lived.

The Jewish Community before 1933

During the 1930s in Germany the Jewish community was composed of about 500,000 people, that is a mere 1% of the total population. Poor immigrants who had recently arrived from Eastern Europe comprised about 20% of the Jews.

The German-Jewish community had been established in Germany since the 4th and 5th centuries, it was deeply rooted and made major contributions to the development of the country. The Jews traditionally lived in the cities (one-third lived in Berlin) and were involved mainly in business (trading, textiles, and banking) and the liberal professions. The intense participation of the Jews in the life of German society accelerated the process of assimilation, which was exemplified by the growing number of mixed marriages and conversions to Christianity. Only a minority participated in Jewish community life.

Antisemitism had been a constant factor for a long time, which the Jews lived with. Over and beyond the accusations of a religious nature, antisemitic propaganda presented Jews as capitalists who exploited others or as communist or socialist traitors.

With the rise of Nazism, it was heartrending for the German Jews to accept that they had been totally rejected from the national community.

[from 'Kristallnacht': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.29]

The Reaction to Nazism: Renewal of Jewish Life

Jews were isolated by the antisemitic laws, banned from all sectors of economic life and thus many suffered from poverty. Of the 150,000 Jews who lived in Berlin in 1937, 60,000 survived through the aid provided by philanthropic organisations.

German Jews waiting to obtain an emigration visa
German Jews waiting to obtain an emigration visa

The Jewish community set up a program of professional retraining for work in agriculture or handcrafts. Those who followed training courses stood a better chance of obtaining an emigration visa. Such programs were gradually prohibited from 1938.

The Jewish community set up a central assistance committee in order to meet the needs of the poor and to provide medical care, retirement homes and orphanages. The Jewish artists, who no longer had the right to perform in public, joined the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden [Cultural Federation of German Jews], and in October 1933 performed Nathan the Wise by Lessing. The Jüdischer Kulturbund in Deutschland [Jewish Cultural Federation in Germany] replaced the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden after 1935 when German Jews lost their citizenship. This federation organised plays and film showings in most cities throughout Germany until it was disbanded in 1941.

Paradoxically, the exclusion of the Jews led to a renewal of Jewish life. Youth turned to Zionism and started learning Hebrew in preparation for leaving for Palestine. Because of the antisemitic laws, children expelled from German schools went to Jewish community schools and sports associations. More people attended the synagogues and participated in cultural and political activities.

Throughout the period, German Jews were kept in isolation but did not yet have to deal with the violence that was to begin in 1938.

[from 'Kristallnacht': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.32]


Jewish emigration from Germany during 1938
Jewish emigration from Germany during 1938

Starting in 1933, with the rise to power of the Nazis, 37,000 Jews left Germany, then emigration stabilised at a rate of 25,000 per year until 1938. Close to half of the emigrants settled in Western Europe, a quarter in Palestine and 27,000 in the United States.

Only the threatened or wealthy Jews decided to leave. The tightening of legislation regarding the transfer of funds abroad, the freezing of wealth, which was put under the supervision of the Ministries of the Economy and Finance, and the constant increase in emigration taxes contributed to dissuading the majority of would-be emigrants.

Jewish emigration from Germany and Austria through Jewish agencies
Jewish emigration from Germany and Austria through Jewish agencies

Between 1933 and 1938 Western governments tried to accommodate Hitler, preferring appeasement to conflict, whereas some saw him as a strong, forceful figure able to fight communism. In that context persecution of Jews seemed of little relevance.

The Jews began leaving Germany, but both the United Kingdom and the United States had strict immigration controls. Because of high unemployment and strong antisemitism they refused to change their policy. Other countries such as France, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and some Latin American countries had a more liberal policy at least until the early 1930s.

Destination zones of Jewish emigration
Destination zones of Jewish emigration

The Jewish Agency [executive of the Zionist movement] negotiated and signed an agreement with the Nazis in August 1933 whereby a certain percentage of German-Jewish property was to be unblocked in the form of German merchandise to be exported to Palestine.

This agreement [Haavara], although contested within the Zionist movement, did nonetheless allow for the emigration to Palestine of about 50,000 Jews.

[from 'Kristallnacht': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.36]

Aggressive Territorial Expansion

Nazi foreign policy was based on abandoning the constraints imposed by the Versailles Treaty, which was seen as a "humiliating diktat."

The extent of the German Reich in 1939
The extent of the German Reich in 1939

The goal was to provide enough vital space [Lebensraum] to be able to carry out their civilising mission and to join together all the Germanic populations.

The Territory of the Saar Basin re-integrated Germany following the January 1935 plebiscite, military service was restored (March 1935) and the Rhineland was re-militarised. After the failure of the coup in Austria in July 1934, which resulted in the assassination of the Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, Hitler again attacked Austria.

On February 12, 1938 he ordered the new Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg to appoint Arthur Seyss-Inquart (head of the Austrian Nazi Party) to the post of Minister of the Interior and Security. Once in power, Seyss-Inquart summoned the German Army on March 11, 1938 and proclaimed the union of Austria and Germany, the Anschluss, which was ratified by a so-called referendum on April 10 with 99% of yes votes.

