The Expropriation and Economic Destruction of the Jews in Germany and Western Europe

Signing with the compulsory first name “Israel,” the 65-year-old estate agent Gottlieb Bier proceeded to fill in his declaration of assets on 6 August 1942 in Berlin [see Document A01]. The German tax authorities had been demanding such a declaration since October 1941, subject to penalty for non-compliance, in order to be able to deal more easily with confiscation of any assets still in the possession of all the heads of household slated for deportation. While a great many such declarations were perfunctorily completed in the haste of flight or with great disgust, in a quick and brief manner, Gottlieb Bier took his time, precisely noting down his assets, and also gave data on his fellow flatmates. They indicate that Bier’s spacious flat had in the meantime come to be used as a so-called “Jews’ dwelling,” a Judenwohnung occupied by seven persons. An additional flatmate had apparently been deported shortly before. Bier and his wife still occupied one room but he had since been forced to store his superfluous furnishings elsewhere. Yet even more notable is that in filling out this form, the realtor had expressly stated that his professional knowledge could help increase the proceeds the German Reich might acquire in liquidating his firms. In this way he evidently sought to prevent his imminent deportation, but his initiative at best only helped to postpone it. While most Jews were deported a few days after filing their assets declaration, Bier remained in the Berlin collective camp six weeks before being transported to Theresienstadt by the end of September. There the Jewish businessman died but three weeks later, on 16 October 1942, as a result of the bad living conditions. In the meantime, the tax officials proceeded to liquidate his assets on the basis of his declaration. The file compiled in the process was not finally closed until two years after his death.

However, down to the beginning of the deportations, by no means had the confiscation of the assets of Jews in the German Reich taken a linear course. Even if their supposed wealth was a standard component in the repertoire of antisemitic propaganda, the National Socialist regime initially did not take hold systematically of assets in the possession of Jews. This was because the regime feared reactions from abroad as well as amongst the German population to such an undermining of the right to property. It is true that already in the summer of 1933, the legal prerequisites had been created for confiscating the assets of individuals who were stripped of their citizenship or had been declared enemies of the Reich. But that did not only affect Jews and initially always involved individual cases, even if the number of the lists of those deprived of citizenship, published in the Reichsanzeiger, was rapidly increasing.

The situation differed in the case of Jews who, under the pressures of persecution, decided to emigrate. A special levy of 25 percent was then placed on their entire domestic assets, the so-called Reich Flight Tax [Document A02]. In addition, when assets were transferred, further fees were charged based on particularly unfavourable exchange rates. Through this transfer, emigrants in 1938 on average lost more than 90 percent of their assets. Many refugees were ultimately reduced to leaving the country only with what baggage they could carry and 10 RM in their pocket. In the face of these huge losses, pensioners and long-established businesspeople in particular shied away from emigration. In the meantime, the Nazi regime increased the pressure; in April 1938, it initially registered all Jewish assets; two months later, with the Third Ordinance to the Reich Citizenship Law, Jewish commercial enterprises were defined and required to register. In August 1938, after the occupation of Austria, the Security Police set up the Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Vienna. Its director Adolf Eichmann later recalled that there, like on a conveyor belt, entire estates were seized by the Reich in exchange for valid exit papers.

Yet events followed in quick succession. Even before the results of the April registration of assets could be totally evaluated, the Reichskristallnacht came to pass on 9 November 1938. In this pogrom that raged over several days across the Reich, the property of Jews was destroyed and plundered [Document A03]. This was alluded to by the head of the ’Jewish Department’ in the Reich Economic Ministry on 23 November 1938 when this department sent an estimate of remaining Jewish property to all the relevant offices and agencies [Document A04]. While isolated incidents of plunder were still underway in Berlin, on 12 November 1938 a decisive conference for future developments took place in the Reich aviation ministry. On the invitation of Hermann Göring, more than 100 high-ranking functionaries of the regime, representatives of the economy and the insurance companies deliberated on the consequences of the pogrom. Göring, as Plenipotentiary for the implementation of the Four-Year-Plan, was the official responsible for coordinating rearmament. He pointed out that he had been instructed by Hitler in a phone call to “centrally coordinate .... the Jewish Question” (IMT, Vol. 28, p. 508). At this juncture, Göring saw the “Jewish Question” principally as an economic problem, evaluating the pogroms in terms of the material damage they caused. He went so far as to say that he “would have preferred had 200 Jews been killed instead of destruction of such material value” (IMT, Vol. 28, p. 518). Correspondingly, it was decided, in order to counteract the threat of possible national bankruptcy, that the German Jews would be compelled to pay the sum of one billion Reichsmark as a so-called “atonement levy” (Sühneleistung). The Reich ultimately extorted even more, some 1.12 billion RM, with the Levy on Jewish Assets that was promulgated, an amount approximately equal to one-eighth of all assets still in the possession of the German Jews.

With the Decree on the Elimination of the Jews from Economic Life, Jews were at the same time prohibited from continuing to operate a retail store or commercial enterprises. Among the non-Jewish neighbours and their former competitors, there now ensued a “feverish scramble for enrichment” (Bajohr, p. 283) aimed at taking over the last still available commercial enterprises as cheaply as possible. However, a list compiled by the director of the Asset Reclamation Office in Vienna in April 1939 shows that most of the businesses were not “Aryanized,” i.e. passed on to non-Jews, but instead were liquidated [Document A05]. Viewed against this backdrop, the widespread employment of the contemporaneous term “Aryanization” appears to be quite problematic. The arrangement of the charts in the document also serves to conceal the fact that the destruction of Jewish commercial activity went hand in hand with a high degree of chaos, violence, and an economy based on personal connections, sinecures and corruption. In this sense as well, the “de-Judification of the German economy” was largely a huge process of destruction.

