Jewish Questions Podcast

Episode 2: The Rise of Nazi Germany — Transcript

*Learn more about the hosts and the series on the Jewish Questions podcast page.*

Laurie: Hi, I’m Laurie Marhoefer, I’m a historian at the University of Washington in the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

Noam: And I’m Noam Pianko, and I’m also a history professor at the University of Washington.

Laurie: And this is Jewish Questions, the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies’ deep dive podcast on stuff that matters now in Jewish life, politics, history and culture from a scholarly perspective.

Noam: This season, we’re talking with scholars at the University of Washington about anti-Semitism: what it is, its long history and how we can push back against it today.

Noam: Well, today we get the chance really to go to the heart of 20th century anti-Semitism, and that is Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany wasn’t the only place where anti-Semitism was rampant in the 20th century. In fact, we saw that the United States actually paved the way for anti-Semitism. And Susan Glenn shared a lot of her research in the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the United States.

And it wasn’t a coincidence that we decided to start our series on anti-Semitism in the United States and bridge over now to Nazi Germany. And one of the things that we want to talk about today with Laurie, who today is not only serving as co-host, but also as our guest at the same time, is how did Germany shift from being a place of great hope and opportunity for Jews around the world into the site of the Holocaust.

So, Laurie, since you are a guest today, I want to give you an official introduction. Laurie Marhoefer is the Jon Bridgman Endowed professor of history and an associate professor in the history department. She’s also an affiliate faculty member of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies. And she has written a book on Weimar Germany.

So, let’s start with something that you wrote after Charlottesville. I think that for many of us was such a wakeup moment after the anti-Semitism and the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville two years ago. And I remember after that you shared an article. Do you want to just tell us a little bit about that?

Laurie: Yes. So after Charlottesville, it was maybe two or three days after, but there was something that eerily reminded me of my research, which was on Weimar Germany. So that’s the period before Hitler took power in 1933. Germany had this pretty vibrant democratic system.

Noam: So what reminded you of what you study?

Laurie: Yeah, there were two parts of it. One was the anti-Semitism that was so blatant at Charlottesville and how it seemed to me, having lived in this country most of my life, that anti-Semitism… not that it came out of nowhere, but that somehow had gone from this fringe

that it was safe for me to generally ignore, although sometimes it would intrude on my life, you know, you go to services and there’s an armed guard outside, but that’s a fringe thing, it’s kind of a relic of the past, that I think you could no longer think that around 2016 and around Charlottesville.

That anti-Semitism seemed much more mainstream and acceptable all of the sudden and also much more useful in politics. That was what really creeped me out, that suddenly it seemed like lots of people thought, hey, this is a story that we can tell that’s going to really help us in American politics as opposed to a liability.

Noam: One of the things that I think struck us about Charlottesville is how surprising it was, this may have happened in Germany, but never would happen in The United States, especially in the 21st century.

But take us back to Weimar Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Would a German Jew in Berlin in 1920 have been equally surprised by the rise of the Nazi party and the rise of anti-Semitism?

Laurie: Yeah, that was what that was what was so unsettling. Yes. German Jews were shocked by the rise of Hitler, and so were a lot of other people.

And I’ve been reading recently from my research W.E.B. Du Bois’s memoir of traveling in Germany and being a student in Germany. So, the great black intellectual and leader American lived in Germany for a couple of years around I think around 1900. And he basically did a PhD at the University of Berlin. And to Du Bois, Germany was this place where white people were far less racist than they were in the United States. And it was a much more comfortable place to be.

Noam: So just at that time, you’re saying that if you kind of wanted to go to a safe haven for thinking about groups, and pluralism and different racial groups getting together, that an American intellectual like W.E.B. Du Bois would have seen Germany as the place where you could have the most successful sense of equality and belonging?

Laurie: Yeah, isn’t that I mean, how creepy is that, right? Alain Locke, this other important black philosopher who was quietly gay thought that Germany was this not only a very open place, in terms of, oh, Germans aren’t as racist, but also that they’re not as concerned about homosexuality and that he could have affairs in Berlin.

