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Caricature, USHMM #42034

Anti-Semitism is the common name for anti-Jewish sentiments.

During Hitler, anti-Semitism was implemented in its most grotesque form. The Nazis used anti-Semitism to carry out the Endlösung – the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’. Through persecution and later extermination of the European Jews, the Nazis hoped to solve the ‘Jewish problem’ once and for all – strongly backed by anti-Semites in the Balkans, the Soviet Union and other eastern European countries.

But anti-Semitism is neither invented in Germany or a specifically German phenomenon. Through centuries, Jews were a persecuted people.

Ever since the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine and their settling in Europe and elsewhere around the world, evidence of anti-Jewish sentiments and actions has surfaced. During the Middle Ages, such actions often took the form of pure mass murder. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Jews fell victim to frequent pogroms in Eastern Europe. But with the Nazi persecution in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Jews all over German-controlled Europe were systematically killed. More than 6 million were murdered.

More about:
Anti-Semitism: Jews persecuted since the Middle Ages
Timeline – persecutions of Jews in Europe
Germany and anti-Semitism: the 19th century
Germany under the Weimar Republic
The Jews in Germany
The Nazis and anti-Semitism
Timeline – the Nazi race policy
Why did the Germans support the discrimination?
Who was Jewish?
Want to know more?

Anti-Semitism: Jews persecuted since the Middle Ages

The animosity between the Christian church and the Jews

Ever since the Middle Ages, persecutions of Jews took place all over Europe. This was mainly due to the Christian Church’s persecution of Jews and Jewry, which was frequently followed by public pogroms. Jews were seen as strangers who represented a different religion in Christian medieval Europe. According to the Christians, the Jews were brash enough to deny that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.

Accordingly, the Church and the people frequently accused the Jews of all sorts of misfortunes: The Jews were accused of being responsible for the death of Christ, they were accused of killing Christian children, and they were accused of causing natural catastrophes. When the Plague (The Black Death) broke out in 1348, the Jews were also accused of having caused that to happen.

Caricature of Jews' preference for money and power in Germany, in the children's book Der Giftpilz ('The Poisonous Mushroom'), 1935, USHMM #40014.

Often the anti-Semitic waves were rooted in economic problems. In the early Middle Ages, Christians were not allowed to work in the money lending business, and the Jews consequently took over this “dirty business”. But: This meant that Christians came to owe money to the Jews, and this led to the Jews being viewed as loan sharks. Such sentiments were widespread even in Hitler’s days.

Towards the middle and end of the medieval period, due to economic development and internationalisation, the Jews’ monopoly in the money business and their economic importance diminished.


Anti-Semitism was also caused by xenophobia. The European populations turned their frustrations with their social and economic problems towards the “strangers” – a situation perhaps not all that different from todays.

At the end of the 13th century, anti-Semitic sentiments increased around Europe. In England, Jews were expelled in 1290, while in many other places Jews were massacred.

Jews persecuted and murdered in the Middle Ages. The drawing is from the 16th century.

Following the Reformation (15-16th century), anti-Jewish sentiments continued to abound in Northern Europe. The man behind the reformation, Martin Luther, expressed strong anti-Semitic ideas, for instance in 1453, when he wrote that the Jewish synagogues should be burned, their houses destroyed and the Jews be driven out of Germany “forever”.

In the following centuries, European Jews were in reality isolated from their surroundings in the European cities, in so-called ghettos. In 1648 the by then culmination came, when a great massacre on Jews took place in Poland.

The 19th century

During the 19th century the conditions for Jews in Europe were greatly improved. Among the reasons for this were the Enlightenment philosophers’ plea for liberty and equality. The Jews were liberated under the impression of the ideals of the Age of the Enlightenment, and a process of assimilation commenced.

Simultaneously, however, the 19th century marked the so far culmination to European anti-Semitism. As nationalism became the order of the day, the hatred of the Jews escalated and the number of pogroms increased all over Europe. In the name of nationalism, ethnic and religious minorities were looked down upon. Also, the word ‘anti-Semitism’ was invented (in 1879).

In Russia the Jews were strongly persecuted, often in the form of state-sponsored pogroms, following the murder of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. The result was that many Jews were murdered and a large number of Jews fled to Western Europe. Around 2 million Jews went to the United States, while Argentina, Canada and Great Britain received around 300,000 Jews. The persecutions also lay the ground for the Zionist movement and the desire to establish a Jewish nation.

