Institute for Historical Review

Institute for Historical Review

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The Myth of the Six Million

5. The Tension and Crisis of 1938

The situation became much worse again in 1938. Considerable German attention had been given to the encouragement under equitable terms of Jewish emigration as a means of permanently solving the Jewish question in Germany, but many more Jews had departed from Poland than from Germany during the period 1933-1938. A veritable competition had developed between Germany and Poland in encouraging emigration from their respective countries. The Polish Seim had passed a number of stringent anti-Jewish laws in March 1938.

Early in 1938 the American press was flooded with rumors about similar actions by the National Socialists, first in Germany, and then in Austria, and it was necessary for American diplomats on the spot to deal with these matters. A few examples will suffice to illustrate this situation. On January 17, 1938, the American Embassy in Berlin denied the rumor that Jewish doctors and dentists had been deprived of their participation in the compulsory insurance program (Ortskrankenkassen). On January 26, 1938, the Embassy denied the American press rumor that there had been any order restricting Jewish passports or travel opportunities from Germany. On March 25, 1938, John C. Wiley, from the American consulate in Vienna, denied the extravagant rumors of general pogroms following the Anschluss, and he added that "so far as I know there have been no Jewish deaths by violence" (Foreign Relations of the United States, 1938, vol. 2, pp. 355-9).

Nevertheless, on June 18, 1938, there, was organized picketing of Jewish shops in Berlin for the first time since 1933, and Hugh Wilson, who reported from the American Embassy that 3,000 additional Jews had come to Berlin from the provinces in recent months, warned that dissatisfaction was being expressed in the German press with the slow rate of Jewish emigration from Germany. A long-expected blow against the Jewish position in Germany was struck by a law of October 14, 1938 according to which Jewish lawyers in Germany were to retire from general practice by November 30, 1938 and in Austria by December 31, 1938. Wilson reported that in early 1938 no less than 10 per cent of the practicing lawyers in Hitler's anti-Jewish Third Reich were Jews. This was true despite the fact that the Jews constituted less than .5 per cent of the German population (Ibid., vol. 2, pp. 380-391). In his book, Germany and World Peace (London, 1937), the eminent Swedish scientist and explorer, Sven Hedin, who had been a close student of German affairs, stated that under the Weimar Republic the Jews provided 23 per cent of the practicing lawyers in Germany although the Jews made up only .8 per cent of the total German population.

It was in this tense situation that the Polish Government decided on October 15, 1938, to implement a law passed the previous March according to which individuals who had remained outside Poland for a period of years could be declared stateless by the competent Polish consular authorities. This meant that an estimated 55,000 Polish Jews living in Germany by choice could be stranded there permanently -- through the unilateral action -- of the Warsaw Government. Similar restrictions in 1885 by the Tsarist Government had prompted Bismarck, who was by no means unfriendly toward the Jews, to deport foreign Jews to the Russian Empire.

The German Foreign Office made several vain attempts to persuade the Poles to cancel their decree. Because October 29, 1938, was the deadline on the renewal of the Polish passports, the Germans began on October 27th to organize deportation transports of Polish Jews. Special care was taken to see that the travelers would have ample facilities on the transport trains, including plenty of space and good food. Some trains managed to cross the border, but the Poles soon began to resist, even before the passport deadline, and the entire action had to be abandoned before less than one-third of the 55,000 Polish Jews of Germany had been returned to Poland.

This strange and tragic situation produced important repercussions. Wolfgang Diewerge, Der Fall Gustloff (The Gustloff Case, Munich, 1936, pp. 108ff.), has recorded the threat of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in 1936 that further assassinations of German officials by Jews, as in the caste of Gustloff's assassination by David Frankfurter, would lead to reprisals against German Jewry. Now a test situation for this threat had arrived.

The parents and sisters of Herschel Grynszpan, a syphilitic degenerate living in Paris, had been on one of the German transports to Poland. Grynszpan received a postcard from one, of his sisters on November 3, 1938, which described the situation but did not contain any special complaint. Grynszpan decided to murder German Ambassador Welezeck in Paris, but instead he fired his revolver casually at Embassy Counsellor Ernst von Rath after he failed to encounter Welczeek. This was on the morning of November 7, 1938, and von Rath died forty-eight hours later.

