Sunday, November 9, 2008

A shameful day in human history

I do not normally schedule a post for Sunday, but today I make an exception. November 9, 2008, marks the 70th anniversary of the shameful day in 1938 when, according to an article in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, German Jews lost their civil rights and their human rights.

Here’s what The Writer’s Almanac says about it:

“Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when German Nazis coordinated a nationwide attack on Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues. More than 1,000 synagogues were burned or destroyed. Rioters looted about 7,500 Jewish businesses and vandalized Jewish hospitals, homes, schools, and cemeteries. Before that night, the Nazis had killed people secretly and individually. After Kristallnacht, the Nazis felt free to persecute the Jews openly, because they knew no one would stop them.”

And here’s a long description with a great deal of detail from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia:

Kristallnacht (literally “Crystal night”) or the Night of Broken Glass, was a pogrom in Nazi Germany on November 9–10, 1938. On a single night, 92 Jews were murdered, and 25,000–30,000 were arrested and deported to concentration camps.[1][2] It is often called Novemberpogrom or Reichspogromnacht in German.

The Nazis coordinated an attack on Jewish people and their property in Germany and German-controlled lands as a part of Hitler’s anti-Semitic policy.[3]

On November 7, 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year old German Jew enraged by his family’s expulsion from Germany, walked into the German Embassy in Paris and fired five shots at a junior diplomat, Ernst vom Rath. Two days later, the diplomat died and Germany was in the grip of skillfully orchestrated anti-Jewish violence. In the early hours of November 10, coordinated destruction broke out in cities, towns, and villages throughout the Third Reich.

The consequences of this violence were disastrous for the Jews of the Third Reich. In a single night, Kristallnacht saw the destruction of more than 200 Synagogues, and the ransacking of thousands of Jewish businesses and homes. It marked the beginning of the systematic eradication of a people who could trace their ancestry in Germany to Roman times, and served as a prelude to the Holocaust that was to follow.[4][5]

By the end of the 1920s, most German Jews had been assimilated and served in the German army and contributed to every field of German science, business and culture. The Nazis were elected to power on January 30, 1933,[6] although Hitler did not gain absolute power until the Enabling act was passed on March 23, after the Reichstag fire.[7] By 1938, Jews had been almost completely excluded from German social and political life.[8] Many sought asylum abroad, and thousands did manage to leave, but as Chaim Weizmann wrote in 1936, “The world seemed to be divided into two parts -- those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.”[9]

Historian Eric Johnson notes that in the year before Kristallnacht, the Germans “had entered a new radical phase in anti-Semitic activity.”[10] Although controversial, some historians believe that the Nazi government had been contemplating a planned outbreak of violence against the Jews for some time and were waiting for an appropriate provocation; there is evidence of this planning that dates back to 1937.[11] The Zionist leadership in Palestine wrote in February 1938 “a very reliable private source -- one which can be traced back to the highest echelons of the SS leadership, that there is an intention to carry out a genuine and dramatic pogrom in Germany on a large scale in the near future.”[12]

Timeline of events
Kristallnacht was the result of more than five years and nine months of discrimination and persecution. From its inception in Germany, Hitler’s regime moved quickly to introduce anti-Jewish policy. The roughly 500,000 Jews in Germany, who accounted for only 0.76% of the overall population,[5] were singled out by the Nazi propaganda machine as the enemy within who were responsible for Germany’s defeat in 1918 and her subsequent economic difficulties.[5]

During 1933, the German government enacted 42 laws restricting the rights of German Jews to earn a living, to enjoy full citizenship and to educate themselves. The most severe of these laws, the law “for the reconstruction of the civil service”, forbade Jews to work in any branch of the civil service.[13] The pressure against the Jews continued unabated. Historian Jesse Irwin and many others believe that the pogrom was the start of the Holocaust. During 1934, a further 19 discriminatory laws were introduced. During 1935, the government enacted a further 29 anti-Jewish laws. The Nuremberg Laws “for the protection of German blood and honour” were signed personally by Hitler. These laws prohibited Jews from being citizens of the Reich and forbade marriage between “those of German or related blood” and Jews, Roma (Gypsies), blacks, or their offspring.

In an attempt to provide help to those affected by these laws, an international conference was held on July 6, 1938, on the shores of Lake Geneva. The conference hoped to address the issue of Jewish and Gypsy immigration to other countries. When the conference was held, more than 250,000 Jews had fled Germany and Austria, which had been annexed by Germany in March 1938. However, more than 300,000 German and Austrian Jews were seeking shelter from the oppression. As the number of Jews and Gypsies wanting to leave grew, the restrictions against them also grew with many countries tightening their rules for admission.

