The history of the tattoo, while explored in various contexts – especially non-European ones apparently – hasn’t been really well explored for Nazi Germany. However, what little scholarship there is, suggests something that is not very surprising: The Nazis weren’t fans of tattoos except those that fulfilled a clear functionality like the SS blood type tattoos or the camp tattoos.
It seems there have been at least local laws in Germany heavily regulating tattoos or more specifically the public showing of tattoos since before the Nazis. The literature often mentions a 1911 prohibition of “fully tattooed women in public” though it cannot be verified whether that was a local or national law. What little information there is, seems to suggest that it was local since there is at least one case of a woman in Berlin being escorted out of a bar because of her tattoos. That was Maria Finke, wife of Kuddi Finke, one of Germany’s first prominent tattoo artists, who had tattooed his wife on her whole body.
Throughout the 1920s both tattooing as well as showing tattoos (a source of income for circus performers of the “freak show” variety) seems to have become more and more regulated in Germany. The most famous example of this is the Bracht’sche Erlass (Bracht’s Decree) of 1932 in Prussia. Franz Bracht was the vice-Reichcommissar and commissar of the interior in Prussia after chancellor von Papen had effectively dissolved the SPD lead Prussian government in the so-called Preussenschlag and transferred its powers to the Reich government.
Bracht did many things during his time, both as vice commissar and later minister of the interior under Schleicher but one of them was to completely outlaw the showing of tattoos in public; a practice adopted shortly after in all of Germany, meaning that no one could show their tattoos in public and people could especially not earn a living from that.
This practice continued under the Nazis. Stephan Oettermann, a German cultural historian, mentions in his book Zeichen auf der Haut. Die Geschichte der Tätowierung in Europa. (Signs on Skin. A History of Tattoos in Europe) that the Nazis indeed outlawed both showing tattoos in public as well as tattooing itself and that having a tattoo was reason enough to get a person arrested and send to a concentration camp.
In 1938 when the police initiated the “Aktion Arbeitsscheu Reich” (Action Work Shy Reich) during which people whom the Nazis called “asocial” were arrested in large numbers, one directive for the police about who to arrest reads:
“The police has to take action against all forms of showmanship, especially the kind that violates the healthy people’s feelings (gesundes volksempfinden). This includes but is not is not limited to showmen of abnormal body (fish men, bird men, animal men and so forth but also tattoos. (…) If bodily health of those individuals allows they are to be brought to a mental facility”.
Furthermore, is the fact that several well-known German tattoo artists were imprisoned in concentration camps, namely Wilhelm “Willi” E. Blumberg and Albert Heinze, two of the first professional tattoo artists in Germany. They too were swept up in “anti-social” actions though it is likely that the Nazis saw additional reasons to them being tattooed for such an action. Traditionally, tattoos at that point in time were associated with either people whom the Nazis deemed anti-social or criminal (like actual criminals as well as people of low socio-economomic stratas) and sailors but on the latter unfortunately cannot be found much pertinent information.
Two exceptions were apparently made where tattoos fulfilled a practical function: Waffen-SS soldiers had bloodgroup tattoos and, of course, Auschwitz prisoners had their numbers tattooed. With Waffen-SS soldiers little information survives on how this practice started but the function was pretty obvious: to make medical aid easier.
In the camps, the practice started once in 1941 some camps and in particular Auschwitz had a large influx of former Soviet POWs. Originally, the prisoner numbers were sewn into clothing but when the appeareance of these groups lead to a lack of clothing, the practice of tattooing them started. This method was only applied in Auschwitz though while other camps issued badges.
All in all, the Nazis most likely associated with tattoos with so-called “asocials” and took active steps to persecute tattoo artists and those who earned a living through showing their tattoos. It is a likely guess that people with tattoos were not regarded too highly by them.
2. Wolfgang Ayaß: Aosziale im Nationalsozialismus.
3. Der Nachlass von Christian Warlich – Forschungs- und Ausstellungsprojekt | Ole Wittmann – Stiftung Historische Museen Hamburg.