Anti-Semitism is a very old phenomenon and not limited to Germany, but was found everywhere in Europe. The first Jews arrived in Germany in Roman times. With the arrival of Christianity, Jews were regarded as the killers of Christ and often persecuted. Luther was a prime antagonist of Jewry, considering Jews as ‘bitter worms’, usurers and extortionists, who should be driven out of the country.
In the following ages, mass expulsions and the institution of ghettos became normality. Recurring accusations of Jews having murdered children for ritual purposes led to periodic outbreaks of violence.
Hitler’s anti-Semitism was acquired during his stay in Vienna with its big Jewish population and long anti-Semitic tradition. It was there, he wrote, that he came to understand the Jewish conspiracy to destroy the world of the ‘Aryans’. Intermarriage with Jews adulterated German blood and the Jews had brought Negroes to the Rhineland (then occupied) for the same reason.
Anti-Semitic propaganda was a characteristic of the early years of the Nazi Party. According to the Nazis Germany had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by Marxists, November traitors (the founders of the Weimar Republic) and Jews. These could, therefore, be murdered, as was the case with the Jewish foreign minister Rathenau in 1922 – an act praised by Hitler – or they were expelled.
A violent anti-Semitic campaign, with the infamous paper, ‘Der Stürmer’, reviving the accusation of ritual murder and generally vilifying everything Jewish, commenced as soon as the Nazis were in power, culminating in the book burning of 1933, the Nürnberg laws of 1935 and the ‘Reichskristallnacht’ with its burning of synagogues, killing and brutalising Jews and seizing their property in 1938. Finally Hitler declared in the Reichstag that a war, if it broke out, would lead to the annihilation of Jews in all Europe.
Faced with ever increasing restrictions, ranging from job losses, prohibition of exercising professional activities, to the loss of citizenship and expropriation, the highly assimilated German Jews emigrated unwillingly. By 1939 half the Jewish population had left, including writers, scientists, doctors and artists – an enormous loss for Germany.
After the outbreak of war, the anti-Jewish measures were extended to the occupied countries. In Poland the killing started as soon as the German armies crossed the border. At the wartime Wannsee conference the ‘Final Solution’ of exterminating all Jews was decided on. Mass deportations started and trains were rolling towards concentration camps from all over Europe. The victims totalled 6 million people at the end of the war.