Prologue to Annihilation: An Interview with Stephen Norwood

tags: Holocaust, Jewish history, antisemitism

Dr. Eunice G. Pollack is the author of 'Racializing Antisemitism: Black Militants, Jews, and Israel, 1950 to the Present' and coeditor (with Stephen H. Norwood) of the two-volume 'Encyclopedia of American Jewish History.'



EUNICE G. POLLACK: In your just-published book, Prologue to Annihilation: Ordinary American and British Jews Challenge the Third Reich (Indiana University Press), you focus on the period 1930 to 1936, with an epilogue covering 1936 to 1939. This is an unusual period on which to focus in Holocaust studies.

NORWOOD: Yes, most Holocaust scholars, in determining how and when the Hitler regime decided to annihilate the Jews, concentrate on the period from the Kristallnacht pogroms (November 1938) through the early years of World War II. Other scholars, who study the West’s responses to the plight of European Jewry, also dwell largely on the years after Kristallnacht. My book, by contrast, focuses on the period immediately before the Nazis assumed control in Germany and on the critically important early years of the Third Reich.

POLLACK: Why are these years critical?

NORWOOD: I demonstrate that much more was known in the United States and Britain about the Nazi persecution of—and atrocities against—Jews in these early years than is generally understood today. This was the time when Western action could still have prevented the ensuing catastrophe.

POLLACK: What were American and British people learning about Nazi treatment of the Jews in the first few years of Nazi rule, and about Nazi intentions?

NORWOOD: A number of journalists who were highly conversant with what was taking place in Germany in 1933 and 1934, and who were widely read in the United States and Britain, warned from the time Hitler took power that the Nazis were waging a “cold pogrom” against the Jews. Nazi policies were severely strangling Jews’ economic life and educational opportunity, and would force the vast majority, who would be unable to emigrate, into starvation within a generation.

POLLACK: How did people in the United States and Britain react to their reports?

NORWOOD: American and British Jews at the grassroots were outraged and demanded that their governments take immediate action against the Hitler regime. In April 1933, a little more than two months after Hitler became chancellor, newspapers across the United States published a photograph smuggled out of Germany that showed grinning Nazi storm troopers parading a Jewish man around Chemnitz, Germany, in a garbage wagon. The caption stated that the storm troopers had rounded up Chemnitz’s Jews and forced them to scrub the town’s walls before jeering crowds. Upon seeing the story and photo in her local newspaper, a Jewish woman in a small Montana town immediately wrote to her two US senators appealing to them to urge the US government to pressure the Hitler regime to stop what she called the unspeakable humiliation of Germany’s Jews.

POLLACK: The powerful photo appears highly suggestive of Nazi intentions toward Jews.

NORWOOD: Yes, forcing a Jew into a garbage wagon and exhibiting him in that way clearly shows that the Nazis considered Jews subhuman—in fact, lower than animals. They were garbage, and what you do with garbage is get rid of it, eliminate it. From the beginning, the Nazis compared Jews to germs, rodents, and excrement, all of which must be destroyed.

POLLACK: How typical was this woman’s response?

NORWOOD: I show that it was very typical of how American and British working- and lower-middle-class Jews reacted. There were some non-Jews who reacted in the same way, including several journalists and people in the labor movements of both countries.

POLLACK: Did the grassroots’ outrage result in any action?

NORWOOD: Yes, immediate action, on a massive scale. In late March 1933, the Manchester Guardian reported from England that public outrage over the Nazi dictatorship’s oppressive policies “flamed high in the United States.” Thousands of telegrams and letters poured in to President Roosevelt demanding that the United States issue an official protest to the German government against the Nazi persecution of Jews.

POLLACK: How did Roosevelt respond?

NORWOOD: He did nothing, other than to have the telegrams and letters sent over to the State Department, which took the position that no federal government action was required. Secretary of State Cordell Hull claimed that antisemitic “manifestations” were subsiding and that Hitler had ordered his followers to maintain law and order!

POLLACK: How did the Jewish organizations respond to Roosevelt and Hull’s refusal?

