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1 April 1933: Boycott of Jewish Businesses in Germany

Published April 01, 2018 by Dr John Mueller

Nazis, Nationalist Socialists, Germany, Jews, 1933, Boycott

On the 85th anniversary of the so-called boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany, John Mueller places a mundane contemporary artefact within the context of that day's events. It reveals the National Socialist cementation of power as even more sinister than one might believe.

These sheets of A6 paper were ruled in blue ink and the name and occupation of every member of staff, their age, wage and date of entering the company recorded in black. Heads of department were ruled in twice, in black and red ink and their deputies once in black. Thus we know that a Mr Walter Kolb, 42 years of age, was the head pastry cook and earning 70 Reichsmarks. The sheets with this information were placed into specially cut folders which fitted neatly into a department store managers' inside jacket pocket. They are unique in their preservation.

This booklet is one of a series of hand-made dossiers constructed for managers and heads of departments of the Schocken Department Stores in Germany. The so-called 'big five' German department stores in 1929 were Hermann Tietz, Karstadt, Leonhard Tietz, Alsberg and Schocken. All but one of these was a Jewish foundation.

'Let the Jews die' the brownshirts, the so-called SA, chanted as they marched down the high street in Freiburg on 1 April 1933. In Mannheim Hedwig Rahmer noted in her diary: 'The National Socialists today occupied all Jewish department stores and all other Jewish shops… It was very lively there.' Throughout Germany Jewish shops, craftsmen and professionals were being publicly humiliated by the National Socialists. This day in particular is seen as a seminal moment in German history. In the early morning of that spring day in 1933 centuries of anti-Semitism was coming to a dreadful head. It was inevitable.

However, the object in front of us, with its neatly ruled pages, tells a different story. These every-day sheets of paper point towards an era of relative acceptance and success of German Jews as businessmen (and women).

Salman Schocken, short, round and balding from an early age, believed, according to his grandiose biography, in 'the logic of History; the powers of Reason, Spirit and Will; the virtues of the Common Man; the ethics of self-improvement'.  All German department stores, appart from his, had been established in 1881 and all their founders, including Schocken himself, had come from the same little village in Posnan. Within a decade the Jewish hawkers had turned into the spearhead movement of modern shopping, leading Germany to a position just behind the US in innovative high-street retailing. The success had a relatively simple formula: give the public exactly what it wants. This was not out of a sense of a formerly marginalised or even excluded sector of the population needing to fit in, it was good business practice.

'Of course it is necessary for you to do your work with joy, that you discover in your work every day new beauties, that you get the feeling of self-contentment' Salman Schocken's general manager told the staff in 1933. The treatment of employees was along patriarchal lines, cemented in codified rules, making respectable employers. In spite of some companies' being run like family businesses, stores did not do so out of the goodness of their heart. There were sound economic reasons behind it and other (gentile) business people greatly respected their Jewish colleagues for it. The German association of department stores freely admitted that 'in addition to the most advanced commercial technology, the best social welfare for employees guarantees more than anything else victory in economic competition'. The little dossier of facts on employees was as much to check up on people as it was to ensure that managers, who looked after several dozen employees at a time, could treat them as individuals. Appearing to be a good employer was good business practice. Happy workers made good workers and made for good advertising – and good profits.

On 2 April 1933 German newspapers noted how alien the Brownshirts looked on the high street barring the entrances to Jewish businesses. A lady wrote in her diary that she and her friends simply took the staff entrance that the Brownshirts were unaware of, in order gain access to the store. Note the general disinterest of people outside a department store during the so-called 'boycott' on the picture. They are simply waiting for the Nazis to leave and the doors to reopen. Public displays of violence or even just boycott against responsible employers, important tax-payers and providers of good and reasonably priced products and services did not go down well with the majority of the German population.

Ephemera such as this helps us to understand why, after the public attacks on businesses in 1933, the National Socialists had to move to covert tactics in order to tackle Jewish entrepreneurs. These businesses, Jewish or not, were too popular and successful to meddle with in the open. The cementing of power by the Nazis was going to be more secretive and haphazard in its execution than inevitable escalation. National Socialist sympathisers influenced businesses, official institutions and social spaces in an often completely unorganised way. Sometimes completely lone agitators gradually undermined relationships that individuals and institutions had built up with Jewish businesses over decades. Too many simply let them do this – standing by, as passively as they had done when the public protest happened. I believe this disorganised scattergun approach of many Nazis and the German population's indifference to what they were doing is a good deal more sinister than an unavoidable or planned escalation of anti-Semitism.

John Mueller is Director of Studies in History at St Edmund's College, Cambridge and Alumni & Supporter Relations Manager at the Woolf Institute. He is currently working on a television documentary of the PhD he wrote under Professor Sir Richard Evans. His latest contribution is available from Hentrich & Hentrich here.

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