Volksgemeinschaft and Anti-Semitism

Violence against Jews in Germany, 1930 to 1939
Michael Wildt

(last modified July 2007)

Just as the German people were about to become a sovereign people, a community of politically responsible citizens, as defined in article 1 of the constitution of the Weimar Republic, enacted on 11 August 1919 ("The German Reich is a republic. Political authority emanates from the people."), a fundamentally different political concept came to the fore: the Volksgemeinschaft.

During the Weimar Republic, use of the term Volksgemeinschaft soon became inflationary, with nearly all political parties employing it as a political catchword. For Germany’s Social Democrats, the term was meant to reconcile differences between social classes by referring to the unity of all working people as opposed to big capitalists—a minority that was, by comparison, infinitesimally small. For the political right, and especially for the National Socialists, the Volksgemeinschaft was defined by its borders, by exclusion. The right was more preoccupied with the question of who could not belong to the Volksgemeinschaft, meaning in particular the Jews, than with who could belong.

The German Nazi Party’s (NSDAP) self-portrait as a "young party of the people" that transcended class barriers was more convincing than similar moves undertaken by the other political parties, whether liberal, conservative or Catholic; the latter remained obliged to their respective socio-moral milieus, despite the fact that these milieus were no longer stable. Hitler acquired the charisma of a Führer for all, who was capable of focusing the German people’s desire for unity, salvation, and an end to divisiveness, their wish for integration and recognition, by holding out the promise of a future Volksgemeinschaft.

From the outset, the inclusive impetus of the Volksgemeinschaft was linked to the brutal exclusion of those deemed "asocial", those who were supposedly genetically inferior, and especially of the Jews. What was all too often later separated in the memories of former German Volksgenossen—namely, the persecution of the Jews and the experience of community in National Socialism—was inextricably connected, formed the two sides of a single political project: the destruction of bourgeois society and the establishment of a new racist order. The National Socialist Volksgemeinschaft project was not about “healing” a society that suffered from deep ruptures, insecurity, and widespread fears and that longed for unity; this was an undertaking aimed at drawing sharp divisions within society, at establishing brutal and violent differentiation.

Anti-Semitism was of central importance for the practical Volksgemeinschaft politics of the Nazi regime, since persecution of the Jews was both a goal and an essential political instrument. Transforming German society into a racist, aggressive community of predators and conquerors could not succeed by merely issuing orders from the Führer. Creating the Volksgemeinschaft was a process of practical politics and of terror, designed to change German society socially as well as with respect to its political culture.

In local political practice, this meant creating social distance between Jews and their fellow citizens and stigmatizing any form of solidarity or compassion with those who were being persecuted; it meant isolating Jewish Germans and labeling them as people without rights, fair game for whoever chose to attack them. A closer look at the unremitting, violent anti-Semitic campaigns before the war—especially in smaller towns and villages—reveals the vehemence and aggressiveness of attacks against Jewish shopkeepers, citizens, and neighbors and against those who continued to frequent their businesses and maintain contacts with them and were publicly denounced as "traitors of their people" for doing so. Reports on these occurrences describe the indignities and humiliation, the threats to livelihood and, last but not least, the danger for life and limb that was the day-to-day reality of the politics of Volksgemeinschaft.

As a form of political action "from below", the complicity—whether secret or overt—of Germans who suspended the legal order for their Jewish fellow citizens on a local level and denied them the protection of the law and the state in the face of violent attacks was as instrumental in establishing the Volksgemeinschaft as were the laws, decrees and measures enacted “from above”. From the moment it became possible to break the law with respect to a certain group without consequences, the boundary was drawn around the Volksgemeinschaft, a boundary that included all Volksgenossen and excluded all Jews and other "foreign Volk" as well as those "foreign to the community". This process of exclusion called for more than just orders "from above"; to be effective, it also required the implementation of practices "from below". Just as the perpetrators were by no means merely those who followed orders, so too did the on-lookers, passersby, and bystanders play a fundamental role, as those who approved or tolerated what others did: the Volksgemeinschaft as a form of self-empowerment.

This research project, which has now been complete, aimed to investigate this transformation of a bourgeois society and the creation of a Volksgemeinschaft by means of the practice of violence. In reconstructing local case studies, the study draws to a large extent on reports compiled by local chapters of the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens, on memoirs and personal accounts written by German Jewish survivors, on newspaper articles, and on documents from the Gestapo and other official sources. These case studies form the basis for a comparative analysis that considers different regions, situative contexts in which violence was employed, factors contributing to escalations of violence, and the participation and behavior of perpetrators as well as those who applauded and approved of these attacks, others who tolerated them, and those who were bystanders or on-lookers.

The study was published in book form in German in March 2007:
Michael Wildt
Volksgemeinschaft als Selbstermächtigung. Gewalt gegen Juden in der deutschen Provinz 1919 bis 1939
[Volksgemeinschaft as Self-Empowerment:Violence against Jews in Provincial Germany, 1919 to 1939]
412 pages, hardback € 28,00