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Once he became head of state by legal means, Hitler consolidated his power by neutralizing all political opponents and democratic institutions. As dictator, he began a campaign of terror to rid Germany of Jewish influence. The Nuremberg Laws negated civil liberties for Germany’s Jews, many of whom fled to safer lands.
Students will learn:
1. How the Nazis consolidated their power and control of the German government.
2. That dictatorial power can evolve from forces other than through a military or civilian coup d’État.
3. That Hitler rose to power in a democracy which had a structure similar to that of modern democracies.
4. That historical events often trigger political responses and mold public opinion, and that extremist political movements do not suddenly rise to power in a vacuum but do so as a result of latent instability of the society in which they exist.
Hitler Rises to Power
In the July 1932 elections, the Nazis had increased their strength in the Reichstag to 230 seats, but lost 34 of them in the November elections. Radical Nazis wanted to seize power, but Hitler insisted that he would come to power legally and that he would accept nothing less than the chancellorship. The internal political situation, meanwhile, was very unstable and many Germans were revolted by the brutal street fighting of the Stormtroopers. In the summer of 1932, Franz von Papen destroyed the last bulwark of German democracy, the federal state of Prussia, by charging that Prussia could not maintain law and order. In the process, von Papen became the Reich Commissioner for Prussia, gaining control of all of Prussia’s resources and a police force of 90,000, which Hitler later absorbed into the Nazi Party.
Early in January 1933, von Papen and Hitler met in the home of a Cologne banker, Kurt von Schroder, who pledged funds needed by the Nazi party, and a group of industrialists reassured Hindenburg to let Hitler form a cabinet. Von Papen reassured Hindenburg that he as vice-chancellor would always accompany Hitler in his talks with the president. Reluctantly, Hindenburg agreed, and on January 30, 1933, Hitler became chancellor at the age of 43. He had indeed come to power legally.
Among the first actions of the new Chancellor was enactment of an Emergency Decree directed at eliminating political opposition from the Communists. This decree was passed just six days into the Hitler Administration, and it called for the dismantling of leftist organizations. All Communist party buildings were expropriated.
A fire destroyed the Reichstag Building on February 27, 1933. Hitler blamed the fire on the Communists. The fire symbolically destroyed the only remaining institution capable of placing reins on Hitler’s grab for dictatorial power. Although the case is still somewhat disputed, the fire was very likely instigated by the Nazis and blamed on a Dutch Communist who had committed arson, Marinus van der Lubbe. There was no sign whatsoever of a revolution, but van der Lubbe gave the Nazis the excuse they needed and the pretext for new emergency measures.
“Protective Custody” Rules
Hitler induced a confused and frightened Hindenburg to sign a decree euphemistically called, “For the Protection of the People and State,” suspending all of the basic rights of citizens and imposing the death sentence for arson, sabotage, resistance to the decree, and disturbances to public order. Arrests could be made on suspicion, and people could be sentenced to prison without trial or the right of counsel. The suspension was never lifted throughout the entire period of Nazi rule, and the decree of February 28th destroyed fundamental guarantees under the Weimar democracy.
The Enabling Act
During the next few days, up to elections on March 5th, the Nazi Brown Terror broke loose. By making the trumped-up Communist threat “official,” Hitler threw millions of Germans into panic. Arbitrary arrests multiplied while truckloads of Stormtroopers rampaged through the streets, broke into homes, rounded up victims, including many Jews, and took them to the S.A. barracks where they were beaten and tortured. The Nazis received 44 percent of the vote in the March elections.
On March 23rd, the last Reichstag met in an opera house, surrounded by S.S. forces and filled with Stormtroopers inside. Most of the Communist and a number of Socialist deputies had already been arrested. The votes of the Center Party were crucial for Hitler in getting the necessary two-thirds majority to pass an Enabling Act, and this they supplied, thus giving him the arbitrary power he craved. He could now use this power without the Reichstag, and ignore the Constitution. All opposition political parties were destroyed or dissolved themselves. Trade unions were liquidated. Opposition clergy were arrested. The Nazi party had, in Hitler’s words, become the state. By August 1934, when Hindenburg died, Hitler also became commander-in-chief of the armed forces as well as President and Führer of the German Reich to whom every officer and individual in the armed forces pledged unconditional obedience.
