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To what extent were Nazi anti-Semitic policies popular with the German public in the years 1933-1939?

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Published: 9th Aug 2021 in History

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To begin with, Nazi had gone through a series of anti-Semitic policies, from minor scheme like ghetto, economic isolation to serious scheme such as holocaust, concentration camp etc. Many people think these incidents could not happen without the support of the citizen. So, in this essay, we will analyse how popular are these anti-Semitic policies with the German public. In the period of 1933 to 1939 which directly affect the occurrence of racism. Anti-semitism existed in Europe before the inter-war period, to trace, the Axis countries had done ethic cleaning during the First World War as well. For example, the Jews of Uman were inflicted to pogroms in 1919, being expelled from all different countries in Eastern Europe during the 20th century. With favourable cultural environment, it was not surprising that Nazi would promote anti-Semitism. But in my opinion, to a small extent such policies were popular with the German public.

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Nevertheless, according to the book, Geschichte eines Deutschen: Die Erinnerungen 1914-1933, many Germans also did not understand why they joined Nazi and commit those crimes. They claimed they was not very clear about the concentration camp and ethnic cleansing. The writer was one of the ‘Aryans’ living in Germany since the World War One. He described how the failure of Weimar Republic and also how Hitler had risen up. This book is written in 1940 which is a quite convincing evidence for understanding the German public’s attitude towards anti-Semitic policies. He said, the most important factor leaded Hitler to rise, was the anxiety of the youth. The politics, currency inflation and the defeat of World War One were confusing and the youth did not understand why such situation happened. The failure of the first democratic government in Germany, Weimar Republic, created such favourable environment letting Nazi to take over.

As soon as the German knew the Nazi are gaining more power, yet they underestimate the destroying power of it. They voted opposition to the NSDAP, but after a series of policies the party suggested, such as promises of better pensions and increased employment, the youth and some traditional socialist saw hope from the party. In the end, they accepted Nazi to dominate their parliament. This pathed the start of extreme nationalism era in Germany. However, in the book, he repeatedly confesses he was disguised by the idea of anti-Semitism, but the German had chosen the way of escaping the country or lying to themselves that it would not be as bad as predicted. From this, we can see that the reasons for German youth to support Nazi was mainly due to how the flow was going and confused with their future and existed government. To some extent, the German youth supported Nazi blindly only because the bright future Hitler could bring them, and selective ignore the harm of anti-Semitic policy could bring.

Trace back the history of relationship of Jews and non-Jews in Germany, it hinted why would the German public supported anti-Semitic policies. The Jews were mostly populated in large city, where the others were mostly in extensive regions and suburban area of Germany. They have limited physical connections and activities with each other.[1] Other than unimportant places like tourist places and spas, farming districts became the only business centre the both race would meet. And as Jews were good at doing businesses, this made them dominate in the cattle trade sector. With such impression, when Nazi took place, it was easy to make the German felt what Hitler had described the Jews are quite realistic and fits the stereotype. Yet, this did not become a reason for the German public to hate Jews or support anti-Semitism policies.

There is some part of the public did hate the Jews but remained a small amount. Under the study from NSDAP, the popularity could not sustain an anti-Semitic party. Only the new generation were taught to be very proud of their own race and said by Hermann Rauschning, they were the ‘generations of antisemitism had prepared the Germans to accept Hitler as their redeemer’.[2] Such phenomenon could be counted for success of Nazi propaganda. To explain why did the anti-Semitic policies could still be launched, it is partly because of the terror Nazi created and brainwashing people, especially the youngster, to worship Nazism. For instance, the Sopade reports of the 1930s acknowledged that the opportunities for participation, the comradeship and enthusiasm, also with its anti-intellectualism, generally attracted the support of youngster in Germany.[3] From the above, we can see some clue that anti-Semitism was not very popular among the German public.

As mentioned in the introduction, there was a favourable cultural environment in the Eastern and Central Europe, which is the Herren-mensch. Ian Kershaw, an English historian and author who focus on 20th century Germany’s social history, had written that, German had its unique culture of military culture, Herren-mensch, which could be seen as characteristic of them.[4] Such culture had dominant the central and eastern Europe, which makes Nazism easily influenced Germany. Also, in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, it stated that ‘the unique and longstanding German desire to eliminate the Jews could be seen as a peculiarity of German character’[5]. Besides, Emil Ludwig, a German-Swiss author, stated that German are very obsessed with their military uniform. That is one of the reasons why the public supported Hitler as he relaunched the military and uniform system. This made them felt like they were back into their golden era.

