Law is a fascinating lens through which to view the rise and demise of the Nazis. They used law from the outset as an instrument of persecution, and in the end it was international law that brought them to justice. This month marks the anniversary of the Nuremberg Laws, an early effort by the Nazis to institutionalize their racist ideology.
At its annual party meeting in Nuremberg on September 15, 1935, the National Socialist government announced two new laws: the Law to Protect German Blood and German Honor and the Reich Citizenship Law. These laws eventually became known as the Nuremberg Laws. The first one prohibited marriage and extramarital sexual relations between Jews and citizens of “German or kindred blood.” The second law created the status of Reich citizen and limited it to people of “German or kindred blood.” Jews did not qualify.
In order to distinguish Jews from citizens of German blood, the Nazis had to define a Jew. The First Supplementary Decree of the Reich Citizenship Law stated that a Jew is anyone who is descended from three Jewish grandparents who are themselves “racially full Jews.” A person who had two Jewish grandparents and either belongs to the Jewish religious community, is married to a Jew, or is the offspring of a marriage or extramarital relationship involving a Jew was also considered Jewish.
Because there were no credible scientific criteria by which to prove Jewish identity, the Nazis’ definition essentially negated their claim that the Jews were a race. According to the Reich Citizenship Law, one was a Jew if one had two, three, or four grandparents who were “racially full Jews.” One’s grandparents were “racially full Jews” if they were affiliated with the Jewish religious community. Though it was not sound logic, it was the logic on which the Nuremberg Laws were based.
It mattered not if an individual practiced Judaism or identified himself or herself as a Jew. Religious belief was not the issue, blood was. Some Germans who were not born Jewish and who had never considered themselves Jews suddenly were. Even the descendants of Jews who had converted to Christianity were now Jewish. In addition to the tangible impact of these laws—Jews were denied the right to vote, to be elected to office, to employ German women under 45 years of age in their homes, to fly the German flag, etc.—there was a psychological impact. The Nuremberg Laws defined Jews as inferior and as unworthy of citizenship, that most basic right from which all others flow.