What historical or cultural reasons did the Nazis give for hating the Jews? Did they ever accurately and precisely identify non-practicing Jews?

I asked Jewish culture differences singled out by Nazism? on Judaism SE and they said that for a secular reason to Nazi prejudice I would have to ask here.

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    You perhaps need to start by reading a history of Europe in the Early Middle Ages. It may help if it has something on the relations between European Jewry and the medieval popes.
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 11:28
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    There are two very different questions here. The first question assumes that Nazi ideology is based on historical reasons, which is implausible and may be unanswerable. (Did the Nazi's do things because of history, or did they do things and then use history to justify?) The second question has to do with the principles that the Nazi's used to implement their oppression, and assumes that they were interested in accuracy or precision in identifying Jews. I find that dubious. I think you're chasing red herrings.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 16:34
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    Why do you think Jews were singled out in Nazi ideology? Nazis were against Jews, Romas, all the Slavs.. Not so many they were not against..
    – Greg
    Commented Oct 18, 2015 at 1:58
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    I think ultimately my problem with this question is that it treats genocide and racism as "hatred" and implies that they are based in rationality. I find it difficult to accept that; I don't accept that "reason" leads to racism. (I'm not saying that racists won't cite reason; but introducing racism into intellectual discourse is a little like introducing a term of "x/0" into a mathematical equation. Everything after that point is meaningless and no longer part of known math.)
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 15:00

4 Answers 4


The Jews were targeted not because of their religion but on basis of their supposed 'racial characteristics'.

According to the science of the day, eugenics, this could be easily detected based on parentage and physical characteristics.

Thus marriage and birth certificates were a major source of information, and where that wasn't conclusive (say immigrants), actual measurements of things like the slope of the forehead and the dimensions and shape of the nose were used (and in many cases pure speculation, just like in the past just accusing someone of being a witch made them a witch, nowadays the same process is responsible for putting many a person behind bars for being a pedophile who never touched a child).

The main reason for the persecution was economic, combined with historical prejudice (that was and still is deeply rooted throughout Europe). The German economy was in tatters, but the Jews were as a group doing a lot better than the population at large. When the government needed a scape goat, they were a logical group to target.

Mind this wasn't at all limited to Germany, the same went on in many countries, foremost of all the USSR.

Historically of course the Jews were strangers, with weird customs, rather insular, with a different religion, in countries that were very much homogenous in their cultural and religious makeup (and to a large degree in many countries largely racially homogenous as well). That set them apart, people were suspicious of them, and the Nazi propaganda built on that to blame them for the economic woes of the late 1920s and 1930s (the fact that many banks were owned by them, and Jewish owned businesses doing overall better than German owned businesses made that easier).

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    It can be worthwhile to add to your last paragraph that similar occurrences of blaming Jews, as one of the most easily identified insular group inside European cities, go back as far as the Black Death in the middle ages, and before. Numerous enough and identifiable enough to be a convenient scapegoat. Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 11:16
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    I think a couple of things should also be added: long-standing anti-Semitism in Germany (i.e. Martin Luther's "On the Jews and Their Lies") and the hysteria towards "enemies within" by the proponents of the "stab-in-the-back myth" following Germany's capitulation in WW1. And obviously, a charismatic demagogue's animus towards Jews added enormously to the prevailing sentiment. It's possible to argue that without Hitler a Nazi-like party would still have been very hostile to Jews, but his fetish against them was in the extreme even for an already radical group. Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 5:48
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    @Anixx your claim that physical characteristics were not used is utter bonkers. There's even booklets that were distributed in Germany with pictures to "identify the Jew", propaganda posters where their racial stereotypes are exagerrated for the population, etc. etc. Any reliable resource on or from the era will show that.
    – jwenting
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 8:15
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    I think the emphasis on the USSR as another Jew-persecuting country is not correct for the relevant time frame (before WWII). There was rampant state antisemitism in the USSR (perhaps including a plan in 1953 for forced relocation to prison camps in Siberia - there is a lot of evidence for that but no smoking gun) HOWEVER, it mostly dates from after the war. Inter-war Poland would be a far better example for this. Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 10:40
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    @Michael sorry, but you're dead wrong. There was a lot of anti-semitism in the USSR prior to WW2. In fact it was a major component in Stalin's purges. It wasn't an official government policy maybe, but it was definitely there. The idea that the USSR was this pristine place where everyone was tolerated, there was no racial or religious hatred, is pure propaganda.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jun 27, 2015 at 20:28

As far as your first question, you can read the Nazi's complaints against the Jews in any number of books, such as "My Struggle" by Hitler.