Moreover, with their tradition, they were quite passive and leave the situation as it is. It is rare for them to have any revolution or overthrown the king in their history. This had led to the situation stated above, which is they either accepted how Hitler take over or just escape from the country instead of fighting against. With such blind, ignorant culture, they chose to disregard how anti-Semitic policies affect the Jews and other minorities. From this we can see, this lead to the public to obey with what Hitler had proposed, including the anti-Semitic policies. And with their trust in ‘better race’, the public was not resist to hierarchy concept, yet they might not imagine it will be an ethic cleaning. From the above, we can see the long-existed culture got people into the illusion of the German public were supporting the policies, but the truth is they did not do it because of pure belief in anti-Semitism.

Besides, the propaganda and controlled media have a very important role in making the German public to support anti-Semitic policies. It was difficult for historian to measure how effective Hitler’s propaganda was as people will be punished having opposite views. Hitler understands how powerful and vital propaganda is to control the public and unify their opinion and action. Not only with the above measurement, Hitler also established the Secret Police to learn about the people mood towards the reports. According to David Welch, a historian specialising in twentieth-century propaganda, terror and coercion were infiltrated in the society. Moreover, the Völkisch ideology was vital to the propaganda of building Third Reich. It promoted the need for racial purity and a hatred of enemies especially towards Jews and Bolsheviks.[6] Hitler claimed he is the first nation worker, which he had been a student, construction worker and an artist, to gain the working class and youth’s trust and intimacy. This proved how Nazi took anti-Semitism as their main objective in building Third Reich.

To be exact, the effectiveness of propaganda could be seen on the second wave of anti-Semitic policies, which were the implement of Boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933, Nuremberg Laws in 1935, and the number of intimidation from SA, SS and HJ had reached its peak. Such campaigns were not attractive to the German public at first, as this is not related to them and no reason for them to against Jews. This is when the Nazi had decided to effectively make use of propaganda and the controlled media. Many of the Jewish journalist and editors were dismissed in the year of 1933. While the public was focused on the unsatisfying socio-economic condition, Nazi wanted the public to against Jews. Hitler made speeches and writing inciting articles on newspaper to divert the public’s anger and frustration into Jews. However, this campaign also failed. There were no any specific social group mobilised because of the propaganda.

Also, the Nazi had attempted to boycott Jewish business, which is a total fail as well. Although the owners had been terrorised, customers being harassed, and other physicals attack to the Jews, the German public did not really participate into these movements. Newspaper, and poster were posted to tell the public to avoid trading or having business with Jews, yet the NSDAP found out that large number of German public were still going to Jewish shop by 1935. That included workers, wealthy people in bourgeoisie, even Beamte and Party Members, and rural population.[7] With a better choice and cheaper in price, it attracted many people as they are dealing with poverty and tight budget to feed the family. Not only Hitler did not successfully make the Jewish bourgeoise bankrupt, Jewish department store and shops were overwhelmed with people and made better money after the boycott launched. From this, it proved that even the propaganda was overwhelming, the German public were not brainwashed. So, the anti-Semitic policies were not popular with the German public.

After the boycott, as the officer had pointed out that they have difficulty to persuade German rural population to disconnect with the Jews. Maybe a problem due to the lack of education and culture backgrounds, they have little understanding of racism and ‘problems’ bought by Jews. The tourist areas were filled with racial propaganda as well, yet the ‘Aryans’ still make dealing with Jews. Even the worker would not ask if their owner whether they are Jews or ‘Aryans’ as what they care is to maintain their life and family. This proved that economic status was much important than other to the German public at 1935. But this did not maintain long, Jews businesses were slowly getting to the down slope as the Church did not oppose to any anti-Semitic policies, and German undertakers gradually stopped dealing with the Jews. And they either moved out of the country or other big cities, and continue threaten, terrorised, harassed.

