Today, September 15, Jews around the world are observing the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the beginning of the High Holy Days. On this same date, 80 years ago, the Jews of Germany awoke to discover that by a vote of the Reichstag, then merely a rubber stamp for the Nazi leadership, they were no longer citizens of Germany. With one law, their right to vote and all their other rights as citizens had been stripped from them. The Reich Citizenship Law reduced them to mere subjects of the state, still with obligations but no rights.
The same law also targeted anyone who dared oppose the Nazis. Now, citizenship was a matter of “race” and conduct, acquiescence with and obedience to whatever the Fűhrer said. In Nazi shorthand, the Fűhrer and the
, the people, were one. The Law read in part: “A Reich citizen is a subject of the state who is of German and related blood, who proves by his conduct that he is willing and fit faithfully to serve the German people and Reich.” There was nothing secret about the Law; indeed, the Nazi propaganda machine went into overdrive making sure everyone knew.
In a diary entry written a few days before, on September 9, Victor Klemperer, expelled from his position as a professor in Dresden because of his Jewish lineage, wrote: “The Nazi regime is more firmly in the saddle than ever… And the whole world inside and outside Germany is keeping its head down.” (
I Will Bear Witness
, vol. 1, p. 189). Many, of course, within Germany, who had dared to raise their heads and voice their views had already been beaten or intimidated into silence and submission. Courageous newspaper editors, members of the political opposition, and clergy, willing to speak their minds, were sent to concentration camps like Dachau, opened less than three months after Hitler was named chancellor. Others, like the German prosecutor Josef Hartinger, described in Timothy Ryback’s excellent book
Hitler’s First Victims: The Quest for Justice
, would wage lonely and futile battles until their efforts were crushed by the ruthless SS and failed by a legal system that had become its servant. For some, like Pastor Martin Niemöller, the journey to solidarity with all those persecuted, would take time.
Perhaps as we recall how easily the most fundamental of rights was stripped from German Jews (including those like Klemperer whose conversion to the Evangelical Church made him no less a Jew in the eyes of the Nazis), it is worth remembering and pondering once again Niemöller’s memorable words:
“First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”