Massye Kestenbaum

Kristallnacht and Today: The Jewish Return to History

Surveying damage to a Jewish shop in Berlin. November 10, 1938. Credit: AP Photo/File.
Surveying damage to a Jewish shop in Berlin. November 10, 1938. Credit: AP Photo/File.

Over the past few days, the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, has been marked across the world. For many, Kristallnacht marks a defining moment in the history of the German Reich. Racial hatred and separation had already become enshrined in law, but now deliberate action was being taken by the masses. The Nazi SS and SA paramilitary groups, with widespread participation by German civilians, conducted the largest pogrom modern Europe had ever seen. They destroyed hundreds of synagogues, ransacked thousands of Jewish businesses, lynched nearly 100 Jews and sent over 30,000 Jews to concentration camps. Any shred of security a German Jew might have felt, was now destroyed. It was now clear to all – Nazi ideology was not a theoretical construct or means of attracting voters. Hitler meant what he said.

No event in the history of Germany Jewry during the Nazi period was so widely reported as it was happening.[1] Accordingly, Western outrage was swift and immediate. The New York Times decried, the Germans perpetrated, ‘Scenes which no man can look upon without shame for the degradation of his species’.[2] The Archbishop of Canterbury launched a call to action, declaring that, ‘There are times when the mere instincts of humanity make silence impossible’.[3] Even American president Franklin Roosevelt stated that he, ‘Could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th century civilization’.[4]

Synagogue in Hanover, Germany, destroyed during Kristallnacht. Credit: Public Domain.

Yet, despite the well-documented attacks of Kristallnacht, the clear line between Nazi ideology and intentions, and the sympathy of global public opinion, very little was done to help the Jews of Germany. Britain and France were committed to their policy of appeasement, which they tragically believed would save Europe from a wider war. Across the Atlantic, America had no interest in embroiling itself in foreign conflicts. Much of the world was still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression; anti-immigrant sentiment was at a peak, precluding widespread emigration.[5] While there was no shortage of thoughts and prayers sent to the Jews, the Chosen People ultimately had to face the Nazi tempest on their own.

While the world failed in not doing more, it is important to consider the context in which any nation-state operates. A national leader’s primary objective is to ensure the security and prosperity of his people. Anti-Semitism did indeed play a role in many governments’ failure to stand up for the persecuted German Jews, but these countries did ultimately have their own strategic goals, and challenging the bellicose Nazi state did not count among them. The plight of foreign nationals, however heartrending, did not change the calculus of countries’ obligations towards their own people. Thus, without a state-protector of their own, the Jews were left to their own devices.[6] Over the next six years, Europe’s nine million Jews would be dehumanized and enslaved; over two thirds murdered with most survivors left as homeless, traumatized refugees.

85 years after the events of Kristallnacht, another anti-Semitic group has proven that its ideology of Jew-hatred is not theoretical. Once again, the attacks were widely documented in real time, by both sides, with evidence of the atrocities still strewn across swathes of southern Israel. Just as in 1938, most political leaders are silent. As each country considers how it can best benefit from the chaos, the Jews again largely find themselves bereft of genuine international support; in most cases, cautious words about ‘both sides’ and ‘right to defense’ along with an unspoken hope that the unrest won’t disrupt a politician’s chances of reelection are the best that can be hoped for. As opposed to the aftermath of Kristallnacht, opinion on the street is even more dismal than in the halls of power, with gross expressions of anti-Semitism unleashed across the streets of Western metropolises.[7]

An anti-Semitic placard at a rally in Warsaw, October 21st, 2023. Credit: X via @Mylovanov

America, along with Germany and Britain, stand out in their support of Israel. Like in 1938, the US President expressed horror at the massacres that took place against the Jews. Unlike 1938, President Biden has taken direct and practical steps to assist Israel in defending itself, from dispatching warships to the Mediterranean to sending generals to debrief the IDF on their experiences fighting in the Taliban’s tunnels. The gratitude Israelis harbor towards Biden is immense, especially in light of the deep empathy and moral clarity they wish their own leader was capable of in the days of mid-October.

