Joseph Goebbels – a summary

Paul Joseph Goebbels was the third of five children born to a Catholic family in Germany, on 29 October 1897. An educated and intelligent man, he swiftly rose through the ranks of the Nazi Party in the 1920s, ultimately becoming the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and one of Hitler’s closest associates. A man of below average height, Goebbels was occasionally referred to as ‘the Poison Dwarf’ and was the force behind the indomitable National Socialist propaganda machine. As the Third Reich crumbled in the final days of World War Two, the Führer named Goebbels as the next Chancellor, a position he held for just one day.

Bild 183-L04035Rise to Prominence

Although of an eligible age to fight, Joseph Goebbels had a club foot that prevented him seeing action during World War One and gave him a permanent limp, facts he resented greatly throughout his life and endeavoured to disguise. He wrote a novel, and studied philosophy and literature and was awarded his doctorate from Heidelberg University in 1921.

Goebbels joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and after ascending to the rank of Gauleiter of Berlin within four years, he was appointed the party’s propaganda minister in 1929. He edited a weekly newspaper called Der Angriff (The Assault) and also drew attention to National Socialist principles through provocative speeches. In 1933, following Hitler’s assumption of power, he became the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.

In spite of his own club foot and diminutive stature, Goebbels ardently preached the physical superiority of the Aryan master race. With control over all media channels and cultural output in the Third Reich, Goebbels oversaw the dissemination of Nazi racial ideology to the masses; from celebrations of classical German culture and history, to warnings about the dangers that Jews and other supposedly subversive peoples posed to society.

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Rudolf Höss – a Summary

Rudolf Höss was born to Catholic parents in Baden-Baden on 25 November 1900. His early life mirrored that of many of his generation who went on to adopt radical National Socialist views: he saw action in World War One and identified the Jewish community as having betrayed the Fatherland when Germany did not emerge victorious from the conflict. He joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and began working in the concentration camp system in late 1934; going on to play a key role in the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’ in the 1940s.

Dachau and Sachsenhausen

The first concentration camp in the Third Reich was established in 1933 to imprison people who were politically opposed to the new Nazi regime. Among the prisoners of Dachau were Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refused to swear allegiance to Hitler, and homosexuals, who were deemed subversive and a threat to a high national birth rate. The concentration camp system was administered by the Schutzstaffel (SS), an elite police corps led by Heinrich Himmler.

HossRudolf Höss, having recently joined the SS at Himmler’s invitation, began work as a guard at Dachau in November 1934. He also assumed an administration role and in 1936 became a lieutenant at the Sachsenhausen camp. At both Dachau and Sachsenhausen he was further moulded into the SS mind-set that orders were to be obeyed without question and that no compassion should be felt towards camp inmates, who were subjected to both physical and mental brutality on a daily basis.

In early 1940, Höss was awarded the promotion that would later make him infamous. With his wife Hedwig and their young family (they eventually had five children) he relocated to Poland to take charge of a new camp called Auschwitz.

Commandant of Auschwitz

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Kristallnacht – a summary

On 7 November 1938, a German diplomat named Ernst vom Rath was shot and fatally wounded by Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew. In retribution for vom Rath’s death, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels instigated an anti-Jewish pogrom across Germany. Such was the ferocity of this pogrom that the night of 9-10 November, on which it took place, became known as Kristallnacht; the Night of Broken Glass.

An Act of Desperation

Herschel GrynszpanAnti-Semitic persecution had been rising in Germany since the Nazi accession of power in early 1933. Grynszpan’s parents were Polish immigrants who had lived in Hannover for over twenty years, but in late October 1938, they were among thousands of foreign Jews forcibly expelled from the Reich. Horrified by their plight, 17-year-old Grynszpan (pictured), who was living in Paris, walked into the German Embassy with a pistol. By shooting a German diplomat, he sought to avenge the persecuted Jews and alert the world to the gravity of the situation in Hitler’s Germany.

Vom Rath sustained multiple wounds and died two days after Grynszpan’s desperate act, on 9 November. Under the direction of Goebbels and other senior Nazis, his death became a pretext for a wave of public attacks against the Jewish community. In Germany, Austria and the Czech Sudetenland, Storm Troopers and members of the Hitler Youth took to the streets on the night of 9-10 November, determined to unleash violence.

