OPINION

The trial of Dr Rechnitz

James Myburgh writes on Germany in 1933, and minority “baiting” at its most cruel and hypocritical

In the late 16th Century in Britain a popular form of entertainment, rivalling Shakespearean theatre, was that of bear- and bull-baiting. In the former sport the bear would be chained by the neck to the wall or a post, and the dogs would then be set upon it. Queen Elizabeth I was a great devotee. The sport of bull-baiting was much the same, and far more common across the country due to the ready availability of those animals; with the bull tied by a stretch of rope to a bull-ring attached to a post or a heavy stone in the ground, then worried (meaning “bite or seize especially at throat at throat repeatedly”) by English bull-dogs. One contemporary described these spectacles as follows:

“For upon a greene verie spatious and large, where thousands might stand and behold with good contentment, there bearebaiting and bullbaiting (tempered with other merie disport) were exhibited; whereat it can not be spoken of what pleasure the people tooke.

For it was a sport alone of these beasts to see the beare with his pinke eies leering after his enimies, the nimblenesse and wait of the dog to take his advantage, and the force and experience of the beare againe to avoid the assaults; if he were bitten in one place, how he would pinch in another to get free; and if he were once taken, then what shift, with biting, clawing, roring, tuggin, grasping, tumbling, and tossing, he would worke to wind himself awaie; and when he was losse, to shake his eares, with the blood and slaver about his phisnomie, was a pittance of good reliefe.

The like pastime of the bule …did greatlie please the people, who standing round, some in ring upon the greene, other some aloft, and some below, had their eies full bent upon the present spectacle, diverse times expressing their inward conceived joy and delight, with shrill shots, and varietie of gesture.”

Over the years these blood sports were challenged by the Puritans, and fell progressively out of official favour. They were eventually prohibited in Britain, along with similar practices, by the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835. More surreptitious forms of animal baiting however continued, which could be better hidden from the official gaze.

Traces of these brutal pastimes lived on in the names of places and dog breeds, as well as certain words and expressions in the English language. The word “baiting” – defined by the OED as to “torment (chained animal) by setting dogs at it” - was used in England, from the late 19th Century onwards, to describe efforts by unscrupulous elements to go after, in one way or another, the Jews. It would have had, at the time, a resonance and deeply understood meaning that it lacks today.

British observers thus commonly used the term “Jew-baiting” (not the word “racism”) to describe the maltreatment of the Jews of Germany as Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) took total control of that country through the first half of 1933. There is one largely forgotten incident from this period that seems to encapsulate the practice in all its cruelty and hypocrisy. This is of the November 1933 prosecution of Albert Rosenthal and Dr Ernst Rechnitz for spreading “atrocity reports”.

To tell it properly it is necessary to first sketch out some of the context of the time.

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I

In the November 1932 elections the NSDAP had lost some ground, but still secured 33% of the vote, confirming its position as by far the largest party in the Reichstag. President Paul von Hindenburg had then appointed Hitler Chancellor on the 30th January 1933 as part of a coalition government with the conservative German National People's Party (DNVP), which had won 8.34% of the vote the previous November.

Then on 27th February 1933 the Reichstag was burnt down in an act of arson blamed on the German Communist Party (KPD). The NSDAP claimed the fire was meant to be the trigger for a Communist insurrection, and Hindenburg issued the Reichstag Fire Decree suspending various constitutional rights such as to habeas corpus, freedom of opinion, freedom of assembly, and so on. The regime set about rounding up and imprisoning without trial thousands of KPD members. The KPD was not banned outright and was permitted to remain on the ballot for the federal elections on the 5th March 1933, though their 81 elected delegates, many of whom were interned in concentration camps or on the run, could not take up their seats.

In these elections the NSDAP increased their share of the vote to 43,91%, and the DNVP won a further 7,97% of the vote – giving the governing coalition a majority both of the popular vote and of seats in the Reichstag. On the 23rd March 1933 the Reichstag delegates then adopted under considerable duress the Enabling Act by a two-thirds majority which allowed the executive to rule by decree.