Regarding the second question, the identification of "non-practicing" Jews, let me first of all say that jwentings answer that they were measuring their foreheads is just nuts and has no relationship to reality.

In old Germany, everyone was heavily documented and had to carry around a book with them that listed everything about them including their places of residence, their occupation and place of employment, their religion and their parentage, so it was well-known whether a particular person was Jewish or not just from their passport. If you did not have a passport, you automatically got arrested. The criteria for being a "Jew" was if any one of your 4 grandparents was Jewish. If your passport said you (and your grandparents) were baptized Christian, then as far as the authorities were concerned, you were Christian.

After 1937 (I believe, correct if wrong) the Nazis began stamping passports with a red "J" right on the first page if the person was Jewish. This simplified things for police who did not need to go leafing through the passport to determine if the person was Jewish or not.

Just to give you an idea of how anal and totalitarian they were about it, you generally needed at least three kinds of documents: the passport, basically containing your life history, a residency permit and a work permit. The residency permit described you physically and was needed to prove you had a right to live in a place. So, for example, if you had a residency permit for Coburg and were stopped in Hamburg, they would ask "What the hell are you doing here?" and you better have a good answer and documentation to back your answer up. The work permit (called an "arbeitsbuch") listed your employment history and any important details (like getting fired).

Below is a page in an "Ahnenpass", meaning an ancestor addendum to a passport listing your ancestors:


In cases of someone without papers, they would try to figure out who you were, and generally would imprison you until they knew who you were. In cases of foreigners, like Russians, they would rely on the locals to tell them who was Jewish or who was not. Also, in Russia, the Jews tended to exist in specific communities, so the Germans would assume you were Jewish if you lived in such a community and would assume you were Christian otherwise. In the case of a foreigner captured abroad, like on a road without papers, if it was a male they would see if the person was circumcised and that would be the deciding factor. If it was a female, alone and with no males (a highly unusual case), it would be at the discretion of the arresting officer to decide where to send her, but in most cases the Germans did not bother arresting random refugee females without a specific reason.

There is a funny story about Alekhine, the famous chess player. He tried to cross the militarized Polish-German border in 1937 without papers (!!!) When the police questioned him, he said "I am Alexander Alekhine, Chess Champion of the World. This is my cat. Her name is chess. I require no papers." Of course, they arrested him.

  • You recommend reading Nazi books to find out the REASONS why Jews were prosecuted? Do you imply that what is written in these books is true?
    – Alex
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 14:16
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    @Alex The question was "What historical or cultural reasons did the Nazis give for hating the Jews?" I answered that question in my first sentence. Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 14:38
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    @Alex: You would be surprised. "My Struggle" in particular is easily the single best source to be quoted whenever some Nazi apologetic claims that Hitler was "forced" into the war by the other nations or similar BS. Of course the whole world view expressed therein is bonkers, but it is "true" insofar as that it gives a very good impression of that world view.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 13:27
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    An old friend of mine, now sadly deceased, was a child of a Jewish family, brought up in Prague - in the old Czechoslovakia. Aged about 8 he, his parents and siblings were on one of the last trains out of Prague in March 1939. They initially got to Britain and ended up in New York where they settled. My friend once showed me Roman Catholic baptismal certificates made out in his name and those of his parents. These were deliberately fabricated by church officials on the normally stationery, in order to provide cover to Jews, to help them escape arrest.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 28, 2020 at 22:14

1) "What historical or cultural reasons did the Nazis give for hating the Jews?"

There were several different "official" reasons given by the Nazi regime to encourage hate towards Jews. One of Joseph Goebbels's most famous propaganda films "Der Ewige Jude" (The Eternal Jew), which claimed to be a documentary, portayed Jews as hordes of rats. This film was shown repeatedly at theaters and was required viewing at all schools.

