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Seizure of power gave the Nazis enormous control over every aspect of German life. The Nazis could use the machinery of government—the police, courts, schools, newspapers and radio—to implement their racist beliefs. Jews, who made up less than one percent of the total population in 1933, were the principal target of this attack, but the Roma (Gypsies) and the handi-capped were also singled out for persecution because they were seen as a biological threat to the purity of the Aryan race. The Nazis blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I, its economic problems, and for the spread of communist parties throughout Europe.
Germans Accept Anti-Jewish Propaganda
As Hitler raged against the Jews, he accused them of dominating Germany’s economic and political life despite strong evidence to the contrary. In 1925 Jews made up less than five percent of officials in the German government, including the judicial system. Yet Hitler’s propaganda machine inflated this number to fifty percent and then sixty-two percent. By 1930, less than eight percent of the directors of Berman banking companies were Jewish. In 1932, Germany’s eighty-five major newspapers had fewer than ten Jewish editors. Yet many Germans believed the Nazi claim that Jews controlled the nation’s financial system and its press. The Nazis skillfully used propaganda to create the public perception that Jews were a devious political, economic, and social threat to the nation, justifying Hitler’s violent perse-cution of them.
In April 1933, Hitler began to make discrimination against Jews government policy. All non-Aryans were expelled from the civil service. A non-Aryan was defined as anyone who had Jewish parents or two or more Jewish grandparents. In this same year the government called for a one-day general boycott of all Jewish-owned businesses and passed laws excluding Jews from journalism, radio, farming, teaching, the theater, and films. At the same time government contracts with Jewish businesses were cancelled.
In 1934, Jews were dismissed from the army. They were ex-cluded from the stock exchange, law, medi-cine, and business. But it was the Nurem-berg Laws of 1935 that took away the citizenship of Jews born in Germany, la-beling them “subhu-man.” These laws de-fined Jews not by their religion, but by the religious affiliation of their grandparents. These laws became the backbone of the Nazi attack on Jews up to 1939. Over time some fourteen supplementary decrees were issued which served as the basis for excluding Jews from professions, medicine, law, from serving as patent attorneys or tax advisors, and for limiting their business activities. With these laws Hitler officially made anti-Semitism a part of Germany’s basic legal code.
Under these laws, marriage between Jews an Aryans was forbidden. Jews were not to display the German flag and could not employ servants under forty-five years of age. These laws created a climate in which Jews were viewed as inferior people. The systematic removal of Jews from contact with their neighbors made it easier for Germans to think of Jews as less human or different.
German Jews lost their political rights. Restrictions were reinforced by identification documents. German passports were stamped with a capital “J” or the world Jude. All Jewish people had to have a recognizable Jewish name. Jewish men had to use the middle name “Israel,” Jewish women the middle name “Sarah.” These names had to be recorded on all birth and marriage certificates. By 1939 the Nazis had seized Jewish businesses and properties or forced Jews to sell their businesses at rock bottom prices. Jewish children could no longer go to public schools, theaters, or movie houses. Hotels were closed to Jews and in some places Jews were prohibited from living or even walking in certain sections of German towns.
The Nazis also began the persecution of other groups viewed as racially inferior. Between 1933 and 1935, the Nazis passed laws creating involuntary sterilization programs aimed at reducing the number of genetically “inferior” Germans.” Targets of these programs included over 300,000 mentally or physically disabled people. A law passed on July 14, 1933 made sterilization compulsory for people with congenital mental defects, schizophrenia, manic-depressive illness, hereditary epilepsy and severe alcoholism. This law also included the blind and the deaf, even those who became deaf or blind from such illnesses as scarlet fever or from accidents.
When Hitler started the war in 1939, he ordered the elimination of the mentally handicapped because they were “useless eaters.” The so-called T-4 program headquartered in Berlin’s Tiergartenstrasse 4 took the handicapped to exter-mination centers and gassed them with carbon monoxide. In 1941, public outcry against this program led the Germans to continue it with much greater secrecy. Before August 1941 about 100,000 people were killed by the Nazis through the T-4 Program. By the end of the war another 100,000 were murdered in this way. These men and women along with Jews and Roma (Gypsies) were seen as a biological threat to the purity of the German Aryan race that had to be exter-minated.
Many of Germany’s 30,000 Roma (Gypsies) were also sterilized and prohibited from marrying Germans. They were considered by the Nazis to be racially impure and mentally defective. Later they would be condemned by the Nazis to the same fate as Jews—total annihilation. Over half a million Roma were murdered by the Germans in gas chambers, “medical” experiments, and random killings.
