Just prior to the half-term break I set an essay for the second year A-level class to complete relating to Nazi persecution of the Jews and other groups during the 1930s. The question I had available covered the period from 1933-37, however, having had just covered the Night of Broken Glass with the class I wanted to include this within the question. On reflection, this was probably the wrong thing to do, because it substantially expanded the scope of the question – something that I only realised when writing an exemplar answer! For example, it meant that the increase of violent actions against the physically disabled and mentally ill was now within the time period (particularly the T4 Programme), which actually transformed the overall conclusions to be taken from the time period. Below is my own response to this question.
‘Jews were the main target of Nazi persecution in the years 1933 to 1939.’ Assess the validity of this statement.
The persecution of the Jews escalated during the period 1933-39. Hitler’s bitter anti-Semitism was well-established by the time he came to power, with clear evidence outlining this hostility in his campaign speeches, in electoral posters and propaganda, as well as in his book Mein Kampf. However, it can be contested that the Jews were the main target of persecution, due to the evidence of a variety of over groups also persecuted, such as the mentally ill and physically disabled, political opponents, and asocials.
Persecution of the Jews during the 1930s principally took the form of legislation that limited the rights of Jews and removed them from certain professions and areas. For example, the wave of laws in 1933 – principally the Civil Service Laws – removed Jews from a wide range of professions, including the civil service, the law, journalism, and medicine. Clearly the Nazis desired to remove the economic power of the wealthier Mittelstand Jewish community, particularly in the spheres where Jews were disproportionately over-represented (with Jews representing over 20% of doctors and journalists in Germany).
Legislation increased in 1935 with the Nuremberg Race Laws, when the Jews were stripped of their citizenship and prevented them from marrying and procreating with other Germans. Furthermore, there was a flood of other anti-Semitic decrees during the period that barred Jews from activities; one example is the issuing of a ban on Jews using schools, leisure facilities, restaurants, or other public places. The increase of Aryanisation in 1938 saw the mass sale of Jewish property: from 40,000 Jewish-owned business in Germany decreased to 8,000 a year later.
However, despite this legislation persecuting Jews in terms of their economic power and citizenship rights, it must be stated that many Jews were able to continue with their lives without fear of violent persecution. For example, after the Nuremberg Race Laws, it was still possible for Mischlinge to continue relatively “normal” lives, and they could even serve in the lower ranks of the military. Furthermore, this legal persecution was not continuous throughout the period, during 1936-37 it appears that anti-Semitism decreased (particularly with the Nazis wishing to hold the Berlin Olympics).
Many historians note the “turning point” of Jewish persecution being the Night of Broken Glass in November 1938. This was the first outbreak of anti-Semitic violence on such a mass scale, with official reports noting how 91 Jews were killed and with thousands more injured, and with 20,000 placed in so-called “preventative detention”. The violence is, of course, shocking, but the main focus of Nazi tactics after this incident was to again increase anti-Semitic legislation and to economically penalise the Jewish community. For example, German Jews were forced to pay millions for the cost of repair and to the German government for disrupting the economy.
All of this shows that Jews were a target of the Nazis during the period 1933-39, however, to declare that they were “the main target” would be inaccurate. The Nazi crusade to create an Aryan Volksgemeinschaft led to the persecution of other groups of Germans within the Reich. These include the mentally ill and physically disabled, asocials (including homosexuals), different religious groups, as well as political opponents.
Asocials – criminals, tramps, beggars, alcoholics, homosexuals – were routinely persecuted during this period. For example, homeless/unemployed people that were placed in concentration camps to remove them from society. In 1938 there was a renewed focus on rounding-up of “beggars, tramps, pimps, and gypsies” – basically anyone who the Nazis declared beyond the “People’s Community” – who were removed to the brutal Buchenwald concentration camp. Similarly, homosexuals were persecuted in the 1930s: the Gestapo compiled lists of gay people, and overall 100,000 men were arrested for homosexuality in the 1930s. Religious sects were dealt similarly harsh treatment, with Jehovah’s Witnesses persecuted due to their hostility toward the Nazi regime.
Political opponents to the Nazis were some of the earliest persecuted groups, with Hitler imprisoned communists in early 1933 due to a response to the Reichstag Fire. His Enabling Act powers provided him the ability to place further communists and socialists in the earliest concentration camps, such as Dachau (established in May 1933). However, it could be argued that the most systematic and brutal persecution was that meted out to the mentally ill and physically disabled. During the 1930s the Nazis carried out a policy of sterilisation to remove the fear of “hereditary diseases”, with 400,000 sterilised. This escalated to “euthanasia” by 1939, where the Nazis killed off those who they believed to be a burden to the state.
In conclusion, although persecution – through legislation – against the Jews escalated during the years of the time period, it was only after 1938 (Kristallnacht) that this group faced similar violent and brutal persecution on the same scale as the other groups mentioned. Yes, the Jews would be the chief focus within the Holocaust actions of the Second World War, but these events escalated after the time period under question and would involve all of Europe’s Jews. Ultimately, during the period 1933-39, even though Jews were a continual feature of Nazi propaganda, they were not the main focus on Nazi persecution: the Nazis preferred emigration rather than violent methods to deal with them. However, the other groups discussed (homosexuals, asocials, political dissidents) were seen as bigger challenges to the Nazi concept of a “People’s Community”: the political opponents needed to be dealt with first, and then the German asocials needed to be “cleansed”. Overall, in statistical terms, asocial groups were a bigger target of Nazi persecution.