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A young girl watches a Nazi antisemitic parade.

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Belonging and Exclusion: Reshaping Society under Nazi Rule

Exclusion of Jews in Nazi Germany

The Nazis regarded Jews as a threat to their plans for building a “New Germany'' based on ideas about race and national unity. Sources in this collection examine how Jews under Nazi rule faced an escalating campaign to marginalize and exclude them from German society in the years before World War II.

Exclusion of Jews in Nazi Germany

The Nazi Party tried to unify German society in a new "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft") after rising to power in 1933.1 The Nazis imagined that this “New Germany” would be composed solely of so-called “Aryan” Germans and would exclude those people that they considered "undesirable" for racial, social, or political reasons. Groups deemed “unfit” included Jewish people, Roma and Sinti (“Gypsies”),2 people with disabilities, and others whose identities, beliefs, or behaviors did not conform to Nazi goals. Members of these groups were labeled as “outsiders.” The Nazis and their supporters targeted them with discriminatory laws and acts of terror and violence.3

The Nazi Party claimed that Jewish people presented a great threat to Nazi ideas about race and national unity. In the years after World War I (WWI), Nazi propaganda spread the falsehood that German Jews, Communists, and others had caused Germany’s defeat in the war. The Nazis also blamed Jewish people for Germany's post-WWI economic crises and the political problems of the Weimar Republic.4 Influenced by widespread theories of “racial hygiene,” or eugenics, the Nazis also believed Jews were a danger to the supposed “racial fitness” of the nation. Nazi propaganda combined long-standing antisemitic prejudices with so-called “racial science," claiming that Germany could only become powerful again if this supposed “Jewish influence” was eliminated.5 In order to “solve” the Nazis’ imaginary “Jewish question,” the regime began by stripping Jews of legal equality and excluding them from German society.

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The first anti-Jewish laws to take effect in Nazi Germany were issued within months of the Nazi Party’s rise to power in 1933. These early Nazi laws restricted Jewish people’s ability to participate in public life. Germany’s roughly 500,000 Jews considered themselves loyal German citizens,6 but a law enacted on April 7, 1933 banned them from working as public servants. The featured dismissal letter of Eugene Mittwoch shows how some German Jewish professors, lawyers, and other state workers resisted the efforts to remove them from their jobs. Weeks later, the Law against Overcrowding restricted Jews from attending German public schools and universities. This law separated them from their so-called “Aryan” classmates and forced many to enroll in private institutions.

The Nazis and their supporters encouraged an atmosphere of hostility toward Jews in order to make the regime’s anti-Jewish policies more acceptable to “Aryan” Germans. Nazi propaganda spread antisemitic stereotypes to convince the public that Jewish people were criminals and deviants. These images appeared in newspapers, magazines, and even children’s literature like this antisemitic picture book. These negative stereotypes spread fear and suspicion toward Jews as dangerous so-called “foreigners.”7

The Nazis also initiated boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses, as shown in this film of Nazi Stormtroopers (SA) trying to frighten away customers.8 Non-Jews who defied these boycotts to visit these shops sometimes became the targets of public shaming.9 Contact between Jews and non-Jews in many shops, cafes, and workplaces was made a punishable offense, as Inge Deutschkron recalls in this interview. Deutschkron remembers that she and her loved ones relied on jokes and humor to cope with the growing isolation and tension caused by Nazi persecution.10 

The Nuremberg Laws of September 1935 accelerated the exclusion of German Jews by legally defining them as second-class citizens. An ID card issued to German Jewish teenager Ruth Kittel shows how these laws created new “racial” categories that humiliated Jewish people and marked them for segregation from non-Jews. Degrading labels such as "Mischling" ("mixed-race") affected many Germans who did not identify as Jews at all. Despite general uncertainty over who could be labeled as a Jew, many civilian officials and business owners enthusiastically enforced measures that banned them from shared spaces. This photo from the German town of Fürth shows how local regulations prohibited Jews from using swimming pools, parks, and other public facilities. Associations and clubs voluntarily expelled their Jewish members in order to avoid scrutiny from Nazi Party authorities. Urged on by teachers and youth leaders, non-Jewish school children harassed and excluded their Jewish classmates. Routine tasks like shopping or commuting now carried the risk of abuse by police and the Nazi SA and SS.11

