What a 1943 Protest Against the Nazis Teaches Us About Organizing to Defeat Trump’s Agenda

Rosenstrasse commemorative sculpture by Ingeborg Hunzinger

President-elect Donald Trump is bringing along with him a Senate and Congress dominated by Republican majorities with strong proto-fascist elements. Many people are understandably distraught considering the threats to immigrants, LGBT people, Muslims, women’s reproductive rights, and the implications for poor and marginalized Black communities. Yet while it’s true we are facing an incredibly difficult and dangerous situation, we should not succumb to resignation and despair. History shows us that even the most nefarious and brutal regimes can be successfully defied.

In early 1943 a group of unarmed German women organized what has come to be known as the Rosenstrasse protest. It was Nazi Germany’s only successful protest movement to stop the deportation and murder of Jewish people, namely their husbands and sons who had been arrested and slated for deportation. The Rosenstrasse protest strongly contradicts those who claim that there was nothing privileged German citizens could have done to stop Nazi atrocities. It reveals to us who live in a much more free and open society that the barriers to defending the threatened and marginalized are mostly in our minds. It also reveals the power that can be unleashed when the personal becomes political.

The protest, overwhelming led by women, was extraordinary, but before we examine it we should view it in context. After the passing of the 1935 Nuremburg Laws, marriage between “Aryans” (referred to here as non-Jewish) and Jews was prohibited and referred to as “race defilement”. Privileged Germans who entered into a sexual relationship with a person categorized as Jewish faced arrest and possible confinement in a concentration camp. Those who were already married to Jews at the time of the passing of the Nuremburg laws were subjected to intense pressure to divorce their spouses. Some did, but many did not. It is difficult to overstate how extreme anti-Jewish propaganda became after the passing of the Nuremburg Laws, yet this atmosphere of intense antisemitism had actually begun in 1933 when Hitler officially took power. Those who chose to remain married to their Jewish spouses did so despite the threat of social exclusion and increased Gestapo (secret police) scrutiny. The situation for those in “mixed marriages” deteriorated rapidly after the beginning of WWII. Some couples were stripped of their property and even their homes and were forced to move into “Jew houses,” a kind of miniature ghetto. Those “mixed” couples without baptized Christian children were especially vulnerable to harassment by the Gestapo; Jewish people in “mixed” marriages not privileged by having Christian children were forced to wear the yellow star and display it on their place of residence.

By late 1941 the first round-ups and deportations of German Jews had begun, yet those married to non-Jews were exempt — at least until February of 1943 when Nazi leaders decided once and for all to rid the capital city of Berlin of all of its Jewish residents. 10,000 people were arrested including around 2,000 men who were in “mixed” marriages or the product of those marriages. They were separated from the others and held in abandoned factory buildings at Rosenstrasse 2–4. When the wives and mothers of these men discovered where they were being detained, they went to the buildings and demanded their release. They came in small groups at first, but the crowd soon grew to hundreds and then, as some historians claim, into the thousands. As the crowd grew larger and more vocal, guards were sent out to set up machine guns which were pointed at the crowd. Despite threats of arrest and murder, protesters remained in the freezing cold both day and night for a full week until finally the government gave in to their demands and released the detainees.

Memorial commemorating the Rosenstrasse protest on the street where it took place

At the time of the Rosentrasse protest the Nazi regime was still very powerful. The regime held a stranglehold grip on the German public by way of the Gestapo and an extensive network of civilian informants, yet like all states it was very nervous about civil unrest. The thousands of non-Jewish women and their social and familial connections posed a threat to order; the international media had become aware of the protest, and there was a danger that it could spread to other German cities and towns. Hitler could not spare soldiers from two war fronts to contain domestic civil unrest. Also, a messy situation in the capital city of Berlin would have made the regime seem weak. The men being held at Rosenstrasse were released and allowed to return home, but the 8,000 other Jewish people who had been rounded up were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where most of them were murdered.

