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.
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.