Almost immediately after taking power, Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists (NSDAP) began rolling out a series of anti-Semitic decrees and orders. These Anti-Jewish laws were aimed at removing Jews from public and professional life in Germany, as well as marginalising them politically, socially and economically.
Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany in January 1933. In elections in March, the NSDAP further increased its numbers in the Reichstag, Germany’s legislature, further emboldening the Nazis. It did not take long for Hitler and his party to take action against Germany’s Jewish population.
On April 1st 1933, just weeks after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, the Sturmabteilung (SA) initiated a campaign to encourage boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses.
Across Germany, small Jewish stores were daubed with Stars of David or painted with slogans like Kauf nicht bei Juden (‘Don’t buy from Jews’). SA troopers lingered menacingly outside larger businesses owned by Jews, including department stores, cinemas or banks. There were several instances of Jews being assaulted or property being destroyed.
These boycotts were reported as being the work of the SA rather than the Nazi government; nevertheless, the government did little to halt or restrain it.
Exclusion from the civil service
Days later, on April 7th 1933, the Nazi-controlled Reichstag passed the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (‘Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service’). It would be the first of dozens of anti-Jewish laws, edicts and decrees introduced by the Nazi regime during the 1930s.
The Civil Service law abolished the employment rights of Jewish public servants. It also banned non-Aryan Germans from holding state jobs. In effect, it prevented Jews from working as judges, doctors in state-run hospitals, lawyers in government departments and teachers in state schools.
This measure proved controversial. It invited criticism from the German president, Paul von Hindenburg, a former World War I general who was appalled that Jewish veterans of the war would be disadvantaged. At Hindenburg’s insistence, Hitler amended the law to exclude war veterans. Hitler would abolish these amendments after Hindenburg’s death in August 1934.
More bans and prohibitions
Between mid-1933 and the early 1940s, the Nazi regime passed dozens of laws and decrees that eroded the rights of Jews in Germany.
Some were seemingly insignificant, such as an April 1935 edict banning Jews from flying the German flag, or a February 1942 order prohibiting Jews from owning pets. Others withdrew the voting rights of Jews, their access to education, their capacity to own businesses or to hold particular jobs.
In 1934, Jews were banned from sitting university exams. In 1936, they were forbidden from using parks or public swimming pools and from owning electrical equipment, typewriters or bicycles.
Jews were also subject to cultural and artistic restrictions, forcing hundreds to leave jobs in the theatre, cinema, cabaret and the visual arts.
But even the extraction of Jews from German economic and cultural life was not enough for some. Fervent anti-Semites in the NSDAP demanded tougher action against the Jews, with or without the backing of Hitler and his government.
The summer of 1935 saw an escalation in spontaneous violence against Jewish people and property, conducted chiefly by SA troopers. In August 1935, Hitler ordered a stop to these “individual actions” – not to protect Jews but to prevent disruption or damage to the German economy.
By the NSDAP’s annual rally in September 1935, Hitler was under considerable pressure from party hierarchs to order a more decisive response to the ‘Jewish problem’. The radicals who instigated anti-Jewish violence wanted the government to legitimise their actions, providing legal immunity from prosecution or civil action.
The Nuremberg Laws
There were also calls for sweeping laws to restrict Jewish economic influence, to prohibit interracial marriage or sexual relations, even to limit or remove the citizenship of German Jews. Some Nazis demanded the government issue clear legal and ethnological guidelines, to provide certainty about who was Jewish and who was not.
The NSDAP’s seventh annual rally, dubbed the “Rally of Freedom”, began in Nuremberg on September 10th 1935. During the course of the rally, Hitler summoned key Nazi officials and ordered them to draft anti-Jewish laws for presentation to the Reichstag. Hitler himself spent 48 hours trying to formulate an adequate racial and legal definition for a Jew. He was unable to make up his mind, so left the matter to his officials.
On September 15th, Hitler addressed the Reichstag, then temporarily convened in Nuremberg. He announced two new laws to clarify and define racial identity in Germany. His draft legislation would also outline and restrict the relationship between Jews and Aryan Germans:
- The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour. This first act defined a ‘full-blooded’ Jew (Juden) as a person with either three or four Jewish grandparents. A ‘full-blooded’ German (Deutsche-blutige) was anyone with four German grandparents. Those who did not fit into either category were categorised as Mischlinge (‘mongrels’), neither fully Jewish or fully Aryan. Once this law was passed, the NSDAP released infographic charts to educate the public about ethnic composition and restrictions. This law also prohibited marriages or extra-marital sex between Jews and Aryans. German women of Aryan extraction under the age of 45 were also forbidden from working as servants in Jewish households.
- The Reich Citizenship Law. Under the terms of this law, only those of pure Aryan blood were granted automatic citizenship. Jews were deemed to be state subjects ( Staatsangehoriger), their fate determined by government policy. This reform effectively abolished the citizenship of German Jews. They were no longer permitted to vote or hold public office, while Jews already working for the government were to be ‘retired’ at the end of 1935. Mischlinge would retain their citizenship – provided they converted from Judaism and became practising Christians.
