By 1934, Germany was firmly under Nazi control. After President von Hindenburg’s death in August of that year, Adolf Hitler declared himself not only the nation’s chancellor but also its führer. The revolution was over, he told his closest associates. It was now time to consolidate power and normalize life in the “new Germany” they had created. They were determined to create a Volksgemeinschaft—a “national community” or, literally, a “people’s community.”
The term had become popular during World War I as a way of rallying support for the conflict. At that time, it simply meant that all Germans, regardless of class, religious, and social differences, would work together to achieve a national purpose—winning the war. But the Nazis interpreted its meaning differently. They used the word to advance the idea of a racially pure and harmonious national community united in its devotion to the German people, their nation, and their leader. In the words of a popular Nazi slogan, the goal was “Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Führer!” (“One People! One Empire! One Leader!”)
In his book Mein Kampf, Hitler described the foundation he sought for the national community, a foundation based on false myths about race:
Everything we admire on this earth today—science and art, technology and inventions—is only the creative product of a few peoples and originally perhaps one race [the “Aryans”]. On them depends the existence of this whole culture. If they perish, the beauty of this earth will sink into the grave with them.
In their effort to reshape the “national community” according to their racial ideals, the Nazis enacted hundreds of laws, policies, and decrees, including those that financially rewarded so-called Aryan couples for having children and those that allowed for the sterilization of people they considered “defective” or of supposedly inferior races.
Nearly 1,500 of the Nazis’ laws, policies, and decrees enacted between 1933 and 1939 were designed to remove Jews from the country’s political, economic, and cultural life. Among the most significant of these were the Nuremberg Laws. This set of laws included the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor, both announced at the Nuremberg Party Rally on September 15, 1935. The former stripped Jews of their rights to citizenship, including the rights to vote and hold a German passport. The latter unleashed a series of restrictions on the lives of German Jews, including the prohibition of sexual relationships between Jews and non-Jews as well as the forbiddance for Jews of flying the Reich flag.
These two laws raised an important question: What determined who was and who was not a Jew? According to many Jewish teachings, an individual was defined as a Jew if he or she was born to a Jewish mother or formally converted to Judaism. If a Jew converted to Christianity, he or she was no longer considered Jewish by many Jews. The Nazis did not accept that definition. They regarded Jews as members of neither a religious group nor an ethnic group (defined by their cultural heritage). Instead, they regarded Jews as members of a separate and inferior “race.” Since, according to Nazi logic, “race” was not altered by conversion, people who were born Jewish would always be Jews, regardless of their religious beliefs or practices.
In reality, whether someone was German or Jewish could not be determined by medical or scientific tests. The question of defining German and Jewish identity was further complicated by the fact that there had been a great deal of intermarriage between the two groups, and there were thousands of people of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish ancestry, known to the Nazis as Mischlinge (“half-breeds” or “mixed-blood”).
Responding to these questions, the Nazi government create precise legal definitions of who was a German and who was a Jew through an additional decree called the First Regulation to the Reich Citizenship Law, announced on November 14, 1935. (Debates about how to classify Mischlinge went on for years and were never completely resolved.) The detailed definitions the Nazis created are included in the resources in this lesson.
The Nuremberg Laws turned Jews from German citizens into “residents of Germany.” The laws transformed the lives of Jews all over Germany, including thousands of people who had not previously known that their families had Jewish heritage. They placed Jews squarely outside of Germany’s “universe of obligation.”