October 23, 2009
Kristallnacht: the Night of Brokenness
By Matthew LaGrone
“Never, never ask me what I’ve seen,” a father said to his young daughter. The father had just returned home after months in the Dachau concentration camp following the Kristallnacht pogrom. Fifty years later, she asked him the same question, and received the same response.
By Matthew LaGrone
“Never, never ask me what I’ve seen,” a father said to his young daughter. The father had just returned home after months in the Dachau concentration camp following the Kristallnacht pogrom. Fifty years later, she asked him the same question, and received the same response. (1)
The numbers from Kristallnacht are staggering: 91 Jews killed, 7500 Jewish-owned stores destroyed and hundreds of homes and synagogues put to ruin by organized and spontaneous violence in Nazi Germany on November 9-10, 1938. Afterwards, thousands of Jewish men (at least 25, 000), like the one in the above paragraph, were detained without cause and sent to concentration camps, many dying by disease, ill health or their own hand. The primary consequence of Kristallnacht was the further removal of German Jews from society, excluding them especially from most sectors of the economy. The Nazis attacked private homes and individuals, but the majority of violence was directed at Jewish businesses. The extensive damage done to these businesses was as much about “symbolic politics” as actual destruction: the intention of the Nazi leadership was to demonstrate that Jews had no legal status in German society. The social humiliation of German Jews through reduction in their economic position was key in their socio-cultural marginalization.
The historian Hermann Graml lists several stages in the Nazi dehumanization of European Jewry: the first stage was “the reversal of emancipation” during the initial years of the Reich (1933-1935) where the civil rights of Jews—that Jews are citizens with equal social, economic and political protections, which was the springtime promise of Emancipation—were reduced. Graml called the second stage (from 1935-1937) the “isolation” of German Jews: they became non-citizens, lacking any rights and thus the ability to make a claim upon the state. The third stage was “expropriation” (1937-1938) where the Nazis purloined the liquid and material wealth of German Jews. Kristallnacht represented the culmination of this stage.(2) But what series of events made Kristallnacht possible? Let us examine this question.
Following the German elections in 1933, the Nazi government narrowed the rights of German-Jewish citizens, reducing them initially to second-class citizens and in the end making them outlaws—that is, a people without the protection of legal rights. In mid-1938, the Nazis required Jews to carry identification cards that marked them as Jewish, and consequently setting them apart from their gentile neighbors. A few months later, the government issued an order that called for the deportation of all Polish Jews residing in Germany. Previous expulsions exempted the elderly and infirm, but this expulsion did not. The Polish Jews numbered close to 20, 000. Rousted out of their homes, crowded into trains and sent eastward, these Jews were denied admission back into Poland, and were left essentially stateless—and by extension rightless—at the Polish border. Abraham Joshua Heschel, perhaps the most important 20th century Jewish theologian, was among them. A Polish-Jewish family in Hanover, the Grynszpans, was also deported. Their home and business were turned over to German control, and they were allowed to leave with little more than the clothing on their back. One of the Grynszpan sons, Herschel, was living in Paris at the time with another family member. When news reached him that his family had been expelled from Germany, Herschel burned with anger. On November 7, a week and a half after their deportation, he arrived at the German Embassy in Paris planning to assassinate the ambassador, Johannes von Welczeck. Finding von Welczeck unavailable, Grynszpan turned his gun on Ernst vom Rath, a lower level diplomat, mortally wounding him.
The Nazi authorities, lead by Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, used the death of vom Rath as grounds for public violence against Jews, a collective punishment. Goebbels represented vom Rath’s murder as an assault on the corporate German body, the German people as a whole and therefore something that must be avenged. Newspapers railed against Jewish “conspiracies” to undermine the Reich. (The small number of Jewish newspapers still publishing in Germany were shuttered by the authorities on November 8). Local party leaders organized attacks and the government directed the police to not interfere with assaults on persons and property. While Goebbels and others wished to portray the events of November 9-10 as an unprompted defense of German pride against the machinations of Jews, the violence was calculated and would not have occurred in the absence of government endorsement.The name given to this eruption of public violence, Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), has a complicated history. Kristallnacht was the name that the Nazis gave to the event, and it was meant to be derisive, referring only to the smashed storefront glass, avoiding any indication of the human damage through death, geographic dislocation and social exclusion. By referring only to the monetary loss, the name Kristallnacht for many disguises the lethal intentions of the Nazi government. Others argue that the term captures a lot of information: it was and is a signal of Nazi brutality that does not conceal Nazi aims. Our mental image, then, of Kristallnacht involves more than broken glass; it also presents broken lives. In contemporary Germany, however, the name is rarely used in newspapers and other media because it emerged from the Nazi themselves. According to Y. Michal Bodemann, it has been “tabooed.” (3) Since the late 1970s the German public name for Kristallnacht has been “Reichspogromnacht” (the night of a state-sponsored pogrom). Outside of Germany, on the other hand, Kristallnacht has remained the common name for the events of November 9-10.
