Antisemitism and the persecution of Jews were central tenets of Nazi ideology.
In their 25-point party program published in 1920, Nazi Party members publicly declared their intention to segregate Jews from “Aryan” society and to abrogate their political, legal, and civil rights.
Nazi leaders began to make good on their pledge to persecute German Jews soon after their assumption of power. During the first six years of Hitler's dictatorship, from 1933 until the outbreak of war in 1939, Jews felt the effects of more than 400 decrees and regulations that restricted all aspects of their public and private lives. Many of these were national laws that had been issued by the German administration and affected all Jews. But state, regional, and municipal officials, acting on their own initiatives, also issued many exclusionary decrees in their own communities. Thus, hundreds of individuals in all levels of government throughout the country were involved in the persecution of Jews as they conceived, discussed, drafted, adopted, enforced, and supported anti-Jewish legislation. No corner of Germany was left untouched.
The first major law to curtail the rights of Jewish citizens was the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service of April 7, 1933, which excluded Jews and the “politically unreliable” from civil service. The new law was the German authorities' first formulation of the so-called Aryan Paragraph, a regulation used to exclude Jews (and often, by extension, other “non-Aryans”) from organizations, professions, and other aspects of public life. This would become the foundation of the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935, which defined Jews not by religious belief but by ancestral lineage and which formalized their segregation from the so-called Aryan population.
In April 1933, German law restricted the number of Jewish students at German schools and universities. In the same month, further legislation sharply curtailed “Jewish activity” in the medical and legal professions. Subsequent decrees restricted reimbursement of Jewish doctors from public (state) health insurance funds. The city of Berlin forbade Jewish lawyers and notaries to work on legal matters, the mayor of Munich forbade Jewish doctors from treating non-Jewish patients, and the Bavarian interior ministry denied admission of Jewish students to medical school.
At the national level, the Nazi government revoked the licenses of Jewish tax consultants, imposed a 1.5 percent quota on the admission of “non-Aryans” to public schools and universities, fired Jewish civilian workers from the army, and in early 1934, forbade Jewish actors to perform on the stage or screen. Local governments also issued regulations that affected other spheres of Jewish life: in Saxony, Jews could no longer slaughter animals according to ritual purity requirements, effectively preventing them from obeying Jewish dietary laws.
Government agencies at all levels aimed to exclude Jews from the economic sphere of Germany by preventing them from earning a living. Jews were required to register their domestic and foreign property and assets, a prelude to the gradual expropriation of their material wealth by the state. Likewise, German authorities intended to “Aryanize” all Jewish-owned businesses, a process involving the dismissal of Jewish workers and managers as well as the transfer of companies and enterprises to non-Jewish Germans, who bought them at prices officially fixed well below market value. By the spring of 1939, such efforts had succeeded in transferring most Jewish-owned businesses in Germany into “Aryan” hands.
The Nuremberg Race Laws formed the cornerstone of Nazi racial policy. Their introduction in September 1935 heralded a new wave of antisemitic legislation that brought about immediate and concrete segregation. German court judges could not cite legal commentaries or opinions written by Jewish authors, Jewish officers were expelled from the army, and Jewish university students were not allowed to sit for doctoral exams.
In 1937 and 1938, German authorities again stepped up legislative persecution of German Jews. They set out to impoverish Jews and remove them from the German economy by requiring them to register their property and preventing them from earning a living. The Nazis forbade Jewish doctors to treat non-Jews and they revoked the licenses of Jewish lawyers. In August 1938, German authorities decreed that by January 1, 1939, Jewish men and women bearing first names of “non-Jewish” origin had to add “Israel” and “Sara,” respectively, to their given names. All Jews were obliged to carry identity cards that indicated their Jewish heritage, and, in the autumn of 1938, all Jewish passports were stamped with an identifying letter “J.”
Following the Kristallnacht pogrom (commonly known as “The Night of Broken Glass”) on November 9-10, 1938, Nazi legislation barred Jews from all public schools and universities, as well as from cinemas, theaters, and sports facilities. In many cities, Jews were forbidden to enter designated “Aryan” zones. The government required Jews to identify themselves in ways that would permanently separate them from the rest of the population. As the Nazi leaders quickened preparations for their European war of conquest, the antisemitic legislation they enacted in Germany and Austria paved the way for more radical persecution of Jews.
The following list shows 29 of the more than 400 legal restrictions imposed upon Jews and other groups during the first six years of the Nazi regime.
Decree of the Berlin City Commissioner for Health suspends Jewish doctors from the city's social welfare services.
The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service removes Jews from government service.
The Law on the Admission to the Legal Profession forbids the admission of Jews to the bar.
The Law against Overcrowding in Schools and Universities limits the number of Jewish students in public schools.
The Denaturalization Law revokes the citizenship of naturalized Jews and “undesirables.”
The Law on Editors bans Jews from editorial posts.
The Army Law expels Jewish officers from the army.
The Nuremberg Race Laws exclude German Jews from Reich citizenship and prohibit them from marrying or having sexual relations with persons of “German or German-related blood.”
The Executive Order on the Reich Tax Law forbids Jews to serve as tax consultants.
The Reich Veterinarians Law expels Jews from the profession.
The Reich Ministry of Education bans Jewish teachers from public schools.
The Mayor of Berlin orders public schools not to admit Jewish children until further notice.
The Law on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names forbids Jews from changing their names.
The Law on the Profession of Auctioneer excludes Jews from the profession.
The Gun Law bans Jewish gun merchants.
The Decree against the Camouflage of Jewish Firms forbids changing the names of Jewish-owned businesses.
The Order for the Disclosure of Jewish Assets requires Jews to report all property in excess of 5,000 Reichsmarks.
The Reich Ministry of the Interior bans Jews from health spas.
The Executive Order on the Law on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names requires Jews bearing first names of “non-Jewish” origin to adopt an additional name: “Israel” for men and “Sara” for women.
The Decree on the Confiscation of Jewish Property regulates the transfer of assets from Jews to non-Jews in Germany.
The Reich Ministry of the Interior invalidates all German passports held by Jews. Jews must surrender their old passports, which will become valid only after the letter “J” has been stamped on them.
The Decree on the Exclusion of Jews from German Economic Life closes all Jewish-owned businesses.
The Reich Ministry of Education expels all Jewish children from public schools.
The Reich Ministry of the Interior restricts the freedom of movement of Jews.
The Reich Ministry of the Interior forbids Jews to keep carrier pigeons.
The Executive Order on the Law on the Organization of National Work cancels all state contracts held with Jewish-owned firms.
The Law on Midwives bans all Jews from the profession.
The Decree concerning the Surrender of Precious Metals and Stones in Jewish Ownership requires Jews to turn in gold, silver, diamonds, and other valuables to the state without compensation.
The President of the German Lottery forbids the sale of lottery tickets to Jews.
Critical Thinking Questions
- How does this list demonstrate the complexity and the systematic nature of the German efforts to discriminate against and persecute the Jews?
- Investigate reaction to the gradual series of anti-Jewish laws inside and outside Germany. How did your country react?
- How can knowledge of the events in Germany as the Nazis came to power help citizens today respond to threats of genocide and mass atrocity in the world?