Nazi anti-Semitism

nazi anti-semitism
A Nazi cartoon depicting Jews as spiders

The origins of Nazi anti-Semitism were varied and complex. Adolf Hitler had long nurtured a hatred of the Jewish people. There is much debate about why Hitler was so vehemently anti-Semitic, though most historians agree his anti-Jewish prejudices were probably acquired during his troubled days in Vienna. The Austrian capital before World War I was one of Europe’s strongest harbours for anti-Semitism. Viennese politicians often used Jewish rumours and conspiracy theories to win votes. Hitler was inspired by these men; they provided the young artist with excuses and scapegoats for his own personal sufferings. He especially admired Karl Lueger, a Viennese mayor who proposed laws restricting Jews.

Evidence of Hitler’s anti-Jewish beliefs can be found in Mein Kampf and transcripts of many of his political speeches. Like most anti-Semites, Hitler thought the civilised nations of Europe were being systematically undermined by Jewish conspirators and saboteurs. He believed communism was a Jewish invention, a destructive tool of the so-called ‘Jewish world conspiracy’. But Hitler did not invent anti-Semitism in Germany: it was there long before his arrival. Germany was a hotbed of anti-Semitic ideas and material during the 1800s. German Jews provided extremists with a convenient scapegoat for the political and economic problems of the age. Nationalist pamphleteers and journalists pushing for the unification of the German states in the mid-1800s often blamed Jews for opposing or sabotaging this process. Jewish bankers, financiers and business owners were also blamed for trade slumps and recessions.

Anti-Semitic conspiracies continued during and after World War I. Jews were sometimes blamed for sabotaging the war effort – even though more than 100,000 of them had fought in the German military. Later, the infamous Dolchstosslegende (or ‘stab in the back theory’) offered another avenue for anti-Semitism. The prevailing belief of many ex-soldiers was that Germany could still have won the war; and the November 1918 armistice was an act of betrayal engineered by Jewish and socialist politicians. These racial hatreds continued to flourish in the desperate years of the 1920s. Most right-wing groups of the Weimar era harboured a quota of anti-Semites or anti-Semitic ideas. Most of these groups, however, kept their anti-Semitism in check. The loudest and most intense Jew-haters were often booted out of mainstream parties, such as the German National People’s Party (DNVP). Many of these bigots found their way into the NSDAP.

During the NSDAP’s formative years, Hitler worked to restrain hardline anti-Semites both in the party and the SA. This was a tactical move, not one motivated by concern for Germany’s Jews. Hitler wanted his party to develop a veneer of respectability, to win support from wealthy industrialists and the middle-class. Strong anti-Semitic action might also invite negative publicity or invite trouble from powerful Jewish business interests, at a time when the NSDAP was small and fragile. Hitler wanted Nazi anti-Semitism to be organised, systematic and effective, rather than impulsive or populist. He wanted Jews permanently removed from German cultural and economic life, not just taunted or beaten up by the SA, a view he expressed in 1919:

“Anti-Semitism based purely on emotion will find its ultimate expression in pogroms … but anti-Semitism based on reason must lead to the organised, legal campaign and removal of Jewish privileges. Its ultimate, unshakeable goal must be the elimination of the Jews.”

In the spring of 1933, after Hitler had consolidated his grip on power, he began unfurling this “organised legal campaign” against Germany’s Jewish population. The first step was to bring anti-Semitism out of the taverns and backrooms and into the public arena. Ordinary Germans were to be educated about the ‘enemy’ within their ranks. Nazi propagandists released a wave of anti-Semitic material that took many forms, yet revolved around consistent themes. The Jews were portrayed as a race of greedy, depraved and conniving untermensch (sub-humans) who preyed upon hapless Germans. Jewish men were painted as defilers of Aryan women, rapists and child molesters. Jewish traders and storekeepers could not be trusted, selling inferior goods to Aryan Germans for a fast profit. Jewish bankers extorted money from ordinary Germans and used their financial control to paralyse German prosperity. Jewish artists, movie producers and theatre owners produced material which undermined German morality and Christian values.

“[Many Germans] were drawn to anti-Semitism because they were drawn to Nazism, not the other way around. Many who voted Nazi simply ignored or rationalised the anti-Semitism of the party, just as they ignored the other unpleasant aspects of the Nazi movement.”
William S. Allen, historian

As the Nazis tightened their grip on propaganda, information and the press, the anti-Jewish campaign increased. Jews were blamed for every undesirable aspect of German society: murders and sexual assaults, disappearances, petty crime, street violence, begging, prostitution, pornography, the sale of illegal alcohol and drugs, even pollution. One of the main exponents of anti-Semitism was Julius Streicher, a high-ranking party member from Nuremberg. In 1923 Streicher formed the weekly newspaper Der Sturmer. Its pages were filled with anti-Semitic cartoons and outrageous fabrications about Jewish conduct, crimes and conspiracies. Streicher’s publishing company also produced children’s books to indoctrinate youngsters. The best known of these was Der Giftpilz (‘The Toadstool’), a warning to young Germans that Jews were a ‘poisonous’ breed almost unrecognisable among ordinary people. This material found its way into German schools during the Nazi era and often formed the basis of racially-based lessons, such as ‘how to recognise a Jew’.

1. Hitler almost certainly acquired his anti-Semitic ideas during his time as a struggling artist in Vienna.

2. He believed in a Jewish world conspiracy, and that communism was a Jewish plot to undermine nations.

3. Anti-Semitism was prevalent in Germany during the 19th century, perpetuated by nationalist politicians and writers.

4. During the 1920s Hitler kept his anti-Semitic ideas in check, as he attempted to build a ‘respectable’ party.

5. Once in power, the Nazis unleashed a propaganda war on Germany’s Jews, led by men like Julius Streicher.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Nazi anti-Semitism”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],