November 9 had a great deal of symbolic resonance for the Nazi party, and the unleashing of violence on that day in 1938 was not accidental. On November 9, 1918 Kaiser Wilhelm II left abdicated, ending monarchy in Germany. For Hitler and those sympathetic to him, it was a betrayal, a dark hour in the German soul. On November 9, 1923, Hitler and his supporters attempted to seize power in Munich (the so-called Beer Hall Putsch
), but Hitler failed and was arrested. While jailed in Bavaria, he wrote Mein Kampf
In the aftermath of the violence, the question was raised about how to pay for the cleanup of the destroyed property in many of the major cities in Germany and Austria. After days of marauding and studied aggression, the Nazi government extended the terms of Jewish “collective guilt” for vom Rath’s death even further. The German Jewish community was determined to be legally liable for the violence, and as a result had to pay for the physical damage done to business and home. The victim had, once again, been made into the criminal. A fine of 1 billion marks was imposed on the community. (It should be said that the German insurance companies, probably no more or less anti-Jewish than the rest of the population, wanted to make the indemnity payments to Jewish businesses for the damages incurred. The government agreed reluctantly. The companies had international clients and did not wish to be seen as untrustworthy). (4) This amount represented close to one-fifth of remaining Jewish wealth in Germany. Two weeks after Kristallnacht, it became illegal for a Jew to own a business—all formerly Jewish businesses were put in the hand of Aryan owners. German Jews were now completed severed from the legal economy, and this action was part of the larger social diminution of European Jews desired by Hitler and the Nazis.
European and North American governments and media reacted swiftly to Kristallnacht, condemning the actions of the Nazis. The media did not underestimate the violence; it was, after all, a very public act. This explains in part why later large-scale Nazi violence against Jews was largely, though by no means completely, committed outside of the public view. There were calls to allow for increased Jewish immigration to North America, but restrictive quotas for new immigrants remained. However, German Jews, at least those who could find the opportunity, began to seek in greater numbers any path to emigration. But the world now knew, if it did not already, that Nazis planned to remove all Jews—though not at this point by mass murder—from German-controlled lands.
While many German were either in favor of the actions or simply indifferent, some brave Germans, including clergy, condemned the wanton barbarism of November 9-10. The Protestant pastor Julius van Jan announced from his pulpit: “Houses of worship, sacred to others, have been burned down with impunity—men who have loyally served our nation and conscientiously done their duty have been thrown into concentration camps simply because they belong to a different race. Our nation’s infamy is bound to bring about divine punishment.” (5) Van Jan was beaten, jailed and finally sent to a concentration camp for opposing Nazi policy. Not every cleric, however, covered himself in glory. Bishop Martin Sasse, according to Susannah Heschel, saw in Kristallnacht the realization of Martin Luther’s anti-Judaism. She writes: “On November 15, just days after the pogrom, Sasse distributed a pamphlet entitled ‘Martin Luther on the Jews: Away with Them!’ (Martin Luther über die Juden: Weg mit Ihnen!), in which he reprinted excerpts from Luther’s notorious 1543 pamphlet, Against the Jews and Their Lies, urging the destruction of Jewish property. Kristallnacht, he claimed, was fulfilling the goals of Luther; the Nazis were acting as Christians.”(6) Van Jan and Sasse, of course, represent extreme responses; most clergy, like most Germans, remained silent. Many Germans were moderate anti-Semites, believing that Jews had a disproportionate amount of influence on the nation’s economy and culture. But, as Martin Gilbert notes, these moderate anti-Semites scorned the open barbarism of Kristallnacht. They may not have been sympathetic with the dilemma of German Jews, but they also did not actively cheer such violence. What, then, is the connection of Kristallnacht to the Holocaust? It is impossible to view it in isolation. Surely, there is historically proximity: war broke out less than a year afterward, and the Wannsee Conference (where the decision to annihilate European Jewry took place) a little more than two years after that. There is political proximity: the same government that encouraged Kristallnacht organized and carried out the Holocaust. But there are some differences. As Ian Kershaw notes, Kristallnacht is the only example during the twelve year rule of National Socialism that the “German people [were] directly confronted with the full savagery of the anti-Jewish terror ” (7) in full view of the public. Such a spasm of violence seems closer to the massacre of Rhineland Jews during the Crusades rather than as part of a systematic plan to annihilate all Jews. Another difference: the death camps that would come later were mostly outside of Germany and away from the public. Nevertheless, the use of public violence did not have long-term repercussions for the Nazi leadership and they could therefore be confident in passing more severe measures in the future. The “taboo” of active, public, government-sponsored violence in the heart of Europe “had been broken.”(8) Additionally, the government had stolen the private property of citizens, an absolute scandal in a Western liberal democracy. The National Socialists knew that they could get away with almost any action with impunity. Average German citizens would not stand in their way.
We must be careful and not read history backwards; that is to say, the Holocaust was neither a direct result of Kristallnacht nor an inevitable outcome, but the pogrom enhanced the possibility of worse events in the future. Certainly, the conditions that made the Holocaust possible were being formed. Kristallnacht represented both the end of one era of anti-semitic behavior and the opening of another era. This new era of anti-semitism, however, would be far more ideologically pure and lethal.
German Jews in November 1938 were completely disenfranchised: denied were the right to keep legally obtained property, to be free from physical fear, and natural human rights. Kristallnacht teaches in miniature what the Holocaust teaches more generally: human rights matter, and these rights exist prior to any state.
(1) Gilbert, Martin. Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 139.
(2) Graml, Hermann. Antisemitism in the Third Reich (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), passim.
(3) Y. Michael Bodemann, “Reconstructions of History: from Jewish Memory to Nationalized Commemoration of Kristallnacht in Germany” in Jews, Germans, Memory: Reconstructions of Jewish Life in Germany (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 190.
(4) See http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2009/08/insurance_reput.html
(5) Qtd. in Anthony Read and David Fisher, Kristallnacht (New York : Times Books, 1989), p.125.
(6) Heschel, Susannah. “Kristallnacht and Its Aftermath within the German Protestant Church” The Jewish Quarterly (Winter 2008) no. 212.
(7) Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, Germans and the Final Solution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), p. 173.
(8) Steinfels, Peter. “The Road to Extermination: Kristallnacht Lessons Pondered by Historians” New York Times November 9, 1988. Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/1988/11/09/us/the-road-to-extermination-kristallnacht-lessons-pondered-by-historians.html?pagewanted=al