From the time that they first emerged into public prominence Hitler and the NSDAP had been notorious for their anti-Jewish views and their belief that all of Germany’s misfortunes could be blamed on this “alien race”. The party’s 25 point programme of 1920, which was declared fixed and unalterable, stated that Jews were not part of the German people (were not Volksgenossen) as they were not of German blood, and as such they should be stripped of their citizenship. They would also be removed from all public offices and positions, in the German newspapers as well, since these would be reserved for citizens only.

As Hitler had set about broadening the NSDAP’s electoral support in the early 1930s he soft-peddled his party’s (and his own) virulent anti-Semitism. But while there was one message for the voting public, there was another for the party’s membership and the unemployed young street thugs in its paramilitary arm, the Sturmabteilung (SA). They were told by the party’s propaganda chief, Dr Joseph Goebbels, that when the Party had finally worked its way into power they “would have practically a free hand with the Jews. This meant that not only were they to be given an opportunity to harry the Jews and through fear drive them out of the country, but also that the many places in the professions, business, the theatres and practically all walks of life occupied by Jews were to be cleared so as to make way for the adherents of the Party.”

In the week after the NSDAP victory in the 5th March 1933 elections there was a further upsurge of violence as the new regime combined legal and illegal methods to intimidate their opponents into submission and consolidate their hold on power across the country. As the British Ambassador to Berlin, Sir Horace Rumbold, noted in a dispatch on the 15th March 1933, law and order had been practically suspended in most towns: “Communists having gone to ground, reprisals were visited in most cases on Social Democrats, Democrats, Jews and members of the Centre party.” There were many reports in circulation, Rumbold noted, of “flying squads of irresponsible young men” arresting private individuals, assaulting Jews, destroying printing presses and inflicting horse-whippings on lawyers and journalists.

Many Jewish-owned stores were also invaded and closed, with department stores a particular target. In a speech in Essen on 10th March Hermann Goering, the Minister of the Interior in Prussia, rejected the notion that it was the job of the police to protect such establishments. “It is said that there is immense excitement because of the temporary closing of Jewish stores. I am asked to intervene. Why, what has happened but that we Germans declare, ‘Germans, do not buy from Jews, buy from Germans!’ I am told that I must call out the police. Indeed I am going to employ the police, and ruthlessly, wherever German people are injured, but I refuse to turn the police into a guard for Jew stores. An end must be made of the nuisance that every cheat can appeal to the police for protection.”[i]

It was only after Hitler issued a call for greater discipline, which he had to repeat the following day, that the situation began to calm down. Yet as the US Consul General in Berlin, George S. Messersmith, noted in a dispatch to Washington DC on the 21st March, although the worst of the physical persecution of Jews was over “a more serious and more significant phase has been definitely entered upon”:

“Reports from all over Germany indicate that Jews holding public office are being rapidly dismissed. This holds true in the Central Administration of the Reich as well as in the State and Municipal Governments. Practically all Jews in important positions in the Government have already been eliminated and this is rapidly going downwards into the smaller positions so that even the school physicians and similar minor office holders have been almost completely eliminated. Only a few occupying key positions whose technical skill is of very great value to the present Government, have been retained.”

In the legal profession a similar “cleaning out” process was also being undertaken. For instance, on the 11th March SA members had simply gone into the Breslau court building and dragged Jewish lawyers and judges out of their chambers. In that city, Messersmith wrote, “of the seventy-two practicing Jewish lawyers only seventeen selected out of these seventy-two are to be hereafter permitted to appear before the Breslau courts.” In a dispatch from around the same time Rumbold noted too how “doctors, lawyers, judges, professors and persons whose appointment rests in any way in official hands are being ruthlessly dismissed for no other reason than the accident of race.”

