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The Seeds of War and World Conquest
Hitler, now known as FÅhrer, activated his plans for the “Aryanization” of Germany and world conquest. A program of euthanasia was launched to remove “undesirables.” Jews were first subjected to discrimination, then persecution, and then state-condoned terrorism, which had as a turning point the pogrom known as Kristallnacht. The onset of war served as a smokescreen for the evolution of deportations, ghettos, and concentration camps and sealed the fate of European Jewry.
Students will learn that:
1. Certain historical events paved the way to the Second World War.
2. Jews were subjected to discrimination, persecution, and violence long before they were targeted for destruction in the gas chambers.
3. Hitler’s plans after he became leader of the German government followed closely what he dreamed of in his book Mein Kampf.
4. The Nazi policy of euthanasia was a rationalization for mass murder.
5. Kristallnacht was a significant turning point in the history of what led up to the Holocaust.
By the end of 1933, Hitler had begun the process of consolidating power over Germany, assuming dictatorial powers for himself and controlling the military, economic structure, and the whole of German society. He now turned his attention to fulfilling his dream, as outlined in Mein Kampf, of dominating the world and inculcating it with Nazi philosophy (see Chapter 6). Stealthily, the armaments factories in Germany expanded, and production of tanks, planes, guns, and ammunition was doubled and redoubled.
The Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, was the agreement which officially ended World War I. Under this agreement, the Rhineland Province of Germany was demilitarized. In direct contravention of this Treaty, Hitler sent the German army into the Rhineland in 1936. In many ways, this was a test of the resolve of the other signatories to the Treaty, particularly Great Britain and France, whose humiliation of Germany during World War I sowed the seeds of revenge. When there was no challenge to this effort, Hitler interpreted this as weakness, and began planning the next steps which he believed would eventually lead to the “Thousand Year Reich.”
In August 1936, the XI Olympic Games were held in Berlin. Hitler used the Olympic Games as a propaganda showpiece to demonstrate his dream of the new Germany to the world. At these Olympics, African-American Jesse Owens won four gold medals, including one in the 100 meter dash, the most prestigious race of the Games. The victories of Owens tarnished Hitler’s showcase of athletes of “pure” German blood, who he believed would demonstrate their genetic superiority to non-Aryans.
Nazi Military Alliances
Hitler and Benito Mussolini, Fascist dictator of Italy, formed the Rome-Berlin Axis on October 25, 1936, pledging mutual military cooperation. A month later, a similar pact was signed between Germany and Japan, another nation which was expanding its military capability.
While the above events signaled approaching storm clouds of war, the persecution of the Jews was proceeding unabated. The Buchenwald concentration camp was opened in July 1937.
In November 1937, Hitler called together his top military aides to outline his plans for world domination. Those who objected to the plan were dismissed.
Under Nazi doctrine, one major obsession of the party was to assure that the blood of the German “master race” remained “pure” of any contamination by people with undesirable features. Additionally, the advancement of German culture, in their view, required that there be a limitation on those who were not “productive” in work or who would otherwise not advance the goals and objectives of the State. The Nazi phrase, “Life unworthy of life” was used to describe such people, as well as criminals, the insane, and the physically handicapped. This characterization was soon extended to include Jews, Gypsies (see Chapter 10), and homosexuals.
Nazi policies were initiated as early as 1933 to take steps to assure that persons who were “undesirables” were unable to dilute the Aryan race by reproduction. The first step was the forced sterilization of persons considered “mentally deficient.” A July 14, 1933 law legalized sterilization for persons with certain hereditary diseases, and empowered the Hereditary Health Courts to enforce this policy. The intent of the program was to eliminate the possibility that these people and their potential offspring would continue to be a burden to society.
Once sterilization became accepted, it was only a matter of time until the Nazis went one step further in approving a program of euthanasia. Intentionally masked by the onset of war, mentally and physically handicapped persons were rounded up and sent to special facilities for “treatment.” Most were never heard from again. The families of the victims would often receive telegrams informing them that their loved one had died of a heart attack or pneumonia. In this way, the Nazis hoped to eliminate defective genes from the population, which would have the effect of strengthening future generations of the “master race.” Early victims of this program were given fatal injections. These facilities were soon equipped with gas chambers.
In effect, the Nazis’ euthanasia program was another rationalization for mass murder. The term “special treatment” (in German, Sonderbehandlung), which was a euphemism for the murder of “defective” persons, was eventually applied to the treatment of Jews in the death camps.
Scores of medical doctors, some of whom were committed Nazis, and others with no political affiliation at all, participated in the sterilization and euthanasia programs. Each had taken the Hippocratic Oath, pledging to heal the sick, protect life, and refrain from harmful actions to their patients. And each had violated that Oath to the fullest degree possible.