The Nazi Boycott of Jewish Stores, April 1933
After the Enabling Act was passed, violence against Jews escalated and Julius Streicher, editor of the vehemently anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, was told to form a boycott committee. Lists of specific businesses and individuals to be boycotted were published. On April 1st, Nazi pickets were posted in front of stores and factories belonging to Jews and in front of Jewish professional offices to prevent anyone from entering. Hermann Göring, meanwhile, had ordered German Jewish leaders to deny reports of Nazi atrocities committed against Jews. Germans who tried to buy from Jews were shamed and exposed publicly.
The boycott lasted only three days but it had important implications and consequences. Moreover, it revealed the completeness and efficiency of Nazi information on Jewish economic life. It also strengthened the idea that it was permissible to damage and even destroy that life with impunity. Later measures were based on this assumption.
On April 7th, the German government issued an order firing all civil service workers not of “Aryan” descent. This was the first instance of discrimination on the basis of “race” which was consistent with German law. City governments responded by passing other laws discriminating against Jews. In Frankfurt, Jewish teachers were excluded from universities, and Jewish performers were barred from the stage and concert halls. In other cities, Jews were excluded from admission to the legal profession. These actions created thousands of jobs for “Aryans.” A decree was issued on April 11th defining “non-Aryans” as those who were descended from “non-Aryan” parents or grandparents, even if only one grandparent was “non-Aryan.”
The slaughter of animals for food under Jewish kosher laws was banned on April 21st. On April 25th, a numerus clausus, or quota law, limited admission of Jews to institutions of higher learning to 1.5 percent of the total. On September 28th, Jews were excluded from all artistic, dramatic, literary and film enterprises. On September 29th, Jews could no longer own farmland.
Eventually, 400 specific anti-Jewish laws and decrees were passed, each based on the Nazi racist definition of a non-Aryan.
Terror, much of it state-condoned, continued against Jews and leftists. Many were beaten to death for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some in despair committed suicide. Many others fled to Palestine or to other countries where they perceived they would be safe.
Nazi Concentration Camps
In 1933, ten concentration camps were set up in Germany – the first at Dachau – at first for the purpose of imprisoning political opponents of the regime and then for specific victims, such as Jews and homosexuals. The concentration camps were intended not only to break the prisoners as individuals and to spread terror among the rest of the population, but also to provide the Gestapo with a training ground, a way of conditioning them so that they would lose all familiar human emotions and attitudes. In talks with a Nazi leader even before he became chancellor, Hitler had said:
“We must be ruthless…Only thus shall we purge our people of their softness…and their degenerate delight in beer-swilling…I don’t want the concentration camps transformed into penitentiaries. Terror is the most effective political instrument…It is my duty to make use of every means of training the German people to cruelty, and to prepare them for war…There must be no weakness or tenderness.”
The Instruments of Nazi Terror
There were three organizations of terror in the Nazi hierarchy: the Gestapo, the S.S. or Elite Guard, and the S.D. or Security Service. They overlapped and often feuded with one another over power and booty. The Gestapo was organized by Göring, who, as Minister of the Interior of Prussia, administered two-thirds of Germany and controlled the Prussian police. After purging the regular police and replacing them with Nazis, he added a small unit of his own, the Secret State Police, or Gestapo. The Gestapo was first used against Göring’s political opponents, but was then aimed at any so-called enemies of the regime and could seize and arrest anyone at will without regard for court or law. Under Heinrich Himmler, it quickly expanded as an arm of the dreaded “black-shirts,” S.S.
Himmler had been a chicken farmer and fertilizer salesman before the war. In 1923, he participated in the attempted putsch of 1923 (see Chapter 6) and for a time worked in the party office in Landshut. In this job, he began to collect confidential reports on Party members made by his spies, thus building up secret files later used by Reinhard Heydrich in the Security Service (S.D.). The S.S. was originally set up under Himmler in 1929 as a protective guard for Hitler and other leading Nazis, but Himmler ultimately developed it into a vast empire of terror. He had helped to secure Bavaria for the Nazis and fell under the spell of those who wanted to breed a future race of blond Nordic leaders as world overlords. For a few years, the S.S. was subordinate to the S.A. (Stormtroopers), but Himmler steadily built up his force into a combination private army and police force, enlisting only the most loyal followers of Hitler and racial fanatics like himself. The open membership of the S.S. reached 52,000 by 1933. In addition to this complement, Himmler recruited a shadow corps of S.S. officers who kept their affiliation secret until Hitler fully controlled the state as well as the party, but who then filled huge parts of the government machinery.
