The Holocaust in Germany

Weimar Republic American Embassy

The American Consulate in Berlin, 1929.


Post-World War I Germany was a sad place, full of anger and resentment at their loss of prestige from the stipulations of The Treaty of Versailles.  Initially, the Weimar Republic dawdled and appeared to be unable to govern its new democratic nation.

However, there was a brief “Roaring 20’s” in the Weimar Republic, as well as the rest of the world. This period saw economic booms due to loans from the United States and people did not feel the need to turn towards radical political ideology.  As a result, both Communism and Nazism were unpopular throughout the 1920s. However, when the stock market crashed in New York, the United States called in those loans and needed to be repaid.  Thus, in 1929, The Great Depression hit Germany as well. (Read More Here)

During this time there were two polarized factions that presented themselves to the German political landscape: Communism and Nazism.  The Depression was the spark that lit the match of chaos that would ensue in the coming years. The joblessness and poverty drove people towards fanaticism as their desperation grew and grew. Everyone was looking for a radical new idea that could save them and feed their families: this is what drove them into Hitler’s sphere of influence.

While Hitler never won the absolute majority, which was needed for control over the Reichstag, the Nazi party had become the single largest party in Germany by the time elections came around in the early 1930’s.  


Hitler is elected in 1933 and Germany’s Jews are in grave danger.  At times in the coming 6 years the conditions would appear to be fluctuating between bad and worse, but in hindsight, this was the beginning of the end.

1933-1934: Confusion and Emigration

Although Hitler was known to be a virulent anti-Semite, and his increased power frightened Jews immensely, there was no immediate panic amongst the Jews in Germany on January 30, 1933.  Even after the elections of March 5, 1933, when Hitler’s government did obtain the absolute majority, people were calmer than they should have been.  The reasons for this are obvious when you put yourself in the shoes of a Jew in Germany during that time: they had their whole lives established in Germany; they were German-speaking peoples; there was uncertainty about the permanence of Nazi control; Jews had been through hard times before; and Jewish people really did feel like they were Germans, whose neighbors would never turn on them. Also, another factor that encouraged Jews to hold out on emigrating was that Nazi violence was funneled mostly towards Communists, not necessarily Jews, during the first few years. 

There were, however, people who got the message immediately.  1933 saw a big spike in the rate of emigration from Germany: mainly left-wing intellectuals and ultra-wealthy Jews who had contacts abroad.  All in all, though, the years of 1933-1937 see a decidedly lower rate of emigration than one might expect.  The Nazis knew that their economy was still fragile and their military was not ready for a battle, so they attempted to lay low and consolidate from within.  One example of Hitler’s consolidation of power during this time was his purge of Ernst Röhm and the SA – the only real rivals to Hitler’s power.  The only time there is a palpable jump in emigration, however, came after Kristallnacht in 1938.

A Spanish class for members of the Berlin Jewish community who were willing to emigrate to South America, 1935.


The first real wave of large-scale anti-Jewish incidents have their roots in late March, 1935.  During that time there was a lot of provocation coming from Nazi-run press.  This finally culminated in Munich, where, during March and April, Jewish stores were smeared with acid or vandalized every night.  After that went on unhindered, the thugs began attacking Jewish stores in open daylight.  By May there were open physical assaults on Jewish people, as well as their shops.  The apogee of the Munich anti-Jewish pogroms in 1935 came on May 25, when every single identifiably Jewish shop was partially or wholly destroyed by the Nazi thugs.

This first disturbance would foreshadow the beginning of a hard year for the Jews of Germany, punctuated by various laws that would serve to further disenfranchise them and eventually outright deny them German citizenship.  Another aspect of this changing atmosphere was the definition of what constitutes “Jewishness,” which culminated in the Nuremberg Race Laws.  These laws are later expanded to define the different kinds of Jews, especially those that were part of, or the product of, a mixed-marriage.  The children of Jewish/Non-Jewish marriages were called Mischlinge and they were defined in varying degrees based on a series of qualifiers, such as number of Jewish grandparents and if they were raised in the Jewish faith.

