Throughout the Spring and Summer of 1933 the new Nazi regime would start to make changes, some big, some small, some just a small part of larger plans.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War episode 25 - The Third Reich Part 11 - Changes. By mid July 1933 Germany was a single party state, this removed many of the possible roadblocks that the Nazi leaders could have faced when trying to implement their platform of reform. When discussing changes that occurred within Germany after 1933 one of the problems is the shear scope of the changes and the way that they evolved over the years. It can be very easy to get caught up in the end state of these changes, some of which would not be reached until after the war started, and miss out on the fact that the new Nazi led government began making changes almost immediately, and those changes would have meaningful impacts on the lives of many Germans as early as March 1933. During this episode we will discuss the changes that occurred in these early months, during the spring and early summer of 1933 and how it changed the way in which the German government interacted with the German people. Then we are going to put some focus on the early anti-Semitic actions by the Nazi government and what that meant for German Jews during those months. Finally we will end on the Nazi Eugenics program and how it hoped to shape German society through the use of compulsory sterilization and marriage limitations. Many of these topics will be revisited in the future as we discuss how they evolved and shifted over time, but the most important thing to note is how early they were put in place. We all know how this ends, in brutal violent oppression and genocide, but that is not how it started, instead it started with a years long campaign by the Nazi party to impart its belief system on the German people as a whole, and this would start with Propaganda.
Many of the cultural changes that would take place in Germany after 1933 were driven by a new government ministry created on March 13th named the Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. On the 23rd of March Hitler would say that this new Ministry was created and put under the control of Goebbels and “The government, will embark upon a systematic campaign to restore the nation’s moral and material health. The whole educational system, theatre, film, literature, the press, and broadcasting- all these will be used as a means to this end. They will be harnessed to help preserve the eternal values which are part of the integral nature of our people.” Many of the ministries inherited by the Nazi government were staffed with long serving civil service workers, a problem that would eventually be reduced, but that would take time. This new ministry was different, with its creation would provide Goebbels the ability to staff it entirely with incredibly loyal, highly educated, and true believer Nazi party members. They were united with one goal, to push back against the idea of ‘cultural Bolshevism’ which the Nazi party had long declared was eroding German culture, and robbing it of its historic power. Interestingly, there was resistance to Goebbels’ appointment among the cabinet. The Conservative leader Hugenberg distrusted Goebbels in no small part due to the campaigns that the Nazi party had run in previous elections. Goebbels was the one responsible for many of the most vivid and vicious attacks on the traditional German conservative and nationalist parties. However, these concerns like so many of Hugenberg’s concerns, would come to nothing and he would not be able to in any way hinder the creation of the new Ministry. As the Propaganda ministry got to work trying to achieve its purpose it ran into new problems, the first on the list were the number of Social Democrats, liberals, and Jews within the German Civil Service, this often made it challenging to push through certain changes, and so it was a problem that had to be solved.
On April 7 1933 a new law was passed, the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” this law prevented ‘Non-Aryan’ individuals from entering into the Civil Service, and those who were already employed within it could be dismissed. This had already been true for those tied to the Communist party, and most had already been removed from their positions, but the new law added a whole host of new individuals, mostly Jews or those of Jewish descent who would all be pushed into a forced retirement. Along with jobs in national and state government this also included schoolteachers, judges, and doctors. Many of Germany’s most distinguished academics were dismissed from their positions under the provisions of the law, and many would leave the country during this period. There were some exceptions within the law, and at least initially the laws were not applied equally to all areas of the civil service. For example, many Jewish doctors were not affected due to concerns that patients would not be pleased to lose their normal physician. There were also explicit exemptions for those who were war veterans, those whose father or husband had died during the war, or those who had served in their position since the start of the First World War. These official exemptions were added at the insistence of Hindenburg. Over 100,000 Jews had served in the military during the First World War, 78,000 of them at the front, with 12,000 dying in combat, and 30,000 receiving military commendations. This shining record of war service meant that a huge percentage of Jewish doctors, lawyers, and other civil servants qualified for the First World War exemption. Realizing some limits to their abilities to enact changes during this early period, the Nazi leaders accepted Hindenburg’s requests because they knew that Hindenburg was running out of time, and they would spend the next five years chipping away at the various exemptions until they were eventually fully removed in 1938. This is a really good example of how the process of change occurred during the 1930s in Germany. The Nazi government would introduce a new law which had the possibility of really harming many citizens of Germany. However, at the beginning there would be many exemptions to the law, or the law was just not applied in all possible instances. Once the law became an excepted part of German society, then it would be slowly changed, exemptions would be removed, and the language in the legislation that was previously interpreted very narrowly would slowly be expanded so that it could be applied to more and more situations.