Finally, the availability of thousands of human beings without any legal protection, and a government which encouraged their extermination, made it possible for many of these doctors to carry out outrageous human experimentation. Much more of this experimentation was carried out in the concentration camps on prisoners who were savaged both physically and emotionally. The Nazis kept careful records of these experiments, which a horrified world later discovered.
As Hitler consolidated power, he pursued his goal to eliminate “non-Aryans” from the social and economic fabric of Germany. By 1938, thousands of Jews had been fired or forcibly “retired” from their jobs as a result of laws (e.g. “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service”) and decrees. Jews were barred from serving in government posts, practicing law, participating in cultural enterprises such as theater, movies, arts, and literature (September 29, 1933), and serving in the press (October 4, 1933).
By 1938, with the reins of power totally in Hitler’s hands, the Nazis began a program to systematically remove the Jews from participation in the German economy. This policy, called “Aryanization,” made use of several government decrees:
January 5, 1938
– The “Law Regarding Changes of Family Names and Given Names” was issued, regulating name changes. One purpose was to make it more difficult for Jews to escape persecution by changing their names.
April 22, 1938
– It became a crime for a German to disguise the fact that a business was owned by a Jew.
April 26, 1938
– Jews had to report the value of their property, except for personal goods, if the value exceeded 5,000 Reichmarks.
June 14, 1938
– Jewish businesses were defined by decree.
July 6, 1938
– Many types of businesses were ordered to desist operation by December 30, 1938 if they were “Jewish” consistent with the June 14, 1938 decree.
July 23, 1938
– Jews were required to carry identification cards.
July 25, 1938
– Jewish physicians were given until September 30th to give up their practices.
September 27, 1938
– Jewish lawyers were barred from practicing their profession after November 30th.
October 5, 1938
– Jews were required to hand in their passports, so that the passports could include the designation of “J.” This action was motivated by a request by the Swiss government, which did not want to admit Jewish refugees.
The German War Machine Continues
On March 13, 1938, Hitler annexed Austria to the Third Reich and anti-Semitic laws were applied to this new territory. A half-million Viennese lined the streets to welcome him.
An international conference with 32 nations participating was held at the resort town of Evian, France in July 1938. The focus of the conference was to discuss the plight of refugees, many of whom were Jews escaping Nazi Germany. At a time when thousands of lives were endangered, the countries agreed only to uphold their existing immigration quotas. No additional spaces were to be made available in response to the crisis. As Martin Gilbert writes in The Holocaust:
“The international community, which at Evian had been presented with an opportunity to keep open the gates of refuge, chose that moment, so desperate for the Jews already under Nazi rule, to signal its own hesitations and reluctance. It was a neutral stance, not a hostile one, but this neutral stance was to cost a multitude of lives.”
The Munich Agreement
The Munich Agreement was signed September 29, 1938. At this conference in Munich, Britain and France agreed to the German annexation of the Sudetenland (a part of Czechoslovakia) in exchange for Hitler’s assurance that he would not attack the remainder of Czechoslovakia. No representative of Czechoslovakia was present at the meeting. As a result of the annexation, over 120,000 additional Jews came under Nazi control.
Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat in Paris, was assassinated by a Polish Jewish 17-year-old student, Herschel Grynszpan, on November 7, 1938. Grynszpan’s parents were Polish nationals who had lived in Germany for almost a quarter-century. Nearly 50,000 of these Polish nationals living in Germany were expelled by the Nazi government to provide more living space for German nationals. The government of Poland did not want to accept these Jews back into Poland, and issued a decree denaturalizing the citizenship of Polish citizens who had lived abroad for more than five years unless they were issued a special stamp. The Polish government refused to issue these stamps. As a result, these Jews were barred reentry into Poland, and were forced to live as refugees at the German-Polish border under brutal conditions. Grynszpan’s action was in protest against the treatment of his parents.
As von Rath lay mortally wounded, German Propaganda Minister Goebbels encouraged party leaders to incite “spontaneous” anti-Semitic riots throughout Germany and Austria. The S.A. was ordered to incite riots against the Jews.
During the action known as Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”), over 191 synagogues were set afire, with 76 destroyed. More than 7,500 Jewish businesses were looted and over 800 ruined. Almost 100 Jews were killed or seriously injured. As many as 30,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. The Jewish communities of Germany were assessed one billion marks to pay for the damage claims of non-Jews.
There was strong press reaction throughout the world to Kristallnacht, but Western democracies failed to take any action.
On November 15, 1938, Jewish children were expelled from German schools. Curfew restrictions were imposed on the Jews two weeks later.
