Yoav Sapir
Yoav Sapir

Mixed Marriages in Nazi Germany

In February 1945 the Nazis had almost lost the war and were rapidly losing control – and their ability to deport people to the camps. Yet there were still Jews in German cities, predominantly in Berlin. Most of them – about 4,000 in Berlin – were married to “Aryan” spouses. It was this “mixed marriage” that kept them alive so long, yet now the Nazis wanted to get them too, the last group of Jews still legally living in Germany, before it’s too late.

You might be wondering why in 1945, after the Nazis had been in power for 12 years, there were still mixed marriages of Jews and Germans. Although the Nazis made such marriages illegal in 1935, as a part of the so-called Nuremberg Laws, that new legislation only prohibited future marriages. It is very rare that new laws would apply retroactively, so even this prohibition of mixed marriages did not apply to already married couples. After all, Germany was thinking of itself as an utmost lawful country, and the Nazis were very keen to keep this image. Retroactively dissolving marriages and breaking up families that had been perfectly legal before, would have been quite disastrous for that image. The Nazis therefore resorted to other means. In order to reduce the already existing marriages, they began to put a lot of pressure on the German spouses to divorce their Jewish partners, for example by making it quite impossible for Germans in mixed marriages to keep their jobs.

Let’s look at the numbers: In 1933, when the Nazis assumed power, there were about 35,000 mixed marriages in Germany. By 1939 there were about 20,000. The substantial reduction did not result just from divorce, but also from natural death and migration (the famous German novelist Thomas Mann, for example, left Germany with his wife, who became Lutheran, but was born Jewish). After 1939, the numbers continued to drop: about 16,000 in 1942 and about 12,000 at the end of 1944, shortly before the last deportations. By then, about half of those couples were living in Berlin.

04 Thomas and Katia Mann
Thomas and Katia Mann (née Pringsheim); (public domain)

Unlike the Manns, in most cases those were Jewish men married to German women. Not because more German men filed for divorce than German women (quite the contrary), but because there were simply many more couples like that to begin with than the other way around. Since the introduction of civil marriage in Germany in 1875, three out of four mixed couples consisted of a Jewish man and a German woman.

Following crystal night on November 9th 1938, the Nazis began to differentiate between “privileged” and “unprivileged” marriages, depending on whether or not the children were raised Jewish. If the couple had no children, it depended on whether the husband was Jewish or the wife. Only in the latter case the marriage was considered “privileged”.

For the Jewish partner, being privileged meant a lot. Unlike other Jews, the privileged ones were not forced to wear the Jewish star as of 1941. And they were not included in the deportations until the very end of the war. This changed, however, as soon as the “Aryan” partner was no longer alive. Many of the mixed couples that were still in Germany were seniors (it was much easier for young adults to get visas to other countries and leave Germany). But not only natural reasons played a role: The air raids were just as important, and some mixed marriages ended when the German husband died as a soldier.

By the time the Nazis got around to those Jews, Germany was collapsing. Many cities had already been bombed, countless people “dehoused” and on the move. Especially in the big cities, where mixed couples usually lived, the local authorities had often lost control. The scholar Victor Klemperer, who had been able to survive so long thanks to his “Aryan” wife Eva, was saved – as absurd as it might sound – by the well-known air raids on Dresden. Having survived the massive destruction of their own city, the couple seized the opportunity and escaped under false identity.

Shortly put, the general chaos made it very difficult for the Nazis to carry out these last deportations. The plan to murder Germany’s last Jews was not fulfilled. And so, fortunately, most “privileged” Jews survived – about 10,000 in Germany, nearly half of them in Berlin.

About the Author
Yoav Sapir is a guide with Berlin Jewish Tours. He studied German-Jewish history in Jerusalem, Vienna, Heidelberg and Berlin.
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