You don’t need me to tell you that minorities were ruthlessly persecuted throughout Hitler’s time at the top – this is one of the most widely known truths in the world. That being said, you may be a little fuzzy on the details, and the extent to which the Nazis attacked anyone deemed “other” compared to them.
To start, the Nazis believed that only “true” Germans could be citizens, and deemed some races sub-human while in charge. They also believed people with disabilities or mental illnesses were degenerates whose genes needed to be eliminated for good.
In order to do this, the Nazis tried to kill all Jewish people, exterminated 85 per cent of the nation’s travellers, killed mentally disabled people and sterilised disabled people, those with hereditary diseases, black people and deaf people. They also forced queer people, prostitutes, Jehovah’s Witnesses, alcoholics, beggars and criminals into concentration camps out of fears they would pollute the Aryan Race.
How did the horrific persecution of minorities, and specifically Jewish people begin, you ask? The Nazis began their attack on Jews gradually – initially through legal means, and through propaganda. On 1 April 1933, shortly after Hitler took power, the Nazis organised a boycott of Jewish shops – though this wasn’t that successful.
By 1935, the Party had introduced its Nuremberg laws, which stated Jewish people were not citizens. This also meant they were not allowed to vote or to marry a German. In the same year, German travellers were also banned from marrying Germans, following SS research that – wrongly – concluded that because they were likely of mixed race, they had delinquent tendencies.
By 1938, Jewish children were forbidden to go to school. Making matters worse, the year culminated in a coordinated attack on Jewish businesses and synagogues, in what is now referred to as “Kristallnacht”. This translates as “crystal night”, and is also known as the Night of Broken Glass.
It refers to the wave of violent attacks on Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues between 9-10 November in 1938, and was caused by the assassination of a Nazi diplomat by a Jew in Paris. Over 1,000 synagogues were ruthlessly burnt to the ground during Kristallnacht, and 91 Jewish people were killed.
It is a particularly significant event as it marked a break from the Nazis’ policy of persecuting minorities through legal means; between 20,000-30,000 Jewish people were arrested and sent to concentration camps as a result of Kristallnacht.
Contrary to what you might think, Hitler’s power as dictator of Germany was actually reinforced after the Night of Long Knives; the Nazi was congratulated by both President Hindenburg and the German Army for the horrific attacks in averting treason. You just can’t make this stuff up.
In the same year, Hitler issued the Decree for the Struggle Against the Gypsy Plague, which allowed officials to deport travellers to sites in Poland and to concentration camps. This was followed by the forced emigration of Jewish people in 1939, after the creation of the Reich Central Office for Jewish Emigration. But it wasn’t until the war and the increased number of Jewish people in German territory following the invasions of Poland and the Soviet Union that they began sending Jewish people to concentration camps in large numbers.
By 1941, Jewish people were forced to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothes so they could be easily identified and distinguished from Germans. This was just one of many anti-Semitic policies pursued by the Nazis, which ultimately culminated in the Final Solution and the mass murder of millions of Jews. Just so you know, anti-semitism refers to the suspicion of and hatred towards Jews because of their racial origins. It was one of the cornerstones of Hitler’s racist beliefs.
In 1942, Hitler authorised the introduction of death camps and the gas chambers used within them as part of the Final Solution, which was agreed upon in January that year. While the Nazi Party’s concentration camps were created as early as 1933 to deal with resistance to the regime, Hitler had stopped short of genocide until this point.
That being said, there was no official written order given at any point to kill Jewish people. Instead, the decision was clearly arrived at verbally at the Wannsee Conference, where key Nazi officials met to discuss the “Jewish problem”, but the Final Solution was never translated into written orders.
At the Wannsee Conference, it was agreed that gas would be used in the mass extermination of the Jews. The Conference condemned all Jews and other undesirables to an inhumane, horrific fate, which they were powerless to contest.
Whether the Final Solution was planned from the start or emerged from the pressure of the circumstances is the subject of much historical debate. Hitler often referred to the eradication or “removal” of the Jews from Germany, and the Nazis’ anti-Semitism was hardly a secret. Nevertheless, some people question whether such a brutal policy could have been planned from the beginning. It’s likely that we will never know.
By the end of the Holocaust, some six million Jewish people were killed by Hitler. Up to 250,000 people with mental illnesses and disabilities were murdered, while an estimated 220,000 travellers lost their lives. It’s believed around 2,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses were killed, with at least 70,000 criminals slaughtered, and possibly hundreds of thousands of queer people exterminated.