So, I also study these German Jewish intellectuals, and a lot of the people who I read are involved in the gay rights movement in Germany before Hitler. So in the 20s. And one of them, Kurt Hiller, wrote this speech where he ends the speech with this rousing comparison between German Jews and homosexuals. This is in like 1925 or around there.

And he says, “People today say anti-Semitism is a scourge. It’s the shame of the century. But when in Germany were the Jews ever as persecuted as the homosexuals are? The real scourge of the century is the sodomy law, is the law against consensual gay male sex.”

And this is an adult Jewish German living in Berlin, who thought that German Jews had so succeeded in getting rid of legal discrimination and prejudice that, you know, the real oppressed group are gay men and, like, gay men should take the successful integration of the Jews as a model.

Noam: This reminds me, there is a whole Transparent episode, in that interesting TV series, right, where they go back to this period in Berlin and it is sort of like… it’s the San Francisco of the 1920s and 1930s. Right. Or the Seattle, a very progressive place where Jews and other groups are able to express their difference. Maybe Jews even better than some other groups, it sounds like.

Laurie: Yeah. So, if you think about the title that we chose for the podcast, Jewish Questions, the Jewish question is this 18th, 19th century debate about whether or not Jews can be citizens. So in 18th century, 19th century Europe, generally, there are legal restrictions on Jewish citizenship and there are all kinds of crazy laws left over from the Middle Ages about where you can live and what kind of businesses you can go in to, sometimes dress codes, right?

So the Jewish question is, can Jews be citizens? Are they really German or are they this foreign group in our midst and they can never really belong to the nation? In 1920 Germany, the answer to the Jewish question is yes, of course, Jews are citizens. So it was actually in other parts of Europe, Eastern Europe, Central Europe, where that question was still in play.

Noam: And those Jews would probably have wanted to come to Germany at that time, right?

Laurie: Yeah. I was just sitting in on Christopher Browning’s lecture this morning.

Noam: Lucky you.

Laurie: And I’m going to quote him, but he said if you were a Jew living in Poland or Lithuania in the first couple of decades of the 20th century, you either wanted to go to the United States or Germany.

Noam: So what happened? Why is anti-Semitism starting in the most progressive and liberal part of Europe and maybe even the entire world, the Western world in the 1920s and 30s?

Laurie: So, people slice that in different ways. And some people look at medieval anti-Judaism, and the Spanish Inquisition, the conversos and the blood libel, right, these hundreds of years of anti-Jewish hatred and violence, and they see a line through to the 20s.

But I find it more useful to think about something really changing in the 1870s. So, the term anti-Semitism was coined in the 1970s by a German journalist named Wilhelm Marr, and he coined it in a pamphlet. And in the pamphlet he writes about how he doesn’t have a religious problem with Jews. So, he’s not coming from a Christian background. His problem is a racial problem: that they are a foreign race.

Noam: Right. Although that’s kind of interesting because it does take a historically Christian idea of Jews being outsiders, of being stubborn and not being integratable and just translating it from a theological frame into a racial frame.

Laurie: Yeah, that’s true.

Noam: It could be a continuity, in other words, as much as a break.

Laurie:  I think you can read it as a continuity for sure. And a lot of the religious anti-Semitism never goes away. The Catholic Church taught that the Jews murdered Christ until the 1960s. So you still see all that stuff all the way through, including in the Nazi period.

Noam: But how do you square what you said before, which is people like Alain Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois, African Americans who had a tremendous experience of racial discrimination, coming to Germany in the early 20th century and seeing this kind of ideal society, in contrast to the United States, and yet you’re saying that from the 1870s, there really was this other stream of anti-Semitism. Was it something that was hidden under the surface? It took time to percolate?

