A Society of Exclusion

Antisemitism and racism were already widespread in the German Reich before 1933 (see Introduction). Jews and other minorities, for example Roma and Sinti, were targets of suspicions and accusations during the severe economic and social crisis of 1930. Once the National Socialists took over power in January 1933 their situation worsened rapidly, with antisemitism and the expulsion of Jews part of the political agenda of the Nazi government. At this point in time, 502 799 from a total population of 65 million in the German Reich were registered as Jews, a minority of 0.8 per cent. The marginalisation and persecution of Jews was implemented step by step, impacting gradually on all areas of life until they were almost completely excluded from German society. Immediately after the Reichstag elections on 5 March 1933, Hitler’s Interior Minister, Wilhelm Frick, began drafting anti-Jewish laws or what were known as “special rights” (“Sonderrechte”) for Jews in the Nazi state. The “Enabling Act” from 24 March 1933 authorised the new government to pass laws at variance with the Reich constitution to “remedy the distress of the people and Reich”.

The first official step on the way to exclusion was the state-organised boycott of Jewish-owned businesses throughout the Reich on 1st of April 1933. Initiated by Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, Julius Streicher, the Gauleiter of Nuremberg and editor of Der Stürmer, was responsible for the organisation of the campaign . The foreign press had earlier repeatedly criticised the discrimination of Jews in the German Reich and called for a boycott of German goods to put pressure on the Nazi government. Hitler responded to the foreign “atrocity propaganda” with a Reich-wide boycott of Jewish goods. On 1 April (and in many places on the evening before) uniformed Nazis patrolled the entrances to Jewish shops, lawyer’s offices and medical practices, barring entry. Signs were carried through the streets or affixed to shop windows proclaiming slogans such as “Germans, fight back! Don’t buy from Jews!” It did not take long before non-Jewish shop owners and restaurant proprietors sought to attract customers by advertising in newspapers and on entrance doors that their business was Aryan and Jews were not welcome. They profited from the declining Jewish competition and many of them were delighted to have new customers. Even after its official end, the boycott campaign was kept going in many places or was revived intermittently.

The boycott campaign of 1 April conducted by the state marked the start of a concerted effort to deprive Jews of their economic livelihood. The law on the “Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” enacted on 7 April 1933 was the first in a series of occupational bans and led to the mass dismissal of Jewish teachers, university professors and other persons employed in the public service sector. Two weeks later Jewish general practicioners were banned. The vacated positions were filled very quickly by “Aryan” candidates seeking work.

Violence against Jews increased parallel to the gradual exclusion. SA and SS activists, but also other groups such as radical right-wing students, had repeatedly committed acts of violence against Jews since February 1933: they beat, bullied and harassed Jews in public and destroyed or looted Jewish shops. In many places Jews were veritably tracked down and chased; the first murders took place. Rabbi Max Abraham went through such an ordeal in June 1933. In his hometown of Rathenow he was suddenly pursued and assaulted for no reason. Upon reporting the incident to the police, it was demonstrated to him in no uncertain terms that he, because he was a Jew, no longer enjoyed legal protection. He – the victim – was condemned as the perpetrator and sent to a concentration camp. [Document A01]

While the majority of non-Jewish Germans disapproved of the violence towards Jews, they remained passive. The state-organised disenfranchisement of Jews was another matter: it found widespread acceptance. Most organisations, associations and clubs terminated the membership of Jews in line with the “Aryan paragraphs”. On 25 April 1933 the Jüdische Rundschau reported the tragic story of an enthusiastic gymnast who had committed suicide in act of desperation after he was threatened with exclusion from the German Gymnasts Association. [Document A02]. He was not the only one who saw suicide as the only way to escape the degradation of further discrimination and persecution, an act that was frequently accompanied by the hope of galvanising non-Jewish friends and neighbours.


