1933-1939: Early Stages of Persecution

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Considering historical context helps us to understand the precedents and circumstances that contributed to the Holocaust. The following article examines German history between 1933 and 1939, paying close attention to the activities of the Nazi Party. It is reprinted courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC.

On January 30, 1933, Adolph Hitler was named chancellor, the most powerful position in the German government, by the aged President Hindenburg, who hoped Hitler could lead the nation out of its grave political and economic crisis. Hitler was the leader of the right-wing National Socialist German Workers Party (called "the Nazi Party" for short). It was, by 1933, one of the strongest parties in Germany, even though--reflecting the country's multiparty system--the Nazis had won only a plurality of 33 percent of the votes in the 1932 elections to the German parliament (Reichstag).

Once in power, Hitler moved quickly to end German democracy. He convinced his cabinet to invoke emergency clauses of the constitution that permitted the suspension of individual freedoms of press, speech, and assembly. Special security forces—the Gestapo, the Storm Troopers (SA), and the SS--murdered or arrested leaders of opposition political parties (Communists, socialists, and liberals). The Enabling Act of March 23, 1933--forced through the Reichstag already purged of many political opponents--gave dictatorial powers to Hitler.

Also in 1933, the Nazis began to put into practice their racial ideology. The Nazis believed that the Germans were "racially superior" and that there was a struggle for survival between them and inferior races. They saw Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and the handicapped as a serious biological threat to the purity of the "German (Aryan) Race," what they called the master race.

Jews, who numbered about 525,000 in Germany (less than one percent of the total population in 1933) were the principal target of Nazi hatred. The Nazis identified Jews as a race and defined this race as "inferior." They also spewed hate-mongering propaganda that unfairly blamed Jews for Germany's economic depression and the country's defeat in World War I (1914-1918).

Jews forced to wear the yellow star in Nazi Germany. Credit: Yad Vashem

In 1933, new German laws forced Jews out of their civil service jobs, university and law court positions, and other areas of public life. In April 1933, laws proclaimed at Nuremberg made Jews second-class citizens. These Nuremberg Laws defined Jews, not by their religion or by how they wanted to identify themselves, but by the religious affiliation of their grandparents. Between 1937 and 1939, new anti-Jewish regulations segregated Jews further and made daily life very difficult for them. Jews could not attend public schools; go to theaters, cinema, or vacation resorts; or reside or even walk in certain sections of German cities.

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