Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Yes, Virginia, Hate Can Be Legislated: Guest Post by Libby Fischer Hellmann

How do you feel when you hear the word “Holocaust?” Many of us react with an involuntary shudder or stomach flip. We feel uncomfortable. We probably want to change the subject. There’s a general consensus that the period between 1932 and 1945 during which six million people perished was the worst tragedy in human history. 

We know in generalities what happened to Jews, Catholics, Poles, and others. We know about Nazi persecution, deportations, concentration camps, and mass killings. Oh yes, I can say. My late father-in-law was the sole survivor of his family. He escaped to the US in 1939. 
But what, specifically, was he escaping from? Exactly what laws were enacted by Hitler’s government that inexorably tightened the noose around (primarily) Jewish necks? I didn’t know specifically, and I suspect most of us, nearly 100 years later, don’t either.
In my research for Max’s War I learned. There was a method to Hitler’s madness. The Nazi government would issue a flurry of laws, more or less at the same time. Then they would wait to see their effect. If those laws weren’t immediately enforced to the degree they expected, Joseph Goebbels—who was extremely talented but almost as evil as Hitler—would stoke public opinion by crafting propaganda. Goebbels searched for opportunities to inflame hatred by publicizing situations, to the point of staging public events to imitate approval of whatever law was in question. His efforts helped antisemitism flourish. The result? Laws against Jews were strictly enforced.

But first Hitler had to consolidate power. He didn’t waste any time. In February 1933, barely a month after he became Chancellor, a suspicious fire burned down the Reichstag, the parliament building. The next day, the Nazis blamed the Communist Party for the arson and banned them from government. Hitler then used the fire to persuade Hindenburg to suspend individual rights and due process of law. It’s widely thought that the Nazis staged the fire.

In March, a month later, Hitler asked the Nazi-controlled Reichstag to pass the Enabling Act. From that day forward Hitler alone had the power to make laws. The government also opened its first prison camp to house political opponents, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others classified as “dangerous.” The camp was located in Dachau. 

In April a flood of educational edicts came down. Classes in physical education were now required for all pupils. Jewish children rarely “made the team.” A new course was added to the national curriculum: Racial Science. In the lower grades, students learned about “worthy” and “unworthy” races, with the not-so-subtle conclusion that Aryans were the “master race.” In high school stereotypes about Jews began to surface along with square roots and history. Students were urged to wear their Hitler Youth and German Girls League uniforms to school. Thanks to Goebbels, antisemitic Nazi propaganda posters, slogans, and articles began to cover school bulletin boards. Teachers began to share them with students. 

April brought other mandates as well. Jewish teachers were banned from teaching at German schools and universities. The government also issued the Law Against Overcrowding in Schools, which limited the number of Jewish students in a school to no more than 5 percent of the school population. 
It was in April that the government also encouraged a boycott of Jewish shops and businesses. At some stores a Nazi Brownshirt with a rifle prevented German shoppers from entering. Some stores were attacked, their wares destroyed. 

In April the Nazis also passed a decree that defined a “non-Aryan.” Any individual who was descended from a Jewish parent or grandparent was automatically a non-Aryan. 

On May 10 students in Berlin burned more than twenty-five thousand books considered “un-German” in a massive bonfire instigated by Goebbels who declared, “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end.” That night students all over Germany marched in staged torchlit parades against the same un-German “spirit.” 

In the middle of July 1933, the Nazis banned all political parties except themselves. On the same day, the Reichstag passed a law that permitted the forced sterilization of any German with a physical or mental handicap. A third law passed the same day that stripped Jewish immigrants from Poland of their German citizenship. 

It was a busy year.


In August 1934, Von Hindenburg died. Two weeks after that, Hitler combined the posts of president and chancellor and gave himself the name Führer. The military swore their allegiance to Hitler. Civil servants, including teachers, government workers, and professionals, were forced to do the same. Goebbels was the mastermind behind country-wide demonstrations of loyalty to the Führer.

A new flurry of  laws excluded Jews from the arts and the newspaper business. Hotel and restaurant owners could no longer serve Jews. In some areas Jewish children were no longer allowed to go to public school. Jews had been barred from the legal profession, the civil service, and, of course, from teaching in schools. Books considered un-German, including those by Jewish authors, were banned. Local police turned a blind eye and sometimes even participated when Jewish citizens were harassed or subjected to violent attacks. Banners, posters, and articles denounced Jews as traitors to Germany. 

The end of May 1934 brought another blow. Jews were barred from serving in the German armed forces. A few months earlier, Hitler had defied the Treaty of Versailles by reinstating the draft, rearming, and expanding the army. A secret law reorganized the army into the Wehrmacht, making Hitler its commander-in-chief. 

Because of the rearmament, the economy rebounded. Jobs were plentiful. For the first time in five years, Germans had money to spend. Goebbels made sure every German knew Hitler was the reason why. Hitler became a hero. He was worshipped by most Germans. Goebbels’s shrewd use of radio, newspapers, and staged events was so successful that many average Germans came to support even stronger antisemitic laws. 


The full brunt of repression came in 1935.

In September 1935 the Nazis announced two new laws. The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor was the first. It defined who was a “pure” German, a Jew, and an individual with mixed blood, and went on to ban interracial marriages. The Jews, it said, were guilty of “racial defilement” where Aryans were concerned. 

The second law, the Reich Citizenship Law, stripped German Jews of their citizenship. They could no longer vote or take part in government functions, although they still were expected to pay taxes. The new law of “Protective Custody,” the arrest and detainment of Jews, political opponents, and others, was revealed. The government could arrest and imprison individuals who disagreed with Nazi politics for as long as was required. Dachau was one of the locations used as a prison camp, and prisoners were abused and starved. Some were murdered. 

And so a pattern was established: A law passed. Goebbels publicized the law and staged events that depicted from the German people. Jews were increasingly victimized and pushed out of society. Those who could, fled. The ones who couldn’t leave were sitting ducks for arrest, imprisonment, and, eventually, the Final Solution. As the Holocaust Encyclopedia puts it, “Before the Nazi takeover of power in 1933, Europe had a vibrant, established, and diverse Jewish culture. By 1945, most European Jews—two out of every three—had been killed.”

It’s important to understand that the German people, then and now, consider themselves a nation of laws. Germans are disciplined. They like order. They follow the law. It’s also important to know that Hitler did not stage a coup. He wasn’t elected directly by the people, but in 1933, in the middle of an economic depression, he’d been appointed by the president of Germany, because the Nazis had significant representation in parliament. It was all legal.
Which is why what happened to the Jews of Germany and Europe could happen again in another part of the world. No revolution or coup is required. The leader would need a compliant parliament so that repressive laws could be proposed, voted on, and enacted. It would also be helpful to have a master of propaganda to reinforce those laws. But that’s all. He or she could even occupy a neighboring country if their military was up to par. So far, no autocrat has succeeded beyond their own borders. But what happens when they do, as Putin is trying in Ukraine? Even more important, what will the rest of us do to prevent it?

Libby Fischer Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago a long time ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. She soon began writing historical fiction as well. Eighteen novels and twenty-five short stories later, she claims they’ll take her out of the Windy City feet first. Max's War, set during WWII, is Libby Fischer's Hellmann's latest novel. 


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