Were ‘ordinary Germans’ antisemitic, enthusiastic Nazis – or cowed into submission by terror? Or was it all rather more complex?
Changing social relations fostered the growth of indifference towards victims of persecution, while those who still cared felt powerless to act.
In April 1933, many non-Jewish Germans defied the Nazi boycott of Jewish shops. Yet informally, many excluded Jews from their own social circles. They accepted the firing of individuals of Jewish descent from professional positions, and compulsory sterilization of people with supposedly hereditary diseases.
The 1935 Nuremberg Laws legalised discrimination between ‘Aryans’ and ‘non-Aryans’, including prohibitions on inter-marriage. Non-Jewish Germans began to lose touch with increasingly segregated Jews. Ignorant of, or choosing to ignore, the impact of persecution, ‘Aryans’ could more easily feel indifferent.
The regime was gaining popularity through foreign policy successes and full employment. Younger generations in the Hitler Youth were more likely to support Nazi visions of the national future. People opposed to Nazism felt increasingly resigned and withdrawn.
On 9-10 November 1938, the ‘Night of Broken Glass’ (Kristallnacht), many Germans and Austrians participated in state-sponsored violence. Few dared to protest openly against attacks on Jewish homes, stores, and synagogues, or the incarceration of 30,000 Jewish men. Some offered help and sympathy to individual victims.
By the time Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, Germans and Austrians – whether enthusiastic or merely compliant – had helped to create a hostile environment for the Reich’s declared enemies, paving the way for the escalation of violence in wartime.
Learning the language and practice of racism
At first, Germans still talked in terms of Jews and Christians. But the racist language of ‘Aryan’ and ‘non-Aryan’, and ‘half-Jew’ or ‘half-caste’ (Mischling), soon became widespread.
People put ‘racial’ distinctions into practice in everyday life. They broke off friendships, and crossed the street to avoid contact with Jews. Many interfered in the affairs of others, informally policing racial compliance and often going well beyond any legal requirements.
When some older women out on a walk encountered a blond, blue-eyed woman hand-in-hand with a dark-haired man, they assumed that she was ‘Aryan’ and he Jewish. They reprimanded the young woman for being in a ‘racially mixed’ relationship, but were surprised to be told that both were actually Jewish. There are many similar stories about learning ‘racial’ distinctions.
Widespread informal compliance put pressure on others, with personal costs for refusing to conform. Robert Breusch, an ‘Aryan’, was in love with a Jewish woman, Käte Dreyfus. Whereas Robert’s parents accepted their engagement, his friends went along with Nazism and tried to persuade him to break it off. Breusch remained loyal to Käte, and managed to emigrate – but at the cost of never seeing his mother and most of his friends again.
© Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, 30022201. Photographer: unknown.
© Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, 1996/5252.33. Photographer: Raumbild-Verlag Otto Schönstein.
Was conformity an expression of complicity, or simply an expression of powerlessness?
Georg Abraham, a Jewish sales representative, recalled that ‘Aryan’ colleagues, including former communists and social democrats, justified their NSDAP membership in terms of protecting their jobs and families. Many émigrés remember helpful officials. Even the country policeman who arrested Abraham in November 1938 was apologetic and sympathetic. He allowed Abraham’s wife to visit him in prison, and delayed his deportation to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
Few people dared to show open opposition. On 10 November 1938, Alfred Oppler saw how a man trying to stop people plundering a Jewish store was dealt a hefty blow on the head and ‘had to pay for his courage by death’. Most people, Oppler thought, shared a ‘dull apathy of the soul; one gradually got used to the fact that the Jews were being persecuted’.
How do we evaluate such stories? There was evidence of sympathy. Some people provided moral or practical support to victims, even while participating in the system. Through performing their roles or remaining passive, most people effectively sustained the regime. Many also echoed Nazi justifications, suggesting Jews ‘deserved’ this treatment.
Is conformity evidence of ideological conviction, compliance born of fear, or self-serving complicity with a human face?
Sources: Hannelore Elsner *1933. USHMM, Perpetrators, Collaborators and Witnesses of the Holocaust: The Jeff and Toby Herr Testimony Initiative, RG-50.486.0035, 19 July 2004; and Deutschland-Berichte der Sozialdemokratschen Partei Deutschlands (Sopade), Fünfter Jahrgang, 1938 (Verlag Petra Nettelbeck, 1980), p. 1191.