Jewish Owned Businesses in Nazi Berlin — an introduction

After five years of work, the data collected by the research team shows that in 1933 some 7,000 businesses registered in the commercial register were identified as Jewish — i. e. owned or run by businesspeople that were Jewish and/or that were persecuted as being Jewish.

Samples gave evidence that only two-thirds of all the businesses were actually identified. Therefore, we can assume that there were around 10,000 Jewish owned businesses in Berlin in the Handelsregister. However, since the majority of commercial enterprises were not listed in the register, the figure of 10,000 does not reflect the total number. A study by the Berlin Statistical Office in 1933 put the total of nonagricultural commercial establishments at 275,000, suggesting that less than one-sixth of all commercial enterprises were registered. Yet, even if we assume that every fifth Jewish business was officially registered, that still leaves around 50,000 Jewish owned companies in the German capital in 1933.


Avraham Barkai (s. A.) estimated that in 1933 there were around one hundred thousand Jewish businesses in Germany. If that is correct, it would mean around half of alls Jewish owned businesses were in Berlin.


However, the large number of businesses in the capital should not necessarily be interpreted as a sign of economic strength or dominance but as a symptom of economic desperation. The steep increase in the number of small sole-proprietor businesses was, on the one hand, a result of the Great Depression and, on the other, of anti-Semitic ostracization, attacks, and pickets elsewhere. Nevertheless, there was also a wealth of first-rate mid-sized companies that had been in the Berlin commercial register for decades and had played a formative role in the city’s economic development. While there was an especially strong Jewish presence in traditional economic sectors such as textiles and clothing, leather and shoemaking, tobacco, and banks and insurance companies, Jewish business owners could in fact be found in every sector. Although attacks on Jews and their businesses were nothing new, the destruction of Jewish business began to take a systematic and sinister turn in 1933. Bureaucratic and violent antisemitic measures went hand in hand, to search, mark and destroy.

The entries of the database show that Jewish business people managed to fend off the attacks for a remarkably long time. This was due to four factors:

Firstly, Jewish economic assistance institutions had been established in Berlin as early as the 1920s. Based on its experience, the Jewish community was able to react rapidly to the changing circumstances and, in March 1933, founded the Central Office for Jewish Economic Assistance, which served as a blueprint for similar organizations all over Germany. The economic assistance services of the Jewish community and the Reich Association of Jews in Germany were supported by numerous petitions submitted by the likes of the Central Association for German Citizens of the Jewish Faith. These petitions were somewhat successful up until 1935.

Secondly, the city itself afforded Jewish businesspeople some scope to assert themselves in ways that proved effective for individuals. The result was a plethora of complaints and petitions to courts and authorities. With almost a quarter of Jews in Berlin not holding German citizenship, those affected by persecution were well placed to enlist consular support because the Reich capital was home to all embassies and diplomatic representations. Changes to business and legal form were undertaken in order to avert anti-Semitic attacks, blockades and embargos. Structural adjustment through the appointment of non-Jewish partners — partly with rules of succession in mind — were also common. What’s more, although most businesses did not aim to completely reposition themselves, almost all of them adapted the range of their services and products to the changing circumstances. Some businesses sought to boost their overseas ties and bolster their exports in order to obtain foreign currency. Since foreign currency was in short supply, these businesses remained relatively protected until late 1938.

Thirdly, the relatively constant support of non-Jewish customers until 1938, especially in the inner-city highstreets, also helped Jewish businesses remain afloat. Bystanders were potential customers and their behaviour could ultimately make or break a Jewish business. Even window shopping amounted to a statement of inclusion or exclusion within the so-called “Volksgemeinschaft”, a heavily- propagated “people’s community”, that was defined along racist lines.

The fact that the international press was concentrated in the German capital served as a fourth factor protecting Jewish businesses—as long as the Nazi regime needed relatively stable trade relations and cared about the world’s opinion. Given the many opportunities it offered to make a living, the German capital — seen as the heart of darkness from afar — served as a haven of refuge for Jewish businesspeople with some one thousand new Jewish businesses entered in the commercial register between 1933 and 1938. The consequences of persecution in rural areas could be felt in almost all major cities with sizeable Jewish populations. The trend had begun to subside in Breslau (Wrocław) and Frankfurt by the mid-1930s, but Berlin remained a major destination as a place of refuge, even absorbing businesses from other large cities after 1935/36.

The Nazi authorities responded with extreme violence to the fact that Jewish businesspeople fought back against the destruction of their livelihoods. Because the number of Jewish-owned businesses had hardly shrunk in his city, Goebbels (Gauleiter for Berlin) pushed for a violent “solution” in 1938. In this respect the pogrom — still often referred to as “Kristallnacht” — is cynically connected to the success Jewish business people had in asserting themselves against the ongoing process of destruction of their livelihoods. Evidence shows that the police and Gestapo had great difficulty in putting a stop to pillaging in Berlin and that, despite the November Pogrom having started on the 9th, it was still continuing on 12 November 1938 — the day, the consequences of the devastation were discussed in the Ministry of Aviation. The promise of spoils was most certainly a determining factor in the extraordinary aggression displayed by members of the public against their Jewish neighbours — including many who previously had no hand in the destruction of Jewish commercial activity. Against this backdrop, Berlin’s Gau economic adviser developed an accelerated procedure for transferring possession of Jewish businesses in mid-November 1938, leading some to argue that the culmination of the destruction of Jewish commercial activity actually occurred after the pogrom.

Despite the havoc wreaked and the extensive bans, Jewish business evidently continued to operate in Berlin even after 1939. Its destruction in the Reich capital lasted well into the Second World War and overlapped with the genocide. Because the Holocaust was based on division of labor and involved bureaucracy, it is also reflected in the commercial register files. This makes tragically clear that the destruction of Jews’ economic existence — as Raul Hilberg concluded more than fifty years ago — was an integral part of the process of their persecution and murder.

Christoph Kreutzmüller

Edited and abridged by Bethan Griffiths


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