NORWOOD: The Jewish organizations were divided among themselves about what to do. Recognizing that huge numbers of grassroots Jews were demanding strong and immediate action, including a boycott of German goods, the American Jewish (AJ) Congress yielded to the pressure and organized a national day of protest against Nazi antisemitism, scheduled for March 27, 1933. The day of protest featured mass street demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of Jews all over the country. The American Jewish Committee (AJC), on the other hand, continued to oppose mass actions and would not support the demonstrations. The most militant Jewish organization, the Jewish War Veterans (JWV)—a sizeable group given the high level of Jewish enlistments in World War I—staged a breakaway demonstration in New York a few days earlier, which introduced the demand for the boycott of German goods and services. The JWV called on Roosevelt to immediately break diplomatic and commercial relations with Germany. A JWV group then marched to the British consulate and called on Britain to set aside restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine. The JWV likened the AJC to cringing medieval court Jews, and dismissed the AJCongress as too conservative.

POLLACK: Were there significant differences between how American and British Jewry responded to the Nazi persecution of Jews?

NORWOOD: No, both communities responded immediately and forcefully, although the largest British Jewish organization, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, representing more affluent and acculturated Jews, would not countenance mass street demonstrations or an organized boycott. But grassroots British Jews nonetheless quickly initiated militant street actions and demanded that the British government open the gates of Palestine for mass Jewish immigration. Working- and lower-middle-class Jews almost immediately waged a broad boycott of German goods and services, which they vigorously enforced. Large crowds of Jews in London’s East End prevented trucks from unloading German goods, at times destroying the goods or threatening to burn them.

POLLACK: Were there mass street demonstrations and rallies in Britain as well?

NORWOOD: Definitely. There were many militant anti-Nazi rallies in Britain as early as the spring of 1933. Working- and lower-middle-class Jews’ fierce anti-Nazism was reflected in their slogan “Judea Declares War on Germany,” which they chalked on buildings and streets all over the heavily working-class East End of London. Then, in the summer of 1933, tens of thousands of British Jews staged an enormous street parade from the East End to Hyde Park. Marchers included everyone from the ultraorthodox to the secular, men and women, Jews of all ages. There were large contingents of British Jewish World War I veterans, many of them maimed and with visible battle scars.

POLLACK: How effective was the boycott?

NORWOOD: It was very important in alerting the general public to the antisemitic persecution and atrocities in Germany. It also seriously damaged several German industries—including, almost immediately, its trans-Atlantic passenger shipping lines. This discouraged many Americans from visiting Germany and providing the Reich with much needed foreign exchange. Many American department stores boycotted German goods. The British boycott severely harmed the German cutlery and fur industries. Unfortunately, the decision of many non-Jews to violate the boycott of the tercentenary performances of the virulently antisemitic Oberammergau Passion Play in 1934 and the Berlin Olympics in 1936 provided Germany with considerable revenue.

POLLACK: Aside from some journalists, was there any support for the Jews’ anti-Nazi campaigns from non-Jews?

NORWOOD: Yes, although Jews were far more engaged. In May 1933, after Hitler had been in power only a few months, US Senate majority leader Joseph Robinson condemned Nazi antisemitism on the Senate floor, quoting from Mein Kampf and the Nazi party program, and calling the Nazis’ antisemitic views and policies “sickening and terrifying.” Four other senators joined Robinson on the floor, denouncing the Nazis. Similarly, several British MPs decried Nazi antisemitism in the House of Commons that spring. The American Federation of Labor and the British Labour Party had endorsed the boycott of German goods and services by the fall of 1933. But the Roosevelt administration and the British governments remained wholly indifferent to European Jewry’s plight. Even after the Kristallnacht pogroms in 1938, the American and British governments turned a deaf ear to Jewish calls to lower immigration barriers and impose strong economic and diplomatic sanctions on Germany.

POLLACK: You stress the importance of the Saar Plebiscite, held in January 1935, which you characterize as a disaster for the Jews.

NORWOOD: The plebiscite, in effect, ended Jewish life in the Saar. The Treaty of Versailles (1919) placed the Saar under League of Nations administration for fifteen years, after which a plebiscite would be held to decide its future status—whether it would become part of Germany, France, or continue under League rule. Its population was overwhelmingly German, so annexation by France was not a serious option. For Hitler, annexing the Saar, a valuable coal region, to the Reich became a major priority. He launched a violent and well-financed “Victory in the Saar” campaign, involving rallies with hundreds of thousands of participants. In the year before the plebiscite, the Nazis conducted a viciously antisemitic propaganda campaign in the Saar, which included persistent radio broadcasts that drove the Jewish community there into a state of panic. It was combined with acts of terror against Jews and others who opposed annexation to Germany.

