The oppression of Jews in Germany begins when Hitler comes to power with the NSDAP in 1933. Anti-Jewish laws make life impossible for them in Germany and many flee the country in desperation

The oppression of the Jews

Düsseldorf, geschändete Synagoge
A synagogue in Düsseldorf, daubed with an anti-Semitic slogan and swastika Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0827-322
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Oppression of the Jews in Germany begins after Hitler’s power grab in 1933. The Nazis are violent and deny Jews their civil rights and livelihoods. Many Jews hope the situation will improve, but the Nazis become progressively more extreme. After Kristallnacht in 1938 it is clear life in Germany is impossible for Jews. They desperately try to leave the country.

Weimar, Aufmarsch der Nationalsozialisten

Hitler’s antisemitism

Three key reasons why Adolf Hitler hated Jews


Establishment of the Nazi dictatorship

Hitler turns Germany into a dictatorship within months. The Nazi regime persecutes political opponents. Jews suffer under discriminatory rules and violence.


1933-1935: Gleichschaltung and exclusion of the Jews

On 10 May 1933 pro-Nazi students organise book burnings throughout the country. The minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, watches approvingly on the Opernplatz in Berlin as a student leader roars: “Consign all that is un-German to the flames.” According to the Nazis anything not in line with Nazi ideology is un-German. Their greatest enemies are socialists, pacifists and the Jews. Books by Karl Marx, Erich Maria Remarque and Sigmund Freud are among those that go up in smoke.

After coming to power on 30 January 1933, the Nazis start reshaping society in line with their ideals. They saturate not only politics but also the cultural and social life in cities and villages with Nazi ideology. This process is called Gleichschaltung, and it includes the exclusion of ‘enemies’. German Jews are the most actively targeted group. Discriminatory laws allow the Nazis to progressively restrict their rights. There are more than half a million Jews in Germany at this time - about 0.75 per cent of the population.

On 7 April 1933 the regime passes the ‘Civil Service Restoration Act’, allowing the Nazis to create a loyal public administration. Political opponents and Jews are fired or forced to retire. University professors, who are classed as public servants in Germany, are included. The Nazis also purge the judiciary. Some Jewish lawyers are denied access to the courts. In a year, thousands of people lose their jobs. Yet a large percentage can continue their work more or less as usual, because First World War veterans are exempt – showing how the regime hopes to avoid possible opposition.

Other professions also face discrimination. Jewish doctors and dentists are excluded from the national health insurance system, which means they lose a large proportion of their patients. Jewish actors and writers are not permitted to join the professional bodies set up by the Nazis. The Nazis also restrict access to education. Only 1.5 per cent of new pupils is allowed to be Jewish. Many students have to change courses or schools. Others cannot graduate because of the restrictions. Associations and sports clubs often refuse to accept Jewish members, so Jews start setting up their own clubs. But this reinforces segregation, and Germans and Jews are driven further and further apart.

first-year school children say goodbye to their headmaster and teacher with the “German Greeting”
Primary school children offer the ‘German greeting’ to their teacher and the school director. © Anne Frank Stichting

1935-1938: the Nuremberg race laws and emigration

Despite the anti-Jewish laws, there is in fact no clear definition of ‘Jewish’ in the early stages of the Third Reich. In September 1935 this changes. At the annual party rally in the German city of Nuremberg the Nazis unveil the so-called Nuremberg race laws, which define who is a Jew and who is not. Anyone with four ‘Aryan’ grandparents is a German. Anyone with three or more Jewish grandparents is a Jew. People with or two Jewish grandparents are classed as Mischling or of mixed blood.

The Nuremberg race laws turn Jews into second-class citizens. They have fewer rights because they are no longer Germans, according to the Nazis. Marriages and sexual relationships between Jews and ‘Aryans’ are now forbidden. It becomes vital for many Germans to be able to demonstrate their racial purity. A special document is created: the Ahnenpass or certificate of ancestry.

A mass Nazi party rally in the Sportpalast, Berlin, on 15 August 1935. Collectie Beeldbank WO2 - NIOD

Some German Jews still hope that things will get better. They hope for legislation against the arbitrary treatment and harassment. They think perhaps they can rebuild life as a minority group. Meanwhile, the Nazi regime does not launch any major anti-Jewish regulations during 1936, to avoid negative attention during the Olympic Games and the occupation of the Rhineland. But the Jews’ hope is vain. The boycotts, exclusions and violent harassment continue.

From 1937 on, pressure on Jess increases to leave the country. One of the measures is the ‘aryanisation’ of Jewish possessions. This involves basically forced sales, often for prices that are far too low. However, it has the reverse effect. Jews lose their possessions and even have to pay an emigration tax, so there’s no money left to maintain them in the countries to which they want to flee. These countries therefore refuse to take many refugees. Many Jews also do not want to leave because they still feel German, they do not want to give up their way of life and they are frightened of the unknown. Even so, between 1933 and the end of 1937, some 130,000 Jews leave Germany. About 400,000 are left.

A display board with the “Nuremberg Laws”
A sign with the ‘Nuremberg laws’. © Deutsches Historisches Museum

1938-1939: Kristallnacht, arrests and escape from Germany

In 1938 the Nazi regime continues unchecked with its anti-Jewish moves. There is almost no opposition, because the important government roles are in the hands of loyal Nazis. Jews with non-recognisably ‘Jewish’ first names are forced to adopt the additional name of Israel or Sara. Their passports are also stamped with a ‘J’ to emphasise their Jewishness. More and more Jews lose their jobs or their businesses. Because of the earlier discriminatory regulations, they are no longer significant to the German economy.

After the Anschluss in March 1938, when Austria is incorporated into Germany, the 200,000 Austrian Jews also suffer the Nazi discrimination. In May, the Nazis arrest 2,000 Jews in Vienna for transportation to Dachau. Jews are still being arrested in Germany too. In a crackdown on so-called ‘asocial elements’ more than 1,000 Jews are rounded up by the Nazis in Berlin. The regime resorts to deportation. East European Jews without German citizenship are put out of the country. In October 1938 the Nazis deport 18,000 Polish Jews in two days.

On 7 November 1938 a young Polish Jew shoots dead a German diplomat in Paris in revenge for the deportation of his parents. It is a prime opportunity for the Nazis to launch large scale anti-Jewish action. The shooting is an excuse rather than the cause, because the plans have already been drawn up. In the night of 9 to 10 November, synagogues across Germany are set ablaze. The Nazi smash up Jewish-owned shops. This night is known as Kristallnacht because of the broken glass in the streets.

The name Kristallnacht shows how violent the Nazis are. Dozens of Jews are killed. At least 25,000 are rounded up and sent to concentration camps, where the guards humiliate and abuse them. Hundreds more die because of the conditions in the camps. Jews are now the majority group of prisoners. However, many are released quite quickly if they promise to leave the country. As a final humiliation, the Nazis declare the Jewish community responsible for the damage. They demand a ‘compensation payment’ of one billion Reichsmark.

This eruption of violence makes it clear that there is no place for Jews in Germany. Illegal emigration rises. Jewish aid organisations in other countries help, but it is still hard to get a foreign entry visa. The United Kingdom agrees to accept 10,000 children from Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Most of them are Jews. Thanks to this Kindertransport they survive the war. For others, who see no chance of emigrating, the dread and despair are reasons to kill themselves. When the Second World War breaks out in September 1939, emigrating becomes almost impossible. By then, about 250,000 Jews have fled Germany.

The burning synagogue in Bielefeld on Kristallnacht. © akg-images / Hans Asemissen

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