By the end of March, Messersmith observed, there was practically “no field whether it be the Government, the professions, or business, from which the Jews have not been eliminated and in which the National Socialist Party has not placed its own men in the central organisations. The Party has not only seized the government but has placed its own men or its ‘komissars’ in charge of practically ever profession. This process is now just beginning in industry…”

There was one particularly chilling threat made against the Jews at the time. Heinrich Himmler, newly appointed Munich police chief, warned of a planned assassination attempt against Hitler while he was in the city. “I have the conviction that with the first shot, whether it reaches its goal or not,” he said on the 20th March, “it would unleash such popular fury that we would see the greatest mass murders and pogroms that have ever yet been experienced in the history of the world, and no state and no police would be able to stop it.”

II

Many of these developments had been widely reported on in the British and American press, and there had been calls by Jewish organisations for a trade boycott of Germany. This had been reported on in the Daily Express of the 24th March 1933 under the inflammatory front page headline “Judea declares war on Germany”. The following day Goering addressed the foreign press in Berlin. The Jews that had been removed from office, he said, had not been removed because they were Jews, but because they were socialists. “There are still Jews occupying important positions. Law-abiding Jews have nothing to fear as long as they keep themselves within proper limits,” he told his audience. “This government will not tolerate persecution of Jews and has not established any discriminatory status.” But if Germany were to undertake to bring about a “proper adjustment” that would be its own business.

Goebbels, recently appointed as Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, also now launched a campaign to counter this upsurge of world concern. On the 26th March 1933 the Sunday Express published an article by him, on its front page, which ran along two lines. Rather than deny what was actually being done to the Jews Goebbels picked upon and then attacked a fringe and exaggerated version of the reality. He complained that despite the national revolution in Germany being carried out quietly and with great discipline “unscrupulous agitators abroad are spreading rumours that Jews in Germany are being shot wholesale, tortured and executed under the most inhuman agonies.” The reality was quite different, he wrote. “Not a hair on the head of any person is touched, and the authorities responsible for the public safety have the power completely in their hands. The Jews living in Germany can carry out their business completely undisturbed….The German nation to-day has other business to do than to stage blood baths and indulge in Jew baiting.”

His other line sought to legitimate the measures taken to drive the Jews out of state positions and the professions, though he did not directly admit that this was happening. “The Jews living in Germany, in view of the small percentage they represent of the entire population,” he wrote, “have held such an enormously large number of powerful posts in the life of the nation that the Germanic element seemed almost completely excluded from the leading positions.”

The same day the article appeared in print Goebbels met with Hitler at Berchtesgaden where they formulated plans for a large scale boycott of all Jewish business in Germany, ostensibly in reaction to the “atrocity propaganda” being spread against Germany abroad. This was announced the following evening. This would be combined with a nationwide campaign demanding laws restricting the admittance of “Jews to universities and to the professions of attorney and physician only in proportion to their numerical strength among the population of Germany" (around one percent of the total). The following day an editorial in Goebbels’ newspaper Der Angriff declared:

“Germany owes all her suffering and all the distress of the years after the war to the Jews! Now that after an untiring and defiant fight the national revolution has at last gained a victory and has brought about a change, the German people showed remarkable self-restraint and discipline. Not even a single hair of one of the culprits was touched. As thanks for this, the Jewdom of the world organised the most criminal propaganda of lies and atrocities which the world has ever seen. By this act the patience and forbearance of the German people have been overrated… The just German cause will victoriously overcome Jewish hatred, Jewish vileness and Jewish lies.”

On Tuesday 28th March the NSDAP issued its proclamation of the boycott, to start on Saturday 1st April. It was reportedly largely drafted by Hitler himself but was issued in the name of the “party leadership”. This also denounced the ingratitude of the German Jews for the great forbearance and hospitality that had been shown to them, despite their being the “authors and beneficiaries of our misfortune… As our reward, we now have a clique of Jewish men of letters, professors and profiteers inciting the world against us while millions of our own Volksgenossen are unemployed and degenerating.”[ii]

This proclamation then commanded that "in every local group and every organisation and department of the National Socialist party committees of action are to be formed immediately for the practical and systematic execution of a boycott against Jewish business establishments, goods, physicians and lawyers." These committees were, in turn, instructed to "initiate propaganda immediately in tens of thousands of mass meetings that must reach the smallest village for raising a demand that the number of Jews in all occupations shall be restricted to their percentage of the population in Germany. To heighten the driving force of this action the demands shall provisionally be restricted to three fields: admission to German secondary schools and universities and the legal and medical professions."

