31: Nuremberg Laws and the Saar


This episode is a bit of a grab bag of topics. The Nazi government would put in place the Nuremberg Laws to further their discrimination against Jews, while also being unable to define who actually should be discriminated against. In early 1935 a small part of Germany would decide whether to join with France.



  • The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans
  • Germany and the Second World War Volume 1: The Build-Up of German Aggression by Wilhelm Deist, Manfred Messerschmidt, Hans-Erich Volkmann, and Wolfram Wette
  • Hitler: A Biography by Ian Kershaw
  • The Third Reich by Thomas Childers
  • The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy by Adam Tooze
  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer
  • France and the Remilitarization of the Rhineland, 1936 by Stephen A. Schuker
  • The First Capitulation: France and the Rhineland Crisis of 1936 by R.A.C. Parker (1956)
  • France, Germany, and the Saar by A.J.P. Taylor (1952)
  • The Franco-Polish Alliance and the Remilitarization of the Rhineland by George Sakwa
  • French Intelligence and Hitler’s Rise to Power by Peter Jackson
  • Great Britain and the Saar Plebiscite of 13 January 1935 by C.J. Hill
  • Hitler, Intelligence and the Decision to Remilitarize the Rhine by Zach Shore
  • Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power: January 1933 by Henry Ashby Turner Jr.
  • Prologue to Peacekeeping: Ireland and the Saar, 1934-35 by Michael Kennedy
  • Fantasy and Reality in Nazi Work-Creation Programs, 1933-1936 by Dan P. Silverman
  • Franz von Papen, the German Center Party, and the Failure of Catholic Conservatism in the Weimar Republic by Larry Eugene Jones
  • Causes and Consequences of the Plebiscite in the Saar by E.W (1955)
  • The Purge of the SA Reconsidered: “An Old Putschist Trick”? by Eleanor Hancock
  • The Remilitarization of the Rhineland and its Impact on the French-Polish Alliance by Roman D. Bicki (1969)
  • Rohm and Hitler: The Continuity of Political-Military Discord by David Jablonsky
  • The German Roman Catholic Hierarchy and the Saar Plebiscite of 1935 by Guenter Lewy (1964)
  • Saar Coal After Two World Wars by O.R. Reischer
  • Schacht’s Regulation of Money and the Capital Markets by Arthur Schweitzer (1948)
  • The Myth of Chancellor Von Schleicher’s Querfront Strategy by Henry Ashby Turner Jr.
  • The Struggle for Control of the German Economy by Amos E. Simpson
  • The Nazi State and German Society: A Brief History with Documents by Robert G. Moeller
  • Franz von Papen, Catholic Conservatives, and the Establishment of the Third Reich, 1933-1934 by Larry Eugene Jones
  • Franz von Papen, the German Center Party, and the Failure of Catholic Conservatism in the Weimar Republic by Larry Eugene Jones
  • British Establishment Perspectives on France, 1936-1940 by Michael Dockrill