One of the reasons that Nazi leaders were emboldened in their push to start all of their reforms was the reaction across the nation after the March elections. All over Germany millions of people would sign up to enter the Party, 2.5 million would join before limitations were placed on how individuals could join the Party in May. There was of course some true believers among this group, those who now believed that the Nazi party was the correct path forward for Germany, but there were of course also many who joined simply because it seemed like the best opportunity for their personal futures. This created some antagonism between those newer members and those of the old guard who had been with the party during its leaner days before 1933, this antagonism would continue to cause problems into the mid 1930s. However, what was clear is that many more people were signing on in support of the Nazi vision for the future of Germany, and that meant Nazi changes to German society, changes that were well underway by May 1933. Some of these reforms completely restructured the political makeup of Germany. Since its foundation in 1871 Germany had been an interesting mix of national powers from the government in Berlin and then states that held a large amount of local autonomy. This manifested in various ways, like Bavaria having their own army during the First World War. This was something of a unique feature of Germany and was a constant source of political maneuverings as the national leaders in Berlin tried to assert more power while state governments were zealously protective of their traditional independence and freedom of action. On April 7th, all of this could change. On that date a new law was created which appointed Reich governors for each of the German states, these men had the ability to appoint or remove government officials within the state. With this power now in the hands of a nationally appointed person, the historic independence of the German states was essentially dissolved almost overnight, and it would never return.
While March and April would be the end of some things, it would also be the beginning of others. On March 22nd four police trucks took 200 prisoners from state prisons and drove them to a disused factory outside Munich. This was to be the first in a new type of prison, one designed specifically for political prisoners. A new setup was required because the scale of the arrests over the previous months had caused a serious overcrowding problem within the normal prisons. The solution to the problem would be a new style, which would be called a concentration camp, with that disused factory outside Munich being the first, at a place called Dachau. Others would spring up across Germany in the coming months and they were used by the SA and the SS to house prisoners for questioning. Torture and violence were common place, and by the end of May 12 inmates had already been killed. During March, April, and May tens of thousands of people from around Germany were arrested, 25,000 in Prussia just during March and April, and that is without considering those arrested in Berlin, 10,000 in Bavaria by the end of April, and then twice that number in June. By the end of July 27,000 people were known to be imprisoned in what the German authorities referred to as ‘protective custody’, either in concentration camps, prisons, or in makeshift holding areas in buildings that the SA and SS had turned into holding cells. However, this number is somewhat deceiving because it was just the number of people imprisoned at that specific moment, and was not the total number of people arrested during this time. With the short duration of most imprisonments, a huge number of people would cycle in and out of the concentration camps during this early period. Most prisoners were held at the camps for only a few days or weeks, but during that time they were completely at the mercy of the guards, and physical violence and mental abuse were constant.
These actions were illegal under the German constitution, and there were judicial actions brought against the Nazi party for doing them. For example, the Bavarian Minister of Justice, Hans Frank, would attempt to prosecute those accused of torture at Dachau in 1933. Frank was a member of the Nazi party, and would later be made Governor-General of Poland during the war, and even though he at least made the action of bringing charges against the guards, these legal actions came to nothing in the courts. It was the same when the Reich Ministry of Justice also attempted to prosecute those who had arrested and tortured individuals in other party of Germany. In all cases the charges were brought into the legal system, and this frustrated, delayed, and finally removed by high ranking Nazi party leaders, sometimes escalating all the way up to Himmler and Hitler. At the highest levels the party was already working on new laws to take care of this problem permanently, and in March 21st they would put in place the first of several amnesty laws that were passed to grant amnesty to all crimes committed up to that point. This is just one example of how the government would get around the legal structures of Germany, which they held a great deal of contempt for. Richard J. Evans would say in The Coming of the Third Reich that “Most crucial of all was the fact that Hitler and the Nazis at every level were very much aware of the fact that they were breaking the law. Their contempt for the law, and for formal processes of justice, was palpable, and made plain on innumerable occasions. Might was right. Law was just the expression of power.” The quick shift of power to the Nazi leaders, made official by the Enabling Act, allowed this hatred for the judicial system to transition from an idea to a set of concrete actions to undermine the entire system.
