Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Berlin Anti-Jewish Riots of 1935 (3rd of 3)

In the previous two posts, I described the Berlin anti-Jewish riots of 1935. How to interpret such events from the past has been, and continues to be, a major question for those who study the Holocaust. Who was ultimately responsible?

In this particular case we know that, at the time, Hitler and the Nazi party had compelling reasons for creating at least the appearance of fairness for German Jews. For one thing, the leaders of the Third Reich did not want to risk a boycott of the next year’s Olympic Games, the threat of which was now renewed. [1] As early as mid-March 1933, Hitler had met with Dr. Theodor Lewald and Heinrich Sahm, president and vice-president of the German Olympic Committee. Following his conference with them, he “expressed great interest in the arrangements and said: ‘I will do everything possible to advance the Games, as well as all sports interests’.” [2] From that time until the successful production of the winter and summer Games of 1936, the regime did what was necessary in order to prevent a boycott. [3]

More-general economic concerns loomed as well. For example, on August 20, 1935 several ministers of the regime met in a conference called by Hjalmar Schacht, the Minister of Economics. Schacht emphasized to his peers “the damage caused by the anti-Jewish disorders and warned that the developing situation could threaten the economic basis of rearmament.” As one might expect, he was worried about present and future economic conditions. Of course, Schacht “agreed that the party program had to be implemented.” But he also insisted “that the implementation had to take place within a framework of legal instructions alone.” Minister of the Interior, Wilhelm Frick, and Gauleiter and Bavarian Minister of the Interior Adolf Wagner agreed with Schacht, and their conclusions were soon communicated to the Fuehrer.

Less than a month later, Hitler delivered a speech before the Reichstag, assembled at Nuremberg on September 15, 1935. He blamed international resistance to his regime for a supposed recent Jewish uprising in Germany. According to the Fuehrer, Jews living within the Reich sensed that they had strong support abroad. As a result, they had now concluded that the time had come for them “openly to oppose Jewish interests to those of the German nation.” Hitler continued with a general characterization and with a specific example from Berlin:

From numerous places vigorous complaints have been received of the provocative action of individuals belonging to this people, and the remarkable frequency of these reports and the similarity of their contents point to a certain system of operations. This attitude actually resulted in demonstrations which in a Berlin cinema were directed against a foreign film by which, though harmless in itself, certain Jewish circles felt themselves to be offended.

Having established the need for the German people to be protected from the supposed menace of an unresolved Jewish problem, Hitler then announced that a resolution was possible:

If this proceeding is not to lead to very determined action in its own defense by the outraged population—the consequences of which in any single case cannot be foreseen—the only way to deal with the problem which remains open is that of legislative action. The German Government is in this governed by the thought that through a single secular solution it may be possible still to create a level ground on which the German people may find a tolerable relation toward the Jewish people. Should this hope not be fulfilled and the Jewish agitation both within Germany and in the international sphere should continue, then the position must be examined afresh. [4]

And with that, Hitler initiated the so-called Nuremberg Laws which were then unanimously promulgated by the Reichstag.

Clearly, the Berlin riots of 1935 were connected to the enactment of the Laws. But more than that, they were a major part of the pretext for the Laws. To that extent, the riots represent a significant step in the long march from persecution to extermination. But exactly how significant were they? As I see it, Moshe Gottlieb oversimplified and overreached when he summarized the meaning of these events as follows: “The Berlin Riots mark the turning point in the final annihilation of German Jewry; for these attacks led directly to the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws, the Kristallnacht episodes of 1938, and the ‘final solution’ of the 1940’s.” [5]

Why should that statement be regarded as a stretch? For two main reasons. First, as the earlier parts of this paper show, the Berlin riots were especially notorious because they occurred in a section of the capital city that was full of visitors from other countries, press correspondents, and representatives of foreign governments. They were far from being the only major persecutions or the worst measures taken against German Jewry in 1935. Second, as Daniel Fraenkel explains, the Nuremberg Laws were indeed “an essential and logical step in the process of destruction unleashed against European Jews.” But he adds that “it would be a mistake to construe the enactment of the September laws as a direct prologue to the Final Solution.” Instead of “a frontal assault on the physical foundations of Jewish existence,” the Laws represented “an act of public and symbolic humiliation of German Jews.” [6]

Contrary to Gottlieb’s assertion, not even the Nuremberg Laws were decisive in any final sense. In my opinion, the complexity of the dynamic between expediency and the long-term goals of Hitler and other leaders of his party has been expressed quite well by Saul Friedlander:

The crimes committed by the Nazi regime were neither a mere outcome of some haphazard, involuntary, imperceptible, and chaotic onrush of unrelated events nor a predetermined enactment of a demonic script; they were the result of converging factors, of the interaction between intentions and contingencies, between discernable causes and chance. General ideological objectives and tactical policy decisions enhanced one another and always remained open to more radical moves as circumstances changed. [7]

The anti-Semitic riots in Berlin during the second half of July 1935 bear every indication of having been carried out, or at least permitted and controlled, by the leadership of the Nazi regime. It was in this way that Hitler and the party elite not only attacked the relatively-prosperous and significant Jewish population of the capital city, they also tested the resolve of the world community. Because they discovered an attitude that was unbelieving, lax, and even complicit, they then took the next steps along their ever-evolving but resolute path.