POLLACK: How large was the Jewish community in the Saar?

NORWOOD: Jews had lived in the Saar since the thirteenth century, and numbered about 5,000 at the time of the plebiscite. After Hitler came to power, it became a favored place of refuge for German Jews, as well as for other opponents of the Nazis who fled the Reich. It was clear to the Saar’s Jews that if Germany won the plebiscite they would have to attempt to flee, leaving much or all of their property behind.

POLLACK: So what happened?

NORWOOD: More than 90 percent of those participating in the plebiscite voted for annexation to Germany. It was absolutely clear that the German people were solidly behind the Nazi regime. The result was received with jubilation in the Saar and across the Reich. Tens of thousands of Saarlanders placed pictures of Hitler in their windows, and lit candles under them in his honor. Persons known to have voted against German annexation were forced into carts and paraded before crowds that spat at them and jeered. The Nazis pasted boycott signs on Jewish stores and took control of the police force, an ominous development for Jews.

POLLACK: How long did Jewish life persist in the Saar?

NORWOOD: Within months nearly all of the Saar’s Jewish institutions had been shut down, or were in the process of being dissolved. The exodus of Jews from the Saar was so extensive that there were no longer sufficient numbers to support synagogues.

POLLACK: How did the US and British governments react to Germany’s annexation of the Saar and the fate of its Jews?

NORWOOD: The British and American governments expressed pleasure over the plebiscite result. They claimed that German annexation of the Saar would defuse prospects for Franco-German conflict. They expressed little interest in the Saar Jews’ plight.

POLLACK: How do you assess the long-term impact of Germany’s landslide victory in the Saar plebiscite and the Western powers’ approval of the outcome?

NORWOOD: The plebiscite result energized Hitler and encouraged him to pursue his expansionist aims, which would soon put European Jewry in serious danger. He launched his “bleeding borders” campaign, an effort to take over German-populated areas in Europe within, or controlled by, non-German nations. The first “fronts” he opened were the Baltic port of Memel, which the Nazis called the “Saar of the East,” and the “free city” of Danzig. Hitler had seen how readily the Western powers acquiesced to the Nazi takeover of the Saar, and how they had abandoned the Jews there. He was now confident the Western powers would cause little or no trouble, and he turned his attention in part to the east, to territories with large Jewish populations.

POLLACK: Were there other ways in which the Roosevelt administration and the British governments appeased Hitler, conveying that they would not act against Nazi territorial expansion and anti-Jewish atrocities?

NORWOOD: Yes, in the chapter “Entertaining Nazi Warriors in the United States and Britain” I explain how Hitler succeeded in forging friendly ties with major figures in the military establishments and business communities in the United States and Britain, as he strove to advance his intertwined goals of German territorial expansion and Jewry’s destruction. On several occasions between 1934 and 1936, he dispatched German warships on good-will missions to many American and British ports, where they were warmly received by top-level naval and army officers and feted by numerous business organizations and politicians. The German warships’ officers, cadets, and crewmen were the honored guests at lavish banquets, receptions, and dances, where the American and Nazi swastika flags stood together. German officers delivered antisemitic speeches. As with the bleeding borders campaign, the warships’ visits solidified bonds between people of German descent in foreign countries and Germans in the Third Reich. The officers and crews disseminated Nazi propaganda.

POLLACK: How did the Nazi military benefit from these visits?

NORWOOD: US naval ships, with State Department cooperation, assisted German warships flying the swastika flag to improve their combat readiness at sea, helping them with target practice and maneuvers.

POLLACK: Were any protests mounted against the German warships’ visits?

NORWOOD: Yes, there were many in the United States, mostly organized by Jews. Non-Jewish trade unionists provided some support, and sometimes Communists staged their own protests.

POLLACK: Although the situation today is certainly not comparable to that of the thirties, as antisemitism—often in the form of anti-Zionism—is surging, the issues you address are once again highly relevant. There are the feeble responses of several of the established Jewish organizations. There are, at best, the mixed responses—appeasement—of the US and UK governments—even to rabid antisemitism in their own ranks. And as most American Jews have become increasingly acculturated and assimilated, there is now only a faint echo of the muscular, united response of the working-and lower-middle-class grassroots that you document in the thirties. Instead, there is the new phenomenon of organizations of some who identify as Jews, loudly and proudly joining the other side—running interference for antisemites….

This interview first appeared on the author's Times of Israel blog

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