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War episode 31, The Third Reich Part 17 - Nuremberg Laws and the Saar. This week I would like to tell you about the Human Circus podcast, which I personally subscribe and listen to. The podcast looks at medieval history through the stories of travelers during the period, what was it like for a Nestorian monk from China in Paris in the 13th century? Or for Abbasid ambassadors attending a Viking funeral in the 10th century? All this and more can be found in the Human Circus podcast, you can find out more information at humamcircuspodcast.com. As for this podcast, this week a big thank you goes out to Colton and Carey for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon, where they now get access to ad free versions of all of these episodes plus special Patreon only episodes released once a month. If that sounds interesting to you, head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more information. While anti-Semitism and a more general racism had always been a part of Nazi rhetoric, it would take time for it to evolve into the oppressive laws and policies that the regime would eventually be associated with. We have already discussed one of the early examples of these laws which would be named the Law for the Protection of the German Civil Service which would see many individuals of Jewish descent, along with others, removed from various civil institutions around Germany. Another critical step would be taken in the form of the Nuremberg Laws which would be put in place in September 1935. Similar to other Nazi policies these were introduced without a long planning period before hand, which we will discuss, and their application would be challenging due to some outstanding questions which would still remains, particularly around how specifically racial categorization should be done. Even with these problems and ambiguities they were still very important to the overall conduct of the Nazi regime during the back half of the 1930s. Our second topic for today will be a look at how events in Germany appeared to those around the world, and particularly in France. France was at an interesting point during the 1930s, caught between being deeply concerns about growing Nazi and German power, while also finding it very challenging to find the best reaction to it. This is of course not the only time we will be discussing French reactions to events in Germany, and in future episodes we will dive much deeper into the feelings in Paris which would be so critical to all of the events leading up to the war in the late 1930s. To end this episode we will look at the events surrounding the Saar Plebiscite, in which a region of Germany would get a chance to vote for whether or not it would join with France, a vote provided for by the Treaty of Versailles and overseen by the League of Nations.

In the months before the creation of the Nuremberg Laws Hitler himself was not greatly concerned with domestic policy. This was a period when international tension and events were beginning to ramp up and other events were occurring, like the Saar Plebiscite that we will discuss at the end of this episode. But at another level within the Nazi party there was a growing concern that in the over 2.5 years that the Nazi regime had been in place little progress had been made towards a reduction of Jews within German society. This pressure would continue to build, and violence against German Jews and demands for some kind of new legislation would begin to mount. One of the reasons that legislation was pursued was because it was apparent by this stage that most Germans would not be actively involved with large scale violent discrimination, they were somewhat apathetic towards the entire subject. This meant that if anything was going to be done it would have to be led by government example, which would then be used as justification by the most ardent believers in Nazi racial policies for large scale discrimination. That apathy would also end up working in the other direction, with many Germans unwilling or uninterested in making a firm stance against official government discrimination of Jews and other groups. Up until the summer of 1935 Hitler had attempted to remain outside of the general disagreements between the radicals and conservatives within the government on this topic as it was politically challenging to go against the advice and support of the conservatives, even if Hitler had for his entire political career loudly advocated for exactly what the radicals were doing during this time. During the spring and summer of 1935 Hitler would be forced to take some kind of action. One of the reasons for this is that Schacht made it clear to Hitler that the actions and violence that were being done to Jews throughout Germany in an ad hoc and individual manner were having serious economic and public opinion consequences. They were harming businesses, interfering with daily life, and generally just causing disruptive violence and activities in the cities. Therefore on August 8th Hitler, through Rudolf Hess, would inform the party that actions against Jews should be heavily curtailed. This carried with it the understanding that a more widespread and influential set of changes would soon be made at the governmental level.

