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Section: Life in Nazi-controlled Europe

Oppression

These labels translate to say ‘Do not buy from Jews‘. Whilst their exact provenance is unknown, it is likely that these labels were handed out to encourage the boycott of Jewish shops and businesses.
An antisemitic image printed in a German newspaper in the early 1930s, reigniting the historic slander of the Blood Libel against the Jews in Hungary.
The poster on the door in this photograph reads ‘Jews not wanted’. This type of antisemitic signage was visible all over Germany following the Nazis rise to power. It aimed to exclude Jews from every day life. This photograph is taken from The Wiener Holocaust Library’s Motorcycle Album, a collection of photographs taken on a journey from the Dutch border to Berlin in 1935.

The Nazi regime was characterised by the brutal oppression and persecution of Jewish people and other minorities. The Nazis aimed to completely exclude Jews and other minorities from everyday life.

Whilst not the primary focus of the Nazi regime its first few years, persecution started from the moment that the Nazis entered power and almost continuously escalated.

This section will explore what forms of oppression the Nazis used against the different groups in German society.

Antisemitic laws

The Jews were the most persecuted group of people under the Nazis. Nazi ideology was, at its heart, extremely antisemitic. Between 1933 and 1938, over four hundred antisemitic laws were enacted.  These laws limited every area of Jewish life.

One of the first laws enacted was the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service on the 7 April 1933, which ordered that Jews were no longer allowed to work for the Civil Service. This was quickly followed by the Law Against Overcrowding in Schools and Universities on the 25 April 1933, which limited Jewish students in German schools to a maximum of 1.5% of the total intake. Just four months later, on 29 September 1933, the Hereditary Farm Law was passed, banning Jews from owning or running farms.

The laws above are just a few examples of the range of persecutory and exclusionary laws that the Nazis passed.

Nuremberg Laws

The Nuremberg Laws, announced at the Nazi Party annual rally in Nuremberg in late 1935, marked an escalation in the persecution of the Jews.

There were two main laws. The Reich Citizenship Law declared that only ‘Aryans’ were Reich citizens. As Jews were considered non-‘Aryan’, this law stripped them of their German citizenship and made them stateless in their own country.

The Nazis defined anyone with Jewish ancestors as Jews, even if someone who only had one grandparent who had converted from Judaism to Christianity as a child. This made lots of people who had previously thought not thought of themselves as Jewish, or those who no longer practiced Judaism, potential targets of persecution.

The second Nuremberg law was the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honour. This law banned marriages and sexual intercourse between Jews and ‘Aryans’, and forbid the employment of ‘Aryan’ women under the age of 45 in Jewish households.

These two laws aimed to racially cleanse and protect German people of true ‘Aryan’ descent. For Jews and people of Jewish descent, they were terrifying. The laws marked a new period of persecution in Nazi Germany.

The Evian Conference

Throughout the 1930s there was a large increase in those attempting to emigrate from Germany due to the increasing persecution of the Jews and other minority ‘non-Aryan’ groups.

Those attempting to emigrate often found it difficult to get the visas necessary to enter other countries. This was because other countries had low quotas for immigration, partly due to the world depression following the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

An international conference was called to discuss the growing refugee problem following pressure from the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The conference was held in July 1938 in Evian, France.

Almost all of the 32 countries represented at the conference agreed that there was a growing German Jewish refugee problem, and expressed sympathy for those persecuted. However, few offered to extend their quotas or contribute to a practical solution.

In the end, almost no real action came from the conference.

The Evian Conference made it clear to the Nazis that although other countries didn’t necessarily approve of their persecution of the Jews, they would not actively take any steps against the Nazis, or go out of their way to help the Jews and other victims of Nazi Germany to emigrate.

Kristallnacht

Kristallnacht, also referred to as the November Pogrom or the Night of Broken Glass, was a series of violent antisemitic attacks which took place across Germany on the 9 – 10 November 1938.

