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We've Seen "Wars on the Homeless" Before: In Nazi Germany


May 28, 2018
Terry Messman / The Street Spirit

Nazi Germany's attempt to eliminate its entire Jewish population is remembered and widely condemned. Less widely remembered are the Third Reich's campaigns to purge gay and lesbian people, political leftists, Polish people, the Sinti and Roma (Gypsy) populations, and the physically and mentally disabled. But in a striking and tragic omission, a strange sort of historical amnesia has clouded our memory of this criminal regime's terrible attacks on the homeless, the jobless, beggars, and vagrants.

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Nazi Germany's Final Solution for the Homeless
Terry Messman / The Street Spirit

Nazi Germany's attempt to eliminate its entire Jewish population is remembered and widely condemned as an atrocity of cataclysmic proportions. Less widely remembered, perhaps, but still within the range of information readily available to most people, are the Third Reich's campaigns to purge gay and lesbian people, political leftists, Polish people, the Sinti and Roma (Gypsy) populations, and physically and mentally disabled people.

But in a striking and tragic omission, a strange sort of historical amnesia has clouded our memory of this criminal regime's terrible attacks on the homeless, the jobless, beggars, and vagrants. Few commentators today condemn or even mention Nazi Germany's well-organized and extremely brutal repression of homeless people, the "work-shy," and so-called "asocial" people living on the streets.

The Nazi regime is seen by nearly all people as an everlasting warning of the evils of officially sanctioned racism, dictatorship, police-state surveillance, and genocide. But it is nowhere nearly as well understood that Nazi Germany also offers our society a disturbing warning against the practice of persecuting the homeless, the jobless, panhandlers, and alcoholics.

The Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals established the crucial concept of "crimes against humanity," and taught us that individuals have the duty to resist unjust orders from government officials. But what has been lost or forgotten is that crimes against homeless people were a significant part of the Nazi regime's "crimes against humanity."

US society must relearn this forgotten lesson from the Holocaust: Never again should citizens of any country permit their government to persecute the homeless and disabled.

Since this lesson has nearly been erased from our historical memory, it is important to look anew at the victims of the Nazi Poor Laws and to reconsider, in that light, the widespread practice of utilizing police-state tactics to criminalize homeless people all across America.

Black Triangles for 'Asocial'
Nazi Germany viciously purged members of the lower economic classes categorized as "asocial," and marked them with black triangles in the concentration camps.

"Persons whom the Nazis designated 'asocial,' and who wore black triangles in the concentration camps are still not recognized as having been victims of Nazi persecution," according to authors Michael Burleigh of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Wolfgang Wippermann of the Freie Universität in Berlin.

Their book analyzing the police-state ideology and racism of Nazi Germany, entitled The Racial State: Germany, 1933-1945, devotes an entire section to the systematic attempt to purge the Third Reich of the homeless poor, the mentally disabled, the unemployed, vagabonds and substance abusers.

Purging the Poor
Persecution of the homeless and jobless was part of the very foundation of Nazi Germany. Shortly after Hitler's National Socialists came to power in 1933, they launched police raids against beggars and vagrants in September, 1933.

In a chilling echo of the rationale used by US mayors and city councils today to justify police sweeps of the homeless, the Nazis justified the raids against beggars as needed to "present an image of a 'cleaner' Germany to foreigners and to help channel charitable donations into worthwhile causes." (The Racial State: Germany, p. 168.)

Nazis and Economic Cleansing
The following guidelines for this purge of the poor were issued by Nazi Germany's Ministry of Propaganda:
"The psychological importance of a planned campaign against the nuisance of begging should not be underestimated. Beggars often force their poverty upon people in the most repulsive way for their own selfish purposes.

If this sight disappears from the view of foreigners as well, the result will be a definite feeling of relief and liberation. People will feel that things are becoming more stable again, and that the economy is improving once more. A successful action against the nuisance of begging can have important propaganda benefits for the 'struggle against cold and hunger.'

Once the land has been freed of the nuisance of beggars, we can justifiably appeal to the propertied classes to give all the more generously for the Winter Aid Programme now being set in motion by the State and the Party."
(The Racial State: Germany, pp. 169-170.)

This justification for anti-begging campaigns is disturbingly similar to the defense of anti-homeless laws offered by the Market Street Association in San Francisco, which has worked with Supervisor Amos Brown to drive homeless people out of United Nations Plaza, and also by the Telegraph Area Association, which has worked with Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean to "cleanse" Telegraph Avenue of street people.

In San Francisco and Berkeley, merchants and city officials say that cleansing the downtown of street people will make the city more attractive to tourists; and those trying to ban the poor from commercial districts say that once beggars are cleared out, they will support charitable services for the "worthy" homeless.