In the film, rats were shown scurrying out of a sewer as the announcer states "as rats are the vermin of the animal kingdom, Jews are the vermin of the human race and similarly spread disease and corruption." The film then shows shots of Jewish people in the Warsaw ghettos who were deliberately chosen to be poorly dressed, dirty and who had partially toothless grins. The announcer then goes on to say Jews have the uncanny ability to change their appearance and blend into their "human hosts." A scene depicts four bearded men in traditional religious Jewish clothing, then shows them shaved and in modern business suits, while the narrator explains that only a "trained eye" can distinguish their Jewish features.

These type references and comparisons continue throughout the 62 minute film. The propaganda in this and other Nazi productions were designed to play on the existing misconceptions of many European citizens.

It was Hitler's belief from 1919 that Germany was defeated in World War 1 because the elite, and most wealthy of German--and the allied countries--society was dominated by capitalist Jews. He believed they conspired together to sell the country out (See Mein Kampf).

From Hitler's earliest political campaigns, he had made it clear that many of the economic challenges the Weimar Republic faced before the 1929 Wall Street crash were a result of the crushing debt of German war reparations (The World at War). His view was since this debt was a result of the Jewish conspiracy, it was not valid and should not be paid.

Hitler also believed that America, Britain and France were controlled by capitalist Jews. He thought that they worked together, with their only concern being for profits. He believed these Jewish conspiritors put profits ahead of anything else, including the well being of their country's own citizens.

2)"Did they ever accurately and precisely identify non-practicing Jews?"

The Nazis did not make any distinctions between practicing and non-practicing Jews. In most cases, the determination between full Jew, half Jew and quarter Jew was based solely on the person's grandparents. The only distinctions made were in the case of some German citizens who were given some limited rights as quarter Jews.

If the person in question was a practicing Jew or if three or more of their four grandparents were Jewish, they were considered a full Jew. If two grandparents were Jewish, they were a half Jew. If only one grandparent was Jewish, they were a quarter Jew.

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    So if you were 1/8th jew, you were called aryan and be safe?
    – Bregalad
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 16:01
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    @Bregalad - According to what I have read on the subject, your statement is correct. The standard for the public was based on grandparents. My guess is the average person didn't push it to gather more info than required if they met the standard for fear of uncovering too much. However, those who worked in government or for the party were held to a higher standard--so to speak-- and did need to go back further if they were aspiring to push their career to greater heights.
    – kevin king
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 22:49
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    Actually, in some cases being a practicing Jew (not surprisingly) counted against you. Something like being a half-Jew but not practicing was much better than half-Jewish and attending services. Being married to an "aryan" was also extremely helpful -- so "race" was important but not sole factor. Known Jews (racially) could overcome this by being extremely useful (hence honorary aryan classification and also special classification as true aryans in rare cases). How such Jews would have been treated in a post nazi victory world is a question.
    – Jeff
    Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 17:38

How they identified Jews:

The separation between State and religion was still incomplete in Weimar Germany. To the point, the register of newborns was a task the State delegated to the various religious denominations.

If your parents were Lutherans, they would register you at the Lutheran Church, and you would be by definition a Lutheran, until you formally converted to other religion. Even if you didn't believe in God, never went to the Church, etc.

The same went for Jews. A Jew was a person registered at the Synagogue. Thus the Nazis didn't need to question you about your religious beliefs or verify your attendance to religious services: if you were registered as a Jew, you were a Jew. Of course, they then mixed that with their racialist superstitions, and decided that conversions from Judaism to other religions were invalid, and that if you had parents and grandparents registered as Jews, you were a Jew, even if you happened to be registered as Lutheran or Catholic.

What reasons they gave for persecution:

A mix of conspiratory views about Jews (they control all the banks, and the banks control all governments, which in turn control all the people) and racialist pseudo-science(1), according to which the cultural characteristics of the Jews were in fact biological, so that education or re-education could not erase the "Jewish" nature of an individual who was "racially" Jewish.

Note: (1) To us, now, it is quite clear that views of that kind are pseudo-scientific. At the time, they had scientific prestige, and were taught as scientific anthropology.

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    +1, that's an important point, but why use “still” in the first sentence? The Federal Republic of Germany still keeps track of people's religion and collect a tax on the churches' behalf. You can free yourself of this observation by declaring that you left the relevant church (for a fee) but by default, churches in the system get to define who is a member or not.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 20:27