Lessons of History: A 1938 Nazi Law Forced Jews to Register Their Wealth—Making It Easier to Steal

Eighty years ago, the edict marked a turning point in the Nazi party’s efforts to push Jews out of the German economy.

The new law came mere weeks after the Anschluss, Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria. On April 26, 1938, the “Decree for the Reporting of Jewish-Owned Property” issued by Hitler’s government took effect, requiring all Jews in both Germany and Austria to register any property or assets valued at more than 5,000 Reichsmarks (around $2,000 in American currency of the period, or $34,000 today). From furniture and paintings to life insurance and stocks, nothing was immune from the registry. By July 31 of that year, German finance officials had collected paperwork from some 700,000 Jewish citizens—7 billion Reichsmarks-worth of wealth ripe for state-sanctioned theft known as “aryanization.”

“Aryanization was essentially a gigantic, trans-European trafficking operation in stolen goods,” writes historian Götz Aly in Hitlers Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State. As Nazi-occupied territory grew from Austria to Poland to more of Eastern Europe, so, too, did the number of Jewish families the Nazis could steal from. Jews had faced discrimination in Germany—and much of Europe—before the April 1938 edict, but that new law marked a turning point. One legal advisor for the Nazi Ministry of Economics deemed it the “forerunner to a complete and definitive removal of Jews from the German economy.”

When Adolf Hitler first came to power in 1933 thanks to the Enabling Act that gave him and his ministers all legislative control, the German economy was still reeling from the Great Depression. Hitler committed his government to two main economic policies: military armament and Autarky, or economic self-sufficiency. By promoting the use of German coal and putting taxes towards the military, Hitler steered his country towards a thriving economy. But even as the nation’s financial state recovered, he needed more money for the military, and so he created a fictional private enterprise to underwrite promissory notes, writes historian Aly. Somehow that fake money had to be made real so that various government entities, like the military, would actually have the capital to function without bringing down the economy, and that’s where Jewish wealth came to play.

Hitler espoused a virulent form of anti-Semitism that offered German citizens an enemy to rally around. He held Jews responsible for Germany’s military humiliation in World War I and also encouraged the belief that Jews grew wealthy through theft from Aryans. “The robbery part [of Hitler’s decree] is embedded in this ideology that these people are parasites who attach themselves to us, and they live by sucking our blood, and we are entitled to punish them and take it all back,” says Peter Hayes, professor emeritus of history and German at Northwestern University and the author of How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader.

What’s more, Nazi ideology held that Jews were particularly wealthy citizens of Germany, despite the reality that the majority of Jewish families fell somewhere in the middle class, Hayes says. Not only would the 1938 edict return wealth to non-Jewish citizens, whom Nazis considered to be the rightful owners, it would also encourage more Jews to leave the country, another of Hitler’s goals at that point. (The decision to pursue the wholesale extermination of Jews, known as the “Final Solution,” wouldn’t come for several more years, in late 1941.)…..[    ]

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