In Summer of Long Knives, Rolf and Klara’s main goal–disrupted by the murder of Gretl Hofstengl–is to leave Nazi Germany. Accomplishing this involved clearing a couple of very high hurdles: the acquisition of an exit visa, and payment of Germany’s steep expatriation taxes and bank transfer fees.
Getting an exit visa from Nazi Germany in the prewar years required a great deal of effort, good connections, and a large amount of luck. Applications for exit visas passed through several bureaucracies, including the police, the Gestapo, the tax office, and the foreign ministry. Declarations had to be made concerning criminal record and inventories of all assets and moneys that were to be moved abroad. Because offices were often jammed with applications, primarily from those emigrating to escape religious and political persecution (which often complicated the matter beyond hope), it took strong connections to keep an exit visa application from languishing in one in box or another.
At the same time, would-be emigrants needed to find a country willing to accept them. The depression had made the domestic political environments of many countries hostile to allowing greater immigration. Quotas in most countries, already tight because of early 20th century hostility to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, tightened still further. For Jews, the quotas were particularly harsh, especially since U.S. immigration law was never amended to account for the distinction between an emigrant and a refugee, so Jewish refugees from Germany counted against the total German quota in any given year, shutting most out, even if they had relatives willing to sponsor them.
Applications for visa to another country had to be made at that country’s consulate in Germany. Filing such an application, or even just visiting the consulate, usually attracted the attention of the Gestapo, who’d arrange for increased surveillance of those suspected of wanting to emigrate. Those selling property without making a purchase or liquidating business assets also attracted Gestapo attention. (Real estate agents reported to the Gestapo all property sales, as a matter of course.)
Once exit and entrance visa were secured, the next hurdle was the payment of the expatriation tax, known as the Reichsfluchtsteuer. This tax did not originate with the Nazis. It was passed in 1931 by the Reichstag as a means of discouraging capital flight by wealthy Germans. The asset limit before the tax was triggered was initially 200,000 RM (about $680,000 in 2010 US currency). All moneys in excess of the limit were taxed at a 25% rate. In 1934, the Nazis reduced the asset limit to 50,000 RM, making many more middle class emigrants subject to the tax. The increased surveillance would be emigrants faced meant that the tax office, upon hearing of their possible plans to flee, had the option of demanding they pay a deposit equal to their total expatriation tax.
Once all taxes were paid, the emigrant would be given a receipt certifying that they’d satisfied their tax obligations and were, in theory, free to depart. But there was still one more thing. Any moneys emigrants received from liquidating assets (houses, cars, business, land) were held in Reichmarks in German banks. The government routinely froze those accounts, refusing to release the funds to foreign banks until the emigrant paid fees for exchanging money (amounts below 10 RM were exempt). The fees started at 20% in 1933, but by 1936 (when Rolf and Klara were leaving) they were 81%. Before war broke out, the fees were set at 96%. It was commonplace for German emigrants to leave their homeland with little more than the cash in their pockets and a change of underwear.