Expulsion of Jews from Germany
On October 18, 1938, on Hitler’s orders, more than 12,000 Jews were expelled from Germany. They were Polish-born Jews who had been living in Germany legally for many years. They were ordered to leave their homes in a single night, and were only allowed one suitcase per person to store their belongings. As the Jews were taken away, all of their remaining possessions were seized as booty by both the Nazi authorities and by their neighbors.

The deportees were taken from their homes to the nearest railway stations, where they were put on trains to the Polish border. Four thousand were granted entry into Poland; however, the remaining 8,000 were forced to stay at the border. There, in harsh conditions, they waited for the Polish government to allow them into the country. Hundreds more, one British newspaper told its readers, “are reported to be lying about, penniless and deserted, in little villages along the frontier near where they had been driven out by the Gestapo and left."[14]

Vom Rath shooting
One expelled couple, who had been living in Hanover for more than 27 years, had a seventeen-year-old son, Herschel Grynszpan, living in Paris.[4] From the border his sister Berta sent him a postcard describing their expulsion: “No one told us what was up, but we realised this was going to be the end.” Her final appeal: “We haven't a penny. Could you send us something?”[15]

Grynszpan received his sister’s short message on November 3. The next day he read a graphic account of the deportations in a Paris Yiddish newspaper. On the morning of Sunday, November 6, he bought a pistol, loaded it with five bullets, and on the following day went to the German embassy where, “in the name of 12,000 persecuted Jews,” he shot Ernst vom Rath, fatally wounding him.[15]

Initial response
On November 8, the first collective punitive measures were announced. All Jewish newspapers and magazines were to cease publication immediately. This ban cut off Jews from their leadership, whose task was to advise and guide them, particularly about emigration. It was a measure, one British newspaper explained, “intended to disrupt the Jewish community and rob it of the last frail ties which hold it together.” There were at the time three German Jewish newspapers with a national circulation, four cultural papers, several sports papers, and several dozen community bulletins, of which the one in Berlin had a circulation of 40,000.[5]

Also on November 8 it was announced that Jewish children could no longer attend “Aryan” state elementary schools, something that had hitherto been allowed where there were not sufficient Jewish elementary schools. At the same time all Jewish cultural activities were suspended “indefinitely.”[16]

After Kristallnacht, synagogues were restored. Today, one features a plaque, reading:

This synagogue is 100 years old
and was set ablaze on 9 November
1938 by the Nazis

During the Second World War 1939-1945
it was destroyed by 1943 bombing raids

The façade of this house of God shall
remain forever a site of remembrance


The Jewish Community of Greater Berlin

The reaction of non-Jewish Germans to Kristallnacht was varied. Martin Gilbert believes that “many non-Jews resented the round up”,[17] his opinion being supported by German witness Dr. Arthur Flehinger who recalls seeing “people crying while watching from behind their curtains”.[18] Some even went as far as to help Jews, but the majority merely sat inside watching in horror, feeling helpless to do anything. Other non-Jewish Germans took part in the violence, as it was not just Stormtroopers rioting. Evidence of this can be established in that riots broke out on the night of November 7 and continued in some places after the pogrom was called to a halt; thus it may be surmised that these successive actions were not those of the Nazis. Also, several sources mention women and children as participating in the riots, and these were clearly not Stormtroopers but ordinary citizens. The number of German citizens involved in the riots is impossible to know, as many Stormtroopers were wearing civilian clothes and were thus indistinguishable.

According to Daniel Goldhagen, Bishop Martin Sasse, a leading Protestant churchman, published a compendium of Martin Luther’s writings shortly after the Kristallnacht; Sasse “applauded the burning of the synagogues” and the coincidence of the day, writing in the introduction, “On November 10, 1938, on Luther’s birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany.” The German people, he urged, ought to heed these words “of the greatest anti-Semite of his time, the warner of his people against the Jews.”[19] Diarmaid MacCulloch argued that Luther’s 1543 pamphlet, “On the Jews and Their Lies” was a “blueprint” for the Kristallnacht.[20]

In an article released for publication on the evening of November 11, Goebbels ascribed the events of Kristallnacht to the “healthy instincts” of the German people. He went on to explain: “The German people are anti-Semitic. It has no desire to have its rights restricted or to be provoked in the future by parasites of the Jewish race.”[21]

Eyewitness accounts show the general response. Reports of the destruction are the main focus of the article.

