On January 30, 1933, President Paul von Hindenberg lawfully appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany. Within a month, the fire that destroyed the Reichstag gave Hitler the perfect pretext to crack down on his most dangerous opponents, the Communists. Under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, he asked the president to suspend basic civil rights in this “dire” emergency. Hindenberg, who had given previous chancellors similar emergency powers, concurred. It was to all intents and purposes the end of democracy in Germany. Time now began to run out quickly for the opponents of Adolf Hitler.
And then came the turn of the Jews.
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When I came home from school on November 9, 1938, I saw flames shooting through the roof of the synagogue where the 100 or so Jews of my home town worshipped. It was the beginning of Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass, in which nearly every Jewish place of business or worship in Germany was destroyed or damaged. I watched the destruction in Wittlich with fascination, but with no feeling of compassion. The teaching of “Racial Science,” to which I had been exposed for five years in school and in the Hitler Youth, had done its work. To me, even the Jews of my home town, nearly all of whom I knew by name, had become dangerous polluters of our pure Aryan blood, for all that this substance still seemed nebulous to me. I had largely forgotten my best friend in kindergarten, Heinz, who had been removed from elementary school some three months after we started together. Heinz’s uncle, a rabbi, actually made the decision to remove him, but I have no doubt that the choice was a wise one in the atmosphere of 1933. For myself, I remember only a vague sense of confusion — certainly no outrage, not in one so young. I asked my grandparents to explain, but their replies were equally vague, perhaps even evasive. “You knew he was Jewish,” I recall them saying. “Well, the Jews don’t go to Christian schools.”
And by 1938, much greater crimes against Jews provoked even less protest by me, by my grandparents and townspeople, and by Germans in general. In a very short time, Hitler had accomplished the legal ostracism of the Jews of Germany, and had turned them into Germany’s scapegoats for all past defeats and present difficulties. Again, he was successful in part because his propaganda appealed to existing beliefs: anti-Semitism had been part of German life for centuries. Martin Luther was particularly vicious; the Catholic Church, for its part, had long tolerated and sometimes encouraged the hatred of Jews. Many rural Catholics still used the epithet “Christ killers,” and Hitler found particularly fertile soil for his seeds of hate in the predominantly Catholic provinces, such as Bavaria and my native Rhineland. Bismarck had granted German Jews full civil rights and liberties in 1871, but in many ways their position had eroded ever since. By the ’20s, at least 430 anti-Semitic associations flourished in the Weimar Republic.
This was true even though German Jews were some of the most assimilated — and most assimilationist — in Europe. For more well-to-do Jews especially, nation came before religious identity. And though Jews constituted less than one percent of the German people (about 600,000 out of 66 million), they were among its highest achievers. Jews were prominent in such learned professions as law and medicine, and in trade. Their success engendered a mixture of grudging respect and envy: “Never underestimate a Jew,” my grandmother used to say, but it was no tribute.