Explore More »

Berlin: The Persecution of Jews and German Society

Published by Humanity in Action in 2013, Civil Society and the Holocaust: International Perspectives on Resistance and Rescue examines the different ways that European countries and the United States responded to the Holocaust. This anthology was created as part of “Civil Society: Reactions to the Holocaust, a series of events in Copenhagen commemorating the 70th anniversary of the flight and deportation of Danish Jews in October 1943.


How did German society react to the persecution of its Jewish citizens? And in trying to answer this question, is it possible to speak of there being an identifiable overall reaction? In fact, is it possible to speak in any sense of their being such a thing as “civil society” during Nazi rule in Germany?

At the very start of the national socialist revolution in 1933 – for there is no doubt that it was indeed a revolution – there were three population groups, of more or less equal size, confronting each other: the first group, which supported the Nazi party and helped to keep the Nazi regime in power, was primarily made up of the party’s own membership and voters. The second group saw itself as a radical oppositional element to the Nazis and was comprised of the majority who supported the Social Democrats, the communists and a part of the Catholic Worker movement. The third group was made up of people who were generally indifferent to the above dividing line and whose attitude to the national socialist government depended on whether it was able to deliver advantageous political and economic results. In the following three years, group number two in this list fell victim to a campaign of political marginalization: Its leaders were imprisoned (a number of them were murdered), and in general the supporters of this second group suffered widespread intimidation. At the same time, the whole administrative apparatus of the new German state was placed under strict and targeted control from day one. All conflicting elements were shorn away and all oppositional institutions were dissolved, including other political parties, trade unions and associations. Because of the Nazi government’s economic successes and foreign policy victories–the occupation of the Rhineland, the re-annexation of Saarland, etc.–the regime was soon able to win many doubters in that third group of indifferent people over to its side. Thus, in the years before the outbreak of the Second World War, the political profile of German society might be described in this way: a little over half the population were either passive or enthusiastic supporters of the regime, whilst a fifth was still indifferent and one fourth was still opposed to the Nazi dictatorship. However this latter group had been successfully cowed, was powerless and had been left isolated. Civil society, in the form of public bodies and judicial state based public and private bodies no longer existed as an independent entity in the civic sphere, or perhaps only as a neutered propaganda arm of the state–a situation that, to some extent, makes a more precise understanding of popular opinions and moods more difficult.

Nonetheless, in what follows below, I will attempt to illustrate in three phases how German society in its new manifestation interacted with the Nazi regime during its persecution of the Jews. The first phase relates to the spread of anti-Semitism; the second assesses society’s reaction to the pogrom during Reichskristallnacht (Crystal Night) in 1938; then finally I look at the question of society’s awareness of (and reaction to) the Final Solution strategy during the war itself.


Let us first look at the significance of anti-Semitism. From the start of the 1920s onwards, there were several vociferous groups of radical anti-Semites which were also prepared to use violence to further their aims. However, up to the year 1933, these groups were not in a position to play any significant role. This was partly due to their violent propensities, which often led to riots and bouts of violence and which, at that time, aroused nothing more than indignation and rejection amongst most of the population, even amongst Nazi supporters.

What was of more significance though was a latent anti-Semitism, which was already quite widespread during the Keiserreich (Monarchical Empire), and gained further currency during the Weimar Republic, but still did not manifest itself in terms of open acts of aggression or street demonstrations. In fact, this kind of anti-Semitism was at pains to distance itself from its more “vulgar” bedfellows, or what it decried as hooligan and rabble rousing – ”Radau-Antisemitismus”; be that in provocative campaigns asserting that Jews were involved, for example, in ritual murders and the people trafficking of young women. Nor did this more refined anti Jewish sentiment condone the desecration of Jewish cemeteries or street disturbances. However, many Germans did believe that Jews were an alien entity within German society and that they had enriched themselves in times of war, inflation and financial crises. If we look at anti-Semitism as a collective social phenomenon (in all its various nuances and levels of intensity), we cannot rule out the possibility that, even before 1933, a majority of Germans were hostile to the Jewish population in the country.

