By the time World War II began in September 1939, Hitler and his fellow Nazis had excluded or expelled most of the people they considered “dangerous,” particularly Jews. More than half of Germany’s Jewish population had left the nation between 1933 and 1939. About 200,000 Jews remained in Germany, mostly concentrated around Berlin and too old, too young, too ill, or too poor to travel far from home.
And yet, throughout the war, the Nazis continued to pass new laws that further humiliated, isolated, and demonized Jews.
The Nazis issued 55 new anti-Jewish laws and decrees in the last four months of 1939 and an additional 101 in 1940. They added 135 more laws in 1941 and 169 in 1942. One law passed in 1942 made it a crime for a Jew to buy a cake. Historian Alon Confino has listed some of the laws enacted between 1939 and 1942:
Jews are prohibited from participating in air-raid drills. Jews should build and finance their own air-raid shelters. Atonement fine: Jews are fined 250 million Reichsmarks needed for the armament industry. Minister of education: Writers of doctoral dissertations should avoid citing Jewish authors. 1940: Jews are placed under night curfew and are prohibited from being out in the streets from 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. during the summer and between 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. during the winter. Ration cards for Jews are marked by an additional J. Jews are excluded from private medical insurance plans.
Those laws placed Jews further outside of Germany’s universe of obligation—the circle of individuals and groups whom the government protected, for whose benefit laws were written and enforced, and in whose name justice was sought.
- How would you characterize the new restrictions placed on Jews in Germany as World War II began? How did the Nazis define the relationship between Jews and the war effort?
- Why do you think the Nazis went to such lengths to enact so many laws to discriminate against Jews?
- While more than half of German Jews had left the country by the beginning of the war, how do you account for the 200,000 Jews who were still there? For what reasons might people find it difficult to leave their homes, even when those homes have become unpleasant, unwelcoming, or dangerous? How might war complicate someone’s efforts to leave?