The Nazi leaders were also quick to start dismantling other aspects of the Weimar legacy. Within the Nazi movement there had always been the belief, especially among the rank and file in the organization, that once the party came to power there would be a great reordering of German society. Undesirable people would be taken care of, either through arrests or expulsion from the country, and the systems that they had created would be dismantled. While other groups outside the party may not have agreed with all of these plans, groups like the Conservatives and Catholics did approve of certain changes to what they saw as problematic changes to Germany during the Weimar period. Many of these items were, at least initially, related to sexual freedom. During the Weimar years homosexuality had been decriminalized, abortion laws had been reforms, and access to contraceptives had been greatly increased. These were seen as a sign of moral decay by many within Germany, and Nazi leaders saw this concern as an opportunity. The dismantling of these reforms went hand in hand with the overall crackdown of many actions that were seen as ‘socially deviant’. The social changes throughout Germany, which we will track throughout the rest of these episodes in this series, were not just laws passed from above, or the actions of the violent SA groups in the great, they also were pervasive throughout all of society. For example during this period book burnings would begin, with May 10th being a day of bonfires throughout Germany as universities and libraries disposed of books by authors that were deemed to be unacceptable.
Of course one form of this action against those found to be unacceptable would manifest in the fanatical anti-Semitism that would overtake Germany during these years. Anti-Semitism was of course a core belief for Hitler and for the Nazi Party as a whole. It was perhaps the most constant and consistent policy position that the party had held throughout its entire existence, and after coming to power they did not hesitate very long before turning that policy into reality. Part of this was not even specific pieces of legislation passed by the government, but instead just actions from those who had, for over a decade now, been told time and time against that Jews were causing all of the problems. This meant that after Nazi power had been solidified throughout the nation Nazi party members, without any specific orders from above, because to increase the violence against Jews and the destruction of Jewish property. These acts were not a coordinated offensive against Jewish Germans, but instead almost random acts of violence. Now, I use the phrase Jewish Germans, but Hitler would not have agreed with that phrase, he had always made it clear that he did not consider Jews who lived in Germany to be Germans. This is one of the justifications for their removal from the civil service that we discussed earlier. On April 1st the next step was taken and a national boycott of Jewish owned businesses was announced. There were concerns among many within the government that this was a bad plan, the German economy was still in a very rough position due to the Depression and any kind of boycott activity could both weaken it internally and harm the country’s reputation on the international stage. These concerns would cause Hitler to publicly downplay the importance of the boycott. However, even while he was downplaying it in public, in private he was firmly in support of the action. More importantly, Goebbels and the Propaganda Ministry would launch a full campaign in support of the boycott, or as they would call it an enlightenment campaign aimed at informing the German people of the harm that had been done to Germany by Jewish businesses. When April arrived the boycott went forward with little public opposition, but also little outright public support. SA Men were found outside many Jewish businesses all over Germany, often with anti-Semitic signs and many of those smaller businesses were negatively impacted by the event. However, the larger Jewish owned businesses had been officially exempted due to their overall importance to the national economy. Many of these employed a good number of people, and in the midst of an unemployment crisis it seemed like a really bad time to take any action against them which might cause them to lay off workers. And so instead what public anger existed, or which was created by the propaganda and the actions of the SA was all directed against small, often family owned, businesses all over Germany that could do little to either defend themselves or to weather the storm.
