What were the Nuremberg Laws?

In his monumental book The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg describes the Holocaust as a destruction process, one that unfolded step by step, but did not proceed from a definite plan. Nonetheless, he argues that one can trace the chronological order of the destruction process and that it runs roughly thus: definition, expropriation, concentration and killing.1

The Nuremberg Laws were the first attempt by the Nazi government to define the Jews and as such, play a pivotal role in the process that lead to their annihilation.

The Nuremberg Laws were adopted by the Reichstag at the Nazi Party Day of September 15, 1935. There were essentially two laws and a decree (adopted in November) that are of importance here.

The first of these was the Reich Citizenship Law [Reichsbürgergesetz]. Among other things, it stated that a Reich citizen was a person who was of German or related blood and was the "sole bearer of full political rights in accordance with the Law". Subjects, on the other hand, were people who enjoyed "the protection of the German Reich and who in consequence [had] specific obligations towards it". 2 Since Jews were not considered by the Nazis to be of German blood, this law effectively ended their status as citizens of the Reich and reduced them to subjects.

The second law was the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor [Gesetz zum Schutz des deutschen Blutes und der deutschen Ehre]. It forbade marriages between Germans and Jews, outlawed extramarital sexual relations between Germans and Jews, prohibited Jews from employing Germans under the age of 45 in their household and denied Jews the right to fly the German flag.

In case there was any ambiguity about the meaning of the first law, it was cleared up in a decree issued on November 14, 1938. The so-called First Regulation to the Reich Citizenship Law stated bluntly that "no Jew can be a Reich citizen. He has no voting rights in political matters; he cannot occupy a public office". 3

This set of laws obliged the Nazis to do something they had not done before define what a Jew was. The Aryanization laws of 1933 had said what Aryans could do, and what non-Aryans could not, but made no attempt to define the terms. 4 Now, the Reich had laws that used the words "Germans" and "Jews", and definitions were therefore required. That this was a difficult job is evidenced by the fact that the Nazis were still debating it at the Wannsee Conference in 1942.

Germans had been defined as a "person of German or related blood". Jews could easily be defined as people whose 4 grandparents were Jewish, or whose parents were Jewish. But this raised several problems. First, there were many Germans and Jews who had intermarried with each other. How were they to be defined? There were Jews who did not practice their religion. And there were Jews who did not "look" Jewish.5 What was one to do with partial Jews?

After much discussion, the definitions arrived at were as follows:

The word "Mischling" roughly translates into English as "half-breed" or "mongrel". Those who suffered the most under the Final Solution were the Jews and the Mischlinge First Degree. And the distinction is important because, when the physical extermination process began in 1941, it was the two categories of Jews who were targeted. Mischlinge First Degree were also victimized, but to a lesser extent, and Mischlinge Second Degree were largely left alone.

In one of the supreme ironies in history, the determination of whether someone was Jewish was based on their religion, not on their "race", and this in spite of the hideous antisemitic propaganda already mentioned. This characterization caused the Nazi endless problems that are beyond the scope of this essay.

Were the Nuremberg Laws in fact a forerunner of the Final Solution? There may be no absolute answer based on current evidence, but the following extract from a speech by Hitler on the occasion of their adoption certainly sounds ominous.

...The only way to deal with the problem which remains open is that of legislative action. The German Government is in this controlled by the thought that through a single secular solution it may be possible still to create a level ground on which the German people may find a tolerable relation towards the Jewish people. Should this hope not be fulfilled and the Jewish agitation both within Germany and in the international sphere should continue, then the position must be examined afresh.

The third [law] is an attempt to regulate by law [the Jewish] problem, which, should this attempt fail, must then be handed over by law to the National-Socialist Party for a final solution.[Endlösung]6


1 Raul Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jews, Holmes & Meier, New York, 1985, Volume 1, page 53

2 Arad, Gutman and Margaliot, Documents on the Final Solution, University of Nebraska Press (Bison Books), 1999, page 77

3 Ibid., page 80

4 Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service [Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums], April 7, 1933, Reichgesetzblatt I, 1933, page 175

5 This is meant in the stereotypical context of Nazi propaganda, and is not meant to imply that Jews have a particular appearance. See Who was Julius Streicher?

6 N.H. Baynes, ed., The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, I, London, 1942, pp. 731-732.