Despite the massive disruption to the academic year, my second year A-level History class continues to study the Holocaust: its origins, the key developments, and the debates relating to its implementation (such as the intentionalist v structuralist debate). The AQA specification provides an overview of the various groups that were targeted during the Third Reich, including notable non-Jewish minorities. During the period 1933 to 1941 (before the formation of the Final Solution) it is clear that a range of different non-Jewish minorities faced persecution from Nazi policies. Hitler wanted to create a people’s community for the Aryan Germans, which meant the exclusion of groups ranging from those who were mentally or physically disabled, as well as asocials.
Asocials was a term provided by the Nazis to cover a wide range of people who were deemed as social outcasts. This included criminals, tramps and beggars, alcoholics, and prostitutes; all of those who were deemed undesirable for the reproduction of the German race under Nazi rule. These groups of people were targeted very early on in the Nazi regime, with tramps and beggars being rounded-up in 1933, with those deemed unable to provide a service of value sent to concentration camps. This tactic was utilised again in 1936, prior to the hosting of the Olympic Games, and again in 1938 when large numbers of homeless people were sent to Buchenwald concentration camp.
A similar approach was taken with other groups of asocials: homosexuals were regarded as degenerate, and from as early as 1933 the regime took a tough line in removing suggested references to homosexuality in literature. By 1935 the law was broadened to impose harsher penalties, particularly imprisonment. Many were sent to concentration camps, where they were castrated in order to “cure” them of their “perversion”. The death rate for these prisoners was high, with around 60% of gay prisoners dying in the camps. Such actions of asocial groups was significant, particularly in terms of stripping them of their rights and identity, and then in the later 1930s leading to greater violence and deaths.
However, the physically and mentally ill were treated with greater disregard. The Nazis considered them to be threats to the fitness and purity of the Aryan race; furthermore, they did not offer as high a benefit as slave labour as the asocial groups did. As early as 1933 the Nazis introduced a law to allow compulsory sterilisation of “inferior” groups, which included a wide range of people, such as schizophrenics, epileptics, and those who had physical disabilities. During the Nazi regime around 400,000 people were sterilised.
The policies towards the mentally and physically disabled escalated in 1939 when the T4 euthanasia programme was introduced; it initially aimed at the murder of mentally and physically disabled children, killing over 5,000 of them by lethal injection. Such an approach shows deeper persecution than the policies meted out to many asocial groups, with a clear systematic killing approach developed (which would later be developed in the 1940s to attempt genocide of Jews and other undesirable groups).
Finally, the policies against the religious sects – such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses – was on a smaller scale than those against the mentally and physically disabled, however, the escalation of persecution follows a similar pattern. In 1933, most religious sects (including Mormons) were banned from openly practising their beliefs, with the ban being lifted if groups were willing to cooperate with the Nazis. Although many did agree to this, the Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to do so, which led to around 10,000 of them being sent to concentration camps, where many died. The groups that did bow down to the regime, such as the Mormons, were then mostly undisturbed. This shows that the Nazis were not particularly focused on persecuting religious groups, but rather their idea of a people’s community was based on racial hygiene.
All of this shows that the Nazis significantly persecuted a wide range of minorities during the period of 1933 to 1941. They were targeted due to not conforming to the idea of the people’s community, which led to many from these groups being rounded up and sent to concentration camps. The Nazis focused primarily on race and blood, which explains the greater severity of punishment dealt out to the mentally and physically disabled, and as to why religious sects were permitted to be largely left alone if they cooperated with the Nazi regime. Furthermore, it is clear that a pattern of escalation can be traced, with more violent actions taking place later in the period (the late 1930s), due to the growth of Nazi power within Germany and within Europe. All of this shows that persecution toward non-Jewish groups in the period 1933 to 1941 was incredibly significant; it caused the loss of thousands of lives and laid the blue print for the systematic genocide of the Holocaust in the 1940s.