The Jews in the Secret Nazi Reports on Popular Opinion in Germany, 1933-1945

By David Cesarani, August 1, 2011
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Tailor’s shop in the Jewish quarter of Vienna, defaced with anti-Jewish slogans, 1938

Tailor’s shop in the Jewish quarter of Vienna, defaced with anti-Jewish slogans, 1938

By Otto Dov Kulka and Eberhard Jäckel
Yale University Press, £100

The secret reports on the "popular mood" compiled by the Sicherheitsdienst - SD, the security service of the Nazi Party - have been used by historians since the 1980s, but usually to illustrate the extent to which the Nazi régime rested on consent. Few paid attention to what they contained about the evolution of anti-Jewish policy or about Jewish responses and non-German readers had no access to the originals. Now that has changed, thanks to the monumental scholarship of Otto Dov Kulka and Eberhard Jäckel, with the assistance of the brilliant translator William Templer. They have selected and translated 752 documents giving an overview of anti-Jewish activity and Jewish reactions across Germany (and after March 1938, Austria) from 1933 to 1945.

Yale University Press deserves plaudits for supporting this. The book costs £100, but includes a CD-ROM with more than 3,740 original records in German and a terrific search engine. No serious scholar can be without access to a copy and every university library will have to invest in one. I would even commend this volume to the general reader. The introduction is wonderful and each page contains something surprising. The book is a compendium of spite and pettiness dressed up as ideology, hate and heroism. As the years pass, tragedy upon tragedy.

While the Nazis were consolidating power, the reports note countless "individual actions" against Jews. Shops are picketed and property vandalised; Jewish men are dragged by SA men to police stations for having non-Jewish women friends. But Hitler and his ministers took fright at this disorder. It was bad for Germany's image, for the reputation of the NSDAP as a serious party of government and for the economy. The Reich Economic Ministry declared that trade at Jewish-owned stores was not to be interrupted. From 1934 until 1936, the police and even the Gestapo worked to frustrate boycotting. They removed signs identifying businesses as Jewish - and Jewish businesses recovered.

"Party comrades" were upset by this and there was immense confusion. Many municipalities banned Jews from amenities such as swimming baths. Some refused to certify civil marriages between Jews and Aryans. The police were uneasy placing themselves between the "people's rage" and the Jews, while courts often ruled in favour of Jews who mounted legal appeals for the removal of offensive signs. The 1935 Nuremberg laws were supposed to bring order and institutionalise the isolation of Jews. They certainly gave impetus to the harassment of Jews in small towns and villages. However, the process was too slow for the SD Main Office. It argued that Jews would not emigrate unless they were subjected to legal exclusion, intimidation and violence.

Until 1936, the police defended Jewish businesses

After the 1936 Olympics, the reports chart an escalation of anti-Jewish propaganda and actions. Nevertheless, swathes of the population remained unmoved. In September 1935, a police officer in Aachen complained that "given their mentality, the Roman Catholic population initially sees the Jew as a human being". Workers in Magdeburg preferred Jewish one-price stores because "as long as they can purchase everything at lower prices in such shops, they cannot be expected, given their low wages, to make sacrifices". German farmers remained stubbornly attached to Jewish cattle dealers.

The following year, Jewish traders were denied permits and professionals lost the right to practise. The SA thugs were unleashed again. Municipalities ordered the demolition of synagogues. Yet most Germans disapproved of the violence. Religious people feared that churches might be targeted next. Some perceptive souls realised that the pogrom of November 9-10, 1938 left everyone less secure, "because the consciousness of what is lawful began to waver".

By now, though, the Nazis had no qualms about suppressing dissent and the anti-Jewish violence was a terrifying admonition. Attitudes were polarised. More people, especially the young, relished their cruel treatment. Others felt qualms and, as the war turned against Germany, feared "Jewish revenge". The reports confirm that the deportation of Jews was public knowledge and most people gained some information about their fate. This alone explains reports of guilt and fear transmitted to SD Main Office. Even while SD officers were reporting the last deportations, others recorded that "among Volksgenossen who have been bombed out, you can hear statements saying that if we had not treated the Jews so badly, we would not have to suffer so much from terror attacks."

    Last updated: 12:43pm, August 1 2011