Jews In Pre-War Germany, 1933-1939

Benjamin McCarthy

“[W]e are going to destroy the Jews.  They are not going to get away with what they did on November 9, 1918.  The day of reckoning has come.”  –Adolf Hitler, January 21, 1939


Before and during the Second World War, the Nazi Regime in Germany engaged in a genocide against the Jewish people of Europe that is known as the Holocaust.  What was termed the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem” ended in the deaths of millions of European Jews in concentration camps.

Before the Holocaust began, the Nazi government of Germany began their persecution of the Jews when they took power in 1933.  The Nazis eroded the place of Jews in Germany society with prohibitive laws, boycotts, and anti-Jewish violence; in November 1938, the government led a nation-wide attack on Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues, causing millions of marks worth of damage and ninety-one deaths.

By the time the war began in September 1939, the Nazi regime had completely alienated the Jewish population of Germany, taking away their rights and citizenship and beginning to put them in concentration camps.  The Nazi’s punitive measures against Jews in the years 1933-1939 were the foundation for the eventual near-destruction of European Jewry.


A Nazi Book Burning


Print Sources

The Jews: A History

John M. Efron

This is a general history of the Jewish people, from their beginnings in the ancient Middle East to contemporary Judaism.  Of note for this project is the chapter on the Holocaust, specifically the section titled “Phase I: The Jews in Nazi Germany (1933-1939).”  This section covers in brief the steps that Adolf Hitler took to persecute the Jews after taking power in 1933.  The Nazi-controlled government enacted prohibitive laws and public policies and began the “Nazification” of public institutions (e.g., making it difficult for Jewish doctors to practice and helping fill the medical community with party members).  The section concludes with a discussion of Kristallnacht and the final  actions against the Jews before the beginning of World War II in September 1939.


Hitler’s Ten-Year War on the Jews

Boris Shub

This book is of particular interest because it details the oppression and destruction of the Jewish people by Nazi Germany from a contemporary perspective: the book was published in 1943, before the conclusion of World War II and before the fullest extent of the atrocities of the Holocaust were known (and, in some cases, before they were even committed).  The section on Germany discusses the pre-Nazi Jewish population of Germany and their disappearance once the Nazis came to power, going from 564,379 in 1925 to an estimated 215,000 by September 1939 and the War’s beginning (and 5,000 by 1943, when the book was released).  It is important to realize that there was an idea internationally of what the Nazis were doing to the Jews even before the end of World War II–the book is an American publication from the American Jewish Conference.  The name Kristallnacht is not even yet used: the book refers to the “Pogrom of November, 1938.”  The compilers of the book believed 3,000,000 Jews to have died in Europe by 1943.


Nazi Germany’s War Against the Jews

Seymour Krieger

This is another book from The American Jewish Conference.  This one is a retrospective on the Nazi crimes against the Jews of Europe, and the Nuremberg trials.  The book describes the various punitive measures that the Nazis took against the Jews, and then complies the verdicts of the trials.  Furthermore, the majority of the book is made up of documentary evidence of the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews collected for the Nuremberg trials.  This wealth of primary sources includes internal communications between Party members and other Nazi documents that track their actions of the years before and during World War II.  These documents and the book itself are valuable contemporary sources about the time, as the book was published in 1947, just after the trials took place and with the memory of World War II still fresh.


Documents on Nazism

Jeremy Noakes and Geoffery Pridham

This book is a comprehensive examination of the Nazi regime, including both its domestic policies and ideology and its relations with other nations as it went to war.  Of particular interest are the sections on Nazi ideology and Nazi Antisemitism.  Hitler’s ideas aggrandized ideas about the German race informed his hatred of the Jews.  The book describes the desire to promote the German national identity, and how this manifested itself in xenophobic acts such as the burning of books.  In the section on Antisemitism, there are texts of laws that excluded Jews from German society, such as the Reich Citizenship Law (November 14, 1935) that precluded any Jew from being considered a citizen.  These primary sources show exactly what the Nazi leadership wanted in terms of repression of the Jews.



Martin Gilbert

This book is on Kristallnacht, the night in November 1938 when Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues across Germany were attacked and destroyed.  Ninety-one Jews were killed.  This book takes a narrative approach to the destruction, incorporating eyewitness accounts of the violence that occurred on the night of November 9 -10.  Included are photographs of the destruction across Germany and maps of Germany that demarcate where synagogues were burned.



Anthony Reed and David Fisher

This is another book on Kristallnacht.  It has primary accounts of the violence, as well as photographs of the events.  This book, however, focuses slightly more on the context, going into what triggered the violence and its effects afterwards.  The catalyst for the violence–the trigger that pushed the Nazis to instigate the organized violence of Kristallnacht–was the shooting Ernst vom Rath, a German Diplomat in Paris, by Herschel Grynszpan, a seventeen-year-old Jew.  The book describes how the shooting took place and how the Nazis turned vom Rath into a “Nazi martyr.”  The also explores the international response–which included a disturbing amount of indifference.


Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume I: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939

Saul Friedländer

In this book, Friedländer lays out the way that the Nazis treated the Jews as they rose to power and began exerting their control.  There is discussion of the “New Ghetto:” Jews began being moved to concentration camps and Jewish communities uprooted as early as the early thirties.  Friedländer also writes on the nature of the Antisemitism in prewar Germany.  The First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia become significant events for the Nazis: they are evidence of the Jewish plot against Western Civilization.  The Antisemitism is through a Christian lens (Friedländer calls the section “Redemptive Antisemitism): Hitler made himself out to be almost a messianic figure.  In his persecution of the Jews, he is somehow vindicating and fulfilling Christ’s work (102).



Giles MacDonogh

This is an interesting book in that it is about a complete year in Nazi Germany.  MacDonogh considers 1938 to be the most important year of prewar Nazi Germany history (xi).  As far as the Jews are concerned, 1938 was the year of Kristallnacht, but it was also when Germany began Germany began interning its Jews in large numbers.  MacDonogh notes that as many as 30,000 Jews were put into concentration camps in 1938 (4).  1938 is also noted for the Munich Agreement, in which the leaders of Western Europe allowed  Nazi Germany to take Czechoslovakia in order to avoid a war which, by 1939, had became inevitable.


Nazi Germany

Jane Caplan

This is a book on the Nazi regime in general.  Of particular interest is the section on “The Emergence of Nazi Ideology.”  Caplan writes on the history of the ideas that the Nazis used to take power.  Germany after World War I was a nation in need of unification.  Hitler capitalized on this to gain power.  He blamed the Jews for the bitter defeat of Germany in 1918, and sought to restore the unified patriotism that Germany had on entering the war.  He subscribed to the ‘stab-in-the-back’ idea of the Jews betraying Germany and causing German defeat (36).  Caplan also writes on the origins of Nazi Antisemitism, and the nineteenth century works that inspired Hitler’s ideas (33).


The History of the Nazi Party: 1933-1939

Dietrich Orlow

This book is another general history of the Nazi party.  Orlow discusses how the Nazis came to power.  He mentions how the Nazi boycott of Jewish goods and Jewish-run businesses was important for the Nazi’s economic revolution on coming to power in 1933 (42).  This book is less about how the Nazis viewed Jews and more about the formation and running of the party itself: itprovides a complexly detailed view of the rise of the Nazi Party (NSDAP).




Online Sources

“Jewish Responses to the Nazi Threat, 1933-1939: An Evaluation”

Abraham J. Edelheit

This article explores the response to Nazi persecution against Jews internationally.  Specifically, it goes into why it failed.  Ultimately, there was not enough information reaching the international community in order to galvanize action.  Edelheit writes that major American publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post failed to report or comment.  By the time the war started in 1939, coverage of threats against Judaism were drowned out.  This article articulates why the persecution of Jews in Germany was able to take place on the scale it did with little or no international response.


“The Boston Jewish Community and the Rise of Nazism, 1933-1939”

Adam Wolfson

Adam Wolfson explores the international response to Nazism as well: specifically, he looks at the response of the Jewish population of Boston.  On this smaller level, the response was more urgent (especially as it was a Jewish response).  Ultimately, however, it moved little beyond talk.  Their potential for action was limited.  Wolfson concludes that even if they had been able to help more, the fact that it was a Jewish response would have isolated German Jews even further in Germany.  While there was concern to help European Jews, the response as it existed was not enough to cause significant change.


“The United States and the Persecution of the Jews in Germany, 1933-1939”

Sheldon Spear

This article focuses on the response that the United States government had in regards to Jewish persecution in Germany.  Spear writes that the response was limited and, in retrospect, not nearly enough.  Groups such as the American Jewish Committee who had called for action in the thirties condemned the inaction of the American government in retrospect, as by 1943 it was clear that the Nazi regime was engaging in genocide against he Jews of Europe.


Destruction in Berlin after Kristallnacht


March 1933: Dachau, the first German concentration camp, opens

April 1, 1933: Nazi-led boycott of Jewish products and businesses

May 10, 1933: Nation-wide book burnings

September 15, 1935: Anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws enacted

November 9-10, 1938: Kristallnacht

September 1, 1939: Germany invades Poland; World War II begins


  • Abraham J. Edelheit, “Jewish Responses to the Nazi Threat, 1933-1939: An Evaluation” Jewish Political Studies Review, Spring 1994, accessed November 18, 2013,
  • Adam Wolfson, “The Boston Jewish Community and the Rise of Nazism, 1933-1939,” Jewish Social Studies , Vol. 48, No. 3/4 (Summer – Autumn, 1986), pp. 305-314, accessed November 18, 2013,
  • Anthony Read and David Fisher, Kristallnacht (London: Michael Joseph, Ltd., 1989)
  • Boris Shub, ed., Hitler’s Ten Year War on the Jews (New York: The American Jewish Conference, 1943)
  • Dietrich Orlow, The History of the Nazi Party:1933-1945 (London: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973)
  • Giles MacDonogh, 1938 (Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2009)
  • Jane Caplan, Nazi Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
  • Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, eds., Documents on Nazism, 1919-1945 (New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1975)
  • John M. Efron, The Jews: A History (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2009)
  • Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006)
  • Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume I: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997)
  • Seymour Krieger, comp., Nazi Germany’s War Against the Jews (New York: The American Jewish Conference, 1947)
  • Sheldon Spear, “The United States and the Persecution of the Jews in Germany, 1933-1939,” Jewish Social Studies , Vol. 30, No. 4 (Oct., 1968), pp. 215-242, accessed November 18, 2013,