What, exactly, didn’t she know?

And when didn’t she know it?

This article in the Failing New York Times, entitled “I Loved My Grandmother, But She Was a Nazi”, really annoyed me.

The granddaughter writing the piece, Jessica Shattuck, is trying to understand what her German grandparents were thinking when they joined the Nazi party in  1937, before it was mandatory. Didn’t her beloved grandmother know what was happening to the Jews?

It boils down to,

 My grandmother heard what she wanted from a leader who promised simple answers to complicated questions. She chose not to hear and see the monstrous sum those answers added up to. And she lived the rest of her life with the knowledge of her indefensible complicity.

Jessica forgot to mention her grandmother didn’t give a rip about the Jews, who, if you believed everything the Führer said (as she explained that she did), were sub-human parasites responsible for Germany’s economic problems and defeat in WWI, and who were trying to drag Germany into another war.

The implication of the “indefensible complicity” thing is that the grandmother regretted her decisions and would have acted differently “had she known”.

First of all, the grandmother never says anything like that at all – the granddaughter invented the “indefensible complicity” idea on her own and is projecting it on her grandmother.  The grandmother’s regret is that Germany didn’t win the war, and Hitler’s promises didn’t come true. Oh, and also that everyone thinks she’s a monster. See, they wouldn’t think that if Germany had won – she’d just be the same sweet old grammy Jessica has always loved.

Secondly, the idea that she would have done something different “had she known” is preposterous. Done something like what? Joined the White Rose? Hidden a family of Jews under her bed for eight years in defiance of the Gestapo?  The fact is, the overwhelming majority of Germans were perfectly fine with Hitler’s idea of a Germany free of Jews. The less they had to “know” about how it would be done, the better for everybody.

Even the people who tried to kill Hitler, like Claus von Stauffenberg, didn’t do it because they objected to the murders of the Jews.  They did it because they saw that Hitler was crazy, that the war was lost, and that they could salvage something of Germany if they got rid of the guy who was ready to sacrifice everyone and everything for his drug-addled fantasies.

Lastly, the main thing to understand is that when a German of that generation says “we didn’t know”, they’re lying.

Maybe it’s true that they didn’t know the precise manner in which the Jews met their demise after they were arrested and disappeared, or after they saw them packed into the transports for “resettlement”.  But this would be a tiny last detail in a twelve-year-long progression of insults and crimes that every German saw going on right before his eyes, every hour of every day from 1933 on.

When you accept someone’s excuse of their ignorance of that last detail, you are agreeing that everything that went before, all of which they certainly did know about, was OK with them. And OK with you.

Shattuck asked her grandmother about Hitler’s endless inspirational speeches vilifying the Jews – didn’t grammy listen to those?  Grammy replied, “Hitler said a lot of things” and anyway she had her own concerns to think about – making ends meet, etc. OK, fair enough. It’s not quite “not knowing”, though.  But I won’t quibble about it.

Did she “not know” of the incessant headlines and cartoons in Der Stürmer harping on the Jews being Germany’s enemy and calling for their execution? Everyone in Germany saw this publication and its circulation absolutely skyrocketed during the years of the Reich. The publication was obscene in its Jew-hate (and Hitler thought didn’t go far enough!)

Anti-semitic cartoons in Der Stürmer

Did grammy “not know” of the removal of Jews from their residences to “Jew houses”, the confiscation of their property, the daily scenes of Jews being made to scrub sidewalks with toothbrushes or having their beards ripped off their faces? Grammy said she didn’t see those things out by where she lived. OK, I get it. Grammy lived in the suburbs with blinders on and ear plugs in for twelve years. And she joined a political movement whose principal goal was the “purification” of Germany without seeing what this meant for the “impure”.  Fine. She’s just a sweet little old lady, so why go on about it?

But here’s what every German knew, including grammy – what every German was required to know to keep their own teutonic hides intact: they were required to know the laws of the land. These laws prevented them from patronizing Jewish businesses, providing Jews with food, socializing with Jews and much much more.

The punishment for Jewish violation of any rule was arrest, interrogation by the Gestapo, and a trip to a concentration camp. If a German helped a Jew in any way or failed to report a Jew who violated a rule, that German was as bad as any Jew and would be punished accordingly.

And to know these laws was to know they were nothing but a pretense for the persecution, impoverishment, and immiseration of all Jews in Germany. This is something every German understood and accepted, even if they didn’t “know about ” the end game.

What follows is a list of some of the laws and decrees that all Germans saw published in the newspapers and heard on radio, and were required to “know” from 1933 on.