“They ripped up the belongings, the books, knocked over furniture, shouted obscenities,”[22]

The scholarly response in that article is very much the same:

“Houses of worship burned down, vandalized, in every community in the country where people either participate or watch,”[22]

There are reports of “ heirlooms” and many other acts of vandalism.[22]

Response from the Global community
The frontpage of The New York Times of November 11, 1938, refers to the attacks occurring “under the direction of Stormtroopers and Nazi party members”, but also said that Goebbels called a stop to it.The Kristallnacht pogram sparked international outrage. It discredited pro-Nazi movements in Europe and North America, leading to eventual decline of their support. Many newspapers condemned Kristallnacht, with some comparing it to the murderous pogroms incited by Imperial Russia in the 1880s. The United States recalled its ambassador (but did not break off diplomatic relations) while other governments severed diplomatic relations with Germany in protest.

As such, Kristallnacht also marked a turning point in relations between Nazi Germany and the rest of the world. The brutality of the program and the Nazi government’s deliberate policy of encouraging the violence once it had begun, laid bare the repressive nature and widespread anti-Semitism entrenched in Germany, and turned world opinion sharply against the Nazi regime, with some politicians even calling for war.

Kristallnacht as a turning point
Kristallnacht changed the nature of persecution from economic, political, and social to the physical with beatings, incarceration, and murder; the event is often referred to as the beginning of the Holocaust. In the words of historian Max Rein in 1988, “Kristallnacht came...and everything was changed.”[23]

While November 1938 predated overt articulation of “the Final Solution,” it nonetheless foreshadowed the genocide to come. Around the time of Kristallnacht, the Schutzstaffel newspaper Das Schwarze Korps called for a “destruction by swords and flames.” At a conference on the day after the pogrom, Hermann Göring said: “The Jewish problem will reach its solution if, in any time soon, we will be drawn into war beyond our border -- then it is obvious that we will have to manage a final account with the Jews.”[5]

Specifically, the Nazis managed to achieve in Kristallnacht all the theoretical targets they set for themselves: confiscation of Jewish belongings to provide finances for the military buildup to war, separation and isolation of the Jews, and most importantly, the move from the anti-Semitic policy of discrimination to one of physical damage, which began that night and continued until the end of World War II.

The event nonetheless showed the public attitude was not solidly behind the perpetrators. Many Germans at the time found the pogroms troubling, as they equated them with the days of the SA street rule and lawlessness. The British Embassy at Berlin and British Consular offices throughout Germany received many protests and expressions of disquiet from members of the German public about the anti-Jewish actions of the time. The widespread cooperation of ordinary people and the desired severity of atrocities occurred primarily in Vienna and less so in Germany.

The incident was originally referred to as die Kristallnacht (literally “crystal night” or the “night of the broken glass”), alluding to the enormous number of shop windows (mostly at Jewish-owned stores) that were broken that night.[24]

The prefix Reichs- (imperial) was later added (Reichskristallnacht) as a pun on the Nazis’ propensity to add this prefix to various terms and titles like Reichsführer-SS (Himmler) or Reichsmarschall (Göring).[25] This was also done in other contexts to ridicule and criticize aspects of the Nazi dictatorship (e.g., Reichswasserleiche -- “National Drowned Body” for actress Kristina Söderbaum, who frequently played tragic heroines in her husband Veit Harlan's anti-Semitic melodramas, two of whom committed suicide by drowning.) [26]

Modern response
Many decades later, association with the Kristallnacht anniversary was cited as the main reason against choosing November 9 (“Schicksalstag”), the day the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, as the new German national holiday; a different day was chosen (October 3, 1990, German reunification).

Avant-garde guitarist Gary Lucas's 1988 composition “Verklärte Kristallnacht”, which juxtaposes the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” with phrases from “Deutschland Über Alles” amid wild electronic shrieks and noise, is intended to be a sonic representation of the horrors of Kristallnacht. It was premiered at the 1988 Berlin Jazz Festival and received rave reviews. (The title is a reference to Arnold Schoenberg’s 1899 work “Verklärte Nacht” that presaged his pioneering work on atonal music; Schoenberg was an Austrian Jew exiled by the Nazis).[27]

The German power metal band Masterplan’s debut album, Masterplan (2003), features an anti-Nazism song entitled “Crystal Night” as the fourth track.

The popular German band BAP published a song titled “Kristallnaach” in their Cologne dialect, dealing with the emotions of the Kristallnacht.[28]

Recent Archeological Finds
A dumping ground for the destroyed remains of Jewish property plundered during Kristallnacht has been found in Brandenburg, north of Berlin by Yaron Svoray, an investigative journalist.

