On January 13, 1935, a referendum was conducted to determine whether the Saar Basin should remain under League of Nations administration, returned to Germany or become part of France. More than 90% voted that it should be reunited with Germany. After the plebiscite was completed, a new wave of antisemitism was precipitated by radical elements in Germany, especially the SA (Sturmabteilung), the initial paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party, which played an integral part in the rise of Adolf Hitler. As Hitler sought a more moderate approach to governing, their influence eroded. In an attempt to validate their continued need to exist, they revived their combativeness and radicalism. On July 15, an unparalleled surge of antisemitic destruction occurred in Berlin. Shop windows were broken, which became a common occurrence.
On the night of July 15, 1935, historian Moshe Gottlieb noted, approximately 200 German thugs seized, chased and “savagely” beat men and women who looked Jewish “or displeased them by their attitude and appearance” on the Kurfürstendamm, one of the most famous avenues in Berlin. Though they wore civilian clothes, their boots and trousers exposed them as Nazi storm troopers. Yelling, “Out with Jews,” and “Destruction to Jews,” they expressed their grievances against “unsuspecting and defenseless populace, including some foreigners.”
The attack was the most vicious anti-Jewish incident since Hitler came to power, Gottlieb said. He believes the assaults were planned in retaliation for a report in the Völkischer Beobachter, the newspaper of the Nazi Party (NSDAP), that Jews booed a Swedish antisemitic film being shown in a movie theater on the Kurfürstendamm. The report concluded with an admonishment that “such insolence is not to be endured.” A meticulously planned riot followed, staged in front of the movie theater. Apparently, the storm troopers had provided the protestors explicit orders since they were observed driving up and down the avenue. Before the police arrived, they left the scene.
Jews were no longer permitted to live in small towns and villages, German historian Armin Nolzen stated. Members of the Nazi party publicly demeaned and beat Jews, while Orthodox Jews had their beards and heads shaved. “Popular anger” party rallies and parades and propaganda campaigns were directed against Jews by local district leaders, who provided detailed schedules of meetings and violent events. There were 20,000 honorary local party leaders actively involved in executing party activities. They gathered information for the district leaders about Jewish businesses, what Jews did in their free time and the various Jewish organizations and associations to which they belonged.
During the same period, Bankier said, the Nazi police began a campaign throughout the Reich to arrest and incarcerate individuals who violated “racial offences.” In various areas, offenders were marched through the streets under a poster describing the crime, for example, women accused of fraternizing with Jews. Those alleged of consorting with the Jews were incarcerated for polluting the races, and sent to a concentration camp.
The Nazi Women’s Organization district leaders (Kreisfrauenschaftsleiterinnen), Nolzen said, played a fundamental role in the campaign to boycott Jewish businesses and enterprises. The organization sought to encourage women not to purchase any items from Jewish-owned stores and to cease relating to Jews on every level.
The radicals were not impressed with the increase of antisemitic actions, and were disturbed that the authorities stopped them from continuing their terror attacks. The conservative elite viewed this “revolution from below” as a challenge to the existing order, Bankier said. The economic institutions were concerned that lawlessness could begin to include all capitalists, which would threaten law and order, and damage foreign relations, tourism, and international trade.
Controlling the violence by forbidding unsanctioned individual acts against Jews was ordered by Hitler and issued by his deputy and the minister of the interior. The radicals saw the attempt to inhibit them as a “flagrant betrayal of Nazi principles,” as Bankier characterized their response.
The Effect of Antisemitism
On the General German Public
The ostensible objective of the antisemitic campaign was to rally the indifferent masses, especially those groups like the lower middle class, who were apathetic. A decline in sales during a period in which there were price controls had slashed purchasing power, and freezing of wages all contributed to disaffection with the party. Small merchants criticized the party for not helping them by putting the Jewish-owned department stores out of business and nationalizing them, as they had promised. They made the conditions even more acute by allowing food stamps to be redeemed in the department stores, Bankier said. Members of the middle class, which were “one of the Nazis main pillars,” complained that the military continued to order its provisions from Jews, and that even when the Germans nationalized the department stores, the stores were not offered to the small shopkeepers to run or own.
With regard to the rest of the society, Bankier said their primary concern was the worsening economic conditions. Antisemitic slogans could not divert attention from their ongoing financial concerns, and the violence only exacerbated the situation. As a Gestapo report in Kassel pointed out, “It is easier to invite attacks on the Jews than to persuade the public of antisemitism.” The Germans were looking for stability, which included a definite policy regarding the Jews and churches, so they did not have their lives unexpectedly disrupted by the capricious actions of the extremists.
In contrast to the boycotts and aggression, the removal of the Jews from public life aroused minimal complaints, because it was completed with a limited number of purges to preclude any devastating results, and with practically no interruption of bureaucratic activities. The dismissals cleared the way for the unemployed and the younger generation to advance in their careers. Expulsion of Jews and leftists from the universities and public service created opportunities for advancement, “thus contributing to complacency and conformism in the academic and intellectual public,” according to Bankier. Most important was the lack of an adverse public response, which seemed to imply that banning Jews from holding prominent positions was consistent with the desires of the majority of the German public.
David Bankier quotes Thomas Mann, a German novelist, essayist and the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, who agreed with this assessment about the removal of Jews from German society. In his diary, Mann wrote, “It is no great misfortune after all that … the Jewish presence in the judiciary has ended.” Later he added, “I could to some extent go along with the rebellion against the Jewish element.”
The only way to control the situation, the Nazis concluded, was to legalize their campaign against the Jews. The Nuremberg Laws promulgated on September 15, 1935, which had been in the planning stages for months, provided the legal basis for Germany’s racist anti-Jewish policy, including revocation of Jewish citizenship and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor to prevent race defilement. Over the next eight years, 13 additional decrees were issued. “The racial laws served as a massive tranquilizer,” Bankier declared. All further measures to exclude Jews from German life, as well as riots and arrests, were now enshrined in German constitutional law.
Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and on the advisory board of The National Christian Leadership Conference of Israel (NCLCI). He lives in Jerusalem.