March 31, 1933  – Decree of the Berlin city commissioner for health suspends Jewish doctors from the city’s charity services.

April 7, 1933 – Law for the Reestablishment of the Professional Civil Service removes Jews from government service.

April 7, 1933 – Law on the Admission to the Legal Profession forbids the admission of Jews to the bar.

April 25, 1933 – Law against Overcrowding in Schools and Universities limits the number of Jewish students in public schools.

July 14, 1933 – De-Naturalization Law revokes the citizenship of naturalized Jews and “undesirables.”

October 4, 1933 – Law on Editors bans Jews from editorial posts.

May 21, 1935 – Army law expels Jewish officers from the army.

September 15, 1935 – Nazi leaders announce the Nuremberg Laws. Jews could not be German citizens and Jews could not marry Germans. Jewishness was defined a racial characteristic, not a religion.

January 11, 1938 – Executive Order on the Reich Tax Law forbids Jews to serve as tax-consultants.

April 3, 1936 – Reich Veterinarians Law expels Jews from the veterinary profession.

October 15, 1936 – Reich Ministry of Education bans Jewish teachers from public schools.

April 9, 1937 – The Mayor of Berlin orders public schools not to admit Jewish children.

January 5, 1938 – Law on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names forbids Jews from changing their names.

February 5, 1938 – Law on the Profession of Auctioneer excludes Jews from this occupation.

March 18, 1938 – The Gun Law excludes Jewish gun merchants.

April 22, 1938 – Decree against the Camouflage of Jewish Firms forbids changing the names of Jewish-owned businesses.

April 26, 1938 – Order for the Disclosure of Jewish Assets requires Jews to report all property in excess of 5,000 Reichsmarks.

July 11, 1938 – Reich Ministry of the Interior bans Jews from health spas.

August 17, 1938 – Executive Order on the Law on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names requires Jews to adopt an additional name: “Sara” for women and “Israel” for men.

October 3, 1938 – Decree on the Confiscation of Jewish Property regulates the transfer of assets from Jews to non-Jewish Germans.

October 5, 1938 – The Reich Interior Ministry invalidates all German passports held by Jews. Jews must surrender their old passports, which will become valid only after the letter “J” had been stamped on them.

November 11, 1938 – Jews are not allowed to own or carry arms.

November 12, 1938 – Decree on the Exclusion of Jews from German Economic Life closes all Jewish-owned businesses.

November 12, 1938 – Jews may not attend cinemas, theaters, concerts and exhibitions anymore and are also forbidden to manage shops and workshops. Jews may buy food in special shops only.

November 15, 1938 – Reich Ministry of Education expels all Jewish children from public schools.

November 23, 1938 – All Jewish-owned businesses are dissolved.

November 28, 1938 -Reich Ministry of Interior restricts the freedom of movement of Jews. They may not stay in specified areas open to the public anymore.

November 29, 1938 – The Reich Interior Ministry forbids Jews to keep carrier pigeons.

December 14, 1938 – An Executive Order on the Law on the Organization of National Work cancels all state contracts held with Jewish-owned firms.

December 3, 1938 – Driving licenses and vehicle registration documents owned by Jews are confiscated. Jews are forced to sell their businesses and to deliver all jewelry and securities to the authorities.

December 6, 1938 – Jews in Berlin are prohibited from enter specified streets, squares etc.

December 8, 1938 – Jewish professors are forbidden any kind of work at higher schools.

December 13, 1938 – Jews are forced to sell houses, shops and factories for extremely low prices to Non-Jews.

December 21, 1938 – Law on Midwives bans all Jews from the occupation.

December 31, 1938 – Jews may not possess automobiles anymore.

January 1, 1939 – All male Jews are forced to carry the additional given name “Israel”, all female Jews the name “Sara”.

February 21, 1939 –  Decree Concerning the Surrender of Precious Metals and Stones in Jewish Ownership without compensation.

April 30, 1939 – Legal preparations for aggregating Jewish families in “Jew Houses”. Eviction Protection is abolished: Landlords may cancel contracts of Jewish tenants anytime.

August 1, 1939 – The President of the German Lottery forbids the sale of lottery tickets to Jews.

September 1, 1939 – Curfew for Jews, in summer after 9 pm, in winter after 8 pm.

September 29, 1939 – Jews are not allowed to own radios anymore; all wireless receivers must be delivered to the police.

October 17, 1939 – Jews may not participate in civil air raid exercises anymore.

October 28, 1939 – Jews must fix a Star of David on their front door.

October 23, 1939 – Jews in occupied Poland have to wear the “Jew Star” visibly on their clothes.

