Gambling under the Swastika: Casinos, Horse Racing, Lotteries, and Other Forms of Betting in Nazi Germany by Robert M. Jarvis
Robert M. Jarvis, a law professor from Nova Southeastern University, asserts in this brief monograph that "a comprehensive treatment of gambling in Nazi Germany does not appear to exist" (3). Gambling under the Swastika is a first step in this direction. With no explicit thesis or engagement with historiography, Jarvis sets out to describe the betting laws and practices of the Third Reich. His findings are as diverse as they are intriguing. In sum, the Nazis did not have a coherent policy toward gambling, and often seemed to tailor the practice to the specific needs of other policies of the regime.
Jarvis begins with an overview of German gambling practices before the Nazi seizure of power. Both the Kaiserreich and the Weimar Republic frowned on gambling, though the latter allowed betting at horse tracks and on riverboats. With the 1933 Spielbankengesetz, the Nazis lifted previous bans on casinos, with an eye toward generating tax revenue for social programs. The largest and most successful casino under the Nazis was located in Baden-Baden, and it attracted clientele from around the world before the start of the war. This was a boon for the regime, which eventually made it illegal to take winnings out of the country. Jarvis also points out that Jews were banned from casinos in 1937. Baden-Baden remained open until August of 1944, following the regime's second declaration of "total war."
As for other forms of betting, Nazi policy was not consistent. Dog racing, for instance, was never allowed, though the reasoning for this measure is not made clear. Horse racing, on the other hand, was permitted. Yet, sports betting was also [End Page 193] illegal. Lotteries comprised the largest and most common gambling venture in the Third Reich, because they were directly tied to generating revenue for social welfare programs such as Winterhilfswerk. Nonetheless, the regime had concerns about compulsive gambling, which was addressed in two ways. Compulsive gambling was possibly grounds for forced sterilization, though Jarvis is only tentative on this point. There was also the possibility that compulsive gamblers could be branded as "asocial," and possibly placed in a concentration camp.
More inconsistencies in Nazi policy appear as Jarvis investigates gambling in occupied territories. After Nazi Germany annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia, authorities forbade the operation of casinos in both places. Again, the reasons for this are unclear, and Jarvis would have helped readers had he at least speculated on this matter. Gambling in Poland, however, was promoted for specific reasons. Authorities permitted a casino to operate in Danzig from the same financial motives as prevailed in Baden-Baden. Casinos were allowed to operate in the General Government because Nazi authorities hoped it would weaken Poles' will to fight. Consequently, casinos in the General Government became fertile grounds for informants for the Polish Home Army. In the Netherlands, the Nazis initiated a lottery similar to the one that promoted Winterhilfswerk but it was not very popular among Dutch civilians.
The remainder of the book covers gambling among German soldiers, which Jarvis briefly acknowledges, but also within the vast system of Nazi camps. Though there is little evidence, Jarvis claims that wagering did occur inside concentration camps. Prisoners were strictly prohibited from gambling, but a ghoulish practice of guards betting on inmates also persisted. On the other hand, the Nazis promoted gambling inside the Warsaw ghetto because they hoped that such activities would "present Jews in an unfavorable light" (110). In one of the more questionable sections of the book, Jarvis gives a lengthy description of an episode of the popular American sitcom of the 1960s, Hogan's Heroes, as evidence of gambling in Allied POW camps. In the final chapter, Jarvis offers a brief history of German gambling in the immediate postwar period. Succinctly put, the Allied Control Council did not forbid gambling and the practice flourished with the presence of occupying soldiers.
At one hundred and ninety-four pages, Gambling under the Swastika is a slim volume that really only scratches the surface of a worthwhile topic. Jarvis also hews primarily to English-language sources, which seems to force him to be creative at times. In addition to citing Hogan's Heroes, Jarvis supports his arguments in another section with a lengthy depiction of scenes from the classic film Casablanca. The author, overall, tends to rely heavily on lengthy block quotes which are often introduced with little context or analysis. For instance, he borrows a long passage from Shelly Baranowski's Strength Through Joy to assert that the cruise ships Robert Ley and Wilhelm Gustloff did not possess gambling facilities. Jarvis would have also helped [End Page 194] readers if he had situated his research next to the broader historiographies of leisure and crime in the Third Reich.
Gambling under the Swastika does address a lacuna in the history of Nazi Germany, though it still raises a number of questions. Why, for instance, were there inconsistencies within Nazi policies toward gambling? Was there a specific office that dealt with gambling law and related issues? If not, did the particular character of other offices within the Nazi empire influence these policies? If the Nazis had no problem allowing Germans to gamble in various ways, why did they also hope that casinos would cast Poles and Jews in a negative light? All these, and more, questions must wait for further research. Nonetheless, Gambling under the Swastika offers a tantalizing glimpse at an intriguing topic.