The Nuremberg Laws

Two constitutional laws introduced in Nuremberg on 15 September 1935 completed the disenfranchisement of the Jews, establishing the foundations for fully excluding Jews from almost all areas of public life in Germany. The “Reich Citizenship Law” deprived them of their political rights and degraded them to second-class citizens: “A citizen of the Reich is only that subject who is of German or kindred blood […] Only the citizen of the Reich enjoys full political rights.” The “Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honour” henceforth prohibited marriage and intimate relationships between Jews and “Aryans”. [Document A03]

Scientists and scholars from the most diverse fields considered pseudo-scientific theories of race and the question of who was to be categorised as inferior. Because these studies failed to produce a result useful for the Nazi regime, who was to be considered a Jew was set out in the Nuremberg Laws. Ancestral religious affiliation was now decisive, and not necessarily a person’s own views. Given the demands of the Aryan certificate, whoever had at least three grandparents of Jewish religious affiliation was considered to be “fully Jewish” (“Volljude”). Persons with one Jewish parent or two Jewish grandparents were classified as “mixed to the first degree” (“Mischling ersten Grades”), while persons with one Jewish grandparent were “mixed to the second degree” (“Mischling zweiten Grades”).


While the so-called “Mischlinge” were initially subjected to less persecution, the marginalisation and aggression targeted the Jews living in the Reich, defining their day-to-day life. In an interview from 1996, Ellen Brandt described her own personal experiences of everyday life as a 14 year-old in 1936: the violence and antisemitic propaganda were curbed only for the duration of the Berlin Olympic Games. Led by the government, this brief interlude was designed to give the competitors, spectators and politicians visiting from abroad a peaceful impression. They were not to witness anything of the terror against Jews. Once the Games ended, the terror not only recommenced immediately but was intensified. Like all other Jews still in the country, Ellen Brandt became acutely aware of their growing isolation. Even her best friends abandoned her. [See Document A04]

The life of Jews still in the Reich and their battle for access to the basic necessities became increasingly difficult. The organised ousting out of economic life pressurised Jewish entrepreneurs into selling their companies or businesses to “Aryans” - usually far below their real value.

In 1938 and 1939 the so-called “Aryanisation” of all Jewish property and possessions was largely completed. Jewish flats and houses were transferred to “Aryan” or state ownership. Many – in particular young – Jews had already emigrated; others tried to. Not everyone had enough money or helpful contacts abroad, both invaluable factors in organising emigration. (see Coping Strategies of the German Jews) By 1941, some 346 000 German Jews had emigrated, albeit a number of them to regions later occupied by Germany, where they were thus once again persecuted. The number of persecuted Jews rose further with the annexation of Austria in March and the occupation of the Sudetenland in October 1938. In these regions Jews were now humiliated publicly and radically dispossessed within just a few months. From the “Anschluss” until the outbreak of the war on 1 September 1939, terror against the Jews was intensified once more.



During the night from 9 to 10 November 1938 a pogrom took place in Germany and Austria. Nazi propaganda called it an “outbreak of public anger”, allegedly triggered in response to an assassination committed by the 17 year-old Herschel Grynszpan. On 7 November in Paris Grynszpan had shot the German diplomat Ernst von Rath in protest against the deportation of 17 000 “Eastern Jews” (“Ostjuden”) – including his parents – from Germany to the Polish border.

Once news of von Rath’s death came through, Goebbels, after consulting with Hitler, gave an inflammatory speech in the presence of “old Nazi fighters” on the evening of 9 November in Munich, calling for action to be taken against the Jews. SA and Nazi Party members set fire to synagogues and other Jewish buildings, looted flats and shops as well as physically attacking Jews – while hundreds of thousands looked on. [Document A06]

The number of fatalities, estimated to be 400 at the very least, was considerably higher than the official figure of 91. Around 30 000 male Jews were arrested on the basis of prepared lists and sent to concentration camps (Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen) where they were interrogated and tortured, several hundred even murdered. Release was only granted when emigration papers could be produced. Göring added up the damage caused by the pogrom and at once initiated further measures against Jews. Amounting to several hundred million RM, the Jewish population was forced to pay for the damage to their own property as well as meet an additional reparations payment (“Sühneleistung”) of over a billion RM.