Among the year of 1937-1939, Nazi had taken the terrorism in the country to its peak. German public who were disgusted with the anti-Semitic policies would be taken into prison. For example, there was a Jews being accused of ‘Rassenschande’ and humiliated in public; a man expressed its disapproval of Nazi slogan and was arrested. Under the Nuremberg Law, the marriage and sexual interaction of ‘Aryans’ and Jews were limited or forbidden, and not all the German public followed, it resulted in the public harassment of being ‘Rassenschander’. Although under numerous report, there are quite a lot of German indigitated about the anti-Semitic policies, reactions were divided surprisingly. People were apathetic and neutralized towards such policies. They felt pathetic to the working-class Jews as they were being punished even though they were not the one who should be blamed for ‘monopolize’ businesses in Germany. From the above, we can see German public are slightly transforming in terms of the attitude towards Jews, but they were not supporting the Nazi policies. Therefore, anti-Semitic policies were only popular to a small extent.

Still it was impossible to implement massive holocaust and different anti-Semitic policies without public support. Before the breakout of World War Two, people in Germany are divided into two types, anti-Semitist or ‘decent’ citizens. People started to lose their neutrality under the propaganda, socio-economic condition and terrorism. They felt that Hitler was correct about in their struggles, which the Jews were the people who ruined their economy. Moreover, Hitler rose the employment rate by giving jobs of building concentration camps and extra infrastructure (fences for ghetto). All these policies made the German believed Nazi were correct. However, even the founder of Swiss NSDAP, Wihelm Gustloff, was killed by a Jewish student. But the German public was quiet, showing little interest in revenge. It was hard to determine if it is true that the German were in deep sadness or the support of anti-Semitic policies were just illusion made by the Nazi.

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Although there were not much resources to directly reflect the public attitude towards anti-Semitic policies, from some indirect resources it can clearly showed that most of the German public had no racism towards the Jews at first, but with the high-pressure policies of Nazi people were terrified to make connection with the Jews at the end. Yet, the main supporter of anti-Semitic policies were mostly party members, SA, SS, and churches, which they make influence or intimate people to agree with anti-Semitic policies. In the end, German public were brainwashed under Hitler campaigns, such as Jews were allowed to live here but correct to deprive Jews of their civil rights and being separated.[8] Thus, the public could not voice their opposition but only obey to the Nazi or they might get jailed. It is not their original will to being racist to the Jews. Therefore, to a small extent, Nazi anti-Semitic policies were popular with the German public in the years 1933-1939.


  • David Welch, ‘Manufacturing a Consensus: Nazi Propaganda and the Building of a ‘National Community’’, Contemporary European History, Vol. 2, No. 1, (1993), pp. 1-15.
  • Frank Bajohr, ‘The “Folk Community” and the Persecution of the Jews: German Society under National Socialist Dictatorship, 1933–1945’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 20, Issue 2, (2006), pp.183-206.
  • Gellately, Robert [review], ‘David Bankier, The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion under Nazism’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 98, No. 4, (1993), pp. 1279-1280.
  • Hans Renders, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, American Journalism, Vol. 18, Issue 4, (2001), pp.89-91.
  • Ian Kershaw, ‘Hitler and the Uniqueness of Nazism’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 39, Issue 2, (2004), pp. 239-254.
  • Ian Kershaw, ‘The Persecution of the Jews and German Popular Opinion in the Third Reich’, The Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, Vol. 26, Issue 1, (1981), pp. 261–289.
  • Michael H. Kater, ‘Every day Antisemitism in prewar Nazi Germany- the Popular Bases’, Yad Vashem Studies XVI, (Jerusalem, 1984), pp. 129-159.
  • Oded Heilbronner, ‘German or Nazi Antisemitism?’, in Stone D. (eds), The Historiography of the Holocaust, pp. 9-23.
  • Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler: A Memoir, (W&N, 2003).
  • Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler, (Oxford University Press, 1992).

[1] Esra Bennathan, ‘Die demographische und wirtschaftliche Struktur der Juden’, in Entsch.eidungsjahr, (1932).

[2] Hermann Rauschning, Hitler Speaks, (London, 1939), pp. 233-234.

[3]  Cf. Sopade-Berichte, Vol. 1 (1934), pp.117-18; Vol. 2 (1935), pp.1374-6; Vol. 5 (1938), p.27.

[4] A.J.P. Taylor, The Course of German History, (London, 1945), p.260.

[5] Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, (New York, 1996).

[6] David Welch, ‘Manufacturing a Consensus: Nazi Propaganda and the Building of a ‘National Community’’, p.3.

[7] Ian Kershaw, ‘The Persecution of the Jews and German Popular Opinion in the Third Reich’, p.266.

[8] Ian Kershaw, ‘The Persecution of the Jews and German Popular Opinion in the Third Reich’, p.274.


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