On the Friday massive posters were put up across Berlin accusing “the Jew” of exciting world opinion against Germany with a flood of lies. It stated:

“No crime is too base to him to accuse the Germans of it.

The Jew lies: ‘In Germany members of the Jewish people are being killed through cruel tortures.’

The Jew lies: ‘The eyes of these Jews are being burned out, their hands chopped off, their ears and noses cut off, and alas! Even their bodies are being cut to pieces.’

The Jew lies: ‘In Germany even Jewish women are being killed in a horrible way and Jewish girls are being assaulted in the presence of their parents.’

The Jews spread these lies in the same way and for the same purpose as they did during the war. They want to excite the world against Germany. Moreover, they agitate for a boycott of German goods. The Jew thus wants to increase the misery of unemployment in Germany and ruin the German export trade.”

It then accused the German Jews of being the instigators of this all, and called on Germans to boycott Jewish stores, lawyers and physicians: “Show the Jews that they cannot degrade us and throw dirt upon German honour without being punished!”

At the last moment the boycott was restricted to a single day, due to pressure from conservative members of cabinet concerned about the impact on the economy. The boycott itself went off largely uneventfully, and it was not regarded by observers as being very popular with the general population. It did successfully convince the public though that there was something deeply reprehensible about a racial minority occupying a share of the higher activities in society in proportions greater than its share of the general population. It thereby smoothed the way for a series of laws adopted by decree through the course of April 1933 designed to give legal effect to the elimination of the Jews from state employment and the professions, and the demands of the 1st April boycott.

On the 4th April 1933 President Hindenburg intervened in one important respect. In a letter to Hitler he stated that a whole series of cases had been reported to him “in which judges, lawyers, and officials of the Judiciary who are disabled war veterans and whose record in office is flawless, have been forcibly sent on leave, and are later to be dismissed for the sole reason that they are of Jewish descent. It is quite intolerable for me personally… that Jewish officials who were disabled in the war should suffer such treatment.”

In his reply the following day Hitler indignantly defended the “defence” undertaken by the “German people” against the “flooding” of certain professions by Jewry. He complained that in the medical and legal professions, for example, the Jews had taken possession of 80% of all positions in some cities like Berlin. This while hundreds of thousands of German intellectuals, many of whom were also war veterans, had to scrape by. He nonetheless acquiesced to Hindenburg’s wishes and the subsequent legislation contained an exemption allowing Jewish “officials, judges, teachers and lawyers who are war invalids, fought at the front, are sons of war dead, or themselves lost sons in the war” to remain in their positions.

According to the “April Laws” all “non-Aryans” - except for those from the exempted categories (of whom there were actually a great number) - were formally retired from the civil service, could have their admittance to the legal profession revoked, and were prohibited from working in clinics and hospitals falling under the national health insurance system. At the end of the month a law was passed limiting the admittance of “non-Aryans” to any high school, university or college, to the proportion of “non-Aryans” in the total population (1,5%). During these two months cultural institutions and universities were also “cleansed” of Jews and those believed to be opposed to National Socialist ideals.

In the diplomatic dispatches from Berlin through April 1933 a number of cases of attacks on prominent Jews are described, including assaults, degrading treatment, and occasionally murder. On 19th April 1933 Messersmith commented that while relatively rare “the physical persecution of Jews is still going on in various parts of Germany cannot be doubted. It may be that the incidents reported are the acts of individuals belonging to the National-Socialist organisations and wearing National-Socialist uniform, and carried out without orders from their leaders, but it is equally evident that the perpetrators of these acts are not being brought before the judicial authorities.”