But even in 1933, there were still strong oppositional forces that not only objected to anti-Semitism but also directly resisted it – more than anywhere else in the labor movement and also amongst Catholic activists and liberals. In other words, regardless of how widespread anti-Semitism was before 1933–whether it reflected the views of 30, 40 or 50 per cent of the population–at that time it was still met with determined resistance.

The most important point in this debate is often overlooked: The Weimar Republic was a constitutional state based on the rule of law. So whilst it’s true that a number of scandalous court rulings were handed down against Jews in this period – where anti-Semitic prejudice was clearly an overriding motive – it is also true that these rulings caused outrage throughout the state. They were still the exception and not the rule. Thus, recourse to the law following attacks, insults, annoyances or slanderous propaganda remained the preferred option for Jewish organizations in their opposition to anti-Semites. The Central Council of Jews in Germany, for example, never tired of seeking legal redress and was occasionally successful in so doing.

During the years of the Weimar Republic, anti-Semitic outrages would regularly provoke waves of public condemnation. Another important factor is that the hope amongst many German Jews was that, in historical terms, anti-Semitism was a gradually declining relic from darker, less sophisticated times and therefore would not pose a threat in the long term. To be fair, this optimistic belief and assessment of the significance of anti-Semitism on the part of German Jews was shared by the majority of Germany’s left wing intellectuals. Above all, this latter group’s reaction to anti-Semitism and anti- Semites was simply one of scathing sarcasm and head shaking contempt. The view held by left wing intellectuals was that the extreme right wing’s militarism, and also its connections to society’s most elite groups posed far more danger than anything else. Whereas the organized hatred of Jews always had, for them, something feeble minded and ‘folklore-ish’ about it.

From 1933 to 1938, German Jews were gradually squeezed outwards to society’s edge via a plethora of laws, statutory decrees and straightforward chicanery. And now Jews were presented with a new situation – this observation may appear rather elementary, but is of huge significance: from this point onwards, opposition to anti-Semitism could no longer be expressed openly. It is true that there were still ways in which one could express one’s loathing for the imposition of anti Jewish measures – for example, by going out of one’s way to greet and show friendship to Jewish friends and acquaintances, maintaining social relations with old contacts or even giving direct help – though this latter gesture soon became risky. But, Nota Bene, these were private gestures in a period when public institutions had become a vehicle for anti-Semitism in all its various abominations.

Assertions that a significant element of those who expressed opposition to anti-Semitism prior to 1933 now began to change their opinions and gravitate towards anti-Semitism would be difficult to substantiate. However, it is clear that from 1933 onwards it was no longer seen as socially acceptable to speak out publically against the oppression of Jews in Germany. The best one could now expect on the part of those who were opposed to anti-Semitism was some form of passive avoidance of involvement in the withdrawal of rights for Jews and subsequently in their active persecution. At the same time, attacks on Jews were no longer covered by legal protection. In fact they were openly allowed by the new government; one might even say accepted. Likewise, discrimination against Jews was no longer forbidden but written into statute.

The persecution of Jews in Germany, which received very accurate coverage in broadsheet newspapers in the United States, England and France, was not brought to the center of the German public’s attention until 1938. This was mainly due to the Nazi regime’s mechanisms of repression and suppression, which were very quickly honed to perfection. Nobody wished to confront the Gestapo or Nazi activists by criticizing the methods being used against a group of fellow citizens, whom the majority of Germans either distanced themselves from, or were even openly hostile to. For example, in a report written in January 1936, the SPD’s leadership in exile (which was far from being anti-Semitic in outlook) noted that socialist minded workers were without doubt “determined opponents of Nazi outrages.” But at the same time, the exiled SPD leaders regarded it as absolutely correct and acceptable that “the Jewish financial elite should be broken once and for all and the Jews given specific areas of activity in which they could operate.”

German Catholics held a similar position. Yes it is true that the Cardinal of Munich wrote to a priest, who was outraged by the persecution of the Jews, saying that the actions of the Nazis were “unchristian.” But he then went on to argue that there were even greater problems: “For the spiritual hierarchy here is faced with more pressing problems…especially when we can assume that the Jews are more than capable of helping themselves, as we have already seen.”