In 1938, the Nazi regime moved closer to launching its long-planned war of expansion in Europe. Authorities claimed that actions against Jews were necessary to neutralize internal “enemies.” After Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, a flurry of new anti-Jewish laws fueled fresh anxiety among Jewish communities across Germany. The featured eviction notice for doctor Erwin Schattner illustrates how so-called “Aryanization” laws stripped Jews of their property and their right to work in certain professions. Jews were often forced to sell their belongings to non-Jews at unreasonably low prices or surrender their jobs and businesses to those with “German blood.” Many non-Jewish Germans received material benefits from these anti-Jewish policies—which increased public acceptance of more extreme measures to exclude and persecute Jews.12

The increasing radicalization of anti-Jewish violence and persecution convinced many  Jews that they should leave Germany. However, antisemitic attitudes and the economic hardships of the Great Depression generated resistance to accepting Jewish refugees in countries across the world. Few nations agreed to accept Jews, and others required a daunting set of bureaucratic procedures to obtain a visa. Some Jews, like Amalia Malsch, wrote letters to relatives in the United States to help them navigate the emigration process—often without success.13 Others lacked the resources to leave,14 did not want to be separated from their families, or were reluctant to start new lives abroad.

Nazi leaders increasingly viewed forced emigration of German Jews as the only means of preparing Germany for war and removing Jews from the Nazis’ so-called “national community.” As described in this letter by Josef Broniatowski, the SS expelled thousands of Polish Jews living in Germany in October 1938, forcing them over the border into Poland. While Jewish relief organizations in Germany rushed to help the refugees, the muted response of non-Jewish Germans emboldened Nazi authorities to take more aggressive steps to push Jews out of Germany.15

On the night of November 9–10, 1938, the Nazi regime organized a terrifying escalation of violence against Jews—a series of pogroms that became known as Kristallnacht. This memorandum to German police shows how Nazi officials mobilized local officers across Germany to help support the attacks. The Nazis and their supporters encouraged non-Jewish civilians to join the violence. Synagogues were burned, and Jewish-owned shops and homes were looted and vandalized. Attacked and beaten by mobs of Nazi activists and their supporters, hundreds of Jews died during Kristallnacht and its aftermath. Thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps. Most Germans disapproved of the violence and the destruction, but very few intervened to help the victims.16

In the wake of Kristallnacht, German Jews faced the constant threat of assault and imprisonment by the SS and police. Even more radical laws deprived them of means to secure a livelihood or access basic services. This newspaper article captures the desperate odds many faced as they searched for asylum abroad but were turned away when they reached foreign borders or ports.17 Nevertheless, religious traditions, family life, and community organizations still provided a source of hope, as reflected in this editorial from the spring of 1939.

The Nazi regime's campaigns of legal persecution and terror made Jewish people social outcasts in the span of six years. Jews in Nazi Germany faced a daily struggle for survival by the end of the 1930s. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 contributed to a growing extremism and brutality that further threatened Jews in Germany and across occupied Europe. As the war expanded, Nazi Germany's policies of anti-Jewish persecution and genocide turned far more deadly.

For more details on the ideals of belonging under Nazism, see Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2003); and Thomas Kühne, Belonging and Genocide: Hitler's Community, 1918–1945 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010). To learn more about how Nazi authorities used propaganda to define who could belong to the "national community," see the related collection in Experiencing History, Nazi Propaganda and National Unity

In many languages, Roma and Sinti are often referred to by exonyms (names or labels assigned to a group or place by outsiders). In English, this word is "Gypsy," which is generally considered to be a racial or ethnic slur today.