This does not mean that modern-day America is preparing genocidal purges of the poor. It simply means that a close reading of the rationale behind the Poor Laws of Nazi Germany reveals dismaying similarities with the excuses offered for America's poor laws today.

100,000 Beggars Arrested
The immediate result of the initial Nazi raids on street people was that as many as 100,000 vagrants and beggars were taken into "protective custody." But, according to Burleigh and Wippermann, most were shortly set free, for the Nazis had not come up with enough prisons to house them.

Just as happens in the aftermath of much-hyped police sweeps in America, after the first Nazi raids, "the homeless quickly filtered back to the streets and doss-houses, making a nonsense of the government's statistical claims to have diminished the number of vagrants." (The Racial State: Germany, p. 170.)

At the same time, German welfare authorities made applying for benefits more difficult and began subjecting the homeless in particular to tighter restrictions. In a disquieting development that one hesitates to describe for fear of inspiring immediate imitation by the US welfare bureaucracy, National Socialism differentiated between the "worthy poor" and the "unworthy poor" with a vengeance. Those classed as "orderly wanderers" were given a Vagrants' Registration Book which marked their stays at government-approved shelters.

"Disorderly wanderers," on the other hand, could be jailed or sentenced to forced labor programs. This system made it simple for the welfare authorities to refuse to issue permits to vagrant women, thus denying them benefits en masse, and to confiscate the registration books of those categorized as "unfit to wander."

Within a few short months of the first raids, the Nazis' antipathy towards the homeless sharply intensified. In 1933, according to Burleigh and Wippermann, the Hamburg Homelessness and Vagrancy Department recommended that:
"Beggars registered as inhabitants of other towns must be ruthlessly removed by the police for a lengthy period into a concentration camp as far away as possible from Hamburg." (The Racial State, p.170.)

In a tragicomic parallel to today's obsession with reducing the welfare rolls by manipulating statistics and penalizing recipients, the Hamburg Homelessness Department sent single male recipients to a forced labor camp 50 miles out of town where they had to work eight hours a day and sleep in mass dormitories. Those who refused were classified as "work-shy" and had their benefits cut off.

It hardly needs mentioning that countless US municipalities are now forcing welfare recipients into the indentured servitude known as workfare, and, true to form, those who refuse these forced labor assignments have their benefits terminated.

Police crackdowns on the poor were justified as an inseparable component of the National Socialists' campaigns to eliminate from society persons believed to be genetically prone to "asocial" and "criminal" tendencies, and to prevent them from reproducing by imprisonment, forcible sterilization, or liquidation.

According to Burleigh and Wippermann, Germany's Hereditary Health Court broadened the scope of a pre-existing, and barbarous, law that permitted forced sterilization of "feeble-minded" individuals; the Nazis claimed that those who deviated from the "healthy instincts" of the German people with regard to social or sexual norms could be sterilized for "social feeble-mindedness."

Two Strikes and You're Out
This analysis enabled the Nazis to equate homelessness, long-term unemployment, begging, and vagrancy with criminality; at the same time, the Law against Dangerous Habitual Criminals of 1933 gave police the power of unlimited imprisonment ("preventive detention") against people with two or more criminal convictions -- two strikes and you're out. Unbelievably, the class of "disorderly wanderers" fell under this harsh provision.

In 1937, after SS leader Heinrich Himmler also became Chief of the German Police, the police were given the power to take into "preventive custody" -- and ship off to concentration camps -- people considered to be "asocial," even if they had never been charged with a criminal offense. It was now the most serious crime, punishable by the most grim sanctions, simply to be someone who "will not adapt to the community." As defined by the Third Reich the "asocial" were:

"Persons who through minor, but repeated, infractions of the law demonstrate that they will not adapt themselves to the natural discipline of a National Socialist state, e.g., beggars, tramps, (Gypsies), whores, alcoholics with contagious diseases, particularly sexually transmitted disease, who evade the measures taken by the public health authorities."

Another category of the asocial consisted of the "work-shy," persons "against whom it can be proved that on two occasions they have turned down jobs offered to them without reasonable grounds, or who, having taken on a job, have given it up again after a short while without a valid reason." (The Racial State, p. 173.)

Those "asocial" beggars and jobless vagrants rounded up in the Gestapo's first wave of arrests in April, 1938, were sent to the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp. Then, on June 13, 1938, the German police conducted massive raids on overnight shelters, poorhouses and hostels; these nationwide arrests were called the "Reich Campaign Against the Work Shy." As many as 11,000 jobless males were hauled off to Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen.

