Holocaust History: Legislation – Propaganda – Intimidation, the Nazi Trifecta of Persecution 1933-1939

The conditions in Germany at the time of Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power were ripe for exploitation to advance the sinister causes of National Socialism. Hitler and his high-ranking Nazi associates were acutely aware of existing sentiments and prejudices; they moved quickly as soon as they took power to exploit them as far as was possible through legislation, propaganda, and other unofficial means. A prime example of this are the dealings of the Nazi Regime with the Protestant churches in Germany.

Nazi leaders who hated Christianity were quick to draw on and exploit age old anti-Semitic sentiments among Christian churches.[1] Personally, Hitler held the leaders of the Protestant churches in Germany in contempt and once referred to them as “…insignificant little people, submissive as dogs”.[2] Hitler however realized that Protestants represented a two thirds majority in Germany over Roman Catholics and curried favor with them. The Nazis knew that Martin Luther, founder of the German Protestant movement, was a rabid anti-Semite who had wanted Germany to expel all the Jews. When they were sent away Luther had advised that they be deprived of “all their cash and jewels and silver and gold” and “that their synagogues or schools be set on fire.”[3] The Nazis eventually made this a reality. German protestants also tended to be very conservative and disliked the Weimar state as it was supported by the Catholic minority in Germany. Conservatives also condemned the Weimar government’s permissive attitude toward homosexuality which they considered cultural degeneration.[4] Consequently, most Protestant pastors welcomed the ascension of Adolf Hitler to the chancellorship in 1933.[5]

Side altar of the Lutheran Antoniterkirche in Cologne, Germany, 1935.

Upon coming to power the Nazis immediately began to persecute the Jewish population by issuing regulations banning them from civil service. Simultaneously, the Nazi Party organized a boycott of Jewish businesses throughout Germany which did not have the success that it had anticipated as it tended to make life inconvenient for the average German who frequented Jewish owned shops.[6] The Nazis also went so far as to begin persecuting German Jews who had converted to Christianity but rolled back these measures as they were afraid of opposition from the Church. During this early period of Nazi rule, they developed a pattern of proposing anti-Jewish measures, pulling back if they did not work, reevaluating their methods and then adopting the course of least resistance that led to the fulfillment of their goals.[7]

One important and sometimes overlooked factor during this early period of Nazi rule is the role of propaganda. Shortly after coming to power, Hitler established the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda headed by the infamous Joseph Goebbels. The Ministry’s purpose was to ensure that the Nazi message was successfully communicated through art, music, theater, films, books, radio, educational materials, and the press.[8] This organization, using public funds, produced propaganda material designed to convince the average German to support Nazi measures against Jews and other minority groups. One of its first productions was a 54 page booklet titled Why the Aryan Law?: A Contribution to the Jewish Question written in support of the Nazi’s first anti-Jewish “Aryan Law” that banned Jews from all forms of civil service and from practicing law. Among other things the booklet claimed that Jews constituted a “a powerful, hostile government” that oppressed the people and it quoted liberally from Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic rants.[9]

Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels speaking in Berlin, 1938. Rare color photograph by Hugo Jager, one of Hitler’s personal photographers.

Perhaps the most significant pieces of Nazi anti-Semitic legislation during this period were the September 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws which were designed to isolate German Jews from the rest of the population and stigmatize them as untrustworthy, destructive outsiders.[10] The legislation was twofold in nature; besides forbidding the mixing of the races they also defined who the regime considered Jewish. In the wake of the Nuremberg Laws the Nazi Party began a seemingly endless torrent of prohibitions that piled one indignity on top of another on German Jews, further separating them from their non-Jewish neighbors. This torrent continued right up until the deportations of the German Jews to the east and included measures that banned Jews from attending school, owning radios, and purchasing specific items.[11] By the end of 1938 Jews had lost their freedom of movement within the Reich, could not legally change their name, and had to register all assets in excess of 5,000 Reichsmarks.[12]

Jewish lawyer Michael Siegel is forced to march through the streets of Munich wearing a sign reading “I will never again complain to the police.” This, after attempting to file an official complaint to the Police for a Jewish client who was beaten and his store ransacked by Nazi SA “Brownshirts.” March 10, 1933.

In addition to official state persecution of Jews and other minorities, local and provincial authorities were granted an open season to persecute these groups as they saw fit. Many individuals and organizations developed their own anti-Jewish initiatives. For instance, many German municipal governments that were short on funds found it convenient to drop Jewish recipients of public assistance from their welfare lists before authorities in Berlin thought of the idea.[13] In 1937 the mayor of Berlin upon his own initiative banned Jewish children from attending public schools more than a year before it became national law.[14]

In addition, all throughout this period Hitler’s Brownshirt SA thugs had unofficial license to beat, intimidate, plunder, vandalize, and even murder members of minority groups targeted by the Nazi Party. They often raided establishments frequented by gay men as well as humiliated Jewish people on the street with impunity.[15] Germans who were sympathetic to the plight of the Jews or who frequented Jewish shops were also subjects of SA abuse and intimidation.[16] The greatest act of thuggery took place on the night of November 9-10, 1938 when SA thugs along with Hitler Youth members, police, and others carried out orchestrated attacks on Jewish owned businesses, homes, and places of worship, as well as on individuals. Dozens of people were murdered, homes and businesses looted, and tens of thousands of Jewish men arrested and sent to concentration camps, like Dachau, where many perished in horrific circumstances – simply for being Jewish.

SS guards march Jews arrested during Kristallnacht through Baden-Baden, Germany on November 10, 1938. Bildarchiv.

Thus, during the pre-war period 1933-1939 the Nazi controlled government shrewdly advanced its causes incrementally both officially through legislation and state funded propaganda and unofficially through intimidation and fear. American journalist William Shirer who lived in Germany at the time described this process as “a degrading transformation of German life” that was “overlooked by most Germans or accepted by them with a startling passivity”.[17]


[1] Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition, 2016), Kindle Locations 554-557.

[2] William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations Kindle Locations 5541-5544.

[3] Ibid. Kindle Locations 5502-5509.

[4] Joseph W. Bendersky, A Concise History of Nazi Germany (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition, 2014), 140.

[5] Shirer, Kindle Locations 5517-5520

[6] Bergen, Kindle Locations 1599-1601.

[7] Ibid. Kindle Locations 1652-1653.

[8] “Nazi Propaganda” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2017, accessed October 9, 2017, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005202.

[9] Dr. E. H. Shultz and Dr. R. Frercks, Why the Aryan Law?: A Contribution to the Jewish Question (Randall Bytwerk, 199), 1-2.

[10] Bergen, Kindle Locations 1889-1892.

[11] Ibid. Kindle Locations 1918-1924.

[12] “Anti-Semitic Legislation 1933 – 1939” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2017, accessed October 9, 2017, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007901.

[13] Bergen, Kindle Locations 1632-1636.

[14] “Anti-Semitic Legislation 1933 – 1939” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2017, accessed October 9, 2017, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007901.

[15] Bergen, Kindle Locations 1565-1566.

[16] Ibid. Kindle Locations 1601-1607.

[17] Shirer, Kindle Location 5438-5439.