Antisemitic Violence and Discrimination in the Third Reich

SA men blockade the University of Vienna, to prevent Jews from entering.

SA men blockade the University of Vienna, to prevent Jews from entering.

Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

As soon as Hitler became chancellor of Germany, institutionalized antisemitic violence became a fact of life. Members of the SA and SS were given free reign to attack and torture enemies of the Nazi Party, especially Jews. Jews were openly assaulted in the streets by marauding gangs of SA and SS men, while Jewish businesses were subjected to arson and vandalism. Since the SA and SS were now considered "auxiliary policemen," Jews had no legal recourse when they were the victims of violence. The new government sponsored the first nation-wide boycott of Jewish businesses on April 1, 1933, less than three months after Hitler assumed power.

Although the boycott only lasted a day (with many non-Jewish Germans refusing to abide by it), it was indicitive of the trajectory in which the Nazi regime was heading. Consequently, in 1933 more than 40,000 German Jews left their homeland to seek refuge in other countries.

Poster advertising the first anti-Jewish boycott of the Nazi regime

Poster advertising the first anti-
Jewish boycott of the Nazi
regime in the town of Geisenheim

A week after the boycott, the government promulgated the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service. Ostensibly designed to purge the German civil service system of incompetent Weimar-era appointees, this law also stipulated that Jews (defined as individuals with one Jewish grandparent) who had not served on the front during World War I or were relatives of veterans were forced to retire. The names of fallen Jewish servicemen were also left off war memorials. Similar laws were passed in 1934 that required Jewish lawyers, doctors, and academics to leave their positions.

During the early years of the Nazi regime, SS chief Heinrich Himmler began to assume control over the German police forces. According to the United States Holocaust Museum, Himmler:

had centralized the regional German political police departments within a single new agency in Berlin, the Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei-Gestapo). After Hitler appointed him Reichsf├╝hrer SS and Chief of German Police on June 17, 1936, Himmler centralized the various criminal police detective forces (Kriminalpolizei-Kripo) in Germany into the Reich Criminal Police Office (Reichskriminalpolizeiamt) and united the Gestapo and Criminal Police within the Security Police Main Office (Hauptamt Sicherheitspolizei).

As the SS were under the direct orders of Hitler, this new police force was able to operate completely above the law. Consequently, Hitler could authorize such actions as the killing and torture of political prisoners, Einsatzgruppen (i.e., mobile killing units) missions, and the construction of death camps without the fear of being prosecuted by domestic or international laws.

The above mentioned periods of antisemitic violence, combined with legal discrimination, culminated in Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass), a government sponsored pogrom that occurred on November 9-10, 1938. The violence was not limited to Germany proper, but also occurred in Austria and the Sudetenland, both of which were occupied by Nazi troops. Kristallnacht occurred in retaliation to the November 7 assasination of Ernst vom Rath (an official at the German embassy in Paris) by Herschel Grynszpan, a seventeen-year old Polish Jew. Grynszpan killed vom Rath because his parents, who had lived in Germany since 1911, had been deported along with thousands of other Polish Jews. Von Rath died on the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, thus giving the Nazi regime the perfect excuse to inititate a new round of antisemitic violence. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels gave instructions to Nazi officials at every level of goverment, including Hitler Youth leaders, to begin the pogrom on November 9.

 View of the destroyed interior of the Hechingen synagogue the day after Kristallnacht.

View of the destroyed interior of the Hechingen synagogue the day after Kristallnacht.

Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Although the regime claimed that the violence that occurred during Kristallnacht was the spontaneous expression of the outage of the German populace, the bulk of the damage was committed by SA, SS, and Hitler Youth members who dressed in civilian clothing. They had been instructed not to damage non-Jewish property and not to harm foreigners (even if they were Jewish). However, in those instances when rioting did occur at the grassroots level, the authorities were not to interfer. Hundreds of synagogues were burned during this period, with the firefighters instructed to only intervene if the flames spread to ajacent buildings. Over 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps such as Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen. Rapes and suicides were also common occurrences during Kristallnacht. Despite the widespread destruction caused during Kristallnacht, the majority of the German populace passively accepted the consequences.

After Kristallnacht, the Nazi regime intensified antisemitic legislation. Jews were not allowed to hold or obtain driver's licenses, own automobiles, marry non-Jews, own property, attend public schools, use public transportation, be employed by non-Jews, or own businesses. It was becoming clear that Hitler's vision of Germany did not include its Jewish citizenry; over 120,000 Jews left Germany between 1938 and 1939, and thousands more applied unsuccessfully for visas.

Works Cited

Burleigh, Michael. The Third Reich: A New History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Kristallnacht: A Nationwide Pogrom, November 9-10, 1938." The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Home Page. June 24, 2008).

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "SS and the Police." The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Home Page. June 24, 2008).

Sonnert, Gerhard and Holton, Gerald. What Happened to the Children Who Fled Nazi Persecution? Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2006.