“Night of the Long Knives”
Himmler’s ascendancy came after the purge of the S.A. under Ernst Röhm. In 1933, Röhm’s troops numbered over four million men, arousing fears among army leaders that they might replace the regular army (Wehrmacht). Röhm also wanted radical social and economic changes which were unacceptable to industrialists and other conservative groups whose support Hitler needed. A power struggle brought Himmler and Göring together against Rohm. They told Hitler that Rohm was plotting against him and urged drastic action. It came on June 30, 1934, the “Night of the Long Knives,” when Röhm and several hundred men in the S.A. and a number of marked men, branded as traitors, were murdered. Hitler made much of the depraved morals of the men who were killed and the danger they posed to the state. The cabinet legalized this slaughter as a necessary measure for the defense of the state, and Hitler and Göring were thanked by Hindenburg. The army, of course, was pleased with the elimination of the S.A. as its rival, but showed itself unwilling or incapable of challenging the gangster-like powers under Hitler’s control.
As a reward for carrying out the executions on June 30th, Himmler advanced in rank and prestige. Göring named him chief deputy of the Prussian Gestapo, and he immediately began to build a police empire of his own, the terrible machine of terror that was to become the scourge of the continent and the annihilator of Jews. After the Röhm purge, the concentration camps were turned over to S.S. control.
Guard duty was given to the S.S. Death Head units, whose members were recruited from the toughest, most sadistic Nazi elements. By 1936, the Gestapo was absorbed into the S.S. and in the same year, Himmler gained control of the entire police force in Germany, which he pushed into the framework of the Nazi party. Later, Himmler created an S.S. Supreme Command, consisting of twelve departments which duplicated many of the departments of the government, including a huge army and a department that organized huge population upheavals after the war started.
Security Service (S.D.)
A third system of terror during the Third Reich was the S.D. or Security Service. This sub-structure was also within the S.S., and did not number more than 3,000, but its intelligence and counterintelligence systems pried into the lives of all Germans through the use of thousands of part-time informers. Under Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the S.D., security and terror were brought to murderous effectiveness. After the purge of the S.A., Heydrich began to penetrate the political police with personnel and build up dossiers on powerful as well as inconsequential Nazis, including Hitler himself, for blackmail purposes. Many of his recruits were bright, university-trained men who were unable to find jobs, but their civilized backgrounds were no barrier to later assignments carrying out orders in the murderous Einsatzgruppen, or mobile killing squads, that accompanied the German army into Russia (see Chapter 10).
Toward the end of 1934, a so-called Nazi “expert” on the Jews, Adolf Eichmann, was hired by the S.D. to work in its department for Jewish affairs. This department gathered information about prominent Jews in Germany and abroad and monitored the Jewish press. It also made studies of Jewish organizations and books about Judaism. Jewish organizations in Germany, their meetings and members came under close S.D. surveillance, and agreements were worked out between the S.D. and the Gestapo. By 1936, Himmler turned over the administration of the Gestapo to Heydrich, and the line between the Gestapo and S.D. became extremely blurred after that time.
Book burnings became commonplace in pre-war Germany. The Nazis denigrated much of the Western cultural heritage of Europe and liberal, humanistic values. On May 10, 1933, in Berlin, the first of a series of book burnings took place. The works of world-class authors such as Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Jack London, H. G. Wells, and Emile Zola as well as those of Jewish writers were burned in huge bonfires under the approving eye of Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister. While the books burned, Goebbels declared: “The soul of the German people can again express itself. These flames not only illuminate the final end of an old era; they also light up the new.” Goebbels henceforth nazified German culture, forcing all of the arts to serve the new regime. Many great writers, musicians, artists and actors fled Germany or were silenced.
Anti-Semitism in the German Media
Anti-Semitic hate spewed out of the press and government information offices during this period. Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer, a German newspaper, carried a 14-page special issue which included the age-old charge that Jews used Christian blood to bake their Passover matzoh. The newspaper “documented” two thousand years of Jewish ritual murders. More than 100,000 copies of the issue were printed and distributed. Nazi propaganda beamed to Palestine exacerbated Arab hostility toward German Jews who had settled there, and sparked anti-Jewish riots.
Hitler as Head of State
With the death of President Hindenburg on August 2, 1934, Hitler became the Head of State. He issued a new law combining the offices of Chancellor and president, and pronounced himself Reichsführer (Leader of the Reich).