The idea of a Jewish world conspiracy – later used in nazi propaganda – was based on ‘The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion’. In this document, fabricated by the Russian Tsar’s secret police, were listed Jewish plans to take over the world. The falsification turned up in Germany in 1919 and was seen by anti-Semites as proof of the ‘dark forces’ that had caused Germany to lose World War I.

In Denmark, anti-Semitism was limited to riots during the so-called ‘Jewish feud’ in 1819 and 1830 – and it was not until 1849 that Jews became legally equal with the rest of the Danish population. In the Ukraine, however, anti-Semitic sentiments increased, leading tot the most terrible results. In 1919 Ukrainian nationalists murdered around 60,000 Jews.

Timeline – persecutions of Jews in Europe

922 B.C. The Jewish kingdom is established

70 A.D. The Romans conquer the Jewish kingdom – the Temple of Solomon is destroyed.

11-12th Cent. Massacres on Jews in the Rhineland and by the Crusaders.

1215 Jews in Europe are forced to dress in a certain way or carry the Jewish mark.

1290 The Jews are expelled from England.

14th Cent. The Jews are expelled from France.

1492 The Jews are expelled from Spain, unless they are willing to be baptised.

1648 Massacres on Jews in Poland and the Ukraine.

19th Cent. The Jews are gradually emancipated in Germany and in other Westernm European countries.

1819 Pogrom against the Jews of Copenhagen.

1881 Pogroms in Russia following the murder of the Tsar.

1919 Pogroms in Eastern Europe – 60,000 Jews are killed in the Ukraine by Ukrainian nationalists.

Germany and anti-Semitism: the 19th century

Anti-Semitism gained ground in Germany during the 19th century. Anti-Semitic libels were published everywhere, and the economic crisis of the early 19th century was linked to anti-Semitism and blamed on the Jews.

Besides this, thousands of Jews fled to Germany from the pogroms in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century – thus keeping up the level of German xenophobia.

In a climate of economic crisis in Germany towards the end of the 19th century, Jewish bankers were blamed. The Jews were seen as evil and exploiting capitalists, and several anti-Semitic parties were founded. The famous composer Richard Wagner, among others, supported these anti-Semitic tendencies, which in time became infused with racist-biological ideas.

"I view the Jewish race in particular as the born enemy of the racially pure man and of any nobleness in him; I am convinced that they especially will destroy us Germans."

From: A letter from Wagner to King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Das Judentum in der Musik.

University teachers and other learned people also pleaded for anti-Semitism. In connection with the growth of modern nationalism and the motto of ‘one stat, one nation’, the German author and philosopher Paul de Lagarde expressed that

"I have long been convinced that Jewry constitutes the cancer in all of our life; as Jews, they are strangers in any European state and as such they are northing but spreaders of decay."

Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the “superman” – Übermensch – as a race biologically and intellectually better shaped than others, was misused by anti-Semites, and later by the Nazis. Some Germans felt like a part of this race of superior human beings at the end of the 19th century.

Pseudo-scientific measuring of "racial characteristics".

“Scientific” race theories also surfaced as a new current in Europe and Germany in the 19th century. The Aryan myth came to play an important and terrible role during the Nazi era – including the idea of a special German-Germanic spirit and race that was superior to all else.

In spite of the anti-Semitism, Jews were awarded legal equality in Prussia in 1859, and later in the rest of Germany. This, however, did not hugely influence the amount of popular anti-Semitism.

A fundamental myth about the Jews was the idea of them being in collusion with both capitalism and socialism. An abundance of Anti-Semitic writings tried to explain this alleged ‘conspiracy, which was to bring the Jews world supremacy. Hitler later used this myth as an argument for punishing the Jews.

Germany during the Weimar Republic

The 'stab-in-the-back legend': Since someone had to get the blame for Germany's defeat in World War I, the Jews were chosen as the scapegoat. According to the Nazis, the Jews had stabbed the brave German front solider in the back. Süddeutsche Monatshefte, 1924

After World War I the German anti-Semitism reached new heights. The returning and dethroned German soldiers – among them Adolf Hitler – accused those on the home front of being responsible for the defeat. According to the so-called ‘stab-in-the-back legend’, social democratic politicians, revolutionaries and especially Jews had “stabbed” the army in the back.

And according to the paranoid Hitler, it was a mean conspiracy between Jewish capitalists in the allied countries that had financed World War I, while Jewish socialists and communists had been responsible for the stabbing on the home front. Hitler was even more explicit in Mein Kampf and in later speeches, where he spoke of the existence of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. In this conspiracy, Jewish capitalists had joined forces with the Judeo-Bolshevist socialism.

