Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

The Nuremberg Laws: Background & Overview

The Nuremberg Laws were anti-Jewish statutes enacted by Germany on September 15, 1935, marking a major step in clarifying racial policy and removing Jewish influences from Aryan society.

These laws, on which the rest of Nazi racial policy hung, were written hastily. In September 1935, Adolf Hitler decided that the time was ripe for more restrictions on Germany’s Jews, especially since many Party militants had expressed their disappointment with the Arierparagraph. He therefore outlined new laws for the protection of German blood and honor which would “regulate the problems of marriage between ‘Aryans’ and ‘non-Aryans.’”

Nuremberg Laws
Poster used by Nazi Party to explain regulations of Nuremberg Laws

On September 13, 1935, Hitler called on the desk officer for racial law in the Reich Ministry of the Interior (RMI), Bernhard Loesener, and on others, among them state secretaries Hans Pfundtner and Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, to formulate the legal language of the laws. Hitler wanted to present these new laws at the Nuremberg Party rally on September 15, leaving only two days to write them. Much preliminary work had been done for the drafting of such laws prior to September 13, but the men still had to agree on their severity and language. They wrote notes at mealtimes on menu cards as they threw together the laws that would decide the fate of millions.

Hitler had asked these men to translate racial ideology into law. Remarkably, the head of Reich Office for Genealogy Research, Dr. Kurt Mayer, heard about these new laws for the first time when they were officially announced. He openly expressed his anger, humiliation and surprise at not having been consulted during the drafting process.

Hitler made no pretense of basing these laws on any “scientific truths” discovered by his “racial scientists.” His driving force was not reason but rather the need for an enemy. Hitler had said that if the Nazis had not had Jews, they would have had to invent them. Since Hitler believed he was the sole authority on racial policy, he had the final say about what the law stated.

The laws issued on September 15, 1935, approved by Hitler personally, deprived Jews of German citizenship, prohibited Jewish households from having German maids under the age of 45, prohibited any non-Jewish German from marrying a Jew and outlawed sexual relations between Jews and Germans. Hitler claimed during a Reichstag session that the Nuremberg Laws would actually help the Jews by creating “a level ground on which the German people may find a tolerable relation with the Jewish people.” Hitler’s statement was a “blatant deception, aimed at the outside world.”

Regardless of what Hitler said, he implemented these laws to ostracize, discriminate and expel Jews from German society. This was quickly gleaned from his speech when he next said that if this “tolerable situation” was not found, and if the Jewish agitation both within Germany and abroad continued, then the position must be reexamined. In other words, Hitler would then implement further laws and policies to persecute the Jews. The Nuremberg Laws, according to Hitler, were just a precursor to other more degrading decrees. To create his homogeneous and harmonious Aryan society, Hitler had first to discard the Jews, a “people” incompatible with “true Germans.” The Nuremberg Laws helped Hitler take the first step toward getting rid of “these parasites” and imposing racial conformity on society.

Interestingly, the law prohibiting marriages between Jews and Germans failed to specify who was counted as a Jew. Years of German-Jewish assimilation made this a difficult question to answer and debate raged for several months. Hitler wavered between declaring half-Jews the same as Jews or keeping them separate as half-Jews amd ,any issues about Mischlinge (partial Jews) and intermarriage were discussed. Dr. Gerhard Wagner, the Reich’s doctor and a fanatical anti-Semite, had many talks with Hitler during the drafting of the racial laws - he wanted to equate all half-, quarter-, and one-eighth-Jews with full Jews. Such extremists argued that partial Jews were more dangerous than full Jews because their mix of German and Jewish blood would enable them to lead the state’s enemies with the skill of Aryans.

The racial theorist Dr. Achim Gercke in the RMI introduced another argument when he wrote in September 1935 that Mischlinge could really be disguised Jews. He maintained that anyone who mathematically defined “50 percent, 25 percent, 12.5 percent, 6.25 percent, etc., Mischlinge” had not understood Mendel’s laws of genetics. Gercke warned that Mischlinge could also “mendel out pure Jews.” At this time, Hitler refused to give his decision on whether to declare half-Jews as Jews. Hitler’s wavering was typical of his style of rule. He often avoided giving a final decision that involved choosing different options proposed by two or more of his trusted underlings. And being the good politician that he was, Hitler probably did not declare half-Jews as Jews because he did not want to alienate the Aryan families of Mischlinge too much.

The Nazis not only persecuted people of Jewish descent, but Aryan Germans with Jewish spouses as well. Stuckart in the RMI argued that anyone who married a Jew was an inferior German. Any children born to such parents did not deserve any better treatment than Jews, since their German half was not really worth protecting. Julius Streicher, the editor of the notoriously antisemitic and vulgar newspaper Der Stürmer, tried to convince Wilhelm Frick, Reich Minister of the Interior, that Jewish semen permanently polluted an Aryan woman to such an extent that later, although married to an Aryan, she could not bear “pure-blooded Aryan babies.” Men like Loesener, who were responsible for drafting these laws, did not take Gercke’s or Streicher’s beliefs too seriously.

