|Fifty Years After the Eve of Destruction
A half a century ago, Europe reeled on the abyss of war, the magnitude of which could not be foreseen. The moral and military conflagration would touch not only the lives of "the merchant from Saloniki. the child from Lodz, the rabbi from Radzimin. the carpenter from Warsaw and the scribe from Vilna,"* but it would also embroil the entire world and change the affairs of humankind for all time to come. The roots of the conflict can be traced to the deranged visions and illusions of a failed art student, Adolf Hitler, and a particular set of historical circumstances.
The State is Set—Germany, 1933 through 1938
On January 30.1933, Hitler, leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party, was named Chancellor of Germany. By manipulating an intense popular desire to reunite German-speaking peoples in territories separated as a result of the World War I peace treaty and a strong nationalist spirit he began almost Immediately to implement policies aimed at ridding the State of "undesirables," especially Jews. Among the first acts of the Nazi government were:
—Decree for the Protection of the People and the State, which eliminated a number of civil rights for those deemed "unacceptable" to the Nazis.
—Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, forcing the retirement of politically "unacceptable non-Aryan" civil servants excluding World War I veterans.
—Law Against Overcrowding of German Schools, effectively prohibiting the attendance of more than 1.5% "non-Aryans" in public schools and universities.
The Nazis attacked Intellectuals, writers, artists, university professors and all others who opposed the National Socialist world view. The war against Ideas began with the suppression and elimination of labor union and socialist journals and newspapers. In May 1933, Nazi student groups burned books "contrary to the German spirit" in great' public bonfires in every German university city.
Over the next three years, additional laws' were enacted against Jews. To protect "racial purity." the "Laws for the Prevention of Racially Inferior Offspring" were passed. Carrying the concept of "Aryardzatton" even further, the Nuremberg Laws were enacted in September 1935: these denied Jews civil rights and citizenship, forbade intermarriage, and made intimate liaisons between Jews and non-Jews a crime. Some of these laws were also applied to Gypsies and the handicapped.
Relentlessly through 1936 and 1937. the Nazis moved to isolate, deprive, humiliate and incarcerate those not in compliance with "Aryan standards." For example, Jewish doctors were prohibited from practicing in German public health institutions; the Institute for Racial Hygiene and Population Biology was founded to deal with "asocial* groups such as Gypsies. A systematic campaign was initiated against Catholic priests, dignitaries, and monks charging them with illegal transfer of money and hiding "non-Aryans." Heinrich Hlmmler, Chief of the German Police, declared that "homosexuals must be eliminated as a danger to the German race." Existing internment and concentration camps soon filled and new ones had to be constructed.
In response to this unprecedented legalized terrorism, refugees began to stream out of Germany. In little more than two years (1936 to mid-1938). approximately 300,000 refugees sought asylum in countries near and far. While the great powers of Europe and America stood by, publicly decrying the Nazi assault upon humanity, none took action to deter it At the Evian Conference called by the United States in July of 1938. 31 countries met to explore the refugee problem: only one agreed to increase its immigration quota—the Dominican Republic.
Moreover, the European leaders attempted to placate Hitler's growing territorial ambitions through appeasement and conciliation; e.g.. they accepted Hitler's incorporation of Austria in March 1938 and, seven months later, the annexation of the Sudetenland territory of Czechoslovakia. Great Britain and France rationalized their acquiescence as appropriate attempts to avert open warfare thereby giving tacit approval to the reunification of German-speaking peoples. It is one of the ironies of history that Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Great Britain, declared to the world in September 1938 that there would be "peace in our time."
Only a little more than a month later (November 9-10, 1938), the Nazi government orchestrated the Night of Pogroms ("Kristallnacht"), the destruction of Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues throughout the Third Reich. Approximately 30,000 Jews were arrested in this two-day period and taken to concentration camps.
Eve of Destruction—January to September 1939
Following the Night of Pogroms, the Nazis expanded and intensified their suppression, isolation, confinement and expulsion tactics against Jews. On January 30, 1939. the sixth anniversary of Hitler's assumption of power, he addressed the Nazi Reichstag:
Today. I win be a prophet again: If international finance Jewry within
Europe and abroad should succeed once more in plunging the peoples
Into a world war. then the consequences wiJU'l .be... the destruction
of the Jewish race in Europe. »
With these words Hitler threatened action against the Jewish communities not only within his domain but throughout all Europe. He tightened the "legal* and economic strictures against the Jews. All Jews were required to carry the middle name of Israel or Sara; the "Eighth Ordinance to the Reich Citizenship Law" revoked licenses for Jewish dentists, veterinary surgeons and pharmacists: tenant protection for Jews was revoked and "Jewish Houses* were
Also throughout this period, Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested through-' out Germany: some 5.000 Austrian Gypsies were sent to various concentration camps. In the Fall Hitler decreed that "those who are, as far as it Is humanly possible to judge, incurably sick . . . may be granted a merciful death." Euthanasia centers were opened and mass killings of "unneeded consumers*
began—approximately 70.000 in asylums, 3.000 children In reform schools, some 20.000 in camps, and allJewlsh Inmates in psychiatric and rehabilitation institutions and hospitals.
On the international front, these eight months (January-August) marked a desperate period of diplomacy between the forming Axis and Allied powers. Nazi Germany established an "Independent* Slovakia (a Czechoslovakian territory) in March. Later that month, Nazi troops invaded the remaining Czechoslovakia!! territories of Bohemia and Moravia and further the region of Memel in Lithuania. Turning to Poland next Hitler demanded the return of Danzig (Gdansk) as well as the construction of an extra-territorial highway through the Polish corridor. Great Britain and France finally recognized the severity of the danger—not only Poland's sovereignty but the rest of Europe was clearly at stake.
Germany was successful in securing a non-aggression pact with the U.S.S.R, signed on August 23rd. Now the Nazis were free to move militarily without Soviet intervention. Immediately Great Britain and Poland formed an alliance hoping to discourage a Nazi assault But on September 1, Germany Invaded Poland. Two days later, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany.
Hitler's domestic war against the Jews from 1933 to this point in 1939 had taken the form of economic oppression, disenfranchisement and forced emigration. With the onset of the war, nothing could save the Jews in Germany and in the occupied territories.
Thus, the work) fell into the abyss of destruction and the Kingdom of Night descended.1
Historical Sketch Questions
Directions: Answer the following questions that apply to the historical sketch on Handout 8. Write your responses in the spaces provided.
1. What does Nazi stand for?
2. What policies and laws did the Nazi government make from 1933-1939 to limit the freedom and rights of Jews in Germany?
3. What do you think the term "Aryanization" means?
4. What other "undesirable" groups were persecuted by the Nazis? Why do you think Hitler wanted these groups eliminated?
5. What is "Kristallnacht" and why is it a significant event?
6. What is ironic about the Euthanasia centers opened by Nazis?
7. Why do you think non-Jewish German citizens would support the violence of the Nazi government against the Jews?