Antisemitic laws and decrees had been increasing from the time that the Nazis rose to power, with over 400 passed between 1933 and 1938.

Kristallnacht started in response to the murder of Ernst vom Rath, a German official in Paris.

Vom Rath was shot by Herschel Grynszpan, a seventeen-year-old Jewish teenager, on the 7 November 1938. The German press widely reported on the attack and vom Rath’s injuries.

Grynszpan stated that he shot vom Rath to bring the world’s attention to the plight of his family and other Jews affected during the Polen-aktion.

The Polen-aktion was the movement of thousands of Jews in October 1938 by the SS and German police who had been born in Poland but were living in Germany, back to Poland.

When the Polish Jews arrived in Poland, Polish guards sent them back to Germany, and they were then stuck between the two borders without food or shelter in difficult conditions. One of the families involved in was the Gynszpans, whose son Hershchel lived in Paris.

On the 9 November, vom Rath died of his injuries.

That evening, as the Nazi Party leadership met in a Beer Hall to observe the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, Goebbels gave a speech. He ordered that all Jewish businesses and synagogues should be destroyed in response to vom Rath’s death. The police were told to stay away and not interfere with the attacks.

Goebbels later wrote in his diary on the 10 November 1938:

I go to the party reception in the Old Town Hall. A gigantic event. I describe the situation to the Führer. He decides: let the demonstrations continue. Withdraw the police. For once the Jews should feel the rage of the people…. I issue corresponding instructions to the police and the party. Then I speak briefly to the officials of the party. A storm of applause. They all rush to the telephones. Now the people shall act!

Violence spread across the nation in almost every city and town. Whilst the attacks were led by the SA, citizens, and specifically young people, joined in to aggressively attack and cruelly humiliate Jewish women, men and children – in their homes, in their businesses, and on the streets. Over 7,500 businesses had their windows smashed by the SA and Hitler Youth.

From the 10 – 16 November, over 25,000 men were arrested and sent to concentration camps, such as Buchenwald and Dachau. A smaller number of women were also arrested. Conditions in the camps was horrific and both men and women endured extreme violence.

The event was widely reported across the world, and met with reactions of shock and disgust from the international community.

Despite this, again, very few countries made practical steps to increase their quotas for refugees. The Quaker and Jewish community in Britain did secure visas for 10,000 child refugees in a scheme known as the Kindertransport, but this was financed privately and not by the British government.

Emigration for the Jewish community of Germany was difficult. A large amount of the Jews in Germany became even more desperate to leave, relentlessly attempting to be granted visas to any safe country. Some families were successful in this despite the tough conditions they faced. Approximately 120,000 Jews left Germany between Kristallnacht and the outbreak of the Second World War.

The outbreak of the Second World War made escape almost impossible, shutting down most legitimate methods of emigration.

Roma

1933-1938

Roma and Sinti were persecuted before, during and after the Holocaust.

Following the Nazi rise to power, the persecution of all Roma in Germany increased and eventually became genocidal. Prior to the Second World War, approximately 30,000 Roma lived in Germany, and just under a million lived across Europe.

The Nazis believed Roma were ‘non-Aryan’ and an inferior race which had genetically inherited criminal qualities. This belief was reinforced by the research of the eugenic scientist Dr. Robert Ritter. As a result of Ritter’s research and their racist beliefs about Roma, the Nazis subjected many Roma to forced sterilisations to prevent them from having children.

On 17 June 1936, Heinrich Himmler became Head of the German Police. This new role gave Himmler unlimited control over the terror forces in Germany. Just under two years later, on 16 May 1938, Himmler established the Reich Central Office for Combating the Gypsy Nuisance. This office centralised efforts to persecute Roma living in the Third Reich.

On 8 December 1938, Himmler issued the Decree for Combating the Gypsy Plague. Amongst other actions, the decree ordered the creation of a nationwide database of all Roma living in the Third Reich. This database would later be used to round up Roma and put them in forced labour and concentration camps.

