The origins of Nazi anti-Semitism are a matter of some debate. Adolf Hitler was one of several Nazi leaders who nurtured a hatred of the Jewish people. Many theories have been advanced about why Hitler and his movement were so vehemently anti-Semitic.
Origins of Hitler’s prejudices
Most historians agree Hitler’s anti-Jewish prejudices were probably acquired during his 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 struggling young artist with excuses and scapegoats for his own personal sufferings. He particularly 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 considered communism a Jewish invention, a destructive tool of the so-called ‘Jewish world conspiracy’.
Anti-Semitism was a feature of German life long before Hitler. Germany was a hotbed of anti-Semitic ideas and material during the 1800s. Germany’s Jews provided extremists with a convenient scapegoat for the political and economic problems of the age.
Nationalist pamphleteers and journalists seekings 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 Jews served in the German military. Later, the infamous Dolchstosslegende (‘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 Jews and socialists.
These racial hatreds continued to flourish in the desperate years of the 1920s. Most right-wing groups of the Weimar era harboured at least some 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 booted out of mainstream parties, such as the German National People’s Party (DNVP). Many of these bigots ended up in the ranks of the Nazi Party.
Nazi anti-Semitism restrained
During the NSDAP’s formative years, Hitler worked to restrain hardline anti-Semites in the party and the SA. This was a tactical move. Hitler wanted his party to develop a veneer of respectability, to win support from wealthy industrialists and the middle-class. Intense anti-Semitism would invite negative publicity or trouble from powerful Jewish business interests, at a time the NSDAP was small and fragile.
Another factor was that Hitler wanted Nazi anti-Semitism to be intelligent, organised and effective, not impulsive, spontaneous and populist. The Nazi leader wanted a systematic plan for removing Jews from German cultural and economic life. This went beyond just taunting them or allowing the SA to beat them up.
He expressed this desire for a “rational anti-Semitism” 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.”
De-humanising Germany’s 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 educated about the ‘enemy’ within their ranks.
Nazi propagandists released a wave of anti-Semitic material that took many forms, yet focused on consistent themes. The most consistent theme involved convincing Aryan Germans that Jews were less than human. They 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.
The Jew was painted as a disruptive and selfish economic force. 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.
Streicher and Der Sturmer
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 who had infiltrated the ranks of Aryan Germans. 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’.
A historian’s view:
“[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
1. Hitler almost certainly acquired his anti-Semitic ideas during his time as a struggling artist in Vienna, where anti-Semitism was rife.
2. Like other anti-Semites, Hitler came to believe in a Jewish world conspiracy and that communism was a Jewish plot to undermine nations.
3. Anti-Semitism was also prevalent in Germany during the 19th century, circulated by nationalist politicians and writers.
4. During the 1920s, Hitler kept his anti-Semitic ideas in check as he attempted to consolidate, build and strengthen the young Nazi Party.
5. Once in power, the Nazis unleashed a propaganda war on Germany’s Jews, led by men like Julius Streicher, editor of the notorious Der Sturmer newspaper.