On March 15, 1939 the Germans occupied Prague (Bohemia).
The “St. Louis” Voyage
On May 13, 1939, a cruise ship carrying 937 Jews left Hamburg, Germany, seeking freedom from Nazi terror. Almost all had paid for both passage and papers which would legally entitle them to disembark in Cuba. When the ship reached Havana, it was not permitted to dock. Setting sail for Miami, the ship was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and warned to sail on. The ship was forced to return to Europe. More than half of the passengers died in the Holocaust. The story of the St. Louis was immortalized in the movie, “Voyage of the Damned.”
August 23, 1939
A Non-Aggression Pact was signed by Germany and the Soviet Union. Both agreed to remain neutral if either was to participate in a war.
September 1, 1939
– The Germans invaded Poland. Poland was conquered by October 12, 1939.
September 3, 1939
– Britain and France declared war on Germany, signaling the beginning of World War II.
October 12, 1939
– The first deportation of Jews from Austria and Moravia to Poland was accomplished.
November 23, 1939
– Wearing of the yellow Jewish Star of David was made compulsory throughout occupied Poland.
– The compulsory expropriation of Jewish industries, businesses and shops.
– The forced transport of people outside of the area where they live.
– A program instituted by the Nazis in August 1939 which “made merciful death possible for those suffering from incurable disease.”
– The taking away of the property of a person without permission and often without compensation.
– A meeting held by Hitler with his top staff such as the one in November 1937 at which he disclosed his plans for building his empire.
– An oath devised by Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician, which is taken by persons who receive an M.D. degree (Doctor of Medicine) and which sets the standards of medical ethics.
– The pogrom of November 9, 1938, the “Night of Broken Glass” _ Anti-Semitic riots in Germany and Austria during which synagogues were set afire by the Nazis, almost 100 Jews were murdered or seriously injured, and as many as 30,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.
Star of David
– A six-pointed star which is the symbol of Judaism.
– A process, either by surgical or chemical means, to make persons incapable of reproducing.
- Find a copy of the Hippocratic Oath. Discuss the reasons why this Oath was ignored by Nazi doctors.
- Research how your community’s newspaper and national newspapers reported the Kristallnacht pogrom.
- Compile a list of instances where a government expropriated the business and other property of a minority group.
- Research which countries have legalized euthanasia in the past and present.
- Should scientific data collected as a result of Nazi experiments on Jews be used today? How valid is this data scientifically? What are the ethical considerations involved?
- Many thousands of Jews left Germany in the early years of Nazi rule. Discuss the possible reasons why many Jews stayed in Germany when there was a chance to leave.
- Some Jews who stayed did so because they failed to grasp the reality of the situation in which their lives were endangered. Discuss the concept of denial by individuals or groups, what denying reality accomplishes for the victim, what the dangers are of denying reality, and discuss events today in which people are imperiled because they refuse to accept reality.
- Discuss the oft-quoted statement of Pastor Martin Niemöller which appears on the back cover.
- Read and discuss Stanley Milgrim’s “Obedience to Authority.”
- What events in 1938 pushed many Jews to try to emigrate from Nazi-controlled Europe? What made this emigration difficult?
1. Define the following:
- Hippocratic Oath
- “St. Louis”
- “Life Unworthy of Life”
2. What happened during Kristallnacht, what was the historical event that sparked it, and what was the significance of the event for the Jews of Germany?
3. Why was it considered unusual that so many doctors participated in the Nazis’ euthanasia program?
4. Give four examples of persecution and discrimination against the Jews in Nazi Germany from 1937-1940.
5. What was the purpose of “Aryanization”?
6. What happened to the passengers on the “St. Louis” and what was their fate?
7. What was Hitler’s objective in having the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin?
8. What were the countries with which Hitler signed agreements in order to become allies?
9. Name four countries invaded by Germany between 1939 and 1941.
10. What did Hitler divulge at the 1937 “Führer Conference”?
- When discussing euthanasia, permit those students who are comfortable doing so discuss who in their own families would have been murdered by the Nazis on account of age, physical or mental illness or disability, or mental retardation.
- There have been other acts of genocide in the 20th century (one excellent source is Facing History and Ourselves, Holocaust and Human Behavior). While the Holocaust had many unique aspects, it is important to convey to students that acts of genocide continue today. Discuss what constructive actions students can take now when they read about an act of genocide occurring in a foreign land, using either fictitious or real examples.
- Recreate a debate among a Nazi doctor, a Nazi General and a German railroad official on what should be done with the records pertaining to how many Jews were put on trains to Auschwitz and how many survived the trip?
Copyright 1990 Gary M. Grobman
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