Nuremberg Laws (September 1935)
On September 15, 1935, comprehensive new laws codified the racial policies which Hitler envisioned in Mein Kampf. Under the “Reich Citizenship Law,” the status of German citizenship was conveyed only to those belonging to “a national of German or related blood.” “The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor” forbade marriage and sexual contact between Jews and Aryans. Jews were forbidden to fly the German flag. This law stripped Jews of all basic civil rights, classifying them as state subjects rather than as citizens. Jews were defined as a separate race. Thirteen supplementary laws were passed during the next eight years. Jews were further defined as persons having three Jewish grandparents, two Jewish grandparents if they belonged to the Jewish religious community before September 15, 1935, or if they were married to a Jew as of that date.
No one at this time could envision the ominous Nazi decision to physically destroy all Jews, but the Nuremberg Laws were an important step toward that end. The Nazis now had a definition that was the first of a chain of measures, one leading to another, escalating in severity and leading ultimately to the physical destruction of European Jewry. Once Jews could be defined and identified, they now could be and were segregated socially, politically, and economically from other Germans. Their property could be and was confiscated. They had become pariahs, outside the protection of the state they had placed their confidence in for generations.
By the time that the Nuremberg Laws had been proposed, more than 75,000 German Jews had fled the country. Many thousands of others who left were not Jews at all in their own minds, but were defined as Jews or “Christian non-Aryans” by the ideological dogma of the Nazi party. As such, they were subject to the same harassment, social and economic isolation, and physical and emotional intimidation and discrimination as the Jews. Many of these “non-Aryans” were baptized Christians, were regular church-goers, were the sons and daughters of Christians, and thought and acted no differently than their friends and neighbors who were accepted as true “Germans.” The only thing which distinguished them from their neighbors was that they had some “Jewish blood” in their veins, perhaps going back two generations, which made it impossible for them to be considered “German” under Nazi doctrine.
About 40% of those Jews who emigrated chose Palestine as their destination. Almost 10,000 went to the United States. Thousands of others found a haven in Canada and South Africa. Others settled in other European countries. As thousands of Jewish professionals found that they could no longer earn a living, emigration as a response gained more and more credence. Jews, once virtually totally assimilated into the social tapestry of Germany, began to realize that they had no future there. The optimism that the Nazi era was just an ephemeral phase faded. When the Nuremberg Laws were announced, it was one more death knell for the Jews of Germany.
Why Many Jews Remained in Germany
Until 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws were passed, Nazis differed on what to do with German Jews. Jewish cultural as well as physical survival in Germany seemed possible. The Jüdische Kulturbund was organized in 1933 and provided purposeful work for professional Jewish musicians, actors, and artists who had been expelled from German cultural fields. The Jewish community as a whole, in its organized form, the Representative Council of German Jews, was not threatened until 1938, and between 1933 and 1935, there was a lull in anti-Jewish persecution. A false optimism was induced by the S.A. purge of June 30, 1934, and some Jews who had left Germany, believing that the most dangerous of the Nazis had been removed, returned to Germany after the purge.
In the early 1930’s, there was also general belief that the Nazi regime would be short-lived. Although 37,000 Jews left Germany in 1933, many who remained believed that they could hold on and hold out. Jewish attachment to Germany was particularly strong, and they hoped for support and protection from the non-Nazis in the Cabinet and hold-over civil servants from the Weimar Republic.
Rabbi Leo Baeck, the acknowledged intellectual and spiritual leader of German Jewry, was one of the few German Jews who was fundamentally pessimistic about the future. Soon after Hitler came to power, while addressing a meeting of Jewish communal organizations, Rabbi Baeck said, “The thousand-year history of German Jewry has come to an end.” But he did not remain passive. As rabbi, he urged Jews to maintain faith in the ultimate triumph of justice. He tried to create a sense of inner freedom among Jews that could sustain them through the persecution. He also agreed to serve as the spokesman for all German Jews and became head of the Representative Council of German Jews in September 1933. The Council tried to be the political voice for all German Jews in relation to the government and in the early months of its existence tried to appeal for a redress of grievances on the basis of law. These appeals were ignored, and the Council soon began to concentrate on the urgency to emigrate, particularly for young people.