Even if the bank accounts were frozen from 1939 on and the accounts at the banks were marked as ’Jewish,’ not until the 11th Ordinance to the Reich Citizenship Law concurrent with the beginning of systematic deportations in November 1941 was there a categorical declaration that all Jews being deported beyond the boundaries of the Reich would automatically likewise lose their (remaining) assets. On the basis of this ordinance, the remaining assets of Gottfried Bier were also confiscated. But since Auschwitz was located in an area annexed by the German Reich, the tax officials resorted once again to the Law on the Confiscation of Assets in the Hands of Enemies of the People and the State (Gesetz über die Einziehung volks- und staatsfeindlichen Vermögens) from the summer of 1933 in order to seize the assets of the Jews who were transported to Auschwitz from September 1942 on. The Reich Main Security Office additionally arranged so-called ’Home Purchase Contracts’ (Heimeinkaufsverträge) with Jews sent to Theresienstadt. Such contracts mistakenly led the Jewish senior citizens signing them to believe that they would also be acquiring a secure place in a home for the elderly [Document A06].

In the Netherlands, occupied in May 1940 and placed under a civil administration headed by Reich Commissioner Arthur Seyß-Inquart, the confiscation of assets was planned very systematically. Responsibility there was borne by Hanns Fischböck, who had directly experienced the brutal beginning of the economic destruction of Vienna’s Jews as the then commerce minister in Austria. He sought to use the Netherlands in order to set the record straight, projecting himself as an efficient planning official for the task of asset confiscation. The Ordinance on the Registration of Enterprises (October 1940) required firms whose owners, shareholders or managers were persons “of Jewish blood” to register, under threat of confiscation of their assets in cases of non-compliance. In passing, Article 4 laid down the categories for the racial definition of Jews, long demanded by various sides:

“A Jew is an individual who is descended from at least three grandparents who were, racially, full Jews. A Jew is also an individual who is descended from two full-Jewish grandparents and either on 9 May 1940 was a member of the Jewish religious community or joined the community later, or was married on 9 May or thereafter to a person who was a Jew. A grandparent is considered a full-blooded Jew if the person belonged to the Jewish religious community” (VO No. 189/1940, 22 November 1940). 

When registration procedures were completed in March 1941, some 21,000 firms had registered. Trustees were assigned to these firms, who then sold “their” firms as ordered or, in the far greater number of cases, liquidated the firms. Armed with a complex system of supervision under the direction of the Economic Inspection Authority (Wirtschaftsprüfstelle) specially created for this purpose, Fischböck sought in particular to clamp down on and curtail the corruption he had witnessed earlier in Vienna [Document A07]. Since in the racial categories of the National Socialists, the Dutch were considered equal to the non-Jewish Germans, and because the economic output of their country was of relatively great importance, they were also supposed to be in a position to themselves profit from the destruction of Jewish economic activity in the Netherlands. Yet since the process was established mainly to assist Germans in particular to establish themselves in the economy of the Netherlands, the Dutch received relatively little in terms of material gain [Document A08].

In addition, from August 1941 Jews in the Netherlands were compelled to transfer their private assets to an independent department of the private bank Lippmann, Rosenthal & Co., run by Jewish owners; this department functioned as an office of the General Commissioner for Finance and the Economy. Shortly before the beginning of the deportations, the permitted exemption limits were reduced to a minimum. Although the Jews had not been formally expropriated, probably also because the authorities were mindful of the Hague Convention respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, they nonetheless lost the capability to dispose of their assets, which in early 1943 were transferred into so-called collective title accounts (Sammeltitel). Invested in German government bonds, the assets of the Dutch Jews now indirectly served to finance the war.

In Belgium and northern France, almost simultaneously with the Netherlands, the military commander issued a directive in October 1940 ordering the registration of assets. However, it turned out that the majority of Jews had but few assets to speak of. In April 1941, pogrom-like violent disturbances erupted against the Jews in Antwerp, but the Belgian banks refused to act to the detriment of their clients by working closely together with the occupation authorities. Since a majority of notaries public were unwilling to certify legal transactions that aimed at destroying the economic livelihood of the Jews, most of the properties seized could not be sold but only leased, so that they remained in Jewish ownership. It is evident here that the officials, economic associations and economic actors, whether in the role of competitors or customers, had considerable scope for action. That was also true in France, where the Vichy regime introduced the first measures for confiscation of assets in connection with the expatriation of Jews who had fled France. Although based on mechanisms established earlier in Nazi Germany, these measures were launched as a “purely French initiative” (Dean, p. 301).

In Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Luxembourg, the household goods of the deported Jews were collected and sent off to the German Reich, where they were distributed among National Socialist offices, favourites of the Nazi regime, persons who had been bombed out of their homes and ‘bargain hunters.’ In this connection, over 700 trainloads of clothing and furniture arrived in the Reich [Document A10].  

The restitution of the confiscated assets and stolen goods has to date not been brought to a conclusion either in Germany or France.

Christoph Kreutzmüller


Stenographic record of the discussion on the Jewish Question in Göring’s presence, 12 November 1938, in: IMT, Vol. 28, pp. 499-540, Doc. 1816 PS., here p. 508.

Ordinance of the Reich Commissioner for the Occupied Dutch Territories Regarding the Registration of Enterprises. Verordnungsblatt für die besetzen niederländischen Gebiete, No. 189/1940, 22.10.1940.

Frank Bajohr, ‘Arisierung’ in Hamburg. Die Verdrängung der jüdischen Unternehmer 1933-1945, Hamburg 1997.

Martin Dean, Robbing the Jews. The Confiscation of Jewish Property in the Holocaust 1933-1945, Cambridge 2008.

[Translated from the German by William Templer]