Throughout this process of defining Jewishness, Loesener realized the problems inherent in labeling as un-German people who felt German, thereby marking them for persecution. Loesener feared the disastrous social repercussions that would result from branding as Jews several highly decorated half-Jewish World War I veterans (one a Pour le Mérite recipient) and distinguished supporters of the Nazi movement. Loesener argued that since most felt German and rejected Judaism, their suicide rate would climb dramatically if the government labeled them as Jews. Loesener also cautioned that if they treated half-Jews as Jews, the armed forces would probably lose 45,000 soldiers. He felt that the “laws transformed dissimulation into an established fact [and] would minimize racial hatred,” and he “stressed that legal segregation meant legal protection.”

After the war, Loesener explained his reasoning: “One could no more achieve any movement on the Jewish question in the narrow sense, i.e., the full-Jews, than one could move a mountain. It would also have been tactically the most stupid thing I could possibly have done because it would have removed any further possibility of making use of my position [in helping half-Jews].” He knew the Jews were doomed but felt that he could save the Mischlinge from meeting the same fate if he could prevent the authorities from labeling them as Jews. In this battle between the Party, led primarily by Wagner, and the RMI, led by Stuckart and Loesener, the RMI won. Hitler had been content to let these two factions fight it out. Hitler apparently allowed the RMI to enact its version of the law because he feared the unrest in society that the harsh law of the Party fanatics would cause. According to historian Nathan Stoltzfus, Hitler was only concerned “for his popularity” in permitting RMI to get its way.

As Raul Hilberg pointed out, the task of explaining the laws and fully articulating them was left to the bureaucracy. On November 14, 1935, the RMI issued a supplement to the Nuremberg Laws of September 15, 1935, which created the racial categories of German, Jew, half-Jew (Jewish Mischling first degree), and quarter-Jew (Jewish Mischling second degree), each with its own regulations. Apparently, Hitler decided for the time being to keep half-Jews as such rather than treating them as full Jews. Full Jews had three to four Jewish grandparents. According to Hitler, when someone was more than 50 percent Jewish, he was beyond the point of saving and was evil (uebel). Half-Jews had two Jewish grandparents, and quarter-Jews had one Jewish grandparent. The Nazis had to resort to religious criteria to define these racial categories, ultimately determined by birth, baptismal, marriage, and death certificates. Often stored in churches and courthouses, these records indicated what religion one adhered to or had left. When a Mischling belonged to the Jewish religion or was married to a Jew, the Nazis counted him as a full Jew. Jews could only marry Jews or half-Jews, and half-Jews could only marry Jews or other half-Jews. Quarter-Jews could only marry Aryans, although in practice they experienced difficulties in doing so. Marriages between a Jew and an Aryan that had occurred before 1935 were called “privileged mixed marriages” and provided some protection for the Jewish spouse. Most Jews who survived the Holocaust in Germany were married to non-Jews. At the same time, Hitler allowed some Mischlinge to apply for exemptions under section 7 of the supplementary decrees of November 1935. In some cases, if Hitler approved, the Mischling was allowed to call himself or herself an Aryan.

The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 laid the foundation for the next 10 years of racial policy. Subsequent official documents usually replaced the term non-Aryan with the more specific “Jewish Mischling first or second degree” and Jew. Although, by 1938, Hitler felt the Nuremberg Laws had been too “humane,” he never changed them.

As Loesener had predicted, these laws calmed many individuals of Jewish descent by clarifying their situation somewhat. Half-Jew Peter Gaupp, who called the time from 1933 until the racial laws of 1935 the “lawless years,” said:

In 1935, the laws came out, the Nuremberg Laws. That was the first time you knew where you stood legally…. Before it was all guesswork. You could meet a Nazi in some office and he could exterminate you or you could meet a Nazi that was very human and he could help you…. Before 1935, before the laws came out of Nuremberg, you swam your way through…. You know, there was no regulations. The laws of Nuremberg was the first, ah, form, legal shape where you knew where you stood.

Mischlinge felt oppressed, but at least they knew where they belonged. Some Jews welcomed the laws because they felt that now they could live an “orderly existence.” Moreover, for a few years after these laws, most Mischlinge continued to live fairly “normal” lives – that is, they were able to study, date, serve in the armed forces, and so on. Most felt pleasantly surprised that the majority of their Aryan friends and acquaintances did not treat them differently after the issuance of these laws. Ian Kershaw wrote, “Between the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws and the summer of 1938, it would not be going too far to suggest that the ‘Jewish Question’ was almost totally irrelevant to the formation of opinion among the majority of the German people.” Many people did not take the new laws seriously. “[The Nuremberg Laws] appear to have passed by much of the population almost unnoticed.” It seems that those who did know about these laws, including Mischlinge, accepted them without objection.

