“One of the men grabbed my father by the shoulder and spit in his face. They tore his World War I medals from his shirt and stomped them into the ground. They started beating my father. Furniture started flying through the windows. My mother was screaming: ‘Let’s get out of here. They are killing us.’ We slipped out a back street, hoping the men would be finished soon and we could go back home.” Alex Liebenstein Kristallnacht survivor. (Jewish Weekly.com 12 November 2004)
It is still hard for me to believe that a civilized people can be incited into mob violence against a minority, even one that is already being persecuted. Unfortunately has happened all too often. The atrocities committed by the Nazi regime 75 years ago on the 9th and 10th of November 1938 reverberate to today as we see a resurgence of a anti-Semitism around the world.
The catalyst for the event was the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by the teenage son of a Polish Jewish immigrant who had recently been expelled from his home. However the death of the diplomat was a mere pretext for actions that the more radical National Socialists desired and had been building up to the previous five years.
Preparations for the action were already underway when death of the diplomat Ernst was delivered at a meeting commemorating the Beer Hall Putsch. Ironically Von Rath was an anti-Nazi under suspicion and being watched by the Gestapo.
After the message was delivered, Goebbels who was in disgrace with Hitler after the discovery of an affair between him and an actress took the opportunity to regain favor with Hitler. He stirred up the assembled Nazis and reported that there were reports of anti-Jewish demonstrations and the burning of synagogues and that Hitler `has decided that such demonstrations are not to be prepared or organized by the party, but so far as they originate spontaneously, they are not to be discouraged either.’ Taking his exhortation as an order many Gauleiters ran to phones to begin the action in their districts.
But the fact was the pogrom was already planned. SS Gruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich sent the following order out the day before.
TO ALL REGIONAL AND SUB-REGIONAL GESTAPO OFFICES 1:20AM, November 8, 1938
SUBJECT: MEASURES AGAINST THE JEWS THIS NIGHT
That only such measures were to be taken that would not endanger German lives or property Businesses and residences of Jews may be damaged but not looted. Particular care is to be paid in business sections and surrounding streets. Non-Jewish businesses are to be protected from damage under all circumstances. Police are to seize all archives from synagogues and offices of community organizations, this refers to material of historical significance. Archives are to be handed over to the SS. As soon as possible, officials are to arrest as many Jews especially wealthy ones – in all districts as can be accommodated in existing cells. For the time being, only healthy male Jews of not too advanced age are to be arrested.
Reinhard Heydrich, SS Gruppenführer
By two to three in the morning mobs were roaming the streets of German and Austrian cities. British Journalist Hugh Carlton Greene of the Daily Telegraph wrote:
“Mob law ruled in Berlin throughout the afternoon and evening and hordes of hooligans indulged in an orgy of destruction. I have seen several anti-Jewish outbreaks in Germany during the last five years, but never anything as nauseating as this. Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete hold of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable middle-class mothers held up their babies to see the “fun”.”
The banned Social Democratic Party reported:
“When the Jewish Synagogue was burning…a large number of women could be heard saying, That’s the right way to do it—it’s a pity there aren’t any more Jews inside, that would be the best way to smoke out the whole lousy lot of them. No one dared to take a stand against these sentiments….”
Though horrified by the reports coming out of Germany the world did nothing to help the Jews. No country stepped up to allow increased immigration including the United States where anti-semitism was at its historic peak. Public condemnations of the Nazis by world leaders were at best muted. Likewise the passivity of many Germans to Kristallnacht encouraged the most radical parts of the party to enact even more restrictive and punishing laws and regulations on the Jews.
Goebbels was ecstatic and wrote in his diary: 10 November 1938 I reported to the Fuehrer and he decides: the demonstrations should be allowed to continue. The police should retreat. Let the Jews get a taste of popular anger. He is right. I immediately instructed the party and police accordingly. Then I gave a short speech along these lines to the Party leadership. Loud applause. Everybody goes to the telephones. Now the people is going to act…. I wish to return to my hotel, and see a glow as red as blood. The synagogue is burning.… We only put out the fires when they endanger adjacent buildings. If not, they should be burned to the ground.… Reports come from all over the Reich. 50 synagogues, then 70 are on fire. The Fuehrer ordered 20-30 thousand Jews to be arrested.… Public anger is running wild.… They have to be given the possibility to vent their rage.… Driving to the hotel, windows are being smashed. Bravo, bravo. The synagogues burn like big old huts. There is no danger to German property. For the time being there is nothing more to be done.… (Der Spiegel 1992)
Heydrich’s preliminary report stated:
“The extent of the destruction of Jewish shops and houses cannot yet be verified by figures … 815 shops destroyed, 171 dwelling houses set on fire or destroyed only indicate a fraction of the actual damage so far as arson is concerned … 119 synagogues were set on fire, and another 76 completely destroyed … 20,000 Jews were arrested. 36 deaths were reported and those seriously injured were also numbered at 36. Those killed and injured are Jews.”
The Nazis even found a way to make money off of their persecution of the Jews. Hermann Goering convened a meeting of leaders on the 12th and discussed the economic implications of the action. The minutes of the meeting recorded his thoughts.
“Since the problem is mainly an economic one, it is from the economic angle it shall have to be tackled. Because, gentlemen, I have had enough of these demonstrations! They don’t harm the Jew but me, who is the final authority for coordinating the German economy. `If today a Jewish shop is destroyed, if goods are thrown into the street, the insurance companies will pay for the damages; and, furthermore, consumer goods belonging to the people are destroyed. If in the future, demonstrations which are necessary occur, then, I pray, that they be directed so as not to hurt us.”
Accordingly those at the meeting decided that the Jews were to blame for the action and determined that the Jews be fined 1 Billion Reichsmarks for the slaying of Von Rath and 6 million for the damage to property. The money was taken from the insurance payments that Jewish business and property owners would have received. The banality of Goering was typical of many Nazi leaders. He stated “We must agree on a clear action that shall be profitable to the Reich. … Anyway, the Jew must be evicted pretty fast from the German economy.”
Goebbels made the announcement of the official party line that the riots and destruction were “a spontaneous wave of righteous indignation throughout Germany as a result of the cowardly Jewish murder of Third Secretary vom Rath.” Goebbels lied to foreign reporters saying “Not a Jew has had a hair disturbed.”
But the truth was different. 91 Jews died as a direct result of the action while it is estimated several hundred more committed suicide during or just after Kristallnacht. Another two to three thousand of those arrested and sent to concentration camps died in those camps before the majority were released on the promise that they would leave Germany.
Jewish Prisoners after Kristallnacht
The events of Kristallnacht and the decisions afterwards marked a distinct watershed in the annals of the Holocaust. They had already been stripped of citizenship and most rights but from this point they became the target of any petty bureaucrat or party official. Kristallnacht foreshadowed the future for the Jews of Germany and Nazi occupied Europe.
In the next year over 100,000 Jews would immigrate from Germany mainly to other European countries where many would again face the horrors of Nazi persecution as the Nazis implemented the Final Solution.
In hope of peace,