The Council also negotiated with Jews abroad for political support that would not expose them to retaliation and for funds. One of its most important tasks, after Jewish children were removed from schools, was to provide a network of special schools for Jewish children who were shocked by their sudden rejection and isolation. In the meantime, “racial science” became compulsory in German schools, and all courses were nazified.
Boycott – An organized effort to refrain from buying goods and services, as a protest.
– An activity, usually by a mob, in which books which express views or ideas not tolerated by a group are ritually burned.
– The second ranking government official in Germany, next to the President.
– Government service other than the military; usually implies service by those who are not in the top leadership positions.
Concentration camp – A prison with barracks rather than cells, used by the Nazis to house thousands of inmates en masse under intolerably inhuman conditions.
Coup d’État – The takeover of a government from within by force or by coercion.
– The first concentration camp established by the Nazis near Munich in 1933.
– The laws which granted Hitler dictatorial power.
Gestapo – (Geheime Staatspolizei) or Secret State Police, was formed in April 1933. It was not accountable to any other civil authority, and was permitted to surveil, question, and imprison “suspects” without due process.
Nuremberg Laws – Two laws enacted on September 15, 1935, which removed the rights of citizenship from Jews and others who were not of “German or related blood.”
Reichsführer – The title Adolf Hitler took after he combined the duties of President and Chancellor of Germany.
– The parliamentary body of the Weimar Republic.
– The euphemistic expression referring to the quitting of jobs under duress by non-Aryans.
S.A. (Sturmabteilung) – The Nazi Stormtroopers (“brown-shirts”) which was the paramilitary arm of the Nazi party.
S.D. (Sicherheitsdienst) – The elite security service of the Nazi government under the direction of – Reinhard Heydrich.
– The Defense Corps (“black-shirts”) which was the paramilitary organization of the Nazi government which evolved out of the S.A. It was under the direction of Heinrich Himmler.
- Compare the Nuremberg Laws with past discriminatory laws against African-Americans in the United States.
- Visit a local Holocaust Museum/Resource Center.
- Draw maps of the German advance through Europe at the end of year-long intervals from 1937 through 1941.
- Obtain clippings from your local newspaper and national newspapers to see how events described in this guide were reported.
- Write an imaginary letter to Adolf Hitler, from the point of view of a member of the non-Jewish clergy, protesting discrimination against the Jews.
- Research the story of Marinus Van der Lubbe, who was executed for causing the Reichstag fire.
- Discuss what motivated the Reichstag to pass the Enabling Act. How jealously does our own Congress guard its rights to pass legislation? Is there an appropriate balance of power between the President and the Congress today? Has this balance changed in the last 40 years? The last 20 years? 5 years? 1 year?
- Discuss the humiliation of Germany in World War I, and the nationalistic feelings that Hitler reawakened in the German people with his speeches.
- What did Hitler’s policies and programs offer the common German worker/farmer that was not being offered by the leaders of the Weimar Republic?
1. Define the following:
- coup d’État
- civil service
- book burning
- concentration camp
2. What was the significance of the Reichstag fire, and who was most likely responsible for it?
3. Name three provisions of the “Protective Custody” rules of 1933.
4. Discuss two reasons why Jews were forced out of the civil service.
5. How did Hitler become Head of State? What were some of his first actions to consolidate power?
6. What were the Nuremberg Laws? Name three provisions, and discuss how this affected the laws’ target.
7. What types of persecution and discrimination did the Jews suffer in pre-war Nazi Germany? What was their response?
8. Why did President Hindenburg offer the Chancellorship to Hitler?
9. In the decree of April 11, 1933, what characteristics distinguished “Aryans” from “non-Aryans?”
10. What was the purpose and function of the Gestapo?
- Invite a Holocaust survivor or liberator to class (for information, contact one of the Holocaust Education Centers described in Appendix II) who has had experience presenting his/her story in an informal setting and is comfortable with students’ questions.
- Create a time line of the Nuremberg laws to show the progression of restrictions on Jewish life. Let the students consider how these laws would affect their own lifestyles if the laws had been directed toward them today. Sensitize the students to the fact that the status of Jews in German society in the 1920s was not that much different from the status of Jews today in the United States.
- Have the students recreate an informal discussion in a German beer hall on who was actually responsible for the Reichstag fire. Among the participants could be a National Socialist “brown-shirt,” a Communist, a university professor, a Socialist farmer, and a “nonaligned” newspaper reporter.
Copyright 1990 Gary M. Grobman
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