However, when push comes to shove, America’s primary strategic objective is to ensure the security and prosperity of its citizens. It is hard to imagine a more supportive president than Biden, yet already evident in press statements and military leaks are America’s efforts to balance the events in the Middle East with its desire to increase its focus on the Indo-Pacific region as well as appease its concerned allies, some of whom being inherently antagonistic to the Jewish state. America can be as reliable as its internal strategies allow – but not more than that.

The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford and the USNS Laramie in the eastern Mediterranean Sea on Oct. 11, 2023. Credit: Jackson Adkins, U.S. Navy.

Even with US support, the political environment of Western politics is in flux. Changing demographics, academic detachment, culture wars, growing regional isolationism and a baffling blind spot for Jews on the part of social justice activists all threaten Western support for Jews and Israel. No issue can remain in stasis indefinitely, least among them the constantly bubbling cauldron of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment. The security felt by many Jews in America is no more or less guaranteed than the belonging offered to Jews by the Weimar Republic in 1920’s Germany. Thousands of years of Jewish history have made it abundantly that when it comes to protection, the only long-term certainty is uncertainty.

All these thoughts coalesce when looking 85 years back in time. Two horrors of historic proportion, two mega-pogroms, linked in their similarity and tragedy. Yet a key difference of incalculable significance stands to separate the two from each other. 85 years ago, the Jews were fundamentally helpless, with no one to fight for their cause. Today, the Jewish people can act, fight for, and defend their interests. With an army, diplomatic corps, geopolitical strategists, and governance, no Jew needs to rely solely on the goodwill of others.

 Many Israelis have been spending the better part of a year locking heads with one another about the developing character their country. These debates and discussions remain important– but the catastrophe of October 7th has laid bare the immeasurable gap between a people with a state and those without (consider the Kurds, Yoruba and Uyghurs).

Israel’s ability to unequivocally pursue its interests and defend its people – whether in Israel or beyond – is a blessing that the Jewish people had gone without for almost 2,000 years. Centuries of persecution and suffering, groveling and wandering, are no more. The inability of Jews to control their own fate, culminating in Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, is no more. The meaning behind the famous expression, ‘Am Yisrael Chai’, sang, shouted and whispered by countless Jews across the world, can perhaps best be expressed as, ‘We have agency’.

Israeli F-16s fly over Tel-Aviv. Credit: IDF archive.

Even as victims’ bodies have not yet been identified, and hostages sit in dank, dark tunnels, millions of voices howl with a self-righteous rage of Jew-hatred and intolerance. If history serves as a guide, anti-Semitism will persist. And sadly, even the strongest of security measures and precautions can sometimes be overcome. Israel and the Jewish people are engaged in a physical, intellectual, and moral struggle for their future. Ultimately, while we cannot know what will happen – especially considering the miserable selection of options – we do know one thing. The Jews are no longer powerless victims of oppression, incapable of response. They have returned to the global stage. Once again as in a bygone age, they will make their own history. Am Yisrael Chai.

[1] Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction. New York 2006, pp. 13-14.

[2] New York Times, November 11th, 1938. ‘Great Germany’, p. 24.

[3] Cosmo Gordon Lang, Letters to the Editor. Times, November 12, 1938.

[4] Roosevelt, press conference, November 15th, 1938.

[5] The greatest exception to the refusal to admit visas to German Jews was the British Kindertransport program, which would result in the relocation and survival of approximately 10,000 children. Even in this exceptional case of humanitarianism, the limits of Britain’s goodwill are evident; Britain would only provide visas – the financial and logistical burdens would be borne by the Jewish and humanitarian groups involved in the operation.

[6] Again, it is important to reiterate that almost every single country could have done more without threatening their strategic objectives. Striking the balance between national aims and humanitarian causes is an effort that lasts until the present day.

[7] It is important to note, however, that the levels of anti-Israel sentiment expressed on social media are not as extreme in real life. Still, it points to a worrying future, as social media is essentially a mirror to the youth. See, ‘Israel is more popular than social-media posts suggest’. Economist, November 2, 2023.

About the Author
Massye Kestenbaum is a Judaica specialist and licensed tour guide in Israel. Working at Kestenbaum & Company - a family-run auction house of rare Judaica - and guiding groups through the Holy Land, he encounters people, artifacts and places from all corners of the Jewish historical experience.
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