Laurie: So, yeah, I think that there are two parts to that. The first is that if you look at Kurt Hiller, who I talked about, or Alain Locke, they’re seeing a slice of Germany. It’s such a politically diverse place. There’s still a lot of conservative people at the same time that there are all these progressive people and there’s a lot of flux.

But then the other thing that happens is anti-Semitism gets really useful in politics. All of a sudden, I would say, there’s anti-Semitic politics in Germany in the late 19th century. You know, there’s this guy nobody remembers named Adolf Stoecker, who was an anti-Semitic Berlin politician. And he’s a complete flop. His party goes nowhere.

And initially… the Nazi party is founded right after the end of the First World War. And, you know, at first they’re keeping the treasury of the party in a cigar box. And it’s like 50 guys who meet in a bar. And for a lot of their life as a political party, they’re a failure. They don’t get a lot of votes. They run for office for years and pull down like two or four percent of the national vote. What happens is all of a sudden there’s this confluence of a bunch of different things that makes anti-Semitism really useful in politics.

Noam: That seems to me to be this crucial question. If we’re trying to understand, you know, is there something we can learn from the past about the present moment, what things should we be aware of from your historical perspective about the moment in which anti-Semitism in Germany becomes such a powerful political weapon?

Laurie: For me, one of the big takeaways is you can have a very pluralistic place where there’s a very strong left that is anti-racist, and Germany in the 20s has a really strong Social Democratic Party that is against Empire, and the people in that party are not always great at anti-racism, but they do pay lip service to it, at least, and they opposed racist measures when Germany had an empire.

So there’s a strong progressive bloc, maybe a third of the voting population, and then there’s this anti-Semitic fringe, which is usually only five percent, and then you have maybe like 20 to 40 percent of people who are moderate conservative. You can go from that mix pretty quickly to an officially anti-Semitic, racist, violent, authoritarian regime. And that’s the… I mean, this is like the nightmare story of Weimar.

Noam: And so what happens in Weimar? How does anti-Semitism… what function does it serve in allowing the Nazis to gain such political power?

Laurie: Well, I don’t think it played a big role in them coming to power. They come to power with 37 percent of the national vote and then through a backdoor deal. They needed both. They didn’t have enough votes for Hitler to be Chancellor outright. They needed to do a deal with the regular conservatives.

And if you look at the way that anti-Semitism played out in those elections, it seems like to vote Nazi, you had to be comfortable with some level of anti-Semitism. So they’re not usually rabidly anti-Semitic in their propaganda. But, you know, everyone who went in and checked the box for the Nazis knew that they were an anti-Semitic party. So you had to be okay with that.

But now we don’t think that most people were motivated by anti-Semitism to vote for the Nazis. They were motivated by stuff like the Great Depression. We need a radical solution to the Depression. And I don’t want communism. I’m afraid of the communists. I want to go back to better days. There’s a lot of economic resentment. So, the way anti-Semitism works with economic resentment is it’s a way to be on the right and yet explain what’s wrong with capitalism.

Noam: Let’s walk through that more slowly. It’s a way to be on the right and explain what’s wrong with capitalism. In other words, the right has a problem, because they’re capitalists. They embrace the capitalist system. But the capitalist system is not working for the majority of the population. And so there needs to be a way of explaining capitalism, and so you need somebody who’s messing it up. It’s not pure enough somehow. Is that right?

Laurie: And when Wilhelm Marr coined the term anti-Semitism in the 1870s, it was in the midst of a depression. And it got linked to this idea that what’s wrong with the European economy is the Jews. The Jews are corrupting it. They’re greedy, they’re double-dealing. There’s this world Jewish conspiracy.

Noam: So let’s go back… let’s go back to 1933, Laurie, and you were just talking about the ways in which the Nazis came to power by making a deal with the conservatives. What happens then? I mean, how does it shift from being a partnership with the conservatives to Hitler taking over, and the centrality that anti-Semitism then takes in German politics?