On September 12, 1938 Hitler demanded the restitution of Germany territories in Czechoslovakia (Sudetenland), which triggered the initial international crisis. The refusal by Czechoslovakia, tied to France and the USSR by defence agreements, led to the World War. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain believed that the demand was founded under historical law and attempted mediation in vain.

Postcard commemorating the Munich Pact
Postcard commemorating the Munich Pact

Mussolini managed to convene a conference of the four powers in Munich (Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini) while meanwhile the same four powers began mobilising reservists. Reticent to engage in a war that public opinion would not support, the Western powers decided to acquiesce to Hitler's demands.

The Munich Pact was signed on the night of September 29–30, 1938 and thereby the Czechoslovakian region of the Sudetenland was handed over to the Reich, which led to the subsequent dismantling of the country. The French and British leaders were welcomed back to their capitals in triumph by the public with a "cowardly sigh of relief," to use the words of the French Socialist leader Léon Blum.

Given the passivity of democracies in the face of the Anschluss in Austria and the annexation of the Sudetenland, Hitler believed he could pursue the aggressive policy which had succeeded so well thus far, including his policy against the Jews in his jurisdiction.

[from 'Kristallnacht': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.43]

The Munich Pact

Agreement concluded at Munich (Germany), September 29, 1938 between Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy.

The four powers, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, taking into consideration the agreement, which has been already reached in principle for the cession to Germany of the Sudeten German territories, have agreed on the following terms and conditions governing the said cession and the measures consequent thereon, and by this agreement they each hold themselves responsible for the steps necessary to secure its fulfillment:

  1. The evacuation will begin on October 1.
  2. The United Kingdom, France, and Italy agree that the evacuation of the territory shall be completed by October 10, without any existing installations having been destroyed, and that the Czechoslovak Government will be held responsible for carrying out the evacuation without damage to the said installations.
  3. The conditions governing the evacuation will be laid down in detail by an international commission composed of representatives of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Czechoslovakia.
  4. The occupation by stages of the predominantly German territories by German troops will begin October 1. The four territories marked on the attached map will be occupied by German troops in the following order:
    • the territory marked No. I on October 1 and 2;
    • the territory marked No. II on October 2 and 3;
    • the territory marked No. III on October 3, 4, and 5;
    • the territory marked No. IV on October 6 and 7.
    The remaining territory of preponderantly German character will be ascertained by the aforesaid international commission forthwith and be occupied by German troops by October 10.
  5. The international commission referred to in paragraph 3 will determine the territories in which a plebiscite is to be held. These territories will be occupied by international bodies until the plebiscite has been completed. The same commission will fix the conditions in which the plebiscite is to be held, taking as a basis the conditions of the Saar plebiscite. The commission will also fix a date, not later than the end of November, on which the plebiscite will be held.
  6. The final determination of the frontiers will be carried out by the international commission. The commission will also be entitled to recommend to the four powers, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, in certain exceptional cases, minor modifications in the strictly ethnographical determination of the zones which are to be transferred without plebiscite.
  7. There will be a right of option into and out of the transferred territories, the option to be exercised within six months from the date of this agreement. A Germano-Czechoslovak commission shall determine the details of the option, consider ways of facilitating the transfer of population, and settle questions of principle arising out of the said transfer.
  8. The Czechoslovak Government will, within a period of four weeks from the date of this agreement, release from their military and police forces any Sudeten Germans who may wish to be released and the Czechoslovak Government will, within the same period, release Sudeten German prisoners who are serving terms of imprisonment for political offences.

Munich, September 29, 1938.

Chancellor of the Reich, ADOLF HITLER.

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Arthur NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN.

Prime Minister of France, ÉDOUARD DALADIER.

Head of the Italian Government, BENITO MUSSOLINI.

Munich Pact : Annexes

Annex I

His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom and the French Government have entered into the above agreement on the basis that they stand by the offer, contained in paragraph 6 of the Anglo-French proposals of September 19, 1938, relating to an international guarantee of the new boundaries of the Czechoslovak State against unprovoked aggression. When the question of the Polish and Hungarian minorities in Czechoslovakia has been settled, Germany and Italy for their part will give a guarantee to Czechoslovakia.

Annex II

The heads of the governments of the four powers declare that the problems of the Polish and Hungarian minorities in Czechoslovakia, if not settled within three months by agreement between the respective governments, shall form the subject of another meeting of the heads of the governments of the four powers here present.

Annex III

Any question arising from the transfer of the Sudetenland territory shall be settled by the International Commission.

Annex IV

The four heads of government here present agree that the International Commission, provided for in the agreement signed by them today, shall consist of the State Secretary in the German Foreign Office, the British, French, and Italian Ambassadors accredited in Berlin, and a representative to be nominated by the Government of Czechoslovakia.

[from 'Kristallnacht': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.46]


Sehr geehrte Benutzer,

aufgrund der aktuellen Entwicklungen in der Webtechnologie, die im Goobi viewer verwendet wird, unterstützt die Software den von Ihnen verwendeten Browser nicht mehr.

Bitte benutzen Sie einen der folgenden Browser, um diese Seite korrekt darstellen zu können.

Vielen Dank für Ihr Verständnis.