Thus, up to November 1938, anti-Jewish pogroms and persecution were not a pressing issue in the minds of most Germans. Rather, during this period, an intensive chain of large-scale events took place that generated public mobilizations and a sense of breathlessness. The Nazi regime’s leadership sought to maintain this high wire atmosphere via the staging of continued high-blown and pompous public spectacles and also by constantly stressing the need for not only discrimination, but the persecution and the withdrawal of rights for all political opponents – Jews and every other group that was defined as being inimical to the ”Folk Fellowship.” In the light of the regime’s heady successes on the economic front, given the rapid reduction in employment figures and its triumphs on the world stage, most people saw its repressive policies as an unfortunate but unavoidable corollary. Moreover, it also has to be said that many people – even those who opposed the Nazis – regarded the iron hand policy used against the Jews as a kind of ‘payback’ for their alleged enormous wealth and financial success in the preceding years: in other words, anti-Semitism grew to be a variant of a wider critique of capitalism.


From November 8 to 10, 1938, synagogues, Jewish businesses and private homes and apartments were destroyed ransacked and/or torched by units of the SA and Hitlerjugend. Random passers-by and onlookers often joined in with these attacks. Around 200 Jews were murdered during these pogroms, whilst over 20,000 Jews were imprisoned in concentration camps, though only for a few weeks as this was an attempt to pressurize Jews to flee from Germany but leaving their possessions, property and assets behind them.

However, public reaction to these events was found to be either muted or downright hostile. Almost all the local branches of the Nazi party in Germany reported that the Aktion had been met with bewilderment and rejection amongst the wider populace. Where, two weeks previously, an attempt at the forced deportation of Polish Jews had only received limited publicity, the reports of drunken, screaming hordes of robbers and bandits was now met with outright criticism, even from the regime’s own supporters. For example, in a survey that contacted local police stations, the Gestapo at Bielefeld reported exclusively negative reactions: The Aktion had provoked “shakes of the head and a deafening silence amongst the people.” The report then went on: “The attitude of the local populace was marked by a somberness and sense of dejection. Here and there, there were clear signs of pity for the victims. By far the majority of the population have not understood the Aktion against the Jews and condemned it on the basis that such things should not take in place in what is supposed to be a cultured nation.” Thus was the unanimous basic reaction. The public humiliation and persecution (and most of all the regular round of killings), appear to have aroused no little disapproval amongst a large majority of the population, which however does not necessarily imply a huge amount of sympathy for those being persecuted. According to reports from the domestic intelligence services, the general view amongst Germans was that the Jews should leave Germany. But public outrages of this sort would not receive the same sort of backing.

After Kristallnacht, the regime’s anti-Jewish campaign was no longer pushed by the Nazi party apparatus and SA, but by the statutory authorities themselves; more specifically by Richard Heydrich’s secret police. Drunken hordes of SA men would no longer be the spearhead of anti Jewish persecution in Germany, but rather the state’s own officials in the full garb and sanction of judicial power. Thus state policy could proceed in a seamless way and without generating the kind of friction aroused by unwanted public attention. At the same time, the tempo of persecution was stepped up and the radical nature of the regime’s actions dramatically sharpened.

From November 9, 1938, onwards, Germans could no longer be in any doubt as to the intentions of the national socialists: robberies, torching and arson, plunder and murder were all openly perpetrated and no one in the country could from then on claim not to understand what was happening. On the contrary, a failure to recognize with great trepidation the likely fate of the Jews after November 9 would require a willful blindness.


In the first days of October 1941, the German occupation forces in Polish Galicia moved to force the whole of the Jewish population in the border town of Stanislau (today Ivano-Frankivsk) into one single residential area – thus creating a ghetto. This procedure had already been carried out in Lemberg (today Lviv) and other towns and occupied areas. In order to make this action practically feasible, the heads of the German secret police in Galicia decided to halve the number of the approximately 40,000 Jews living in Stanislau. In other words, to murder them.