Laurie: Yeah. So those conservatives floundered around on their own for a while. The Constitution was already in a kind of stasis a couple of years before Hitler was appointed because these conservative aristocrats wanted to have a right-wing dictatorship. But the reason they couldn’t pull it off is they didn’t have a big party backing them up. They didn’t have a lot of support at the polls.

And more and more people on the right were voting for the Nazis, not necessarily because they’re the most anti-Semitic party, although they were, but because they represent this new vision for Germany, because people are done with democracy. There’s a real just stampede away from democratic ideals.

Noam: What went wrong with the democracy? What is it that makes democracy less important to citizens in the Weimar and early Nazi period?

Laurie: So the Depression hit, and I think that the democracy would have stayed together if the depression hadn’t hit. And the Great Depression in Germany was a third of unemployment. So there was a lot of suffering, and in a way, that radicalizes people.

But I think that one of the weaknesses of these modern mass democracies is that often you don’t feel like your interests are being completely served and your faction, you feel like you’re a member of a faction and your faction has had to compromise. And compromise works when everybody feels somewhat satisfied.

But it doesn’t work when people feel like, you know what, if my faction were just the dictatorial party, if we had a one-party state and it was my party, then I would get everything that I want and I wouldn’t have to compromise with these other competing interests.

The Weimar system, there are like six or seven competing factions. And there’s a big chunk of the electorate that does support democracy and that consistently goes out and votes for democratic parties even at the very end… even at the very end.

And then there was a big political party, the Social Democrats, who stood up and opposed the Enabling Law, which was the act of dictatorship, the point at which Hitler had dictatorial powers, who risked their safety to say, we’re not going to support this in public.

So there were always people who were willing to die to defend the democratic system. But there were a lot of people on the right who thought that an authoritarian system would really serve their interests better. And there were a lot of people on the left who thought that too. The Communist Party was very strong.

Noam: So what happens once Hitler gets into power? It sounds like his ability to partner with the Conservative Party is less about anti-Semitism, and that’s kind of tolerated and accepted, nut there are other strengths that the Nazi party is bringing as Hitler then becomes the authoritarian ruler.

How do people respond to his anti-Semitism? How does this, especially in places like Berlin, how do these liberal societies respond when you have this pretty rapid shift toward the Nazi rule of Germany?

Laurie: So Hitler was invited to become the chancellor by these conservatives in January of 1933 because they thought that they could manipulate him. And I have to say that their expectation was not an unreasonable one. This is a guy who did not have a background… He had been a politician, but he hadn’t gone to university.

Noam: So they underestimated him a little bit.

Laurie: They way underestimated him. He was Austrian.

Noam: An outsider.

Laurie: He was an outsider from a lower-middle-class family. Anyway, so, they brought him into power and the Nazis made short work of those conservatives. They assassinated some of them. One of them conveniently died. And they were able to take total power for themselves within a year.

And then, yeah, it’s really interesting what happens to this liberal society when suddenly you have… There are anti-Semites, right. The people at the top of the Nazi party were just, I mean, it’s hard for me to find language to describe how deep they are into anti-Semitism and mystical thinking.

And right away, the Nazi regime passed anti-Semitic legislation in 1933, so even before they’re able to really get rid of the conservatives… And they had a boycott in 1933 of Jewish businesses that was organized by the government and that was nationwide.

And the reaction to the boycott is really interesting, and the reaction to the purge of the civil service. There are lots and lots of stories of non-Jewish Germans who objected, who weren’t comfortable, who intentionally flouted the boycott. So, I know that I’m supposed to boycott this shop today, but I’m going to shop there anyway. I don’t usually shop today, but I’m going to go today on purpose to show my support for my neighbor.

There are memoirs of people who lost their jobs in the purge of the civil service and of how their bosses wept, and colleagues brought them flowers. And everybody said, this is so horrible. How could the government do this? There’s a lot of discomfort with these big anti-Semitic moves on the part of the regime.

And it seems like the regime heard that and they kind of backed down and they decided that they had to move in a more gradual way to exclude German Jews from society, that they couldn’t act— German Jews were so integrated.