While in theory the exemptions in the law allowed for the return of many Jewish lawyers to legal practice, in reality this was frustrated by the NSDAP members now in control of the profession. Messersmith noted in early May that the hardships being inflicted on thousands of “formerly respected members of the legal profession in the country cannot be estimated or set forth in words. Not only careers, but whole families are being ruined and the moral and physical distress which has resulted out of this action against the Jews in the legal profession would be difficult to describe.”

III

This was the context in which Albert Rosenthal wrote an article at the end of April for the Breslauer Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt the official monthly newspaper of the congregation of the synagogue in Breslau. He tried to make sense of, and come to terms with, the catastrophe that had befallen German Jewry over the previous eight weeks, through the story from Genesis 37 of “Joseph and his brothers” which had been the subject of a recent (1932) novel by the great German novelist Thomas Mann.

Joseph was the youngest and favourite son of his father Israel, who gave him a brightly coloured coat. When his older brothers saw this they envied and quietly hated him for it. Then Joseph had two dreams. In the one he and his brothers had been binding sheaves of grain in the field, when suddenly his sheaf rose and stood upright, while theirs gathered around and bowed down to it. In the other the sun and moon and eleven stars bowed down to him. When he told his family of these his brothers hated him all the more, and resolved upon his ruination. Sometime after, his brothers were grazing the sheep herds near Sichem and Israel sent Jacob out to check on their condition and report back to him. After wandering the fields a long time searching for them a man approached Jacob and asked what him what he was looking for? “I am searching for my brothers”, he answered.

Having related the story to this point Rosenthal wrote:

“The German Jew was also a dreamer - neither haughty or arrogant nor boastful of unrealisable dreams. He often wore his coloured coat, sometimes displaying it more than necessary. But who could blame him? Snobbery and an obsession with rank are excusable human foibles. But the dreamer did not notice how his great industriousness, his tremendous creativity, his successes in all fields of knowledge, art and technology; his great achievements as German businessman; did not attract just recognition and admiration, but also excited envy, hate and resentment among many Volksgenossen. Now, he has been suddenly and roughly been awoken from his dream, and cannot find his way in these changed circumstances.

Hard times have come over German Jewry. The German Jew is not just a fighter, he has become far more a martyr; unprotected and defenceless he is exposed to all the hostility of his adversaries; his honour is every day soiled by the most terrible insults and slanders. Emergency times demand self-reflection. The German Jew has been on the wrong path for a long time, and must now recognise how unbrotherly he is being treated by his Volksgenossen. Now is the time to search for his own brothers and find his way back to them.”

Rosenthal then appealed for German Jews in a position to do so to offer employment to their more vulnerable brothers. This included the poor, unemployed small traders and the “many Jewish doctors, lawyers, teachers and other civil servants” who had been robbed of their existence by the sudden political upheaval in Germany.

The editor of the publication was Dr Ernst Rechnitz, the administrative head of the congregation. Rechnitz was a former judge and war veteran who had volunteered to fight at the outbreak of the Great War. During his military service he had been severely wounded but willingly returned to the front after he had recovered. He had also been commissioned as an officer, had won the Iron Cross (both classes) and written the campaign history of his regiment.

Due to space constraints Rechnitz did not publish Rosenthal´s article in the May or June editions of the newspaper but, in somewhat of a rush ahead of a much-needed holiday, had made it the main lead of the July edition under the heading “I am searching for my brothers”.

After the article’s publication Rosenthal and Rechitz were detained by the Gestapo and interned in a concentration camp. They were then put on trial in November before a special court under a law, passed in March, prohibiting the intentional publication or distribution of false or grossly distorted claims of a factual nature likely to damage Germany’s well-being and its reputation. In the trial the defence argued that the purpose of the article had been to appeal to the Jewish employers to assist their less fortunate brethren. It had also expressed an opinion, not conveyed news of a factual nature, and so in terms of the existing jurisprudence, the provisions of this law did not apply to this case.[iii]

