Kristallnacht: A Lethal Legacy of Legends and Lies

If ever a human-orchestrated catastrophe in modern history was shrouded in strategic timing, propaganda, and meticulously-synchronized destructive actions, it is the so-called Nazi pogrom of November 1938. Organized in retaliation  against all Jews for the crime of one Jew, the heinous events of that tragic night marked a turning point in Nazi policy towards Jews-from legislative antisemitism to legalized mass violence. Nonetheless Kristallnacht furnished the world with a clear and ominous preview of what was to follow for the Jews under German rule in the next six years, from 1939-1945.

However, the global responses to that night’s ruthless defilement of Jews and their property fell gravely short of what was needed to curtail, much less halt Nazi plans to move forward with the next and more deadly phase of Jewish persecution. What happened or, more accurately, what didn’t happen on the part of foreign governments in response to Kristallnacht tragically contributed to the plight of Jews as they faced the beginning of the end without the means to defend themselves.

In 1938, the Jews in Germany as well as those in the United States had little political clout or other means to fight back against antisemitism. Thankfully, that is not the case today. World Jewry, although far from united on many issues, can be counted on to come together when under attack. Our strength is grounded in solid institutions, especially the State of Israel which is committed to “never again.”

How did Kristallnacht happen and why was it allowed to happen? The mass violence and destruction of that horrific night may be rationalized and reduced to a single occurrence— the shooting of a German diplomat, Ernst Vom Rath by a 17-year-old Jew, Herschel Grynszpan on November 7th. When Vom Rath died two days later, according to the Nazi press, the “indignant masses of German people decided to rise up against all Jews to avenge his death.”

Thus, according to the media, Vom Rath became an instant folk hero, and as always, the Jews retained their role as the “eternal” enemy of the Germans. In the words of  Joseph Goebbels, Nazi propaganda minister, “Kristallnacht was not a government action, but a spontaneous expression of German dissatisfaction with the Jews.” With the death of Vom Rath, the Nazis were able to conjure up both the precipitator and the justification for the murder, looting and destruction.

Let us briefly review Kristallnacht’s precipitating factors beginning with the shooting of Vom Rath.  By late October 1938, Polish Jews all over Germany were being deported in cattle cars back to Poland and literally dumped on border towns along the German/Polish border without even the most basic of necessities—food, water, shelter. Before the deportations, Herschel Grynszpan had escaped from Poland to France. Like many thousands of others, he was living as an illegal immigrant. On November 7, he received a postcard from his sister who graphically depicted the family’s sub-human living conditions in the Polish border town of Zybaszyn. She pleaded for Herschel to help.

Outraged beyond measure by the news, Herschel used his last bit of cash to buy a revolver. He climbed down the subway steps and caught the express train to the German Embassy. There, he was greeted by Third Secretary, Vom Rath, who actually wanted to hear Grynspan out. Vom Rath had been unpopular with the Nazi Party for his sympathetic Jewish leanings. The rumor mill had indications that he might even be removed from his post. Yet, this was the man in German uniform that the fortunes of ill fate placed at Grynszpan’s gunpoint.

Shot three times, Vom Rath tragically paid the ultimate price for being a good German under the Nazi hierarchy. Just when a miracle was about to occur and Vom Rath showed signs of pulling through, he suddenly died. Nowhere is it substantiated, but it is believed that Vom Rath was actually poisoned by the Nazis themselves. Hitler and his henchmen were seeking just such a fallen hero that could justify an escalation of violence against the Jews in Germany. Suddenly, they had their pretext, their hero, and what the Nazis desired above all—their “collective” villain.

Documented evidence corroborates that the Nazis had been planning for sometime a “Reichspogromnacht” (a night of state-sponsored pogrom) against the Jews. The leadership was just waiting for an opportune moment and the right cover. Those carrying out the pogrom were not ordinary local German citizens, as portrayed by the press, but rather Nazi party members and SS disguised in civilian clothing. Apparently, the top Nazi leadership did not want to rely on grassroots uprisings against Jewish neighbors. Instead, party leaders previously briefed their Storm Troopers on how to dress and to what towns to travel to avoid recognition by neighbors. Members of the Gestapo, SS, and SD were ready and willing to charge when the command came down from their leader Reinhard Heydrich. The horrific scenes that followed are now well-documented.

One interesting point not generally well known is that the Nazi instructions stated implicitly that only rich Jewish males were to be arrested and sent to Dachau and other concentration camps that night. Hardly recognizable, most of these “November Jews” were released weeks later upon a huge ransom payment and a sworn statement that they would leave Germany. Apparently, the arrests were part of a successful fundraising campaign which transferred thousands of

Reichsmarks from the pockets of Jews to the Nazis. So too, the fine for the property damage on Kristallnacht was levied on all the Jews of Germany for their “crimes.” One billion Reichsmarks was made payable to the Nazi government.

One might think that the financial and other goals that the Nazi regime achieved as a result of the masterful strategic planning and execution of the Night of the Broken Glass might in some way be offset by public outcry, protests and sanctions by world leaders, particularly those of England and France. Unfortunately, the responses were limited to mostly lip service.

Words, rather than overt action, to help the Jews of Germany were the response of the day. Even President Roosevelt withdrew the US ambassador to Germany,  but did little else to support the Jews especially when it came to immigration quotas. Thus, in late 1938, perhaps something might still have been done on the part of foreign governments: gates could have been opened to the tens of thousands of  Jews who finally realized that they must flee Germany but had no place to go.

The reality that no firm stand in opposition was taken by the democratic leaders of the day emboldened the Nazi regime to press on with their program to cleanse the world of its Jews. For the Nazis, Kristallnacht became an enabler. For us, it is a lasting reminder of the futility of words in place of action. It reminds us of the power of the government and press to manipulate news and events to facilitate an agenda. Commemorating Kristallnacht in 2022 draws out a harsh reality to the Jews of America and Israel. At this election time words alone are insufficient to produce results. Deeds are the deliverable in which outcomes are measured!

About the Author
Dr. Karen Sutton is associate professor of history at the Lander College for Women, a division of Touro College, in New York City.
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