A brief interlude occurs during the 1936 Olympic Games that were held in Berlin.  Hitler wanted to keep the world’s shock and horror at bay.  Had foreigners from westernized countries seen signs that prohibited Jews from sitting on certain benches in parks, they would have been disturbed.  However, the statistics on the situation of Jews in Germany were still staggering in terms of unemployment and economic hardship.
Nazi Germany Olympics 1936
Rare glimpse of SS soldiers outside the stadium in Berlin, 1936. Germany took down much of its overt anti-Semitic propaganda for the games to appease the West.
Group of Jews in Pre-war Germany

Group of Jews in Germany before the war, only two people pictured in this photo would survive.

Second Wave of Laws

On September 29, 1936, the state secretary in the German Ministry of the Interior, Wilhelm Stuckart, organized a meeting of high officials.  He ordered someone from his own agency; someone from the Ministry of the Economy; and someone from the Office of the Deputy Führer; all together in order to formulate a recommendation on the Jewish question in a post-1935 Germany.

These three men represented very different power bases and ideologies, but on this particular day they were to come to an agreement.  The Office of the Deputy Führer was the Nazi party’s fundamentalist voice, while the Ministry of the Interior, headed by Wilhelm Frick, often represented moderate positions. Then the old conservative state bureaucracy – still holding on to some semblance of decency and hesitation to declare full blown war on world Jewry – was represented by the Ministry of the Economy, which was headed by Hjalmar Schact. At this meeting, however, they were all in agreement over the fact that the only resolution to the Jewish question will now need to be emigration.

This is a perfect window into the beginning of how the next few years would look for German Jews.  They would be forced to leave by every single agency and administration in their country.  The government wanted to pound it into their heads that there was no future for Jews in Germany.

Expulsion from Germany

The goal of disenfranchisement and economic anti-Semitism had been causing the German-Jewish citizens to emigrate from the Third Reich.  The steady increase in immigration would eventually leave Germany with over 50% of its pre-war population having taken flight before the beginning of the war.  By 1938, the anti-Jewish legislation had taken on a new goal: forced emigration.  Only after Kristallnacht did the Jews finally fully receive the message that they were no longer welcome in Germany in any capacity.  There was no longer any ability to rationalize away the obvious fact that they were not going to be able to stay, and the scramble to emigrate began.

The forced expulsion of Polish-born Jews living in Berlin was the beginning of a series of events that would unfurl the most devastating pogrom of the 20th century. On the 31st of March of 1938 there was a new law going into effect in Poland: Jews with Polish citizenship who had been living abroad for more than 5 years would suddenly no longer have a valid passport.  The Polish government did this because they were nervous about Jews running away from Austria and Germany and inundating Poland’s borders.  When the German government heard about the Polish edict, their immediate reaction was to simply dump all Polish-born Jews from Germany right over the border.  This began on October 28, 1938 and over 17,000 Polish-born Jews were stranded at the border between Germany and Poland by the end of the process.  Many would end up in Zbaszyn, Poland, including the family of Herschel Grynszpan, the boy who would later spark the Kristallnacht pogroms.

“Our friends Nazified themselves.  The problem, after all, was not what our enemies did, but what our friends did.” Hannah Arendt

Holocaust Scholar

The Rapid Deterioration

Emigration became the only obvious choice for comfortable life, even for those who had been holding out with hopes of a regime change now saw that it was futile.  The rapidly deteriorating situation accompanied by the decreasing population of Jews living in Germany spelled the end of a way of life.  The final blow of undeniable hostility and the assurance that Jewish people would not be given any empathy or assistance came during Kristallnacht in 1938, and at that time there cannot have been a single hopeful dream left for the future of German Jewry in the Third Reich.

