Waging a Racial War | Facing History & Ourselves

Waging a Racial War

Consider how Nazi Germany's ideas about race determined how they treated soldiers, prisoners, and civilians during World War II.
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At a Glance

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English — US


  • History
  • The Holocaust

By the summer of 1940, the Germans occupied almost all of northern and western Europe and were eyeing a number of countries besides Poland to the south and the east. In every country they conquered, “race” mattered. Notions of racial superiority and inferiority shaped the choices Germans made on the battlefields and in their occupation of other countries.

During the invasion of France, the Germans captured thousands of French soldiers. Among these prisoners of war (POWs) were men from all parts of France’s empire, including French West Africa. “Race” determined how the Germans treated those POWs. In German prison camps, at least 3,000 African POWs were separated from their white counterparts and then murdered. Some were shot by German soldiers, while others were blown up with grenades. Historian Raffael Scheck writes that their treatment echoed German behavior in Poland in 1939 and foreshadowed the massacres of millions of Soviet prisoners of war that began in the summer of 1941. 1 Perceived differences between “German” and “foreign” blood also often determined how civilians fared under the Germans. For instance, Poles were treated with contempt and brutality, while Danes were treated with some respect, because Germans believed them to be racially similar to themselves.

In every country they conquered, the Nazis regarded Jews as the greatest enemy of the German people. Almost everywhere, Jews were required to register with local police so that they could be kept under surveillance. Marion Pritchard, then a graduate student in Amsterdam, recalled the way Germans used the registries to separate Jews from “Aryans” in the Netherlands:

Gradually the Germans instituted and carried out the necessary steps to isolate and deport every Jew in the country. They did it in so many seemingly small steps, that it was very difficult to decide when and where to take a stand. One of the early, highly significant measures was the Aryan Attestation: all civil servants had to sign a form stating whether they were Aryans or not. Hindsight is easy; at the time only a few enlightened people recognized the danger and refused to sign. Then followed the other measures: Jews had to live in certain designated areas of the towns they lived in, and the curfew was stricter for them than for the general population. Jews over the age of six had to wear yellow stars on their clothing. Jewish children could not go to school with gentile children; Jews could not practice their professions, use public transportation, hire a taxicab, shop in gentile stores, or go to the beach, the park, the movies, concerts, or museums. The Jewish Committee was instructed by the Germans to publish a daily newspaper in which all these measures were announced; the regular Dutch press was not allowed to print anything about Jewish affairs. 2

A similar process took place in almost every occupied nation. On May 27, 1941, after witnessing the roundup of Jews in Paris, Germaine Ribière, a French student, wrote in her diary:

For the past two weeks the sky has become more and more overcast. The Church, the hierarchy, remains silent. They allow the truth to be profaned. Father Lallier [a priest in charge of the Catholic student movement in Paris] told me that there are more urgent things for me to worry about than the Jews . . .

The tide is rising, rising. I am afraid that one of these days, when we wake up, it will be too late and we shall all have become Nazis. I am afraid, because people are asleep. Those who should keep watch are the ones who put others to sleep. We must shout the truth no matter what the cost. But who will do it? I know that there are Christians who are willing to accept martyrdom if necessary; but they do not know what is happening. They wait for a voice, and the voice does not speak. We must pray that it will speak.

France has betrayed her soul, and now Nazism is gaining the upper hand. All genuine values are dragged in the dust. We no longer have any honor. Pétain has become the French Hitler. The great dance has begun and the world is blind. It is blind because it is afraid of death. The clergy remains passive. As in Austria, they accept what is happening. 3

More than a year passed after these roundups before the Catholic Church took a stand. In August 1942, Archbishop Jules-Gérard Saliège of Toulouse told Catholics:

That children, that women, that men, that fathers and mothers should be treated like a vile herd, that members of the same family should be separated from one another and sent to an unknown destination—this sad spectacle it was reserved for our times to see. . . . These Jews are men; these Jewesses are women; these aliens are men and women. You cannot do whatever you wish against these men, against these women, against these fathers and mothers. They are part of humankind. They are our brothers, as are so many others. No Christian can forget that. 4

Connection Questions

  1. How did Germany’s treatment of prisoners and civilians reflect the Nazi racial ideology?
  2. In describing the “Aryan attestation” that all civilians were asked to sign, Marion Pritchard notes, “Hindsight is easy; at the time only a few enlightened people recognized the danger and refused to sign.” How does one become “enlightened”? What is the danger of judging decisions in history based on hindsight?
  3. How does Germaine Ribière describe the climate in France at this time? What does her writing suggest about what some people knew in France? What does it suggest about the role of the Catholic Church?
  4. What is the connection between fear and silence? What motivates people to speak out in spite of fear?
  • 1Raffael Scheck, Hitler's African Victims: The German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 155.
  • 2Carol Rittner and Sondra Myers, eds., The Courage to Care (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 28–29. Reproduced by permission from New York University Press.
  • 3Quoted in Eva Fleischner, “Can the Few Become the Many? Some Catholics in France Who Saved Jews during the Holocaust,” Montclair State College, unpublished paper, 3.
  • 4Quoted in Nora Levin, The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry, 1933–1945 (New York: Schocken, 1973), 435.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Waging a Racial War," last updated August 2, 2016.

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