It almost looked as if nationalism and anti-Semitism only increased as ever-greater misfortunes descended on the German people. In many circles, the Jews were simply blamed for the miserable state of affairs in Germany. Jews were also accused of being parasites, Marxists and for being the very people behind World War I.

Murders of prominent politicians were not unheard of in the first turbulent years of the Weimar Republic. But the murder of two prominent public personalities, the Jewish politician Rosa Luxembourg in 1919 and the visionary Jewish Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau in 1922, were both marked by strong anti-Semitic motives.

Europe was in a state of economic crisis in the 1930’s. The crisis hit the debt-ridden German nation particularly hard, causing economic impoverishment, high inflation, serious unemployment and poverty. The crisis was adding fuel to the flames of the anti-Semitic bonfire. A scapegoat had to be found: the Jews were chosen.

The Jews in Germany

At the time of the Nazi takeover in 1933, believing Jews made up 0,8% of the German population, 500,000 of a total population of approximately 62 million (according to a public census from 1933). The Jewish population was largely concentrated in the great cities.

Jews in Germany, 1933:

500,000 Jews in total (app. 0,8 % of the population)

In the great cities:
161,000 in Berlin
26,000 in Frankfurt am Main
20,000 in Breslau
17,000 in Hamburg
15,000 in Cologne

From: Wolfgang Benz, ed., Dimension des Völkermords (Munich, 1991).

Most of Europe’s between 9 and 11 million Jews lived in Eastern Europe. But Germany had the largest number of Western European Jews.

In general, the German Jews were better educated and assimilated than was the case with the Jews in the Eastern European countries. Many of the Jews in Germany were not believers.

Although the Jews in Germany constituted a very small percentage of the total population, a relatively large number of Jews were represented on the political, economic and cultural scene. But this fact should not have caused anti-Semitism – and ultimately persecution of the German Jews, of whom many felt more German than Jewish.

In spite of the high degree of assimilation of the German Jews, they fell victim to the Nazi regime’s policies of persecution and extermination.

The Nazis and anti-Semitism

Hitler in February 1933, shortly after being appointed Reich Chancellor, USHMM #24531.

Immediately after the elections to the Reichstag on 5 March 1933, which marked the real beginning to Hitler’s and the Nazi’s takeover of Germany, the SA and other Nazi organisations gave way to their hatred of the Jews. Jews were molested, some even killed, and Jewish businesses were harassed or destroyed.

The first apparent anti-Semitic initiative was the boycott of Jewish stores in April 1933. After this followed a wave of laws and ordinances. More than 2,000 racist laws and ordinances were issued between 1933 and 1945.

Although historians disagree on how important anti-Semitism was in the early phase of the Nazi regime, 1933 definitely constituted a marked line between the times of the Weimar Republic and the new regime. The
Reichstag Fire Decree of 28 February 1933, for instance, gave the Nazi state the possibility of imprisoning Jews (and other political enemies) without legal trial.

Caricature on the frontpage of Der Stürmer (an anti-Semitic tabloid) depicting how the Jews are threatening Europe, 1937, USHMM #37851A.

The Nazis did not exclusively view the Jews as a religious community, but rather as belonging to the ‘Semitic race’. This race tried to gain power at the expense of the Aryan race. Such ideas had been propagated by the French count Joseph de Gobineu and the Englishman Houston Stewart Chamberlain at the end of the 19th century.

The position of the Jews at the centre of both political and economic affairs was perfect for theories of political conspiracy. It was relatively easy to accuse Jews of being in collusion with and responsible for communism, capitalism, liberalism, socialism, revolution, etc., etc.

The so-called > The Nuremberg Laws from 1935 were a landmark event. They were a collection of race laws that definitively segregated the Jews from the German Volksgemeinschaft (‘people’s community’).

The most explicit expression of anti-Semitism was seen in the violent atrocities committed during the so-called Night of Broken Glass in 1938. Tens of thousands of Jews were imprisoned in concentration camps, while Jewish businesses, property and synagogues were destroyed. The Jewish were even presented with the bill for the atrocities committed by the regime: a fine of 1 billion Reichmark for their ‘hostility towards the German people’.

In the schools, the regime put much energy into showing the children why it was necessary to be strict with the Jews. Through anti-Semitic literature, the pupils were indoctrinated with delusions of the Jews’ hunger for world dominance, that the Jews were an inferior and criminal race, and that the Jews were a serious danger to the German people. According to an official guideline for teaching about the Jewish Question from 1937, the teaching should result in every single pupil:

"...remain an enemy of the Jews for the rest of his life and raise his children as enemies."

Malevolent caricature on the cover of the anti-Semitic children's book Der Giftpilz ("The Poisoneous Mushroom"), 1935, USHMM #40000.