Whereas Jews were economically disadvantaged from the outset, a new decree now ensured that they were removed completely from German economic life by 1 January 1939, thus ruining any still existing economic means of existence. The November pogrom accelerated the emigration of the remaining Jews and finally put an end to public Jewish life. While the protest by international politicians and journalists made no impression on the National Socialists, it at least led to more Western countries declaring their willingness to take in refugees.

Coined at the time and meanwhile often criticised as trivialising the events, “Reichskristallnacht” (“The Night of Broken Glass”) became the established term for the pogrom. It refers to the countless panes of glass smashed during the destruction of the synagogues and shops. The violence of this night was a drastic experience for every Jew in the Reich. It marked a threshold, the transition from discrimination and exclusion to forced labour, deportation and murder. In November 1938 the student Heinrich Mugdan wrote in his diary his experience of the pogrom in Heidelberg and, as a Jew, how he felt utterly forsaken and alone afterwards. [Document A07]


Increasing exclusion

Contact between Jews and non-Jews decreased perceptibly. Associations and other organisations had long excluded Jews, while signs at swimming baths and sports grounds, in public parks, cafes and restaurants proclaimed that “Jews are undesired”. Jews were subjected to another manner of harassment from 1 January 1939 onwards with the introduction of a measure to simplify registering and persecuting Jews: every Jew was obliged to take on the additional name of “Sara” or “Israel”. [Document A08]

On 15 November 1939, a resolution was passed excluding Jewish children from attending state schools. Most children had already left school because they could no longer stand the hostility directed towards them or their parents could no longer afford to pay the school fees. Since the pogrom Jews had been prohibited from cinemas, theatres and other cultural events. Their increasing isolation was further exacerbated by how friends, former colleagues and family members had already emigrated while they were forced to remain behind and face the animosities. In an interview from May 1998 Edith Reiss recalled a scene played out in front of a shop in Göttingen in August 1939. She saw an elderly Jewish man being beaten to the ground by a “brown shirt uniformed man” while none of those standing around intervened. As she made a move to help him another person told her: “Don’t get involved.” [Document A09]

The beginning of the war

For Jews in the Reich, the outbreak of the war on 1 September 1939 meant that the struggle to survive had begun. It was often extremely difficult to meet the strict immigration rules imposed by many countries, while the requirements for gaining a travel permit to leave the Reich also became tougher. In October 1941 emigration was prohibited completely.

With the invasion of Poland more and more Jews were targeted by the persecutors, the violence spread and increasingly rigid antisemitic measures were imposed. These included measures stipulating that Jews were to perform forced labour in camps to further prevent contact with the general population. Following isolated deportation experiments since the start of the war, from autumn 1941 on German and Austrian Jews were deported on a massive scale to ghettos and camps “in the East”. Only very few succeeded in going into hiding for a longer period, relying on the cooperation of non-Jewish friends and acquaintances,– the threat of punishment meant that hardly anyone dared to take the risk.

With the obligation to wear the yellow “Jewish badge” in public, since September 1941 there was no longer any opportunity to go unrecognised as a Jew and be left in peace. Daniel Lotter, a non-Jewish German, condemned the new police decree in a diary entry from 14 September, calling it a “pointless and sadistic torment”. [Document A10] Fully visible to everyone, Jews were now excluded from German society. While Jews married to an “Aryan” were able to evade some of the anti-Jewish measures, as the well-known example of Victor Klemperer shows, they too were persecuted and excluded. Moreover, they could never feel safe – discussions on a possible deportation of Jews living in a mixed marriage continued until the end of the war.

Sonja Schilcher