Mass Emigration after Kristallnacht

After the Kristallnacht pogroms there was a sheer panic to get out of the country, but quotas were full and the Nazis had made it even more difficult for a Jew to emigrate. No longer were the days of being able to take currency or property along for the journey, for these last few years a Jew was lucky to escape with just his life.  Kristallnacht had definitively tipped the scales in favor of emigration, and so, the mad dash to leave Germany began.

Unfortunately, emigration became more and more difficult.  Not only did a Jew have to find a foreign country to emigrate to, but they had to jump through hoops to obtain an exit visa from Germany.  The Germans were more determined than ever to assure that the Jews left the country with no property and no money – confiscating precious treasures, gemstones, and bank accounts. Still though, with all of these obstacles taken into account there are some startling statistics about the demographics of Germans who escaped during the 1939-1943 period. The odds of leaving were in favor of younger men and women, with older widows and the infirm being the ones that were left behind.  Between June 1933 and September 1939, the number of Jews under the age of 39 had decreased by 80%, whilst the number of Jews over the age of 60 had decreased by only 27%.  As time progressed the disproportionate numbers became more stark: in 1941 over two-thirds of the Jewish population of Germany was past middle age.  The last legal emigration from Germany came in October 1941, and by that time over 65% of the German and Austrian pre-war Jewish populations had managed to escape the Third Reich.

The Eve of War

The double edged sword of being a German-speaking Jew was this: on one hand the German-Jew suffered more years of persecution under Hitler’s regime than any other occupied group of Jews. Being at the epicenter of Nazism, this is obvious. Their trauma is compounded by the fact that they were assimilated into society, so the policies of discrimination came as a bigger shock. On the other hand, the extended period of discrimination had the positive impact of allowing many German Jews ample time to escape – and over half of them succeeded in leaving the Nazi State before the war started in 1939.  For Jews living outside of the German sphere of influence, the attack was much more sudden and swift.


(Pictured: The Old Synagogue of Aachen after the November Pogrom, destroyed.)

After 1939

The situation for Jews in Germany became seriously dire after the war started on September 1, 1939.  The only places left were the United States; Shanghai; some places in South America; and Palestine – everywhere else was tied up in the war in one way or another.  German Jews were foreigners in their own state, yet simultaneously considered enemy aliens by other nations.  Jews lost their ability to use public transportation in 1941, which is the same year that the German Jews finally had to start wearing the Star of David on their clothes.  This would be the penultimate stage for any Jew who wanted to escape the fate that Hitler had in store for them – any Jewish person caught in Germany after 1941 had almost no chance of survival. Ghettos were not established in Germany, but they did have designated areas where they were permitted to live (called “Judenhäuser,” or, “Jewish house.”)


The first German Jews to be deported were the roughly 100,000 Jews from the Danzig-West-Prussia region between 1939-1940.

In October 1940, nearly 7,000 Jews from Baden and the Saarpfalz (in southwestern Germany) were deported to areas of unoccupied France, where they were interned in Gurs concentration camp almost immediately.

A large-scale deportation first took place between October and December 1941, when German officials took 42,000 Jews from the Greater German Reich—which includes Austria and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia— to ghettos in Lodz; Minsk; Kovno; and Riga. A majority were deported to Treblinka; Chelmno; or Belzec. 

A second segment of 50,000 Jews was deported between October, 1941, and November, 1942.  They were all headed towards ghettos in Baltic countries and their fate was the same as that of their coreligionists – death by bullets at the hands of the SS. 

In May, 1943, Nazi officials declared Germany to be completely rid of its Jews, ending hundreds of years of shared cultural history in just under a decade.

German Jewish Family in Bavaria

The Final Count

In January 1933 there were about 522,000 Jews living in the Third Reich. Of that number, about 304,000 would emigrate by 1939, leaving about 218,000 Jews – mostly elderly people; the sick; and women with babies – in Germany.  Deportations of Jews living within German borders began in 1941 and were over by 1943, when not even 20,000 Jews would be left living in Germany.  The Jews remaining in Germany were almost all either in mixed marriages or living in disguises amongst their German compatriots.   

 (Image: German Jews gather for vacation in Bavaria)