Along with the pushes for government action towards greater discrimination there was also a growing discourse within German society about what it meant to be ‘Aryan’, a term which was still not precisely defined. A large part of that discussion would always be how this mythical idea of Aryan blood, or Aryan racial purity could be polluted by others. For example, during this period it would be promulgated by several racial theorists that any kind of sexual relations with those of certain undesirable groups would somehow pollute a woman for the rest of her life, really crazy stuff. These types of beliefs were common among those pushing for greater actions by the government, for example a ban on marriages between Jews and Germans. One of these was Doctor Gerhard Wagner, who on September 12th announced that there would soon be a Law that would try to to fix some of the problems, he would call this a ‘Law to Protect German Blood.’ While there were discussions already occurring about such a piece of legislation, the exact contents of such a law were not yet determined on September 12th, and would only be fully fleshed out over the next several days. Hitler would request that multiple versions of a possible law be created, which varied mostly based on the penalties that would be handed out based on breaches of the law. There was no indication given to those drafting the new laws which Hitler would choose to present to the Reichstag. There would also be some work done on a Citizenship Law which would further clarify who and who was not considered a citizen of Germany. All of this was greatly complicated by the fact that while creating all of these drafts there was still not a precise definition of what the German government considered to be a Jewish individual. At 8PM on September 15th Hitler would present the two new laws to the Reichstag, the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, collectively known as the Nuremberg laws. At this point introducing them to the Reichstag was entirely a formality, and the legislative body presented no obstacle to their passage. The Citizenship Law removed the German citizenship of any individuals who were categorized as Jews. The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor made it a criminal offense for a Jew to have sexual intercourse with someone considered to be of Aryan descent. I am being a bit cagey about how I speak about these laws because there were some many unanswered questions, most importantly who precisely fit into the various categories. There was nothing in the Law that specifically stated who was and was not to be considered Jewish individual and why they received such a classification. This would result in there being a number of supplementary decrees to try and clear up the ambiguity, which started to make things very complicated. Here is Ian Kershaw from Hitler a Biography discussing one of these decrees “Three-quarter Jews were counted as Jewish. Half-Jews (with two Jewish and two ‘aryan’ grandparents) were reckoned as Jewish only if practising the Jewish faith, married (since the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws) to a Jew, the child of a marriage with a Jewish partner, or the illegitimate child of a Jew and ‘aryan’.” and here is Thomas Childers discussing another supplement “In November a supplement to the Law for the Protection of German Blood classified anyone with two Jewish grandparents “a Mixture of the first degree” (Mischling erster Grad), except where the grandparents were religiously practicing, in which case the individual was declared “a full Jew.” The introduction of religious practice as a consideration came as something of a surprise since it was utterly inconsistent with the party’s official position that religious and environmental factors were irrelevant; blood was all.” I realize that all of that is a bit confusing and requires some sort of flow chart to properly understand, but the important fact was that so much of Nazi racial science was built around the idea that certain races were simply inferior to others, inferior to the Aryan race specifically, whatever that was. However, it was simply impossible for the government to arrive at a consistent biological definition of what on earth they were talking about. The most obvious example of this was having to resort to a religious practice to try and categorize people so that you could discriminate against them, when that discrimination was claimed to be required due to biological reasons, it was quite absurd and this absurdity would provide the ability to arbitrarily apply the law as the government saw fit.

Getting the new laws put in place was an important step for the Nazi government, there had been many concerns from more moderate Germans about the attacks that had been happening against Jews and Jewish businesses, but there was generally less concern now that such anti-Jewish policies were officially sanctioned by the government. However, it is almost certainly incorrect to characterize the laws as some kind of calculated escalation of anti-Semitism on the part of the regime. They were created, put in place, and then announced at Nuremberg in only a few days, just another example of the kind of improvisation and radical shifts that would be so characteristic of Nazi policy and decision making. While it may not have been a calculated shift in anti-Semitic politics, that is what it would become, or the first of many shifts. There would be five total supplements before the start of the war just to the Blood Protection law, some of which we have already discussed, as they tried to put some kind of definition around who the law targeted, first to restrict the pool of individuals and then later to greatly expand it. In retrospect it would be one step of many as German Jews had their rights eroded over time, a process which would of course accelerate during the war years.