February 6, 1940 – Jews do not get a purchase permit for rationed clothes and no purchase permits for any woven fabrics anymore.

July 4, 1940 – Jews in Berlin may only shop between 4 and 5 pm.

July 29, 1940 – Jews are not allowed to have telephones anymore.

June 12, 1941 – Jews may declare themselves only as “without belief” when asked for the religion on documents.

July 31, 1941 – Jews may not lend books from public libraries anymore.

September 1, 1941 – All Jews older than six years of age must permanently wear the yellow star visibly on their clothes. They are not allowed to leave their place of residence without permission of the police anymore.

September 18, 1941 – Jews may not use public transport anymore.

December 18, 1941 – The ID cards identifying Jews wounded as soldiers in World War I as severely disabled are confiscated

December 26, 1941 – Jews may not use public telephones anymore.

January 4, 1942 – Jews must deliver all fur coats.

January 10, 1942 – Jews must deliver all their woolen clothes.

February 15, 1942 – Jews may not own pets anymore. They may not give them to Germans. They must kill them.

February 17, 1942 – Jews may not get newspapers by mail anymore.

March 26, 1942 – Apartments of Jews must be marked by a Star of David next to the name plaque at the entrance door.

April 1942 – Jews may not visit Non-Jews in their apartments and houses anymore.

May 15, 1942 – Jews are forbidden to own bicycles.

May 29, 1942 – Jews may get their hair cut by Jewish hairdressers only. June 9, 1942 – Jews must deliver all clothes not belonging to their basic needs.

June 11, 1942 – Jews may not possess tobacco and cigarettes anymore.

June 19, 1942 – Jews must deliver all electrical and optical equipment and similar items, such as heating ovens, boiling pots, vacuum cleaners, water heaters, hair driers, irons, record players and records, typewriters, binoculars, cameras, films etc. Jews may not enter most shops anymore.

June 20, 1942 – All Jewish schools are closed.

July 17, 1942 – Blind and deaf Jews may not wear signs identifying them in street traffic anymore.

September 18, 1942 – Jews may not have meat, eggs, white bread, sweets, fruit, canned fruit and milk.

I forgive you if you just scanned or even skipped the above list – it’s a heavy, depressing slog. If you didn’t read them all, just have a quick look at February 15, 1942. To me that one sums up the German character, the German desire to taunt and inflict needless pain on the Jews, and the sadism and cruelty that every German either reveled in or was complicit with during those years. Including Shattuck’s grammy.

A really excellent first-hand description of daily life for a Jew in Germany during this period is Victor Klemperer’s diaries, “I Will Bear Witness”, finally published in 1995. Klemperer was a Romance language scholar who beautifully and dispassionately described the torments inflicted on the Jews for years before the ultimate outrage.

The decrees were incremental, and just as you got used to one “law”, another was issued to tighten the noose. First, you were arrested for walking through the park, then for walking on the sidewalk outside the park fence, then for walking on the other side of the street bordering  the park, etc. etc. etc.

Interestingly, he says that none of the decrees were as bad as the routine visits of drunken “police” to the Jew houses, during which their meager possessions were turned upside down, and everything from their meals of rotten potatoes to postage stamps, sewing needles, paper, and anything else, of however little value or comfort to the Jews, was stolen or destroyed. And, of course, the already frail and starving residents were kicked, spit on, screamed at, and slapped around for good measure.

Klemperer also objected to Zionism, because it implicitly identified Jews as a distinct group, apart from Germans. He thought himself to be a German to the end.

I think I’ll send a copy to Klemperer’s book to Jessica Shattuck’s grandmother. Maybe it will jog her memory.


3 thoughts on “What, exactly, didn’t she know?”

  1. The generation that knew first hand is almost gone. The generation that cared, ours, is aging. After that the historical memory won’t exist.

    Evil is real. The human world is not a very nice place. And terrible things do happen to millions. In fact they happen all the time.

    Today our world is being threatened by Hitler’s and Stalin’s moral descendent, Mr Putin, and we’re just starting to catch on. Yes, it can happen here, too.


  2. “Lastly, the main thing to understand is that when a German of that generation says “we didn’t know”, they’re lying.”

    Maybe, but weren’t sweeping tribal generalizations part of the original problem?


  3. Why so vitriolic and so much conjecture. Ex post facto suppositions. Sure times were terribly confusing and wrought with all sorts of emotions. It would not have been easy to decipher what was going on and if she was as naive and hopeful as am I, gosh, I don’t know what to say…I think we all try to do the best we can during trying times knowing we may not have full information. How could we? It’s all so subjective. Have compassion!


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