On the morning of October 12, Stanislau Jews were frog-marched in columns of 250 people to the Jewish cemetery, where they were gunned down. Fifteen to 20 marksmen from the secret police and police units were positioned around two mass graves. Because of the shortage of manpower needed for the massacre, members of the railway police were also co-opted. According to investigations carried out by the Jewish Council for Jews in Germany in the wake of this mass murder, between 10,000 and 12,000 people were murdered at this site. During the executions at the cemetery, many curious onlookers gathered to observe events. They came, in particular, from the ranks of the Wehrmacht, the local police force, as well as railway staff and workers. These people witnessed the whole event and many took photographs. In the weeks that followed, the massacre in Stanislau was the prime subject of discussion, not only in the city itself but also in the district generally.

In fact, the report covering Stanislau’s “Bloody Sunday” reflects what became the norm in terms of the extermination campaign against Jews. In Polish Galicia alone, there were several similar massacres, until at the start of 1942 the German authorities changed tack and proceeded to execute most Jews using gas chambers at the extermination camp at Belzec.

The report also clearly demonstrates the very public nature of these mass executions – the large number of spectators who watched the murders and the number of people who came to the scene of the crime because news of the event spread so quickly. Moreover, it shows that the scale of human involvement, either directly or indirectly, in this Nazi murder policy went far beyond the people who actually fired a weapon or switched on the gas. In contrast to the German Reich itself, the mass murder of Jews in the occupied areas to the east was no secret. Far too many people were involved or actually took an active part in the process of deportations, segregation, ghettoizing and forced labor (and finally in the executions themselves) for events to remain a secret. The long list included functionaries within the German forces of occupation; Nazi party and government officials; Wehrmacht units, staff working in finance and industrial sectors; state railway and works management teams and so on. From these sources, news, knowledge or awareness of the mass murder processes spread very quickly.

In Germany itself, the mass murder program against Jews was officially a secret. However, there was no shortage of reports and strong rumors, not least from soldiers returning to the Reich on leave, or those who simply passed conversation in their free time. This kind of talk was picked up by people like the Jewish literary figure and author Victor Klemperer who otherwise lived a completely isolated life in a ”Jew House” in Dresden. He had no access to a radio or newspapers, but as early as March 1942 was able to write about a concentration camp called Auschwitz. “Death comes after a few day,” he wrote in his diary. Not pursuing this multiplicity of leads and often very badly concealed indications; not wanting to know anything more specific; this was the approach taken by many Germans during these years. Here, we are talking about something other than knowledge and awareness. The technically correct term is rather – “suppression” of awareness.


If we combine all these brief outlines into a whole picture, it becomes clear that whilst in Germany at that time there was indeed a minority which was against anti-Jewish pogroms and persecution, these were effectively muzzled and in terms of numbers were dwarfed by a majority of anti-Semites. And whilst it is true that the majority of this latter group were no more than passive anti-Semites, they all agreed that Germany needed to get rid of the Jews in its midst and never bothered themselves to worry about the methods that might be used to bring this about. Furthermore, the political outlook of this group was not solely, or even primarily, characterized by anti-Semitism. However, when their Jewish neighbors were arrested and deported “to the East,” this majority group did not possess sufficient political or moral convictions, which might have impelled them to refuse acceptance of, or even support of, these measures. This was even truer amongst those who after 1939 and 1941 were serving in administrative posts in the German forces of occupation outside Germany and could not fail to be aware of what was happening.

