As they invaded and occupied the nations of Europe, the Nazis raided local economies and seized anything of value. No group lost as much as the Jews. Hitler’s Final Solution was not just an act of genocide, it was also a campaign of organised theft. The Nazis carried out a program of Jewish property seizures that stripped European Jews of billions of dollars worth of cash, housing, businesses and personal belongings.
These Jewish property seizures were ideologically driven, designed to eradicate the economic influence of Jews while contributing the war effort – but greed also played its part, with plenty of Jewish wealth finding its way into the hands of corrupt Nazis officers and supporters.
Placing a figure on the amount stolen from Jews between 1933 and 1945 is impossible. Even the more conservative estimates begin at $US8 billion. The vast majority of this stolen property was privately owned by individual Jews and Jewish families.
In many cases, Jewish property stolen by the Nazi regime or their collaborators was never returned and no compensation was ever forthcoming.
The seizure of Jewish property began in Nazi German prior to World War II. Under Hitler’s rule, German Jews were subjected to a range of pressures intended to force them to surrender or sell their property to non-Jews.
The Sturmabteilung (SA) ran boycott and picketing campaigns targeting Jewish businesses that reduced their customers, sales and revenue. The Nazis exerted pressure on suppliers or wholesalers that left many Jewish businesses without stock. From 1936, the allocation of raw materials was regulated by the Nazi regime, which naturally denied them to Jewish companies. Nazis and Nazi sympathisers in local government often raised rates and rentals on Jewish stores and offices.
These pressures made many Jewish businesses unviable, so thousands ran at a loss or slipped into bankruptcy. When Hitler came to power in January 1933 there were around 100,000 Jewish-owned businesses registered in Germany. Within five years, around two-thirds of these businesses had either closed or been transferred to non-Jewish ownership.
Demands for stronger action
By 1938, many in the Nazi Party were demanding even stronger action. They wanted the complete Aryanisation of German business and the extraction of Jews from the economic life of Germany. Jewish property, they argued, should be seized and put to use for the nation.
Some, like party official and Reichsleiter Martin Bormann, wanted Jewish property given directly to Nazi Party members:
“The transfer of Jewish businesses to German hands gives the Party the opportunity to proceed with a healthy policy… It is the Party’s duty of honour to support Party comrades who, because of their membership, have suffered economic disadvantages and to help them achieve an independent livelihood… It is the Party’s duty to ensure that the Jew does not receive an inappropriately high purchase price. In this way, Jewry will make reparation for part of the damage that it has done to the German people.”
‘Aryanisation’ of Jewish property
In 1938, the Nazi government moved to hasten and complete the ‘Aryanisation of Jewish property’. In April a decree issued by Nazi leader Hermann Goering ordered Jews to compile and submit details of all private property valued at in excess of 5,000 Reichsmarks.
Across Germany, Jews were required to fill out a comprehensive inventory and lodge it with the government before the end of June. Some did so with indifference – like the conductor Victor Klemperer, who said that “We have become so used to living in this condition of lost rights… that it hardly disturbs us any more”.
These inventories compiled under the April 1938 decree would be used to compile a ‘register of Jewish wealth’. Similar requirements were enacted in Nazified Austria and, later, in occupied Europe.
The ‘flight tax’
Businesses that remained in Jewish hands also came under increased pressure during 1938. In March, the Nazi regime decreed that it would no longer sign contracts or do business with any Jewish-owned company. Jewish businesses were denied public contracts, tax incentives, access to government services, raw materials and foreign exchange.
Finding it impossible to operate, these businesses either closed down, changed hands or – in the case of large corporations – voted out Jewish directors and stockholders. In June and July 1938, Jewish stores in several German cities including Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Hanover were attacked, picketed and daubed with insults and Stars of David, severely affecting their trade.
Another significant avenue of Jewish property confiscation was the Reichsfluchtsteuer, or ‘Reich Flight Tax’. As the name suggests, this law required Jews fleeing Germany to pay a substantial levy before they were granted permission to leave.
The flight tax was not an invention of the Nazis; it was passed by the Weimar Republic in 1931 to prevent Germany from being drained of gold, cash reserves and capital. But the Nazi regime expanded and increased the flight tax considerably, revising the law six times during the 1930s. In 1934, it was increased to 25% of domestic wealth, payable in cash or gold. Further amendments in 1938 required emigrating Jews to leave most of their cash in a Gestapo-controlled bank.
The Reichsfluchtsteuer generated enormous amounts for the Nazi regime. In its first year of operation (1932) it had raised less than one million Reichsmarks of government revenue – but by 1938, this amount had skyrocketed to more than 342 million Reichsmarks.
The most significant pre-war confiscation of Jewish property followed the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938. The government held Jews responsible for this violence and ‘fined’ the Jewish population a total of one billion Reichsmarks. This amount was to be paid with cash or through the requisitioning of other portable wealth, such as gold, gemstones and jewellery.
On November 12th, Hermann Goering passed the Decree Excluding Jews from German Economic Life, which effectively banned Jews from conducting any form of retail business. Thousands of Jewish shops and stores, which had held out against earlier pressures, were now obliged to close.
A further decree on the ‘utilisation of Jewish property’ in December set time limits for the sale, transfer or winding up of Jewish companies. The few Jews who still owned businesses were besieged by non-Jews, many of them government insiders, offering to purchase them for extortionate prices. Intimidation and blackmail were often used; there were reports of the SS threatening deportation to Dachau or other labour camps for those who refused to sell. When the deadline expired, any businesses still in Jewish hands were confiscated by the government and put up for public auction.
Beneficiaries of property seizures
The majority of seized Jewish property was remitted to the Nazi government, either through taxes or confiscations – but a large amount was also siphoned off to individuals in the SS and other Nazi agencies.
While the official Nazi position was that Jewish property belonged to the state, there was a strong view that it should also be redistributed among the German people or (as suggested by Martin Bormann above) to loyal Nazi Party members. Many Nazi bureaucrats and SS officers, filled with this sense of self-entitlement, breached government regulations to line their pockets with Jewish wealth.
This corruption was worse in occupied Europe, where there was less oversight and the SS tended to act as a law unto itself. Many high-ranking Nazis moved into palatial homes confiscated from wealthy Jews. SS officers responsible for administering Reich finances, government contracts and confiscated Jewish property benefited from bribes, backhanders and ‘skimming’.
In 1943, Heinrich Himmler claimed that the SS had cleansed Europe of its Jews without stealing a penny – but this was far from the case.
“When it came to robbing the Jews, very little was missed. Jewish bank accounts, insurance policies, securities, jewellery, property, businesses, pensions, art wine, book, manuscript and stamp collections were all catalogued, accounted for and redistributed. Clothes, shoes, hats, household and business goods were even utilised for resale, state use – or simply collected for museum exhibits, all dedicated to an extinct culture, according to Nazi assertive belief.
Gregg J. Rickman, historian
1. From 1933 Jewish business owners were subjected to Nazi pressures to sell or relinquish control to Aryans.
2. The process of ‘Aryanisation’ increased in 1938 with the state passing decrees to ‘eliminate Jews from economic life’.
3. In late 1938 Jews were banned from owning or operating retail businesses, which were sold or surrendered cheaply.
4. Jews were also stripped of personal wealth by the Nazi ‘flight tax’ and a hefty ‘fine’ imposed after Kristallnacht.
5. More than $8 billion of Jewish property was stolen between 1933-45, either by the Nazi regime or corrupt individuals.