Alongside these developments, in the second half of the 1930s, a large number of holding camps were created. These camps designated certain areas of the cities or towns where Roma could live. The camps were created individually by the different regional governments, varying from city to city and between states.

The initial Roma camps were portrayed as a move to clean up inner cities and remove any unauthorised dwellings in municipal areas, which often attracted complaints. The camps varied, but most had limited sanitation and were guarded by a police or SS officer. At this stage, most people were free to enter and leave the camps for work or leisure. Despite this, the camps still marked a large escalation in the persecution of Roma, and a huge infringement on people’s freedom and privacy.

This was, however, simply the beginning. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, the nature of the camps changed. The rules became stricter, with increased supervision, curfews, and daily head counts of the occupants. In October 1939, a decree was issued banning the movement of Roma. People in the camps also became subject to compulsory labour.

1939-1945

The Nazi policy towards the Roma population escalated following the outbreak of war and soon became genocidal.

On 27 April 1940, Heydrich issued the Decree for the Resettlement of the Gypsies, which aimed to deport all German Roma from the Reich within one year. This decree resulted in 2500 people being deported to the General Government in Poland, before it was suspended in September 1940.

In September 1941, 5,000 Austrian Roma were deported to the Łódź Ghetto, where many of them died from infection or were murdered.

On 16 December 1942, a decree was issued by Himmler to move all Sinti and Roma in Reich Territory to Auschwitz, where a special camp had been built to hold them. Following the order, more than 22,000 Roma (most of the remaining Roma in Germany) were rounded up and sent. Just a few survived.

A number of inhumane medical experimentations took place on Roma in the various concentration camps they ended up in, including the infamous experiments by Dr. Joseph Mengele at Auschwitz, and typhus injections at Natzweilier.

In addition to their horrific treatment in camps, Roma were also murdered in their thousands by the Einsatzgruppen in eastern Europe. The Einsatzgruppen conducted mass shootings of any ‘undesirable’ groups in occupied territories, following behind the invading German Army.

The total number of Roma murdered in the Holocaust is unknown. A number of factors contribute to this. Many of the Roma killed were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen or Nazi collaborators in Soviet territories and Yugoslavia, where murders were often not recorded. The Nazis variety of camp categories for Roma (they were classified Zigeuner, criminals or asocialsdepending on where and when they were imprisoned) also makes calculating a definite figure challenging. Finally, many camp records are incomplete, meaning accurately assessing the number of victims, and different types of victims specifically, is very difficult.

The total number of Roma murdered by the Nazis has been roughly estimated by historians to be between 200,000 to 500,000 people.

The disabled

Disabled people were some of the first persecuted under the Nazis.

The Nazis believed that disabled people did not, and could not, be a part of the German master race. They believed that they were genetically ‘impure’, and a financial burden on the state. Ultimately, this view led to the murder of thousands of disabled people.

Sterilisation

The Nazis started their oppression of disabled people shortly after their rise to power. The Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring, more commonly referred to as the Sterilisation Law, was passed on the 14 July 1933. This law named nine disabilities and forced anyone with them to be sterilised. These disabilities ranged from severe physical deformity to epilepsy, to chronic alcoholism.

The Nazis justified this law by proclaiming it would allow Germany to achieve racial purity by limiting future disabled generations. They based this view on eugenic research. In the 1930s, eugenics was widely believed to be a legitimate science, which was popular across the world. This helped to legitimise the Nazis view.

The Nazis also stressed the government financial savings if the amount of disabled people in Germany decreased.

As a result of the 1933 law, over 400,000 disabled people were sterilised.

Euthanasia centres

Following the sterilisation programme, the Nazis persecution of the disabled soon escalated. In the Autumn of 1939 the Nazis, led by Phillip Bouhler and Dr. Karl Brandt, initiated a ‘euthanasia’ programme of disabled people.