Stuckart and his assistant, Dr. Hans Globke, in the RMI claimed that Nazi racial laws differed little from Jewish law: “The German people want to keep their blood pure and their culture together just like the Jews have done since the prophet Ezra ordered them to do so.” Regardless of what Nazi officials said, these laws inflicted humiliation and suffering on Jews and Mischlinge. Quarter-Jew Hans Ranke said, “I was shocked [by these laws]. I no longer felt like a worthy German.” The Reichstag felt it had secured the purity of blood essential for the German people’s future existence. Lammers wrote Frick on February 20, 1936, that Hitler’s goal in Mischling politics was to make the “mixed race disappear” and to force Mischlinge to lose their citizenship rights. The Nazis used these Nuremberg Laws to define, control, and dehumanize Jews and Mischlinge and eventually to expel them from “Aryan” society.


Akten der Parteikanzlei der NSDAP: Rekonstruktion eines verlorengegangenen Bestandes, Bundesarchiv (Akten-NSDAP), Microfiches, hrsg. v. Institut fuer Zeitgeschichte, Munich, 1983; BA-B (Bundesarchiv-Berlin), Bestände aus der Zeit von 1867 bis 1945: Zivile Behoerden und Einrichtungen des Deutschen Reiches; BA-B, R 18/5514; BA-B, 15.09/52; BA-MA (Bundesarchiv/Militaerarchiv – Freiburg), RH 53–7/627; BA-MA, BMRS (Bryan Mark Rigg Sammlung), interview Peter Gaupp; BA-MA, BMRS, interview Hans Koref; BA-MA, BMRS, interview Hans Ranke; Das Reichsbürgergesetz vom 15.09.1935 (RGBl. 1935, Teil I, Nr. 100, p. 1,146); Erste Verordnung zum Reichsbürgergesetz vom 14.11.1935 (RGBl, Teil I, 1935, Nr. 125, pp. 1,333–36); Institut fuer Zeitgeschichte (IfZ), N-71–73. SECONDARY SOURCES: H.G. Adler, The Jews in Germany (1969); W. Benz, The Holocaust: A German Historian Examines the Genocide (1999); Y. Bauer, A History of the Holocaust (1982); N.H. Baynes (ed.), The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, vol. 2 (1942); D. Cesarani (ed.), The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation (1994); C. Essner, Die "Nuernberger Gesetze" oder Die Verwaltung des Rassenwahns 19331945 (2002); S. Friedlaender, Nazi Germany and the Jews, vol. 1, The Years of Persecution, 19331939 (1997); H. Globke and W. Stuck-art, Kommentare zur Deutschen Rassen gesetzgebung (1936); Heeresadjutant bei Hitler, 19381943. Aufzeichnungen des Majors Gerhard Engel, Hrsg. u. kommentiert v. Hildegard von Kotze (= Schriftenreihe der Vierteljahreshefte fuer Zeitgeschichte Nr. 29; 1974); R. Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jews (1961, 1985, 2003); A. Hitler, Mein Kampf (1971); The Holocaust, vol. 1, Legalizing the HolocaustThe Early Phase, 19331939, intr. by John Mendelsohn (1982); H. Kammer and E. Bartsch (eds.), Nationalsozialismus: Begriffe aus der Zeit der Gewaltherrschaft, 19331945 (1992); M.A. Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (1998); I. Kershaw, Hitler, 18891936: Hubris (1999); idem, Hitler, 19361945: Nemesis (2000); idem, The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (1987); idem, "Popular Opinion in the Third Reich," in: J. Oakes (ed.), Government, Party, and People in Nazi Germany (1980); idem, Profiles in Power: Hitler (1991); B. Lösener, "Als Rassereferent im Reichsministerium des Innern," in: Das Reichsministerium des Innern und die Judengesetzgebung, Vierteljahreshefte fuer Zeitgeschichte, vol. 9 (1961); J. Noakes, "The Development of Nazi Policy towards the German-Jewish 'Mischlinge,' 1933–1945," in: Leo Baeck Yearbook, 34 (1989); R. Pommerin, Sterilisierung der Rheinlandbastarde. Das Schicksal einer farbigen deutschen Minderheit, 19181937 (1979); F. Redlich, Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet (1998); B.M. Rigg, Hitler's Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military (2002); idem, Rescued From the Reich: How One of Hitler's Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe (2004); N. Stoltzfus, Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany (1996); R. Vogel, Ein Stueck von uns (1973); L. Yahil, The Holocaust (1987).

Sources: Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, Documents on Nazism 1919-1945, (NY: Viking Press, 1974), pp. 463-467;
The Nizkor Project;
Encyclopaedia Judaica, © 2008 The Gale Group All Rights Reserved.