The site, which is the size of four football pitches, contains an extensive array of personal and ceremonial items looted during orchestrated nationwide riots against Jewish property and places of worship on the night of November 9, 1938. It is believed the goods were brought by rail to the outskirts of the village and dumped on designated land. Among the items found were glass bottles engraved with the Star of David, Mezuzahs, painted window sills, and the armrests of chairs found in synagogues, in addition to an ornamental swastika.[29]”

(end of article)

All references for footnotes [1] through [29] in the article above can be obtained in the Wikipedia article online.

It is not the intent of this post to criticize present-day Germans or Lutherans in any way. They are not to blame for what people said or did in an earlier time. I published this post in memory of the millions who perished in the Holocaust, a well-documented series of events that many, including Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, insist never happened. It did happen, and it began with a well-documented event, Kristallnacht, seventy years ago tonight.

George Santayana was right. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.


  1. Wow, very comprehensive and powerful. We need to remember these things. It is my understanding that 10 million Christians were killed in subsequent actions, mostly for protecting Jews, is that true? That is a strangely comforting thing to me. They did not just watch it happen or applaud it. They suffered for it, but helped anyway.

  2. i have read the rise and fall of the third reich, and i must say that coupled with your long and informative piece has opened my eyes a little....i with mark twain, jonh denver, ghandi, lex, jonh and robert kennedy, martin luther, sammy davis jr... and others believe that that box of war or box of violence should have been left closed for good

  3. Great post of history we must never forget!

    I've read parts of Luther's anti-Semitic writings. It is something all Lutherans should come to terms with. Here's a link:

    Thanks for the lesson.

  4. Phew! That was one helluva blogpost but well worth reading on the day that we in Britain commemorate all who have died both for our country and for freedom. We wear red paper poppies like the poppies that grew on Flanders field.

  5. This is an important thing to remember and to make sure that our children and grandchildren continue to know and remember even though it saddens me. Great post.

  6. This is an important event to remember. I remember in 1988, on the 50th anniversary, people all over the world put a candle in their windows in commemoration. I remember doing that in my apartment in Chicago.

    Rosezilla, I think whoever sited that statistic was confused. I have no doubt that 10 million Christian civilians were killed in World War II, but it wasn't for helping the Jews. And the deaths were just innocent casualties of battle. During the Holocaust, in addition to the 6 million Jewish dead, something like 5 million non-Jews were killed but that was because they were also on the Nazi list of undesirables. These included Poles and other Slavs, Gypsies, mentally disabled people, and homosexuals.

    However, the focus of studying the Holocaust is almost always exclusively on the killing of Jews because more of them died than any other single group, and as a group, they were almost exterminated.

  7. Thank you, Ruth, I did some more (perfunctory) research and the figure might be a bit high, at least the official number. It is impossible to say how many Christians helped Jews because it wasn't really something anyone could talk about, and besides, they were so often killed for doing it. But I grew up on "The Hiding Place" about Corrie Ten Boom and her family, and if you get looking, there are more and more stories emerging about countless Christians helping Jews. More and more "hidden children" are speaking up, for instance. In Poland especially there were stories of Priests and Nuns, as well as many, many other Christians helping Jews and being captured and killed for it. We can of course assume that many were successful without getting caught as well.

  8. Thanks to all of you for commenting.

    Rosezilla (Tracie), I remember Corrie ten Boom's story, The Hiding Place too. Also, the movie Schindler's List portrayed how, during the Holocaust, help was found in even the unlikeliest of places.

    Putz, I believe you are talking about Pandora's box, which was of mythological, of course. But you're right, better that it had remained closed.

    Jeannelle, even the greatest people are imperfect and have flaws, but humanity is learning, I hope, to embrace their good words and deeds and reject the rest.

    Yorkshire Pudding, we have the equivalent of your Remembrance Day on our Memorial Day in May when the dead of all our wars are remembered. This week we observe Veterans Day in honor of the those still living who have served in our armed forces. On May 31st, I posted a photo taken by Papy Biou of a field of French poppies in my post "Memorial Day has come and gone" and I also posted the words to the poem "In Flanders Fields" last year on November 12th in a post with that name (our Veterans Day used to be the Armistice Day from World War I).

    egghead (Vonda), I agree that people should always remember and the children should be taught so that nothing like that will happen ever again.

    Ruth, thank you for remembering and for including that there were other types of people the Nazis wanted to eliminate from society as well.

  9. It is important to remind us because there are those who would pretend it never happened.