When discussing anti-Semitism in Germany during this period, we all know where it ends, but the genocide it would eventually result in was not where it began. In fact one of the first results of all of these efforts by the Nazi government to discriminate against Jews in Germany was a burst in emigration. This was exactly in line with what the Nazi leaders wanted, they wanted these people out of Germany. During 1933 over 37,000 Jewish individuals would leave Germany, the next year 22,000, then in 1935 a further 21,000. In these three years that brings the number to 80,000 out of a starting population of around around 525,000. This also obviously means that most of them did not leave Germany during this period, and instead most believed that the huge wave of anti-Semitism during these years could simply eventually pass and things would go back to normal. Throughout Germany all of these new laws and restrictions also made race and racial thinking far more important for everyone. Many Germans started carrying a kind of “racial passport” to prove that they were of “Aryan” heritage during this time, and genealogists were very busy creating them. All of this was functioning exactly according to Nazi goals. With so much of their future policy built upon racial concepts, and especially upon creating divisions along racial lines, getting all Germans to consider race to be an important differentiator among people was an important first step. Or as historian Thomas Childers says “The ultimate goal of this intense indoctrination was to condition Germans to think racially, to view the world through a biological lens, and to infuse German society with a new racial ethos. Germans were constantly reminded that they were no longer merely Germans; they were Aryans, and their first duty was to the Volk, defined in racial terms.” It is also worth nothing that at this point there was not a precise and exact medical definition for “Aryan” it was very fuzzy at best.
These racial policies were not confined just to anti-Semitism. Another was based around what the Nazis would refer to as racial hygiene, or as it is better known, eugenics. Eugenics was very popular during this period in many nations, and Germany would not be the only nations around the world where eugenics theories would eventually be turned into government policy. The Nazi leaders believed that the Weimar system of social medicine, and providing support for all within society was problematic. They believed that it caused the German race as a whole to somehow grow weaker over time, and it also put economic strains on the government as it tried to support people who could at times not support themselves. The next step from this argument led to discussions about sterilization of people who the government believed should not be allowed to reproduce, and then the obvious next step was forced sterilization. This was, obviously, a very big step, but it was a step that was already being prepared for before 1933. In 1932 there was a discussion in the Prussian Health Council that concerned a new law which allowed what they called voluntary sterilization, but it gave power to medical professionals to influence patients, so at best it could be described as coerced volunteerism. These laws were put in place under the constraints that were present before March 1933, which were then of course no longer present after the Enabling Act. In June 1933 a Committee was created under the Interior Ministry to begin creating supporting arguments and evidence for the planned law, seeking to prepare the public for compulsory sterilization. This resulted in a new law being approved by the cabinet on July 14, 1933 titled “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring.” The list of possible hereditary diseases was lengthy: schizophrenia, manic depression, hereditary blindness or deafness, hereditary epilepsy, and serious physical deformities. The presence of several mental illnesses provided doctors with a lot of leeway when it came to who fell within the boundaries of the law. They were also able to give an intelligence test, with those who did not achieve a certain score considered to be “feeble minded.” During 1934 there would be 56,000 sterilizations performed, and until 1939 there would be at least 50,000 per year, in total 400,000 people would be sterilized under the law by 1945.
While sterilizations were the most severe outcome of the Nazi eugenics program, there were also more mild, but just as pervasive efforts. For example the Ten Commandments of Selecting a Mate would be released to try and provide guidance on who Germans should choose to marry and they would be “1. Remember you are German. 2. If you are genetically healthy, you shall not remain unmarried. 3. Keep your body pure. 4. Keep your soul and mind pure. 5. As a German, select only a mate with Nordic blood. 6. When you select a mate, ask about ancestry. 7. Health is the precondition for external beauty. 8. Marry only for love. 9. Don’t select a playmate. Choose a partner for life. 10. Hope for as many children as possible.” Eventually in 1935 a law was put in place where all couples who were seeking marriage had to obtain a certificate of genetic health from local authorities, if this was not obtained the marriage was not officially recognized by the state. All of these eugenics efforts were supported by the government, and the Nazi propaganda machine was utilized to gain support for them. And they were the subject of a concerted campaign that appealed to both scientific and economic consequences of not having such laws in place. This campaign stressed the financial burden that all German taxpayers had to pay to care for individuals who were deemed to be disabled and the importance of finding the best possible partner. Eventually this became such an important part of the Nazi propaganda efforts that a special Office of Racial Policy was created to coordinate it all.
Calling back to something I said earlier, we know where many of these policies end, or what they turn into, genocide. But that is not where they began, instead the Nazi party would spend the better part of a decade convincing the German people that racial differences between people were critical, that they had to considered, that they were a critical component of decision making. This allowed them to break society along racial lines, to demonize certain races, or genetic characteristics. This would lay the groundwork for their later actions.