To imagine that the Jewish Holocaust and the spread of anti-Jewish sentiment amongst the German population had somehow emerged from a centuries old ”underlying anti-Semitism” is both misleading and very much an oversimplification. It was rather the case that the genocide policy was able to proceed so smoothly because a substantial section of the population was completely indifferent to the fate of Germany’s Jewish population. Thus, what we are actually looking at here is not a picture of a society that nurtured a burning desire to expel or murder the Jews in its midst. Rather, it bears witness to a grievous moral deficit in German society where human rights and the protection of minorities was concerned (a deficit that reached a high-water mark in the years spanning the dictatorship). This prevailing attitude must be seen in the light of the fact that, from 1933 onwards, all instances of public resistance and every protest against anti Jewish persecution policies were first subject to restrictions and then full-scale suppression.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that a substantial element amongst the German population felt a strong antipathy to Jews, and at various levels of hatred. It is without doubt that this widely shared outlook was of central importance when it came to the implementation of the program of genocide and could also, once all public resistance was neutered as a possibly restrictive factor, be counted in itself as a driving motive that had significant impact. The number of Germans who, in this sense, were active participants in the Holocaust probably did not reach millions, but we can safely assume that it was tens of thousands of people. Moreover, the men who became the leading lights in the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, the SS and the large number of Aktion units (who have broadly come to be recognized as the actual perpetrators of the genocide) were not recruited from exterior or marginal groups in German society. Rather, they came in fact from the core of German society: that society’s middle and upper echelons.

•     •     • 

About the Author

Ulrich Herbert - Prof. Dr., holds the Chair for Modern History at the Freiburg University. From 2007 until 2013, he was Director of the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies, School of History. His books include: Best. Biographische Studien über Radikalismus, Weltanschauung und Vernunft, 1903-1989, Bonn 1996, 52008; National-Socialist Extermination Policy. Contemporary German Perspectives and Controversies, New York und Oxford 1999 (ed.); Hitler’s Foreign Workers. Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich, Cambridge 1997; Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager 1933 bis 1945. Entwicklung und Struktur, 2 Bände, Göttingen 1998 (ed.) Editor of „Europäische Geschichte im 20. Jahrhundert“, 10 vol.; Co-editor of the source book Die Verfolgung und Ermordung der europäischen Juden durch das nationalsozialistische Deutschland, 1933-1945, 16 vol. , München 2007 ff.


Herbert, Ulrich. "Berlin: The persecution of Jews and German society." In Civil Society and the Holocaust: International Perspectives on Resistance and Rescue, edited by Anders Jerichow and Cecilie Felicia Stokholm Banke, 75-83. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2013.

Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2013


    Ulrich Herbert
    Ulrich Herbert

Related Media

Different Realities, Different Perceptions: Case of Poland, Bulgaria and France
by Konstanty Gebert, Anthony Georgieff, Flemming Rose, Anette Wieviorka, Denmark 2013
European Reactions to Holocaust Persecution
by Bob Moore, Denmark 2013
The United States: Facing Nazi Policies of Mass Murder
by Richard Breitman, Denmark 2013
The Final Day of My Childhood
by Herbert Pundik, Denmark 2013
The Ambivalence of Holocaust History
by Bent Blüdnikov, Bo Lidegaard, Klaus Rothstein, Cecilie Stokholm Banke, Denmark 2013
The Holocaust in the Nordic Periphery: Norway, Sweden, Finland
by Anders Jerichow, Karin Kvist Geverts, Irene Levin, Oula Silvennoinen, Denmark 2013
Did Europe Learn?
by Paula Larrain, Manfred Nowak, Søren Pind, Denmark 2013
Civil Society and the Holocaust: International Perspectives on Resistance and Rescue
by Annette Wieviorka, Richard Breitman, Konstanty Gebert, Anthony Georgieff, Judith Goldstein, Ulrich Herbert, Anders Jerichow, Karin Kvist Geverts, Sofie Lene Bak, Ronald Leopold , Irene Levin, Bob Moore, Oula Silvennoinen, Cecilie Stokholm Banke, Denmark 2013
Sofia: Double-Faced Bulgaria
by Anthony Georgieff, Denmark 2013
Paris: A Family Under German Occupation
by Annette Wieviorka, Denmark 2013
Washington: Focused on Winning the War
by Richard Breitman, Denmark 2013
Stockholm: Antisemitism, Ambivalence and Action
by Karin Kvist Geverts, Denmark 2013
Oslo: The Escape from Norway
by Irene Levin, Denmark 2013
Amsterdam: Heroes, Villains and Many Shades of Grey
by Ronald Leopold , Denmark 2013
Browse all content