During the 1930s the worldwide press took an interest in events in Germany just like they would in many other nations. There were many different reports that took completely different views of German life during this period, some very complimentary of the Nazi policies, but others took a more concerning tone. For example here is a report from the New York Times in 1933 “Report on a Visit to a Reich prison Camp “On the edge of Dachau is a big Bavarian concentration camp for political prisoners. […] Dachau is ruled by both prison regulations and rules of military discipline. That is apparent on the prisoners. […] They looked sour, grim, sullen, sad, or merely apathetic.” There was also great interest from Germany’s neighbors when it came to precisely what Hitler’s intentions were after the was installed as Chancellor and then it appeared that he would remain in a leadership position for many years. One of these neighbors was of course Poland. As we have discussed many times during these episodes, one of Hitler’s driving goals was German expansion in the east, but after coming to power he would take a very conciliatory tone with the Poles. In fact in January 1934 a 10 year nonaggression pact would be announced between Germany and Poland, which came as a pretty big shock to many other nations, including France. The Polish leader, Pilsudski, had attempted to reach out to Paris to coordinate action to contain possible German aggression, even going so far as to suggest a preventative war in 1933, but there was in general a lack of decisiveness coming from Western Europe at this time. Not seeing a better option, and being approached by Hitler who appeared to be quite generous in such discussions, they took the only option available to them. This was just one of many instances of Hitler proclaiming loudly and insistently that he really just wanted peace, a series of spectacles that had begun as early as May 1933 in a speech given to the Reichstag. This refrain would continue pretty much until 1939, and at least in the beginning it was designed to convince both Germans and foreigners that the Nazi government wanted nothing more than to continue the Weimar policies of peaceful revisionism. There had always been the desire during the Weimar years to see changes in Germany’s relationship with its neighbors and the provisions of the Versailles treaty, but they had always pursued them in a peaceful manner, and Hitler claimed to want to continue this tradition. This would continue even after the German exit from the League of Nations, which would have been the best way to pursue such a policy if it really was the goal. After the exit Hitler’s Proclamation too the German People was released, which state his ‘policy of sincere love for peace and readiness to reach an understanding.’ All of these public statements would be used later, when German rearmament was officially announced, to assert that Germany was only rearming due to the refusal of other nations to disarm down to Germany’s level, and that it was purely defensive in nature. While this was categorically untrue, the propaganda and actions of the German leaders were persistent and consistent enough to at least sow doubts in the minds of many international observers, but citizens and governments alike.

The only people who took as great of an interest in the German military as the Germans themselves was the French intelligence services, both as a way of ensuring that the clauses of the Treaty of Versailles were being upheld and out of a continuing concern about what the future held. Due to these concerns the French intelligence services would follow the evolution of the Reichswehr very closely. They would also send up a warning flag when Hitler had taken over as Chancellor in January 1933. The general appraisal of the situation was that with Hitler coming to power things were going to fundamentally change. Looking at the rhetoric used by Hitler it was clear that he saw France as a key threat in the realization of his goals, especially his goals of territorial acquisition in the east. These concerns combined with one of the key mistakes that the French intelligence services would make during the interwar years, which was to consistently overestimate the capabilities of the German Army. The reports that were sent from Berlin were often interpreted in a kind of worst case scenario, which meant that, for example, the French would include estimates of paramilitary and police populations within the total number of German military troops which could be mobilized almost instantly. This meant that instead of the German army being a threat of a few hundred thousand trained soldiers, but only 100,000 active duty, instead French strategy and planning was based on a German army of several million. A similar inflation in numbers and capabilities would occur on the air force side as well, with French estimates including just about everything with two wings and an engine as a possible bomber, which including passenger, cargo, and mail aircraft were all assumed to be capable of instant mobilization. Assuming this kind of worst case scenario is not always incorrect, but in the case of its effects on French decision making, it would cause French leaders to always make choices based on the worst possible outcome. French military leaders took the threat that was prescribed by the intelligence services seriously, and then they used that analysis when discussing possible actions with the government which would then push policy decisions. This caused a level of extreme caution in France after it became clear that Hitler was both in control and was unlikely to be removed by actions of others in Germany. They believed it was simply impossible for the French to make any meaningful changes when evaluating the capabilities of the French military in comparison to the greatly overestimated German capabilities. This would then negatively effect relations with Poland and other nations in Eastern Europe who were looking to France for action and advice, and all they received was caution and concern. The action, or lack thereof, from Paris put a damper on any strong responses to anything that Germany was doing, a problem that would continue all the way to 1939.