The prosecution rejected this legal point, stating that it rested upon outdated jurisprudence based upon Roman law (a legal tradition the NSDAP had always rejected as too concerned with individual rights). The two paragraphs quoted above, it argued, fell completely within the scope of the law. The first contained a false description in claiming that the NSDAP had been motivated by envy and hatred of the Jews whereas the NSDAP “opposes the Jews not on account of their successes but of their race.” This the defendants must have known full well. The second meanwhile was not just a reference to motive but contained alleged facts of the type that had been used to slander Germany abroad. The allegation was that the German government and judiciary was not protecting the German Jew whereas in fact they did protect “the life, property and honour of the Jews as well as the legal interests of other people living in the Reich.” On this basis the prosecution called for the sentencing of Rosenthal and Rechnitz to eighteen months in jail.

In his final word to the court, Rechnitz noted that at the time the provincial press was overflowing with the most degrading calumny against the Jews. The article was a comment in response to that. He then directly addressed the court, stating that he was not going to make an appeal on the length of his sentence, if found guilty, for two reasons. The first, because he believed that he had committed no punishable offence. The second on the following grounds:

“According to the written records my forefathers have lived on German ground, on Upper Silesian soil, for at least 200 years. I know of no other fatherland than Germany. In my opinion I have gone beyond the call of duty to serve this country in war and in peace. The allegation that I have deliberately committed acts with the intention of injuring the interests of this country is intolerable to me and deeply touches upon my honour. When you pass a judgment, sending me to jail, you are taking my honour from me. It therefore makes no difference to me whether I should be robbed of my freedom for a long or short period of time."

The Judge, Dr Winter, upheld all parts of the prosecution’s case. The article he said had sought to inflame the impression, both at home and abroad, that the law and the justice system in Germany was not affording appropriate protection to the Jews. This was completely false. He thus sentenced Rosenthal and Rechnitz to fifteen months in jail. While acknowledging that they may have been motivated by “spiritual distress” their behaviour had been particularly disturbing, and the sentence needed to reflect that.

IV

This story well-captures the practice of the “baiting”, in its most fully realised form, of a now powerless but still relatively prosperous racial minority. As with the original blood sports from which the term was derived there is a duality at work. On the one side the dogs, metaphorically speaking, unleashed and free to attack at will, responsive (if at all) only to the whistled commands of their handlers; on the other side, the chaining by the neck of the terrified and desperate target of their attentions.

This duality was reflected, in real terms, in the disintegration of the rule of law in Germany at the time. This is the principle that those who make the laws are also bound by them, and that these are applied impartially by the courts to everyone. In other words, no person or category of person is exempt from the application of the law, and no-one is punished except for a distinct breach of the law. During Germany’s “national revolution”, by contrast, you had bands of young thugs committing criminal acts of assault, robbery, and even murder, against the Jews, with almost complete impunity; while a perverted form of “law” was harshly applied by partisan judges to Jewish Germans like Rechnitz and Rosenthal, who were seen as having stepped just an inch out of line.

In terms of public opinion this duality was again at work. NSDAP leaders and their newspapers slandered the Jews in the most grotesque fashion, blaming them for all Germany’s troubles; while efforts to raise awareness about the vulnerable position of this minority were screamingly denounced as “atrocity propaganda” and an insult to German honour. Finally, in the midst of this collapse of the principle of equal treatment, the forced displacement of Jews from their positions, and the strident demand for the limitation of Jews in all fields to their miniscule percentage of the total population, you have the indignant denial that the Jews are subject to any form of discrimination at all. To claim the contrary was punishable by law.

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Footnotes:


[i] New York Times, 11th March 1933

[ii] Max Domarus, Hitler: Speeches and Proclamations 1932-1945, Volume One, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1990

[iii] The account of the trial is from “Dr. Rechnitz und Albert Rosenthal vor dem Sondergericht”, Jüdischer Zeitung für Ostdeutschland, Breslau, 17 November 1933 no. 45. See also “Ex-Judge is Jailed as Nazi Defamer”, New York Times, 22 November 1933