How Anti-Semitism Began in Nazi Germany

From the Lecture series: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

It is believed that the Nazis had a clear blueprint for action against the Jews even before the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism can be traced back to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Once he became the chancellor and then the president of Germany, it was just a matter of implementing this plan, step-by-step. Let us take a look at some of those steps that the Nazis took in the mid-30s.

Statues in Berlin, 1936 Olympics.
The Nazi regime did not want the international journalist to see the ugly affects of anti-Semitism in Germany during the 1936 Olympics. (Image: CC BY-SA/3.0/Public domain)

The Nazi Boycott of Jewish Shops

On April 1, the Nazis introduced a boycott of Jewish shops. It was intended to go on indefinitely. There was an inverted logic about it, which was that the international Jewish press was spreading atrocity stories about the new Germany, and that therefore one way to show that this wasn’t true was to boycott Jewish shops.

It was one thing to listen to the Nazis go on about anti-Semitism, another to see the SA bully boys out in front of a Jewish bakery, forcing the Jewish proprietor to scrub the sidewalk with a toothbrush. This did not play well, and of course it didn’t play well abroad, either. It was called off after 24 hours.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Expulsion of Jews from Jobs

There were dismissals in the civil service, in the courts, and newspapers. Universities fired people, just assuming that this is what the Nazis wanted them to do.

German students and Nazi SA plunder the library of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin.
Plunder of Jewish property became a regular feature in Nazi Germany. (Image: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Public domain)

All the schools in Germany were state schools, so all the teachers, from kindergarten through the university, were civil servants, so when the Nazis banned Jews from holding civil service positions, that meant all people, all the way down the line.

Laws were introduced saying that Jews could not practice law. Jewish doctors could only treat Jewish patients. These attempts in 1933 even brought a response from Hindenburg, who wrote a public letter to Hitler saying,

Surely you don’t mean to say that Jewish veterans of the Great War are going to lose their jobs in the civil service, or their ability to practice law?

The Nazis backtracked and said, “Oh, no, of course not, not veterans,” which indicates the sensitivity that Hitler had for Hindenburg in 1933.

Learn more about the theological responses to the Nazi Holocaust.

Being a Non-Aryan in Germany

A law for the restoration of the professional civil service was passed in April of ’33, removing non-Aryans—nobody knew what that meant. It was decided that one Jewish grandparent meant that you were Jewish and therefore you were not Aryan.

People were scrambling for family trees. A law limiting Jewish access to the schools was introduced, a law on revocation of naturalization and annulment of German citizenship was passed; a great many Eastern European Jews had moved into Germany during the Weimar years.

The Result of the Nazi Racial Policy

Germany in the period before the First World War and through the 1920s had been seen as a great haven, particularly for Eastern European Jews. The new Nazi law revoked the citizenship of those Polish, Russian, Ukrainian Jews who’d come to Germany, particularly in the 1920s, and those people were then supposed to be returned to Poland, only the Polish government wouldn’t accept them back.

A hereditary farm law was introduced. No one could inherit a farm unless he could show that he had no Jewish blood going back to 1800. Nobody understood exactly how this would work out. This is why family trees became extremely important.

The Backtrack by the Nazis

It’s in this context that one has to see the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. After the first burst of legislation that the Nazis passed, the national government seemed to lose interest in the question altogether; mainly because Hitler and company were concentrating on consolidation of power.

A Jewish lawyer walking barefoot in Munich, Germany.
The local Nazis humiliated Jews in many ways in Germany. (Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R99542/CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE/via Wikimedia Commons)

As a consequence, they were very happy to let local Nazis (Einzelaktionen) run amok and humiliate the Jews, without the national government having to do much. But by December of 1935, the situation got quite out of hand.

Germany had been awarded the Olympic games for 1936. The last thing this government wanted to do was to have hundreds of international journalists traveling around the country, and being treated to the unbelievably ugly sights of the harassment of Jewish shopkeepers.

Why Were the Nuremberg Laws Announced?

The laws were announced at the Nuremberg party rally, unexpectedly. Hitler had wanted to end the rally with a big speech on foreign policy, but at the last minute changed his mind and said, for policy reasons, he couldn’t do it. He wanted to pick up the issue of race.

The bureaucrats in Berlin scrambled around and came up with the Nuremberg Laws, law for the protection of German blood and German honor. Interestingly, the first drafts of the Nuremberg laws were written on napkins in a beer hall in Nuremberg.

The laws forbade marriage between Aryans and Jews. It banned sexual relations between Aryans and Jews. Jews were not allowed to employ women under 45 in their households. Not only that, the laws were made retroactive.

The Reich Citizenship Law

This law which was announced, but not promulgated until a bit later, distinguished between a subject and a citizen. Jews were not allowed to be citizens of the Third Reich.

There were some problems with the Reich citizenship law, and that was, who is Jewish? Certain party officials wanted it to be, three Jewish grandparents meant you were Jewish. However, state officials said one Jewish grandparent versus three.

Finally, it was decided that it took three Jewish grandparents to be considered a Jew, or just two Jewish grandparents if one of them was a practicing religious Jew.

Learn more Nazi genocide and master plans.

The SS and the Jewish Issue

In the mid-1930s, the state secret police became the major agency to deal with the Jewish issue. Their policy was called Entjüdung, “de-Jewification”. Their motive was to make life unpleasant enough for Jews so that they would seek a haven elsewhere.

Finally, in November of 1938, the Nazi regime organized the first nationally organized pogrom against Jews, Reichskristallnacht. It was just the beginning, the worst was yet to come.

Common Questions about the Beginning of Anti-Semitism in Germany

Q: Why did the Nazis introduce a boycott of Jewish shops?

The Nazis introduced a boycott of Jewish shops because the international Jewish press was spreading atrocity stories about the new Germany. One way to show that this wasn’t true was to boycott Jewish shops.

Q: What was the policy of the state secret police against the Jews living in Germany?

The state secret police focused on the policy, Entjüdung, the “de-Jewification” of Germany. Their motive was to make life unpleasant enough for Jews so that they would seek a haven elsewhere.

Q: What was the the Reich Citizenship Law?

According to the Reich Citizenship Law, Jews were not allowed to be citizens of the Third Reich.

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