For more primary sources on the experiences of these groups under Nazi rule, see the related Experiencing History collections, Targets of Eugenics, Sexuality, Gender, and Nazi Persecution, and Roma and Sinti in Nazi Germany. For a broad overview of Nazi policies targeting those labeled as "social outsiders," including those diagnosed with alcoholism, the so-called "work-shy," and "habitual criminals," see Social Outsiders in Nazi Germany, edited by Robert Gellately and Nathan Stoltzfus (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001). 

Like other radical rightwing political movements across interwar Europe, the Nazi Party promoted a variety of antisemitic conspiracy theories—that Jews controlled the world economy, conspired to foment Communist revolution, or promoted so-called "decadent" culture. For example, see Paul A. Hanebrink, A Spectre Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2018).

On the history of antisemitism in Germany and its expression in Nazi ideology, see Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume I: The Years of Persecution, 1933–1939 (New York: Harper Collins Publishing, 1997), 73–113.

Many Jewish men had served in the German military during World War I and felt a deep connection to German nationalism and German historical traditions. The first antisemitic laws issued by the Nazi regime included exemptions for Jews who were military veterans, though these were later repealed under the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. To learn more, see Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933–1945, translated by Martin Chalmers (New York, NY: Random House, 1998). 

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s online exhibit Some Were Neighbors: Choice, Human Behavior, and the Holocaust explores how a range of motivations led people across Europe to join in the Nazi-led persecution of European Jews. 

Though shortlived, the boycott organized by the Nazi regime on April 1, 1933 was the first nationwide action taken against the Jewish population in Germany. The Nazis in Austria launched a similar action in the days after the Anschluss in March 1938.

For more on humiliation and shaming as a means of creating public acceptance for Nazi persecution of Jews, see Julia R. Keresztes, "Shaming Through Photographic Denunciation in Nazi Germany, 1933–1938," Contemporary European History (2023), 1–12. 

To learn more about the various ways in which Jews in Germany interpreted and reacted to their social exclusion and persecution under Nazi rule, see Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust in Experiencing History. For a focus on the experiences of Jewish families and women, see Marion A. Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998). For primary sources related to the topic, see the Experiencing History collections, Family Life During the Holocaust and Gendered Experiences of Jewish Persecution.

Jews adopted a variety of strategies to cope with the growing violence they faced in their communities during the first years of Nazi rule. See Jürgen Matthäus and Mark Roseman, eds., Jewish Responses to Persecution, Volume I, 1933–1938 (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2010), 16–31.

See Martin Dean, "The Seizure of Jewish Property in Europe: Comparative Aspects of Nazi Methods and Local Responses," in Martin Dean, Constantin Goschler, and Philipp Ther, eds., Robbery and Restitution: The Conflict over Jewish Property in Europe (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2007). 

For more on Jewish refugee flight from the Third Reich, see Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Flight from the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933–1946 (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2012).

Reich officials levied punitive "flight taxes" that required Jews to pay exorbitant sums in order to obtain exit visas. See Alfons Kenkmann, "The Looting of Jewish Property and the German Financial Administration," in Gerald D. Feldman and Wolfgang Seibel, eds., Networks of Nazi Persecution: Bureaucracy, Business and the Organization of the Holocaust (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2004),154. 

The October 1938 expulsions of Polish Jews became the indirect trigger for the state-sponsored pogroms of November 1938. Learning of the brutal expulsions of his family from Germany, a distraught Polish Jewish teenager named Herschel Grzynszpan assassinatedd a German diplomatic official in Paris. Nazi officials quickly exploited the killing as the pretext for orchestrating nationwide pogroms against Jews.

For more on public participation in the violence against Jews during Kristallnacht, see Alan E. Steinweis, Kristallnacht 1938 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009).

The violence of Kristallnacht compounded the already immense pressure on Jews to flee Nazi Germany. Hundreds of thousands continued to seek refuge in Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and other countries from late 1938 until 1941. To learn more about the prospects and challenges of emigration from Nazi Germany, see the Jewish Refugees and the Holocaust collection in Experiencing History.

All 16 Items in the Exclusion of Jews in Nazi Germany Collection

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