A Dark April Fools' Day for Jewish Businesses

The Nazis organized a boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany on April 1, 1933. 

Following the National Socialists' rise to power in Germany in January 1933, the Nazis suppressed leftist newspapers, passed an "enabling act" permitting Chancellor Adolf Hitler to govern by decree and began viciously attacking Jews.

Home invasions, street assaults and physical expulsions of Jewish workers multiplied. In late March, storm troopers assembled outside a restaurant on Berlin's Alexanderplatz public square, then seized and clubbed Jewish businessmen having their lunches there.

These atrocities provoked protests worldwide, along with calls to sever business connections with German companies. In what would become a familiar pattern, Nazi officials announced on March 26 that discipline was restored in party ranks and individual depredations against Jews would cease.

A day later, however, Propaganda Minister Paul Joseph Goebbels proclaimed a "counter-boycott against Jewish business concerns in Germany," given the threat that foreign protests posed to the German economy. He announced that Jewish access to universities, as well as law and medical practices, would also be restricted.

The Nazi government published a decree confirming that the boycott of Jewish businesses, goods, physicians and lawyers would begin at 10 a.m. on April 1. The boycott would be monitored and promoted nationwide by local party groups. Posters, newspapers and handbills would emphasize trading only with non-Jewish Germans.

Nazi contingents were told to picket Jewish stores. Photographers would snap pictures of people patronizing such shops so that their images (and names) could be publicized. Newspapers failing to provide appropriate boycott coverage would discover that no German businesses would advertise in their pages.

Munich storm troopers jumped the gun on March 31, blocking entry to all shops determined to be Jewish-owned. That evening, "a great anti-Jewish open-air meeting officially ushered in the boycott with massed bands and torches," the New York Times reported. Julius Streicher, appointed by Hitler to promote the boycott, addressed the crowd, enumerating Jewish "crimes against the German race."

Meanwhile, men from German industry, banking and commerce worked the back hallways of the chancellery to privately protest against the boycott. "No one is publicly doing so," the Times reported. "It would be too dangerous in the present state of skillfully aroused opinion."

Goebbels shortened the demonstration to just one day, April 1. Still, it featured "huge placards declaring: Jews the world over are trying to crush the new Germany. German people, defend yourselves! Do not buy from Jews!"

Time magazine, reviewing what it termed "All Fools' Day," wrote that the Nazis' tactical retreat from a longer boycott followed President Paul von Hindenburg's threat "to declare martial law and abolish the government."

The Economist viewed the events with sober anticipation.

"We wish profoundly that the whole affair could be dismissed with a laugh. But unfortunately a non-renewal of the overt boycott of Jewish businesses is by no means a cessation of anti-Jewish activities. In all the professions and public services, it appears that Jews are being systematically evicted," it wrote. "In Europe today, we are confronted with a state of mind that has been banished from our Continent since its flare-up in 17th-century Spain."

"It is all madness with no method in it."

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at Rutgers University, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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