The Pogrom

Synagoge KristallnachtNearly two-thirds of Jewish businesses in Germany had been Aryanized (transferred to gentile ownership) by April 1938, but well over 7,000 Jewish-owned stores were nevertheless pillaged throughout Kristallnacht, the shattered glass from their windows covering the streets. One hundred and ninety-one synagogues were destroyed, many burned to the ground, and Jewish cemeteries were also attacked. To add insult to injury, the Jewish community was subsequently declared liable for the material damage and ordered to pay a fine of 1 billion Reichsmarks to the treasury.

The violence of Kristallnacht was not limited to destruction of property and religious centres. 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and imprisoned in concentration camps, often after being cruelly beaten. Although the majority were detained temporarily in Dachau, Sachsenhausen or Buchenwald, hundreds still died while incarcerated due to maltreatment. Ninety-one Jews were killed on 9-10 November alone, but the ultimate death toll far exceeds this number: fearing that subsequent persecution on a similar or worse scale was inevitable, many Jews committed suicide in the months following Kristallnacht, thereby becoming indirect victims of the pogrom.

A Turning Point

The Kristallnacht pogrom is widely considered a crucial turning point in the escalation of anti-Semitic persecution in Nazi Germany. It was the first occasion on which the Nazis violently attacked, rounded up and interned Jews en masse. Thousands of Jews had left Germany since 1933 due to the increasing intolerance they faced, but the unprecedented violence of 9-10 November prompted another wave of immigration. Legal decrees, such as those declared at Nuremberg in September 1935, continued to ensure that those Jews who did not or could not leave the Reich were segregated, restricted and demeaned.

Herschel Grynszpan was arrested by French police following the assassination of vom Rath and later taken to Germany. He was interned for a time in Sachsenhausen, but his final whereabouts and ultimate fate remain unknown. It is likely, however, that he was one of the millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

Holocaust IAHJemma Saunders

The Holocaust: History In An Hour, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.

Geli Raubal – Hitler’s niece

On 18 September 1931, a 23-year-old woman was found dead in a sumptuous nine-room Munich apartment, a single shot wound into her heart. Her name was Geli Raubal, the apartment was rented to Adolf Hitler, and the young woman happened to be Hitler’s niece. Cause of death – suicide. Naturally.

Geli Raubal was the daughter of Hitler’s half sister, Angela. Angela and Adolf grew up together; both products of the same father, Alois Hitler, and his second and third wives respectively.

Uncle Alf

Geli RaubalIn 1928, Hitler offered his sister the position of housekeeper in his Bavarian mountain retreat. Angela arrived with her two daughters, Elfriede and nineteen-year-old Angela, known as Geli. Hitler immediately took a shine to the carefree Geli and, in order to remove her from her mother’s watchful eye, installed her into his Munich apartment. Nineteen years Hitler’s junior, she was, according to one of Hitler’s aides, ‘of medium size, well developed, had dark, rather wavy hair, and lively brown eyes… it was simply astonishing to see a young girl at Hitler’s side.’

Geli, who called Hitler ‘Uncle Alf’, had been born in Linz; the town Hitler always considered his hometown, on 4 June 1908.

Hitler liked to be seen with his attractive niece, taking her to meetings, and to restaurants and theatres, but their relationship was a stormy one. Both were consumed by jealousy – Geli of Hitler’s relationship with a seventeen-year-old Eva Braun, a model for Hitler’s photographer, Heinrich Hoffman; and Hitler by Geli’s flirtatious conduct and numerous admirers. Indeed, Hitler once told Hoffman, ‘I love Geli and could marry her.’

Instead, Hitler controlled her life and dictated whom she was allowed to see and when. Geli found her uncle’s overbearing influence suffocating. He refused Geli permission to move to Vienna to study music (Vienna was where, as a young man, Hitler twice unsuccessfully applied to the art academy).

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The Gemlich letter – a summary

Dated 16 September 1919, the ‘Gemlich letter’ is the first known written statement of Hitler’s anti-Semitism.

Following the end of the First World War, Hitler, based in Munich, remained in the army and was being groomed as a political instructor, to ensure that returning soldiers had not been overly influenced by the communists.

HitlerIn August 1919, encouraged by his mentor, Captain Karl Mayr, the thirty-year-old Adolf Hitler went on a training course and there discovered his talent for speaking. His speeches were so well attended he became a star turn. When Captain Mayr was asked, by letter, by a fellow trainee, Adolf Gemlich, to clarify the position on the ‘Jewish question’, Mayr passed it on to Hitler for a response.