Noam: Is there anything that we can learn about resistance from this period?

Laurie: Yeah, there are a couple of things. One is that it’s a lot easier to resist within a democratic system. So, for all of the flaws of democracy, it is much, much, much easier to work against violent state policies in a democratic system. Not that democracies aren’t violent. Some democracies have carried out genocides, too. But generally, you’re much better off if there’s a free press and if you have civil liberties.

Noam: At what point does the press get closed down in Germany? Is that early on in the process?

Laurie: Yeah, immediately.

Noam: Immediately.

Laurie: Yeah. Another thing is people get worn down. I think that’s something that you have to factor in, that you may be resisting for a long time and you may have to find a way to navigate that because the regime wears people down, it isolates people.

Marion Kaplan, who’s an amazing and wonderful historian, has this beautiful book called Between Dignity and Despair that shows how gradually… So between ’33 and 1941, when the first German Jews are deported to the killing centers, the regime isolates German Jews and breaks friendship bonds between Jews and Aryans in all of these little ways, like Jews… you know, you can’t eat in a restaurant anymore. The only restaurant Jews can eat in are train stations. So, you can’t meet your friends. Eventually they mandate that Aryans cut off social contact. So, by the time the regime comes to murder the Jewish neighbors, there’s been this period of eroding those bonds.

Noam: But it’s amazing that it’s only a few years. I mean, it’s not like these are decades, I mean we’re talking, you know, several years between 1933 and the start of the Final Solution. You know, we’re not talking decades here.

Laurie: I used to read about Nazi Germany and be like, come on. It was not that long. Like, why are you standing by? Like, that’s your neighbor. That’s your friend. Or it’s not, it’s a stranger. But why are you standing by…?

But yeah, I think it’s hard to sustain that stuff. And I think it’s hard to know that it’s time. It’s hard to know that it’s time to risk something that’s important to me to help this stranger. When’s the right time? Is this it or not? I think that’s a hard… That’s tougher. It’s easy in retrospect, but maybe not in the moment.

And then, I have done research on the response of Catholic Germans to the persecution of German Jews. And that really brings up this question of, well, is this my problem or not? And there are individual Catholics who immediately recognize that this is their problem. There’s a priest in Berlin who insisted on praying in public during the deportations from Berlin. And he was arrested and murdered, but he was doing that on his own.

But the church hierarchy don’t seem to think that this is really something that impacts them. Right, this question of what’s at stake for me? Is this affecting me or not?

Noam: In some ways being part of a democracy kind of inures you from feeling responsibility because you assume that the system will work in a way that protects everybody equally. And I think one of the challenges with authoritarian systems is that you can’t rely on the system to treat people in the same way. And that in fact is actually the opposite. But one of the, I guess, challenges of being in a democracy and struggling with democracy that’s under threat by fascism or by authoritarianism is maybe the false sense that democracies have more power than they actually do and democracies are also limited. I mean, democracies are only as strong as the laws when they’re being followed and the norms when they’re being followed.

So, let’s jump back to where we started here, which was trying to contextualize the history of Nazi Germany, which is probably the most prevalent example of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence in the 20th century. If we fast forward to today, I mean, one of the questions that we want to be asking is what’s the relationship between anti-Semitism and other forms of racism? Did anti-Semitism go hand-in-hand with other forms of racism in the Nazi period?

Laurie: Yeah, it did go hand-in-hand with other kinds of racism in the Nazi period. So, the Nazis believed that the quote/unquote “Aryan” race was a white master race and they were vitriolically racist against black Germans, against Sinti and Roma people, who were sometimes called gypsies, which is a pejorative, against quote/unquote “Slavs.” So, Polish people. They had this whole racial worldview.

Noam: Do you have any sense of what’s the relationship between Jews and those other groups? I mean, one possibility is that in order to say that one racial group is the most important, the Aryan group, then all the others are inferior.

