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On April 1 1933 German Jews became the target of systematic repression. Just days later, the Nazis introduced the so-called 'Aryan paragraphs' – the beginning of ethnic cleansing in Germany.
Eighty years ago, menacing and ominous scenes suddenly began to play out across Germany. Men in brown uniforms - storm troopers from the Nazi SA paramilitary group - took up positions outside Jewish shops, law firms and doctors' offices. Potential customers and clients were threatened with violence if they did not stay away.
The messages on signs brought along by the brownshirts could not have been clearer: "Germans! Defend yourselves! Don't buy from Jews!" The SA men marched through the streets spewing torrents of hatred.
This was no macabre April fool prank. It was the first day of the Nazis' "Jewish boycott" – the beginning of a relentless and ruthless persecution of German Jews that culminated in the Nazi death camps and gas chambers.
'The final solution'
More than a decade earlier, Adolf Hitler was already fanatically calling for a "solution" to the supposed "Jewish question." In 1933, he was finally in a position to give his followers free rein to vent their hatred of the Jews. Hitler had been ruling Germany with an iron fist since March of that year, and the fundamental rights anchored in the Weimar Republic's constitution had been suspended. Since the enactment of the so-called Enabling Act barely a week earlier, on March 23, the Hitler regime could pass any laws it wanted without parliamentary controls. It could now move with impunity against its political adversaries; in particular the Jews, whom it viewed as enemies of the Aryan race.
The call to boycott Jewish businesses was splashed across the pages of German newspapers. The SA and the SS were whipped into a veritable frenzy by Julius Streicher, a notorious Jew-hater, who was the founder and publisher of a newspaper called Der Stürmer [The Attacker]. In many towns and on numerous occasions there were incidents of arbitrary brutality. In Annaberg, in Saxony, for example, the SS attacked people coming out of Jewish shops. They pressed a rubber stamp onto their foreheads or cheeks which read: "We traitors bought from Jews."
Boycott on the Sabbath
In other towns, the SA ransacked stores and offices. Fortunately for the victims, the start of the boycott was a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and many shops were closed. Many Jews already knew what was coming after reading the newspapers.
Even so, they were shocked. One man in Hamburg said that he had always considered himself very German, and couldn't understand why this was happening. A shopkeeper in Berlin even put a sign in his window explaining that he had fought for Germany for four years as a soldier in World War I.
For most Jews in Germany, April 1 1933 was the beginning of the end of the illusion that they were accepted as equals by their fellow Germans. But the majority continued to beileve that the Hitler regime would collapse at some point, or at least that things would not get any worse.
The non-Jewish population, however, did not respond as the Nazis had hoped. Very few people took part in the protest actions. A typical standpoint at the time was to view the whole business as nonsense and simply ignore it. Most Germans responded with indifference, although some people did side with the Jews. In Hanover, scuffles were said to have broken out between shoppers who wanted to go into Jewish shops and SA hooligans who wanted to keep them out.
The Nazi leadership abandoned the boycott in the evening of April 1, disappointed by the lack of interest from the general public. Already, voices were being raised to the effect that, in this form, a continuation of the boycott could have serious consequences for the German economy. However, the Nazis did achieve their aim of sidelining the Jews. Afterwards, the majority of the German population started going to "German" shops instead.
The Aryan paragraphs
Just seven days after the boycott, the Nazis took the next step toward segregating the Jews. A new law revamping government jobs and the civil service on April 7, 1933, contained anti-Jewish paragraphs that were to have serious repercussions. "Civil servants with no Aryan ancestry must go into retirement," the law said. Anyone who had a Jewish parent or grandparent was considered "non-Aryan."
This was the first law in a long line of racist, discriminatory and xenophobic legislation introduced during the Nazi dictatorship. The Aryan paragraphs were quickly expanded to include other occupational groups, and before long Jews had vanished from government offices, schools, higher education and other public domains.
For the Jews - the vast majority of whom regarded themselves as Germans - the noose of persecution was growing tighter and tighter. But most "Aryan" Germans continued to respond as they had to the boycott: with indifference.