More anti-Jewish laws
These two acts became collectively known as the Nuremberg Laws. They were received well at the rally – but they did not satisfy extremists in the NSDAP and SA, who believed Hitler’s laws did not go far enough.
Despite their brevity, the two Nuremberg Laws were worded so broadly that they legitimised a wide array of anti-Semitic policies over the coming years. Sometimes this persecution was officially sanctioned and promulgated by the government; at other times it was ‘unofficial’, carried out by agreement rather than by law.
Between the mid-1930s and into the first years of World War II, the Nazi regime passed a torrent of laws and regulations that eroded Jewish civil rights. More than 2,000 anti-Semitic decrees were passed at national, state and municipal levels. Some of these measures were seemingly minor, while others affected a significant number of people.
The following timeline contains a sampling of these anti-Jewish decrees:
- Jews are no longer permitted to serve as officers in the Wehrmacht (May 1935)
- Jews are banned from working as tax agents or advisors (January 1936)
- Jews are banned from working as veterinarians (April 1936)
- Jewish teachers are no longer permitted to work in government schools (October 1936)
- Municipal authorities in Berlin exclude Jewish children from state schools there (April 1937)
- Jews are no longer permitted to change their surname or use an alias (January 1938).
- Jews are banned from working as auctioneers (February 1938).
- Jews are prohibited from owning gun stores or trading weapons (July 1938).
- Jews are banned from health spas and resorts (July 1938).
- All Jews must add either “Israel” or “Sara” to their given names (August 1938).
- Jewish doctors are prohibited by law from treating non-Jewish patients (September 1938).
- Jews must have a large red ‘J’ stamped on their passports (October 1938).
- Jews are prohibited from moving freely around Germany (November 1938).
- Jews are no longer allowed to keep or use carrier pigeons (November 1938).
- Jews are no longer permitted to have own a car or a driver’s license (December 1938).
- All Jewish academics, lecturers and students are expelled from universities (December 1938).
- Jews are ordered to surrender precious metals and gemstones (February 1939).
- Jews are forbidden from buying lottery tickets or claiming prizes (August 1939).
- Jews are no longer allowed to install, maintain or use telephones (July 1940).
Alongside these racial and social restrictions, the Nazi government also made a concerted effort to eliminate Jews from German economic and commercial life.
Between 1933 and 1938, Jewish-owned businesses endured significant pressure, aimed at forcing them to close down or sell to Aryan Germans. Jewish businesses lost customers because of SA-led boycotts; they lost government contracts to non-Jewish competitors, and they found it difficult to secure supplies of wholesale goods or raw materials.
In addition, Nazi laws banned Jews from certain occupations and, from 1938, prohibited Jews from working alongside Aryans. This made it impossible for some businesses to retain or find workers.
Thousands of Jewish businesses were forced into closure or bankruptcy by this economic apartheid. Of the 100,000 or so Jewish-owned businesses in German in 1933, fewer than one third were still operational in early 1938.
In 1938 the Nazi regime moved to completely extract Jews from German economic life and to ‘Aryanise’ all Jewish property (that is, to transfer it into the hands of Aryan Germans). This campaign was largely led by Hermann Goering, who was overseeing Hitler’s four-year plan to transform and militarise the German economy.
In April 1938, Goering decreed that Jews must submit an inventory of all privately owned property with a value exceeding 5,000 Reichsmarks.
In November, just days after the Kristallnacht pogrom, Goering issued a decree ‘removing Jews from German economic life’. This effectively banned Jews from owning or operating any form of retail business – from a large department store to a small stall at a local market. With one fell swoop, the Nazis killed off most of the 30,000 or so Jewish businesses that had managed to survive the 1930s.
A historian’s view:
“German society’s allegiance to the necessity of written laws was recognised by the Nazis when they came to power, and the recognition that policies had to appear to be law-based persisted through the peacetime years of Nazi rule. In 1938, when the number two Nazi Hermann Goering suggested in the course of a discussion that German travellers could always kick Jewish passengers out of a crowded compartment on a train, the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels replied: ‘I would not say that. I do not believe in this. There has to be a law.'”
Jonathan Friedman, historian
1. The Nuremberg Laws were the Nazi Party’s 1935 two-pronged attack on the civil rights of Jewish-German citizens.
2. Under pressure from radical anti-Semites in the Nazi Party, Hitler formulated and announced the laws in September 1935.
3. One law defined who was ‘pure’ German, Jewish or of mixed blood, and banned inter-racial marriages. The second withdrew German citizenship, banning Jews from voting or public office.
4. These laws unfurled a series of anti-Jewish restrictions and prohibitions, announced by decree between 1935 and 1938.
5. The result of these laws was the marginalisation and effective expulsion of German Jews from society, culture, commerce and business by the outbreak of World War II.