There were also events of a political nature during this period which would see the French government go along with the decisions of the League of Nations and the clauses of the Treaty of Versailles, even if they benefitted Germany. One of these events would occur in the Saar region. The Saar territory was 720 square miles with a population of about 800,000, almost entirely German in language and culture, on the Franco-German border just south of Luxembourg. It was also an area of economic interest due to its large industrial infrastructure and coal production capabilities. The region had been a contested area between Germany and France during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. It had initially been captured in the revolutionary wars of 1792, but then was lost after Waterloo 20 years later. It was then once again occupied by France as part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The agreement within that treaty stated that the French could occupy the area for 15 years, at the end of which the future of the Saar would be decided by a plebiscite, a favorite tool of those at the Paris Peace Conference. This 15 year period would end in 1934. During this occupation that was always an impending vote on whether the area would return to Germany or join with France, and this altered French involvement. There was always the generally held belief that there was little chance that the area would vote itself out of Germany, and this caused there to be only limited investment by the French during its occupation, which did nothing to gain any support for France. It was only in 1933 and with Hitler coming to power that it appeared there was an opportunity for a shift in public opinion in the Saar because the area was the destination of many political leaders who were pushed out of German politics in the months immediately following January 1933, it would also be an area with very low official support for the Nazi party. This made it seem possible that these anti-Nazi feelings would result in a vote to at least maintain the status quo as an area under French protection. Discussions would occur within the League of Nations during 1934 to set a date for the referendum, and eventually the date would be set as January 13, 1935. Much like other plebiscites during the interwar years there was no small amount of disagreement about who should be allowed to vote on the referendum, with the French of course wanting as many people as possible to vote, especially those that had moved to the region recently to flee from the new Nazi government. The German government pushed to only allow those that had lived in the Saar since 1920. They would also make use of as much propaganda as possible to try to assure the greatest possible margin of victory. This included all of the normal methods of distributing propaganda, and would also include the support of the Catholic church. Support from the church was important to obtain because almost three quarters of all of the voters in the Saar were Catholic. Just a few days before the plebiscite the Catholic bishops would release the following “On Sunday, January 13, a plebiscite will be held in the Saar Territory on the question whether this German land and its people shall remain under the separation from the German Reich forced upon them by the dictated peace of Versailles [Versailler Gewaltfrieden]. This decision, to be made in a few days at the Saar and fraught with fateful consequences for the future of our fatherland, no true German can face with indifference. As German Catholics we are duty-bound to stand up for the greatness, welfare and peace of our fatherland.” This message was generally supported all the way down the church hierarchy, with many Catholic leaders, even if they were not fans of Nazi policies, believing that it was still much more important to once again join the region to Germany, seeing the Nazi leaders as simply a temporary problem.

In the months before the vote took place there was a desire within the League to make sure that there were not any problems that might occur between the Germans and the French authorities. This resulted in a bit under 3,500 foreign troops moving into the area to oversee the plebiscite including troops from Britain, Italy, Sweden, and the Netherlands among others. This would eventually prove to be unnecessary precaution, but it did result in a vote that was probably about as legitimate as could be expected in the situation. The results were quite shocking to many people, even to the German leaders who were hoping for the best, because over 90 percent of the voters would choose to re-unify with Saar with Germany, with just 9 percent desiring the status quo and less than half a percent choosing unification with France. There was not any real doubt among German leaders that the result would be unification, but they did not believe that it would be so one sided. Just four days after the vote it would be formally approved by the League Council. The result would be celebrated within Germany as some kind of massive triumph, and especially by the Nazi government who would use it as proof that they were putting Germany back on the correct path toward legitimacy on the world stage. There would be a few negotiations between France and Germany over the following month, with Germany agreeing to pay a total of 900 million francs worth of reparations, most of which was to be in the form of coal shipments, about 2/3s of which would actually be delivered before the war. The reunion with the Saar was one of the first of many instances of the German government successfully removing the limits placed upon them by the Treaty of Versailles, another would be the expansion of the German Army, a topic we will discuss next episode.