[1] “Berlin riots mar Olympic planning,” New York Times, July 26, 1935. In the second half of 1935, the push for the U.S. Olympic team to abandon the games in Berlin intensified. See, for example, “Statement of non-Jewish advocates of boycott,” New York Times, October 25; “Jahncke asks ban on Olympic games,” November 27; and “N.A.A.C.P. asks A.A.U. to abandon Olympics,” December 14.

[2] “Hitler promises full support for the 1936 Olympic games,” New York Times, March 17, 1933. See also a piece that appeared in the Times two days earlier, “Hitler support expected for Olympics of 1936 in Berlin,” March 15, 1933. See also Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume I: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939 (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 138.

[3] In addition to the sources identified in the previous two notes, the pertinent literature on the story of the 1936 Olympic Games includes the following pieces from the New York Times: “Germany seeks 1936 Olympics for Berlin: government funds aiding 1928 campaign,” February 16, 1927; “Brundage’s views stir Berlin press,’ April 20, 1933; “Reich now says status of German Jews in next Olympics has not been settled, May 29, 1933; “Proposal to shift Olympics growing,” June 4, 1933. See also Moshe Gottlieb, “The American Controversy Over the Olympic Games,” American Jewish Historical Quarterly 61, No. 3 (March 1972): 181-213; Bruce Kidd, “The Popular Front and the 1936 Olympics,” Canadian Journal of History of Sport and Physical Education 11, No. 1 (May 1980): 1-18; Allen Guttmann, The Games Must Go On: Avery Brundage and the Olympic Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984); “Olympic Games,” in Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, ed. Christian Zentner and Friedemann Bedurftig, trans. Amy Hackett (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 2:669-71; David Clay Large, Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936 (New York: Norton, 2007).

[4] Adolf Hitler, My New Order, ed. Raoul de Roussy de Sales (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1941), 339. I owe this quote to Moshe Gottlieb, "The Berlin Riots of 1935 and Their Repercussions in America," American Jewish Historical Quarterly 59, No. 3 (March 1970), 308, note 9.

[5] Gottlieb, 328.

[6] “Nuremberg Laws,” in Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, ed. Walter Laqueur (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 454.

[7] Friedlander, 5.


Leland V said...

I heard a short NPR account this morning on my way to work. Today is the 75th anniversary of the 1936Olympics in Berlin. The events in Germany were ignored and covered up during the year following your review.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi, Leland! Always good to hear from you.

Indeed, the Nazi regime did a very good job of making sure that Berlin looked beautiful and, apparently, safe for everyone. Visitors wrote home raving about clean streets, friendly people, efficiency, etc. The 36 Olympics amounted to some of the greatest propaganda/political theater ever.

I've not read it all, but David Clay Large, "Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936" (2007) appears to be the standard secondary source. The Games turned out to be a positive game changer for the Nazis.

Very readable and entertaining is "The Fastest Kid on the Block: The Marty Glickman Story." written by the subject. He and another Jewish kid, Sam Stoller, were told at the last moment that they would not be running for the U.S. in the 400-meter relay, as scheduled. The ostensible reason was that the relay team needed Jesse Owens' speed in order to beat the Germans. There were a lot of inconsistencies in the rationale for the change, and it's always been suspected that American Olympic officials went along with Hitler's request that the Jewish runners be replaced. According to Glickman, it was one of those things that everybody knew, but nobody could prove.

Leland V said...

The NPR speaker mentioned that Hitler was initially opposed to spending time and money on hosting the Olympics, but someone obviously convinced him to go ahead. You are right, it was very successful theater and gave the Nazis much cover for the months and years ahead.

I was listening to a review of the Schlingenseipen biography of Bonhoeffer this morning on the most recent Mars Hill Audio (yes, I am still a subscriber) and was reminded again of what a difficult time that was for the church in Germany. Another book for my reading list.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hitler just wasn't much of a sports fan. The one sport he did like was boxing because he thought it captured the essence of the struggle for dominance over another.

I bought the Schlingenseipen biography about a year ago and just haven't read it yet, nor Metaxes. Currently reading D. MacCulloch on the history of Christianity, and T. Ansary on the history of Islam. Ansary is a real eye-opener. Glad to know you're still with Mars Hill.

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

Frank I appreciate your work on these posts. We certainly need to be reminded of this over and over ... not just chronicling it but coming to grips with HOW this could have happened. It is frightening actually.

preacherman said...

I found this very interesting. Always enjoy reading your blog.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Thanks, Bobby. Thanks, Preacherman. I appreciate you sharing your comments here. I'm now turning to something cheerier, which could be almost anything.