Forced labor became a defining feature of life for Jews under the Nazi regime. While Nazi policies eventually introduced forced labor at camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau, it was not part of policymakers' inital plans. Instead, forced labor was often used at first simply to humiliate so-called “racial enemies” and assert Nazi dominance.
The featured image shows a ritual of public humiliation, in which Jewish men and women were forced to scrub the streets to remove political slogans that were critical of Germany’s annexation of Austria—an event also known as the Anschluss.1 In the background, members of the German SA and SS look on, joined by an apparently enthusiastic crowd of civilian spectators. In the days and weeks following the Anschluss, there was a rapid rise in anti-Jewish violence across Austria—particularly in Vienna, where 90 percent of Austria’s Jewish population lived.2
In forcing Jews to perform acts of menial labor, German authorities acted upon antisemitic ideas about Jews being unproductive, lazy, and overprivileged. Nazi officials encouraged children and crowds to watch and to participate in these kinds of ritual humilations,3 which could last hours or even days. In doing so, the regime also sought to create public acceptance for treating Jews as outsiders.4 Distributing photographs of these events aided that effort. Images similar to this one were widely circulated at the time by the antisemitic Nazi publication, Der Stürmer.
From 1933 to 1938, German authorities—with the active cooperation of many German agencies and businesses—passed numerous laws and regulations designed to impoverish Jews and remove them from Germany's economic life.5 Jews were slowly stripped of any means to make a living and forced into unemployment and poverty. In September 1938, the Austrian labor administration began requiring unemployed Jews to work in construction and road building projects. This approach, implemented first in Vienna, became the model for forced labor throughout the Third Reich.6 Systematic use of Jewish forced labor began in earnest at the end of 1938 following the organized anti-Jewish violence of November 1938—often referred to as Kristallnacht.7 The forced labor program eventually expanded and included more groups, particularly eastern workers from occupied Poland and the Soviet Union.
The type of manual forced labor captured here was transformed into a large-scale program affecting millions of people within only three years. The featured photograph shows that the marginalization of the Jewish community took place in public, in their own communities and streets. Images like this one helped normalize such abuse in the eyes of the public.