This situation was exploited by Goebbels to increase the severity of German policy toward the German Jews. Many Jewish synagogues were set on fire by organized S.A. groups on November 10, 1938, and much Jewish business property was ransacked or damaged by the same demonstrators. Hitler ordered Himmler's SS to intervene and put an end to the violence. These demonstrations against the Jews were not pogroms like those in Tsarist Russia because no Jews lost their lives. The mass of Germans were horrified by the destruction of Jewish property, which was contrary to their sense of decency and feeling for law and order. Goebbels, however, welcomed the incident as a turning-point which would lead to the elimination of Jewish influence in Germany. Hugh Wilson, who was about to be recalled from Germany as part of an American protest, reported on November 16th that the British diplomats in Berlin were more complacent about the Jewish question. They noted that German public opinion was not behind the recent anti-Jewish measures, and they wisely concluded that this type of action would not be repeated. This was the last report which Wilson sent to Secretary of State Hull before leaving the country (FRUS, 1938, 2, pp. 398-402).

Hitler was persuaded by Goebbels after the demonstrations to levy a one billion Mark (250 million dollar) fine on the wealthy and moderately wealthy Jews of Germany. Goebbels argued that otherwise the Jews would be able to pocket vast amounts of money from the German insurance companies, because the assets damaged or destroyed on November 10, 1938 had been heavily insured. The poorer Jews, who had less than 5,000 Marks in immediate assets, were exempted.

The German insurance companies were ordered to pay the Jews promptly for all damages suffered to property on November 10th, and it was permissable for the Jews to use part of this money in paying the fine over four installments between December 15, 1938 and August 15, 1939. A further German law was announced on November 9-6, 1938, to eliminate Jewish retail stores by January 1, 1939. At the same time, it was promised that welfare care, pensions, and other state relief measures on behalf of the Jews would be continued. There were no new developments of consequence in German policy toward the Jews prior to the outbreak of World War II. At the same time, it should not be surprising that the events of November, 1938 greatly accelerated the emigration of Jews from Germany, and, in this sense, the aims of Goebbels were realized (Vide H. Heiber, "Der Fall Gruenspan", in Vierteliahrshefte fuer Zeitgeschichte, April, 1957).

It can be stated in summary that German policy toward the Jews prior to World War II consisted mainly of legislative pressure, and of a few public occasions of violence in which, however, no Jews were actually killed. No doubt some Jewish lives were lost in German concentration camps prior to World War II, but certainly there was no deliberate policy of killing Jews as such, and the proportion of Jews affected was far smaller than that of Germans subjected to similar treatment.

The purpose of the German campaign against the Jews was to eliminate the powerful Jewish economic, political, cultural influence within Germany, and latterly, with increasing emphasis, to promote the total emigration of the Jewish population from Germany. The purpose of the organized Jewish counter-measures was to promote a military crusade of neighboring states against Germany in the hope of securing the total destruction of the German National Socialist state by means of war. It goes without saying that there were many enlightened Jews who did not share this objective just as there were moderate forces constantly at work within the German leadership to secure a more generous policy toward the Jews than Hitler had hitherto employed.

It may be useful at this point to give a few population statistics bearing on the period before the war and that of wartime. It is estimated that the number of Jews in Germany when Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933, was approximately 500,000. There were large additions toward the end of the pre-war period due to the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland and the establishment of a protectorate over Bohemia and Moravia. The anti-Jewish attitude, policies and measures had encouraged extensive migration of Jews from these areas controlled by National Socialist Germany. It is estimated that about 320,000 left Germany between January, 1933, and September, 1939. Some 480,000 emigrated from Austria, the Sudetenland and Bohemia-Moravia before the war broke out. There were about 360,000 Jews in areas under German control when war came in September, 1939, and of these some 65,000 left during the war.

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