Although treated less severely than Jews or the Roma, homosexuals, mostly males, were another target of Nazi persecution. They were often given the choice of sterilization, castration, or imprisonment in a concentration camp where they were forced to wear a pink triangle. Children of mixed African and German racial background were also targeted for sterilization. Some of these children were offspring of German women and African soldiers in the French army stationed by the French in the Rhineland after World War I. These children were taken from schools or streets and sterilized, often without anesthesia. Under a 1933 statute, the “Law for the Prevention of Off-spring with Hereditary Defects,” these sterilizations were completely legal.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were singled out for abuse because they were pacifists. They refused to swear an oath to the state or serve in the German army and they urged others to act as they did. In addition, they would not salute the Nazi flag or say “Heil Hitler.” Many Witnesses lost jobs and some went to prisons and concentration camps in Germany or had their children taken from them and sent to orphanages.
SS Gain Power
Hitler’s position was challenged from within the Nazi party by the SA, an abbreviation for the German word for storm troopers. Also called brown shirts, they were Hitler’s private army run by Ernst Roehm. In 1934 Hitler ordered a purge of the SA by the SS, the elite group of soldiers who served as his personal bodyguard. The Night of Long Knives ended any challenge to Hitler’s position of power. Once the SS State was created, resistance to the Nazi regime was destroyed. Communists, Catholics, Jews, intellectuals, and others were the targets of the Gestapo, or secret police.
Dachau First Concentration Camp
The SS soon took over from the SA the respon-sibility for setting up concentration camps throughout Germany. Anyone suspected of disloyalty or disobe-dience could be sent there. The first concen-tration camp was at Dachau, close to Mu-nich. It was built to hold political dissenters and “enemies of the state.” No charges had to be filed against the detainees, no warrant for their arrest was necessary, no real evidence was required.
In 1935, Hitler reintroduced the military draft, in violation of the Versailles Treaty. In 1936 German troops reoccupied the Rhineland. That same year Hitler signed an agreement with Italian dictator Mussolini to establish the Rome-Berlin Axis.
Night Of Broken Glass
On November 9, 1938, the Nazis carried out what the German press called a “spontaneous demonstration” against Jewish property, synagogues, and people. Dr. Josef Goebbels, the propaganda minister, claimed the demonstration was in reaction to the shooting of a lower-level diplomat at the German embassy in Paris. A young Jewish boy attempted to assassinate the official or because his father had been deported to Poland. Throughout Germany fires and bombs were used to destroy synagogues and shops. Store windows were shattered, leaving broken glass everywhere. By the time it ended, nearly 100 people had been killed. That night became known as the Night of Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht. German documents found later showed that Kristallnacht had been carefully planned weeks in advance by the Nazis.
Even before Kristallnacht, many Jews in Germany and Austria had sought to escape. Between 1933 and 1939, about half the German-Jewish population succeeded in finding refuge in other countries. More than two thirds of Austrian Jews fled the country as well. Some found safety in Palestine. Others went to China which did not require an entry visa. Latin American nations admitted some Jews as well. Many believed mistakenly they would be safe in France, Holland, and other western European nations. Because of the worldwide economic depression, public opinion in almost all countries was overwhelmingly opposed to immigration of any kind. The United States, Canada, and Britain maintained existing numbers of immigrants imposed by the Quota Law of 1924. Many Jews who remained under Nazi rule in Germany or Austria did so only because they could not get visas or sponsors in host countries or lacked the money needed to emigrate.
In March 1938, German troops marched into Aus-tria and met no resistance. Austria became a part of greater Germany. This Anschluss, or uniting, although a violation of both the Treaty of Ver-sailles and the Treaty of St. Ger-main, would be justified by provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, which stated that all people of one nationality had the right to live under one government. Hitler next seized the Sudetenland, an area in western Czechoslovakia where many Germans lived. For a short time he persuaded the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and the French Premier Edouard Daladier, that he was right in doing so. But when he invaded and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, no justifications could be found.
World War II Begins
Poland would be next. On September 1, 1939, German forces, spearheaded by tanks and bombers, marched into Poland and crushed all organized resistance. England and France declared war against Germany on September 3, 1939 and the world was once again at war.
Download the Prewar Nazi Germany module now.
Resources include Teaching Lesson 3 and Handouts 3A, 3B and 3C.