This programme was code named T-4, after the address of its headquarters Tiergartenstrasse 4. Unlike the sterilisation law, T-4 was never formally announced as the Nazis tried to keep the programme a secret.

The programme focused on disabled people living in state-run nursing homes or hospitals. Doctors and nurses in these institutions were asked to complete a questionnaire on each individual patient. The staff in the institutions were told the questionnaire was to collect statistics for the government. The real purpose of the survey, to establish victims, was concealed.

Once identified, the victims were transported on buses to one of the six killing centres: Brandenburg, Gradfeneck, Bernburg, Sonnenstein, Hartheim, Hadamar. Initially, they were murdered via lethal injection. In 1940, this changed to gassing by carbon monoxide gas, as a cheaper and more effective way of mass killing. Victims were cremated, and their families informed that they had died of natural causes.

This procedure provided the Nazis with a blueprint that they would later refine and replicate on a mass scale in extermination camps.

Although the programme was carried out in secrecy, it became hard to conceal and soon became public knowledge. There was considerable public and private outrage over the murders. On the 13 August 1941, Catholic Church minister Clements August Count von Galen protested against the programme in a sermon.

Under pressure from public, Hitler publically ordered a halt to the programme on the 24 August 1941. The gassing centres were dismantled and shipped to the new camps in the occupied east.

In total, 70,273 people were killed at the ‘euthanasia’ centres between January 1940 and August 1941.

Despite Hitler’s public order, the programme was in fact still encouraged to continue in a decentralised form.

Many infants continued to be killed via starvation or lethal injection in individual hospitals across the Third Reich, and disabled people continued to be portrayed as ‘degenerate’ and a burden to the greater German ‘Aryan’ race.

Political prisoners

This pamphlet was issued by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), one of the major opponents of the Nazi regime. It reads ‘The revolution against Hitler! The historical task of the German social democracy’. The SPD was banned by the Nazis on the 22 June 1933, but continued to operate in exile. Many of its leadership and supporters were imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis.

This pamphlet was issued by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), one of the major opponents of the Nazi regime. It reads ‘The revolution against Hitler! The historical task of the German social democracy’. The SPD was banned by the Nazis on the 22 June 1933, but continued to operate in exile. Many of its leadership and supporters were imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

In order to ensure total obedience and conformity to their regime, the Nazis suppressed all of their political opponents.

Following the Reichstag Fire, Hindenburg declared a state of emergency. Amongst other aspects, this move removed people’s right to trial before imprisonment. The Nazis used this to their advantage in the immediate period following the declaration, rounding up any political opponents and imprisoning them in concentration camps.

Concentration camps were built almost immediately after the Nazi rise to power. The primary purpose of these initially was to house political prisoners. Examples of early camps include Oranienburg and Dachau.

In the camps political prisoners were often forced to carry out heavy labor to ‘correct’ and ‘reeducate’ them of their views. The awful conditions in the camps forced many prisoners to starve or die of the unsanitary conditions. Those that were released, primarily in the early period, were forbidden to speak of their experiences, and told to leave Germany immediately.

Homosexuals

On 6 May 1933, the Nazis led the first physical attack on homosexuals following their rise to power. Students led by members of the SA attacked and looted the Institute of Sexual Research, set up by gay rights pioneer Magnus Hirschfeld in 1919. A few days following this, they burned the stolen books in the street.

On 6 May 1933, the Nazis led the first physical attack on homosexuals following their rise to power. Students led by members of the SA attacked and looted the Institute of Sexual Research, set up by gay rights pioneer Magnus Hirschfeld in 1919. A few days following this, they burned the stolen books in the street.

Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Homosexuals were seen as ‘a-social’ by the Nazis – an enemy of the master ‘Aryan’ race. Their attraction to other men meant they were not producing children for the Volksgemeinschaft.

Led by Heinrich Himmler, the Nazis persecuted gay men in several ways.