In his letter to Gemlich, Hitler writes that the ‘ultimate objective must be the irrevocable removal of the Jews in general,’ for which a ‘government of national strength is necessary.’ He states, as ‘fact’, that ‘Jewry is absolutely a race and not a religious association.’

(Captain Mayr was later to renounce Hitler and died in Buchenwald concentration camp in February 1945).

The original letter is now stored at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

Click for the full text of the Gemlich letter.

The Nuremberg Race Laws – a brief summary

On 15 September 1935, the Nuremberg Race Laws were instituted in Nazi Germany. Since Hitler’s rise to power in early 1933, Jews in German society had been subjected to increasingly discriminatory legislation, which mainly restricted their public rights. The Nuremberg Laws, however, went further still in alienating the Jewish population from mainstream society and even dictated on private matters such as relationships.

The Protection of German Blood and Honour

Nuremberg was the medieval city in which the Nazis held their annual party rallies. Famed for their scale and spectacle, these rallies were showcases of German nationalism and also an opportunity to publicly present new legislation. At the 1935 rally, the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honour were announced, which together became known as the Nuremberg Racial Laws.

Nuremberg LawsUnder these laws, a system was devised that defined whether a person was Jewish according to their ancestry, rather than their religious beliefs and practices. Anybody with at least three Jewish grandparents, or with just two Jewish grandparents but who was religious or married to a Jew, was now deemed wholly Jewish under Nazi law. Everyone categorized as such was stripped of their German citizenship, disenfranchised, and forbidden to marry or to have sexual liaisons with non-Jews. An extension of the laws in November 1935 also made it illegal for Roma or people of black ethnicity to have relationships with gentile Germans. (Pictured is a chart of the different permutations. Click to enlarge. The white circles denote ‘German blood’, the black circles Jewish).

Full Jew or Partial Jew?

The Nuremberg Laws also determined who was a Mischling, or part-Jew. Two Jewish grandparents made you a first degree Mischling, whilst one Jewish grandparent resulted in a second degree categorization. These definitions meant that over 1.5 million people in Germany were considered either full Jews or Mischlinge in 1935 – approximately 2.3 per cent of the population. Many people who had never practised Judaism and who considered themselves ethnically German were now declared members of a supposedly inferior, non-German racial group.

Although there were brief reprieves in the negativity directed at the Jewish community during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the Nuremberg Laws marked a dangerous shift in Nazi racial policy. Persecution intensified as the 1930s progressed and within a decade had escalated to the physical annihilation of millions of human beings, in what is now known as the Holocaust. For many, the categorizations of Jewishness established in the Nuremberg Laws were pivotal in determining their ultimate fate.

Holocaust IAHJemma Saunders

The Holocaust: History In An Hour, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.

See also article on the 1942 Wannsee Conference.


Hitler’s English SS

THE atmosphere inside the prisoner-of-war camp was electric. Packed into a wooden theatre were several hundred Allied PoWs watched over by their German guards. Suddenly, heads started to turn and a hush fell over the throng. Two young men, dressed in the uniform of the dreaded Waffen-SS, entered the room and walked down the aisle.

The pair looked nervous and their hands were visibly shaking as they carried what looked like a bundle of lecture notes.

Some of the more observant PoWs noticed that there was something strange about their SS uniforms. On the men’s left sleeves had been sewn Union Flag shields. There were three lions from the Royal Standard on their right collar tabs and the words ‘British Free Corps’ had been stitched on their left cuffs.

‘The menace of Jewish Communism’

The two men mounted the stage and one of them started to speak in perfect English. The PoWs listened in dumbstruck silence as it became clear that they were both British and that they were exhorting them to join the German cause.

The younger of the two men repeated the words from the flimsy recruiting leaflet in his hand and said: ‘In order to fight the menace of Jewish Communism, we ask you to join the British Free Corps and take up arms with Germany in our fight against the common enemy .. .’

His words were soon drowned out by jeers and catcalls. Before long, the guards decided to escort the two British SS men out of the theatre as they tried to shield them from punches and the odd projectile.

The prisoners were stunned by the whole episode. Many were tempted to tear up the leaflets but others advised against it, suggesting that with the shortage of lavatory paper in the camp they could be put to better use.

It was the spring of 1944, and the Germans were so desperate to find soldiers to fight on the Eastern Front that they had launched a campaign to recruit from the ranks of Allied PoWs.

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Reinhard Heydrich – a summary

On 4 June 1942, the Nazi wartime leader of occupied Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich, died. He had been the victim of an assassination attempt a week earlier. Aged 38, the ‘Butcher of Prague’ was dead.

