One of the reasons given for the failure to prevent the Holocaust, or to save some of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, is that the world was unaware of the slaughter. The Nazis were good at concealing their heinous crimes, but the Allies learned early in the war about the Final Solution. Worse, everyone knew Jews were in danger before World War II began; nevertheless, Western leaders failed to act when the evidence was in front of their eyes.
In less than 48 hours, beginning on November 9, 1938, at least 96 Jews were killed in Germany and Austria, 7,500 businesses were destroyed, and countless Jewish cemeteries and schools were vandalized. A total of 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps. The pogrom became known as the “Night of Broken Glass” or Kristallnacht. A member of the Hitler Youth admitted that after Kristallnacht, “no German old enough to walk could ever plead ignorance of the persecution of the Jews, and no Jews could harbor any delusion that Hitler wanted Germany anything but judenrein, clean of Jews.”
It was not only the Germans and Austrians who witnessed this savagery. The front-page of the New York Times (November 11) reported “a wave of destruction, looting, and incendiarism unparalleled in Germany since the Thirty Years War and, in Europe generally, since the Bolshevist Revolution.” The story said, “National Socialist cohorts took vengeance on Jewish shops, offices and synagogues for the murder by a young Polish Jew of Ernst vom Rath, third secretary of the German Embassy in Paris.”
Other than condemning the violence – five days later – and temporarily withdrawing the U.S. ambassador from Germany, President Franklin Roosevelt did nothing. Other Western leaders were appalled but not sufficiently concerned to take any action against Germany. They were not roused to come to the aid of the Jews even after Hitler told the Czech foreign minister in January 1939: “We shall exterminate the Jews.”
Roosevelt was paralyzed by the climate of isolationism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Rather than rising above it, and taking even the relatively benign step of opening America’s doors to Jewish immigrants, the president followed public opinion and barred our gates, condemning thousands to death. He went so far as to oppose Congressional legislation to allow 20,000 Jewish children into the country. That was before the war. After it began, the President and his advisers minimized Nazi persecution of Jews to rationalize their inaction.
What could have been done?
A precedent was set in May 1897 when the U.S. Ambassador to Persia interceded on behalf of the Jews in Tehran who were being subjected to mob violence by Muslims. His actions were approved “in the interest of common humanity.” American ambassadors in 1939-45 could have acted in that interest, as Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg did, by providing visas or passports to as many Jews as possible. This would have been the least U.S. officials could do.
U.S. officials could have warned the Nazis earlier and more frequently about the consequences of harming Jews, and then acted after learning of German crimes. For example, steps toward prosecuting war criminals might have begun before the end of the war to send the message that Germans who were caught faced serious consequences.
The Red Cross could have given greater publicity to the Nazi genocide, used its influence to obtain access to more camps and mobilized world opinion to crusade for an end to the atrocities. Hitler may not have been moved by an outcry, but the absence of one allowed him to conclude that his annihilation of the Jews was of little concern to his enemies.
General Dwight Eisenhower acknowledged publicizing atrocities would increase support for the war effort when he was asked if the wide publication of such information was going to be useful. “I think the people at home ought to know what they are fighting for and the kind of person they are fighting,” he said. Unfortunately, Eisenhower said this after the liberation of the camps.
Kristallnacht was the beginning of the end for German Jewry, and telegraphed the fate of all Jews who would come under Nazi control. Hitler saw from the world’s reaction that he could murder Jews with impunity. Less than three years later, the deportation of German Jews to their deaths began. Fewer than 10,000 of the 131,800 German Jews targeted for extermination by the Nazis survived.
Mitchell Bard is author of 48 Hours of Kristallnacht and Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler’s Camps.