Slave Labor for the Homeless
Once the "work-shy" were incarcerated in concentration camps, they were sentenced to work in the forced labor industries run by the SS. As SS-Oberführer Ulrich Greifelt wrote:
"Simultaneously the Criminal Police took on tramps, beggars, Gypsies, and pimps, and finally those who refused to pay maintenance. More than 10,000 of these asocial forces are currently undertaking a labour training cure in the concentration camps, which are admirably suited for this purpose." (p. 175.)

Burleigh and Wippermann explain that this "cure" was intended to be a final solution, as poor people in ill health were given such hard labor that large numbers of the "asocial" inmates of Buchenwald perished. The arrests of the unemployed "were designed to terrify those not arrested -- and indeed the working population as a whole -- into renewed efforts on behalf of the economy." (p. 176.)

The stage was now set for the outright elimination of vagrants, beggars, and the homeless poor. On September 18, 1942, SS leader and Gestapo Chief Himmler and Reich Minister of Justice Otto Thierack declared their readiness to send all "asocial elements" to the SS "for extermination through labor."

As always, those singled out for harshest treatment under this new policy included "Jews, Gypsies, Russians, and Ukrainians," for the Nazis were always obsessed with carrying out their racist agenda, no matter the social policy under consideration.

In the bizarre Orwellian terminology of National Socialism, the regime attempted to redefine citizens who were jobless, homeless, or panhandlers as "Community Aliens." Families on welfare, the unemployed, vagrants, and even those too sick to work were all to be redefined as "Community Aliens" who must be eliminated altogether because they were unproductive drains on German society.

Nazi Germany's pogrom against the poor conveys a clear warning for our society today: It is a very short distance between redefining homeless people as welfare parasites, bums, and drunks, and taking that final, fateful leap into declaring them "Community Aliens."

When our society began to insinuate that homeless people are outcasts, it became inevitable that they would be scapegoated and criminalized. Street people and welfare recipients are now blamed for the nation's economic woes and urban decay, and driven out of mainstream society.

We should be wary indeed of invoking hyperbolic comparisons with Nazi Germany so as not to dishonor and trivialize the enormous human suffering endured by the victims of the Holocaust. It is overly simplistic to equate the fate of the poor and homeless in America with their counterparts in Nazi Germany.

In America, the homeless poor are reviled by city officials who use what can only be called "hate speech" to attack them. They are driven out of business districts and forcibly relocated. They are harassed, fined, arrested, and occasionally beaten by police. Their encampments are destroyed, and their belongings are confiscated in a lawless manner by agents of the law. They are left to suffer and die by the thousands in the wealthiest country on earth. This is an undeniable betrayal of their human rights, and an intolerable affront to the conscience.

In Nazi Germany, by comparison, the homeless were rounded up in mass arrests and sent to concentration camps to face long-term incarceration, slave-labor, and probable death through exhaustion or execution. We must not forget this huge difference in the severity of penalties.

But there is something else we must never forget. It must be said without equivocation: The rationale given by city councils and chambers of commerce for laws banning the poor in America have frightening similarities with the excuses offered by National Socialist officials for the anti-poor laws of the Third Reich.

Americans should look long and hard at the similarities between anti-homeless laws in this country and the Nazi Poor Laws -- and then abandon efforts to criminalize people for sleeping in public, panhandling, vagrancy, sitting on sidewalks, et al.

If the fate of homeless people in the United States is not nearly as harsh as it was in Nazi Germany, the major difference is in the severity of the sentences imposed under the poor laws; the reasons given by government officials for enforcing these laws are distressingly similar.

The parallels are there for anyone with the eyes to see. US politicians have stigmatized unwed mothers, families on welfare, and the unemployed as being unproductive burdens on society. A massive effort is under way to sweep the visibly poor off the streets as unproductive forms of urban blight who must be "cleansed" from "decent" society.

Homeless people are no longer reminders of our nation's unmet challenge to provide housing, food, medical care and employment to all. Rather, they are considered "asocial" and "work-shy" nuisances who must be driven away so society can function without their disorderly presence.

Just as in Germany, the poor in America are stereotyped as mentally deranged and morally suspect, vilified as drug addicts and jobless parasites.

The discriminatory laws passed in scores of US cities to banish homeless people are civil rights violations that would be illegal if applied to any other minority. Before our government further expands this repression, it is imperative to remember the history of another nation that unleashed a barrage of laws and police raids against the "asocial" poor -- and vow that it will never happen again.

All quotations from The Racial State: Germany, 1933-1945, by Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, Copyright Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Published with the permission of the author and the
Street Spirit

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