Six months earlier, on 28 December 1941, two Free Czech agents, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabčík, trained by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (the SOE), had parachuted into Czechoslovakia. Their objective, almost certain to end in their deaths, was to assassinate the ‘Deputy Reich Protector of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia’, to give Reinhard Heydrich his full title.

Assassination attempt

HeydrichOn the 27 May 1942, the agents, on learning of Heydrich’s movements that day, went into action. As the car taking Heydrich to a meeting slowed to navigate a hairpin bend, the two men attacked. Heydrich, as was his routine, was without an armed escort. Gabčík tried to shoot Heydrich but his submachine gun jammed at the fatal moment. Instead of ordering his chauffeur to drive off, Heydrich chose to fight. He attempted to fire back but a small bomb, thrown by Kubis, exploded, injuring him. Heydrich and his driver gave chase on foot, but the two agents escaped before Heydrich, bleeding profusely, collapsed from his injuries. He was rushed to hospital. Surgeons operated and initially it seemed the stricken Nazi was recovering. On 2 June, a week after the attack, he received a visit from his superior and mentor, Heinrich Himmler. Following Himmler’s visit, Heydrich slipped into a coma and died on 4 June. He was given a sumptuous funeral in Prague followed by a second ceremony in Berlin.

Meanwhile, Heydrich’s assassins, Kubis and Gabčík, hid in the crypt of a Prague church. Three-weeks later they were betrayed and the church was surrounded by 800 members of the SS. The men held out for as long as possible before turning their guns on themselves.

Young Heydrich

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Heinrich Himmler – a summary

With his rimless glasses and small physique, Heinrich Himmler’s appearance was at odds with his fearsome manner. Indeed, one English visitor observed, ‘nobody I met in Germany is more normal.’ A German officer described Himmler’s ‘slender, pale and almost girlishly soft hands He looked to me like an intelligent elementary schoolteacher, certainly not a man of violence.’

Chicken farmer

Heinrich HimmlerHeinrich Himmler was born the son of a Catholic schoolteacher in Munich on 7 October 1900. After a stint in the army during the First World War, although he missed out on seeing active service, Himmler studied agriculture and held a number of jobs including that of a chicken farmer and a fertilizer salesman before joining the Nazi Party in 1921.

Hardworking and meticulous, Himmler became devoted to Hitler and the Nazi cause. He took part in the failed putsch of 1923 in which Hitler tried to seize power in Bavaria. Between 1926 and 1930, Himmler acted as the Nazi party’s propaganda leader until, in 1929, Hitler appointed him head of the SS.

In 1934, Himmler became head of the Prussian division of the Gestapo and, two years later, head of all Nazi security organs. In 1933, soon after Hitler’s coming to power, Himmler established the first concentration camp at Dachau, near Munich, and in 1934, played a vital role in the elimination of Hitler’s opponents during the ‘Night of the Long Knives‘.

A page of glory

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The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – a summary

On 19 April 1943, the Jews interned in the Warsaw Ghetto revolted against their Nazi oppressors. They fought determinedly with limited resources for almost a month, before their resistance was finally quelled and the vast majority were deported to extermination camps. Seventy years on, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising remains symbolic of collective Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.

Forced Resettlement

The internment of Polish Jews in ghettos began in October 1939, mere weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland and consequent outbreak of World War Two. Hitler’s regime had been implementing anti-Semitic policies in Germany since its rise to power in early 1933 and as the Third Reich expanded, discriminatory measures were steadily instigated against Jews living in the other areas of Europe that came under Nazi rule.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising(The German holding the rifle on the right of the iconic photograph above was Josef Blösche. Blösche was notoriously called ‘Frankenstein’ for raping and killing women in the ghetto. He escaped justice for over 20 years, was finally arrested in 1967, and executed in East Germany in July 1969).

Poland was home to around two million Jews in 1939 and following the Nazi invasion, large parts of the country were immediately incorporated into Germany. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles from these areas were then forcibly moved from their homes so that Lebensraum (living space) would become available for ethnic Germans.

The initial destination of these displaced people was the Generalgouvernement, an area under civil administration situated between the Soviet and Nazi occupied zones, which included the Polish capital city of Warsaw. Jews were subsequently crowded into designated areas of towns and cities where they were segregated from non-Jewish society and could be contained and controlled: ghettos.

Inhumane Conditions

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