On March 20, 1933, efforts got under way in both Poland and the United States to initiate economic boycotts of Nazi Germany. Within several years, boycott movements had been started by Jewish communities – although they were not limited to them – in a number of countries around the world.
Violence against Germany’s Jews began right after the Reichstag election of March 5, 1933, when a Nazi victory allowed Adolf Hitler, who had become chancellor on January 30, to consolidate his power. Various organs of the National Socialist party undertook to harass Jews across the country – boycotting their businesses, attacking presumed Jews in the streets, even breaking into and searching Jews’ homes.
News of the abuse quickly spread around the world, and Jewish organizations appealed to the new German government to come down hard on those who were doing the attacking. The response of Hermann Goering that, “I shall employ the police, and without mercy, wherever German people are hurt, but I refuse to turn the police into a guard for Jewish stores,” was a typical response, as well a harbinger of things to come.
On March 20, 1933, the Jewish community of Vilna, Poland, announced a boycott of German products to protest the abuse; within a week, Warsaw’s organized community joined in. Eventually, the Polish boycott went nationwide, but after Poland and Germany signed a mutual nonaggression pact – which was supposed to be valid for 10 years – in early 1934, the Poles were obligated to halt the boycott.
The fact that Germany insisted on an end to the Polish boycott as part of that agreement is evidence of how seriously the Nazis took the idea of economic boycott. They were in the midst of rebuilding their economy, and they were preparing for war. When one considers the almost supernatural powers that the Nazis ascribed to Jewish economic interests, one can more easily understand the regime’s fear.
Also on March 20, in New York, the American Jewish Congress organized a meeting to discuss economic action by U.S. Jewry, with J. George Freedman of the Jewish War Veterans group proposing a boycott. So large was the turnout to the meeting at the Astor Hotel that 1,000 were reportedly turned away, and another conference was called for later in the month at Madison Square Garden.
While boycotts had also been organized by the end of March in France, Romania, Yugoslavia, Egypt, Greece, Latvia, Morocco and in several Latin American countries (in Britain, the movement began only in 1935), Jews were far from united in supporting this economic tool. At the time, the Zionist movement in Palestine was negotiating the Transfer Agreement with Germany, an arrangement that made it possible for German Jews to emigrate without having to leave the country penniless. They would buy German goods and equipment for export to the Yishuv, and be reimbursed for their outlays upon arrival in Palestine. One of the main reasons the Germans were willing to sign the agreement – in the summer of 1933 – was their hope of breaking the boycott movement.
Another German measure meant to fight Jewish boycotts was a one-day counter-boycott, on April 1, of all Jewish-owned businesses in Germany, enforced by the police. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels threatened to keep the boycott going if the anti-German boycotts were not dropped, and to maintain it, he said, “until German Jewry has been annihilated.”
In the end, of course, the boycotts of Germany did not stop the harassment of Jews there, nor did they prevent the horrors to come that were directed at the Jews of all the occupied countries. But they do merit remembering, if only as a corrective to the common perception that Western Jewry was naïve about Hitler, and little disposed to act on behalf of their brethren in Germany.
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