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Kristallnacht and its Lessons

11/14/2017 11:00:37 AM


Friday, November 10
by Fred Rosenbaum

Tonight we commemorate the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a rampage against Jews throughout Germany. It took place on November 9th and 10th, 1938, five and a half years into the Nazi rule in Germany and less than nine months before the outbreak of World War II.

But Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, is often referred to as Pogromnacht, because it was like the horrific medieval or later the Czarist Russian pogroms, a massive smashing—the Russian word pogrom—of Jews, Jewish property, and everything sacred to Jews.

The scale of what happened on November 9th and 10th in the Reich is appalling. Of course there had been many measures against Jews since Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933—boycotts, removal from the civil services and universities, a ban on intermarriage. Jews were no longer citizens of the Reich, merely subjects and a quarter million German Jews had emigrated in response to these conditions. But these were mainly legal and administrative decrees. Before Kristallnacht there was nothing even approaching the frenzy of violence that broke out the night of November 9. Kristallnacht stands like a giant pivot in Holocaust history. It marks the end of one kind of oppression, removing the Jews from their role in German society, and ushers in another, extreme violence, that culminated with the premeditated murder of six million Jews.

We all know of the destruction of the synagogues on a single night—in every corner of the Reich. It’s hard to know exactly how many were destroyed, but it was certainly many hundreds, in any case the overwhelming majority in the whole country. Most were burned down, and that image of the burned synagogue stands as the icon of Kristallnacht, but many others were spared the torch because it was felt a fire might endanger “innocent” buildings nearby or even adjacent. Those synagogues were often torn apart with axes and sledge-hammers. In Berlin, the famous Oranienburgerstrasse synagogue was one of the few left standing because a police lieutenant stepped in and ruled it was an architectural landmark and needed to be preserved. But such an act of compassion was extremely rare.

Kristallnacht was much more even than the destruction of the synagogues. 91 Jews were killed by mobs on the street. 30,000 Jewish men were immediately sent to the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen and although they were released a few weeks later it was not before a thousand of them died there. Tens of thousands of Jewish homes and shops were looted. Kristallnacht was so appalling that it was followed a rash of Jewish suicides, 21 in Vienna alone.

Who did it? Without question it was coordinated from the top and led by the Brownshirts, the Storm Troops. But recent scholarship has shown that many more ordinary citizens joined in than previously thought, including many young people who enthusiastically took part. They beat up their Jewish neighbors and destroyed or looted their property. Most German citizens were indifferent or apathetic but very, very few objected to it.

Kristallnacht, so central to the history of the Holocaust, also has much resonance for us today for history re can instruct and warn. I would like to identify four lessons.

First, such an atrocity can seem like one dramatic event, but radical evil often exists on a continuum. On one level, the dehumanization between 1933 and 1938 helped pave the way for Kristallnacht, on another level, Kristallnacht helped enable the Holocaust that came; it showed the Nazis what they could get away with and they went to the next stage.

All of this tells us how important it is for people of good will to oppose tyranny as early as possible. Kristallnacht is a striking example because it was such a public phenomenon.  Unlike the death camps, which were mostly in remote spots and revealed after the war, Kristallnacht took place in the streets, in full view of the whole population. No one could claim he didn’t know about it.

My second point about is the silence of the churches in Germany, especially inexcusable given that upwards of a thousand houses of worship were destroyed. Some church leaders even went on record approving it, quoting Martin Luther’s anti-Jewish incitement four centuries earlier, when he actually implored the populace to burn down synagogues. A few heroic pastors like Dietrich Bonheoffer gave their lives in resistance to Hitler, but even that was late in World War II, half a decade after Kristallnacht.  The Night of Broken Glass shows the importance of interfaith alliances.  

Third, the Nazi leadership used a pretext. They actually claimed the Jews caused the Pogromnacht and thus deserved it. This was part of an insidious and unprecedented campaign of propaganda and demagoguery using the new media of radio and especially film… to demonize a minority group as communists and capitalists, degenerates and traitors, in short a threat to everything Germans held dear.

To further embed this notion in the mind of the public of Jewish culpability, the German government leveled a fine of a billion marks on the devastated Jewish community to pay for the damage done to non-Jewish property.  

What was the pretext that led people to blame the victim? A month earlier, the Germans had expelled about 12,000 Jews living in the Reich who were Polish citizens who had never become German nationals. They were driven to the German-Polish border and the Poles, themselves under an anti-Semitic dictatorship, allowed in only 4,000 of them, leaving the remaining 8,000 or so to languish in a no-man’s land on the border without proper housing or food. Among the stranded refugees was the family of the seventeen-year-old Hershel Grynspan. He was in Paris at the time and, learning of their suffering, became enraged and unhinged. On November 7 he went to the German embassy intending to assassinate the German Ambassador to France. He shot instead the third undersecretary of the embassy, who had had the bad luck to open the door to the ambassador’s office. The junior diplomat lingered from his wounds for a few days and then died on November 9. Then Hitler personally ordered the plan for a national pogrom, already devised, to be implemented. Although one unbalanced Jewish teenager had done this, the Nazi claim was rather that it was part of a Jewish conspiracy to kill German diplomats throughout the world. Interviews of people on the streets conducted at the time reveal that most people bought it. Even if they themselves did not commit an act of violence, the large majority of Germans approved of Kristallnacht.

Today, when there are so many acts of terrorism and counter-terrorism, retaliation, retribution, we have an obligation to stop and consider the meaning of any one violent act, because it can be used as a pretext.

Fourth, Kristallnacht magnified the Jewish refugee crisis because now there could be no question about the terror facing any Jews who remained in Germany. The consulates of the United States and other counties were swamped with applications for entry visas.

And the world media covered Kristallnacht extensively. Before the war there were 700 foreign journalists in the Reich. The events of November 9-10 were the most reported story of any in the entire history of the Holocaust. It was a four-column headline on the front page of the New York Times, for example. People and governments around the globe were forced to deal with it.

But the world turned its back on the German Jews now desperate to leave. To be sure there were exceptions, such as the British government’s Kindertransport, a direct response to Kristallnacht, which saved 10,000 kids, and the haven of Shanghai, where the number of Jews swelled after November 1938 and would number about 18,000 throughout the war.

But despite the plea from American Jewish organizations, the annual US quota of 27,000 immigrants from Germany and Austria was not expanded, and not even filled. In May 39, the ship St. Louis, sent back to Europe. The majority of those Jews in Germany after Kristallnacht would be killed in the Holocaust.

The utter failure of our own government’s policies in the 1930s shows us the price to be paid in human lives by keeping the gates closed. In some countries today, it has led to a more welcoming response to the current refugee crisis, the largest since World War II.

Let me conclude with a comment not about Kristallnacht directly, but about the coincidence of the calendar. For November 9-10 is also the date the wall came down in Berlin in 1989, marking the end of communism in East Germany. I remember that moment vividly. Because it was the anniversary of Kristallnacht, I was preparing for a lecture on the topic at a local synagogue much like tonight. While I was going over my notes that afternoon, I couldn’t take my eyes off the events on television for it was already late at night in Berlin. This time German youth also took to the streets—but to dismantle totalitarianism. It was electrifying but I had my doubts that night about what course a united Germany would take. A generation later we see not an ideal civil society to be sure, but a democratic, self-critical country that atones for the Shoah and struggles to integrate a million refugees from the Middle East. November 9-10,1989, gives us at least a bit of faith in human nature even as we mourn the descent into darkness of November 9-10 1938.

Tue, November 21 2017 3 Kislev 5778