In general, the regime’s propaganda, as well as the propaganda in all “independent” media, presented the Jews as simple animals. Der Stürmer was the worst and most widely distributed of the anti-Semitic tabloids. Among other things, Der Stürmer treated the Jewish ritual slaughtering of livestock in 1934, which caused a good deal of bad blood against the Jews. Jews were frequently made fun of or caricatured in illustrations, as for instance in a drawing of a rabbi who sucked the blood of children.

The German Jews did not stay immune to the growing anti-Semitism. They began to emigrate from Germany in large numbers. Approximately 300,000 of Germany’s 500,000 Jews left the country between 1933 and 1941 – in 1941 the emigration was halted.

It has to be mentioned, in all fairness, that a large number of Germans distanced themselves from the anti-Semitism. Even Hermann Göring distanced himself from especially the violent anti-Semitism, for instance the events during the Night of broken Glass, but that was primarily for economic reasons. The destruction of Jewish businesses meant, at least in theory that German insurance companies had to pay out large compensations to the Jewish business owners, which according to Göring was completely ‘ridiculous’. Göring wanted the regime to control the masses so that no property was damaged through anti-Semitic demonstrations.

The Nazis’ anti-Semitic racial policy – timeline

1920's: Verbal and written attacks on the Jews

1933: Boycott of Jewish stores

1933-34: The Jews are not allowed to work as:

  • Civil servants

  • Teachers at the universities

  • Journalists

  • Artists

1930's: Physical attacks on Jewish property and people as well as unsanctioned – but unpunished - murders.

1935: The Nuremberg Laws; race laws with the purpose of legally and administratively isolating and impoverish the Jews.

1935-39: Jewish property is confiscated, Jews are “asked” to emigrate from Germany (and from 1938 also from Austria).

1939: Forced labour for Jewish men between the ages of 14 and 60 is introduced. Jews begin to die because of the work and because of hunger.

1939-40: Ghettos are established in Poland for the Polish Jews – later for German and other European Jews as well. Many die from disease, hunger and random executions.

1941, 15 September: German Jews are forced to wear the yellow star.October: German Jews are prohibited from emigrating from Germany.

1941: The first organised mass murders (by shooting) are committed by the four Einsatzgruppen. The first gassings (using gassing trucks) are carried out in the first extermination camp, Chelmno. Gas chambers and crematoria are under construction.

1942: Extermination camps are established and Jews are deported there.

1944-45: Death marches – in fear of the Allied invasions, Jews surviving the concentration camps are forced to march to more ‘secure” camps. Many die during these transfers.

Why did the Germans support the Nazi Party and its discrimination of the Jews?

Here is presented the explanation of historian Saul Friedländer.

According to Friedländer, the majority of the German population believed that the Nazi regime would solve several years’ of political crisis. This belief survived the problems (for instance the bad economy) in the first years of the regime. A series of successes on the international scene – for instance the naval agreement with Great Britain 1935 – was a strong contributing element.

This belief in the regime carried with it a broad accept (passive or not) of the Nazis’ measures against the Jews. Sympathy with the Jews would have equalled doubting the policies of Hitler and the regime, and many Germans had definitively established their individual and collective priorities in this matter – and not to the advantage of the Jews.

The same applied to the regime’s myth of the Volksgemeinschaft. The German national unity thus explicitly excluded the Jews. To belong to the German people meant accepting what this exclusion implied, i.e. that the Jews were not a part of Germany and its people.

From: Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany & the Jews. Years of Persecution, 1933-39 (New York, 1997),p. 116.

Who was Jewish – according to the Nazi racial terminology?

By the issuing of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, the racial definition of Jews and Jewishness became a lawbound reality within the Nazi regime.

The definition meant that a Jew was now defined from the “blood” – and no longer just on basis of faith. If a person had at least three Jewish grandparents, then this person was of Jewish race. A person was a ‘half-Jew’, if he had two Jewish grandparents – in German: Mischling ersten Grades. If a person had only one Jewish grandparent, he was a ‘quarter-Jew’ (Mischling zweiten Grades). As it were, quarter-Jews were hardly affected by the Nazi persecution, while both pure Jews and half-Jews fell victim to the terrible Nazi measures.

Want to know more?

> Nazi race- and Jewish policy
> Anti-Semitism – a brief overview – external link


David Bankier, Probing the Dephts of German Antisemitism. German Society and the Persecution of the Jews, 1933-1941 (New York, 2000).

Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany & the Jews. The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 (New York, 1997).

Daniel J.Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners. Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York, 1996).

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