But there’s another way I feel that racism and anti-Semitism is connected in the American context today, which is somehow that at Charlottesville, you saw the signs about, you know, Jews not displacing us. Why are the Jews being picked out as the one who might be displacing other groups? Like, what’s the relationship? It seems there’s a different relationship, that in that case, the Jews are actually… even though they look like the closest to the white majority group, they’re actually the ones who are trying to undermine and erode the white majority group.

Laurie: Yeah, that’s really a hallmark of anti-Semitism in Europe in the 20th century. So in race science, there are always multiple white races, multiple quote/unquote “yellow” races, quote/unquote “black” races. And for a long time, race science didn’t have a lot to say about the Jews. If you read some of these thinkers like de Gobineau, he does think the Jews are a race, but he barely writes about them. They’re not a concern.

But when race science and anti-Jewish ideas got melded together in modern anti-Semitism, the quote/unquote “insight” is that the Jews… if you read Hitler, he blames the Jews for every possible thing you could think of. And so all of our quote/unquote “race problems” are the work of the Jews. The Jews are orchestrating the Civil Rights Movement, as Susan was talking about.

Noam: But, in other words, why the Jews and not all the other inferior races?

Laurie: The fact that they focus on the Jews is not a necessarily obvious turn of events. And the reason that they focus on the Jews is that in anti-Semitism… So, from the 19th century through Hitler, it’s not just that the Jews are a different race, it’s that they’re this evil… like, almost the opposite of the Aryans. They’re this evil master race. So, all of the power that’s attributed to Aryans, a lot of that is mirrored in Jews, except it’s evil.

Nazi thinkers are actually afraid of Jews and they don’t… They are very racist against Black people, but they’re not afraid of them in that way because they think, you know, they have these racial stereotypes about Black people being inferior. I don’t know that the Nazi’s thought that Jews were inferior at all.

Noam: Right. There’s actually a great kind of awe and fear of the Jews. And maybe part of it is because they look like they’re not a different race, that they are the most dangerous or the most powerful. And it sounds like that idea might have had its roots in Nazi ideology as well.

Laurie: I actually think that might even go back to the Middle Ages, to the way that Christianity portrays Jews, especially in the High Middle Ages, as in league with the devil, right? Literally evil, drinking blood. And it actually goes back, you know, as we talk about the history of anti-Semitism, it goes back to the sense of the primary opponent to Christianity are Jews.

Noam: So, Christianity defines itself in opposition to the Jews. So then modern anti-Semitism, in a sense, is doing the same thing where it’s the dominant racial community defines an opposition to the Jews as well. Often that white community is also Christian. So maybe there’s a parallel, too, in the way in which anti-Judaism historically was focused on the “other,” the Jews as “other,” because they were the non-Christians. And in a sense, maybe that continues through modern racial anti-Semitism as well.

Well, I think we have to wrap up. I think it’s really helpful to have the context of your experiences in teaching and researching in Nazi Germany, and it’s both surprising that this has become such a relevant topic today in the United States.

And I remember just growing up and hearing stories, I remember growing up and having these debates with my parents about that very question of: Is the U.S. different, and could it happen here? And that I was sure that there was no comparison at all, and my parents were always like: “You never know. You never know.”

And that’s something that is a message, that as Americans, it’s probably important to keep in mind that the rise of anti-Semitism and of violence against Jews can not only occur in different places, but it might actually be that it’s more likely to occur in places that have moved in certain progressive directions and that there’s some relationship between the need to politically challenge liberal or progressive ideas, and that the Jews often play a role, or play a very convenient role, in those kind of political stories. So thank you so much.

Laurie: Hey, no problem.

Noam: This has been Jewish Questions, the podcast of The Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington.

This season was supported by an Ignition Grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

Laurie: Jewish Questions was produced, recorded and edited by Kara Schoonmaker.

Join us again in future episodes as we discuss more of the history of anti-Semitism with faculty experts from the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

Find more episodes of the podcast, and learn more about the series, on the Jewish Questions series page.