Yet the protest may have saved more than just the lives of these 2,000 men. According to historian Nathan Stoltzfus, by the end of the war there were 13,217 registered Jewish people living in Germany. 12,987 of these were married to non-Jews. We can see that around 98% of German Jews who survived the war did so because of the protection offered by intermarriage. Had the Rosenstrasse protest never happened, the action in Berlin would very likely have become official policy and the “mixed” marriages across the rest of the country would have been broken up and the Jewish partners sent to their deaths. The protest in Berlin may have also saved the life of Victor Klemperer, the renowned Dresden professor married to a non-Jew. His shocking and mesmerizing diaries chronicle his life under the Nazis and his escape from the Dresden bombing, and we very likely have the Rosenstrasse protest to thank for the fact that his writings are available to the world today.

So, what lessons can we learn from the Rosenstrasse protest and how can we apply them to our current situation, whether it’s fighting proto-fascism in the U.S., France, the UK, or wherever else the far-right is attempting to consolidate its power? First, we should recognize how the Rosenstrasse protesters were able to leverage their privilege as valued “Aryan” citizens. Understanding how a racial hierarchy functions is the first step towards using it to our advantage along the path to eventual abolition. Here in the U.S., despite the fact that our country is very clearly founded upon white supremacy, genocide, and exclusion of ethnic minorities, there are still far too many people in denial or committed to downplaying the implications of this. White people are valued more in this society, and for this reason white people must put themselves on the front lines of any protests against Trump or the policies of the right wing proto-fascist government. People who are already marginalized and usually targeted should not be the ones forced to risk their safety and livelihoods. The white-dominated mainstream media is also more likely to cover a protest or an action if white people are involved, and white privilege gives allies and conspirators access to places and resources denied to most people of color. Of course the eventual goal should be to abolish the racial caste system, but in the mean time whiteness should be used strategically and not merely maligned or bemoaned.

Perhaps most importantly, the Rosenstrasse protest shows us that effective resistance is born from emotional connections and empathy. To face the machine guns and the threats of one of the most vicious regimes to ever grace the Earth took more than courage, it took an understanding that the endangered person cast as “the other” was in fact not disposable, not murder-able, not inferior, and worth fighting for. We must prioritize and cultivate institutions and social and cultural programs that foster humanism and the recognition of the inherent worth of all people regardless of ethnicity, gender or socio-economic status. Our art, our politics, our praxis, and our activism must foster the development of the kind of empathetic connections that will remove the artificial barriers between “us” and “them”. Once these barriers are removed and apathy defeated, it will be much easier to convince people to make sacrifices for those targeted by state violence.

The Rosenstrasse protest reminds us of the strategic importance of time and place. Instead of marching through the streets or congregating at the Reichstag, the protesters made the logical choice of gathering at the actual place where the injustice was happening. Once there, they kept the pressure on consistently over days until their demands were met.

The fact that the women who gathered at Rosenstrasse were unarmed is also an important point to consider. In this case, nonviolence worked precisely because there were no other options and because a nonviolent approach was the most strategic. However, we should remember that the Nazis were ultimately defeated by both the Russian and U.S. military and armed partisans who worked to rescue civilians and undermine the effectiveness of the Wehrmacht.

Lastly, while the protest may have been nonviolent, it was not necessarily peaceful, as this quote from Nathan Stoltzfus shows:

The square, according to one witness, “was crammed with people, and the demanding, accusing cries of the women rose above the noise of the traffic like passionate avowals of a love strengthened by the bitterness of life.” One woman described her feeling as a protester on the street as one of incredible solidarity with those sharing her fate. Normally people were afraid to show dissent, fearing denunciation, but on the street they knew they were among friends, because they were risking death together. A Gestapo man who no doubt would have heartlessly done his part to deport the Jews imprisoned in the Rosenstraße was so impressed by the people on the streets that, holding up his hands in a victory clasp of solidarity with a Jew about to be released, he pronounced proudly: “You will be released, your relatives protested for you. That is German loyalty.”
“One day the situation in front of the collecting center came to a head,” a witness reported. “The SS trained machine guns on us: ‘If you don’t go now, we’ll shoot.’ But by now we couldn’t care less. We screamed ‘you murderers!’ and everything else. We bellowed. We thought that now, at last, we would be shot. Behind the machine guns a man shouted something; maybe he gave a command. I didn’t hear it, it was drowned out. But then they cleared out and the only sound was silence. That was the day it was so cold that the tears froze on my face.”