Initially, the Nazis closed down a large majority of the homosexual bars, and shut down any homosexual publications. They arrested gay men and tortured them, forcing them to give up their address books and names of partners in an attempt to create a register of all gay men in Germany.

On the 28 June 1935, the Nazis revised Paragraph 175, a section of the German Criminal Code which banned homosexual contact. The law was extended to the concept of ‘criminally indecent activities between men’, which meant that the authorities could then arrest any male suspected on limited or no evidence. This was a crucial turning point in the radicalisation of persecution against homosexuals.

Homosexuals were some of the first people, alongside political prisoners, to be sent to the concentration camps in 1933. In the camps, they were subject to ridicule and hard work. They were also forced to wear pink triangles to define them as homosexuals.

As with Gypsies, in the camps homosexuals were also the subject of brutal medical experimentations, such as castration.

Lesbians

Whilst, in comparison to other persecuted groups, lesbians were able to continue their lives in a relatively normal manner under the Nazis, their activities were oppressed and there were women who suffered under Nazi rule as a result of their sexual orientation.

The Nazis did not believe that women were inherently corrupted by their sexuality in the same way that gay men were. Despite this, they did not agree with the concept or act of lesbianism. Some high-ranking Nazis, such as Hans Frank and Rudolf Klare, actively campaigned for more extreme oppression of lesbians, though they were not very successful. Lesbians were not seen as a threat in the same way that gay men were, due to the small part that they were seen to play in public life.

Under the Weimar Republic, lesbian culture had flourished, particularly in Berlin. There were regular lesbian publications, such as Frauenliebe (Women’s Love) and Die Freundin (The Girlfriend), as well as societies and clubs.

Following the Nazi rise to power, all publications, societies, and clubs of this kind were banned as Goebbels established his Chamber of Culture.

The Nazis did not have a definitive policy to persecute lesbians. Despite this, there were some lesbians who were either denounced by neighbours or friends or caught by the Nazis in other ways. These women were arrested and often sent to concentration camps, where they were listed as a-social or political prisoners. Due to this ambiguity surrounding the reasons why they were arrested, the approximate number of women who were taken to concentration camps due to this sexual orientation is unknown.

Overall, most lesbians, if willing to conform to the Nazi ideas about women, were able to survive the Nazi period and avoid persecution. For example, some women married to avoid attention or attacks regarding their lack of children.

Despite this, lesbians were not able to live freely, and were actively subjected to the oppression of their sexuality under the Nazis.

Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah’s Witnesses were also persecuted by the Nazis. The Nazis suppressed Jehovah’s Witnesses for different reasons to Gypsies or homosexuals. As Jehovah’s Witnesses are a sub-sect of Christianity, the Nazis did not automatically class them as an inferior or a ‘non-Aryan’ race.

Instead, Jehovah’s Witnesses were persecuted for three other reasons: resistance, their commitment to peace and their international connections.

Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to accept the Nazis total power, believing that they were first answerable to God. One example of this resistance was how many Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to give the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute when requested. This resistance to Hitler and the Nazis was seen as an outright violation by a German citizen, and was not accepted. Many Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested as a result of this dissent.

The second reason Jehovah’s Witnesses were persecuted was their commitment to peace, and in turn, opposition to war. Despite conscription being introduced in 1935, many Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to fight or work in war-related industries, which became an ever increasing problem as Germany focused on rearmament.

Finally, Jehovah’s Witnesses were persecuted for their strong international connections due to being part of a large international movement, which the Nazis were suspicious of. This suspicion escalated following the outbreak of war.

The Nazis harassed Jehovah’s Witnesses by breaking up their meetings, ransacking their offices and banning their publications. If they refused to fight, work in war industry or show obedience to regime they were arrested and often sent to concentration camps. Here they were forced to wear a purple triangle to identify as a Jehovah’s Witness.

By 1939 over 6,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses were in concentration camps across the Third Reich. At the end of the war over 1,400 had been murdered in the camps. 250 people were also executed for refusing to fight.

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