Henry Greenspan

Kristallnacht: Silence was not the problem

Condemnation, especially moralistic condemnation, easily fosters the illusion of 'doing something,' after which, one can return to not doing anything
The New York Times reports Kristallnacht, November 11, 1938
The New York Times reports Kristallnacht, November 11, 1938

In her, Beyond Belief, a study on reporting on the Holocaust in the American press, Deborah Lipstadt writes:

“In the weeks following Kristallnacht, close to 1,000 different editorials were published on the topic. Practically no American newspaper, irrespective of size, circulation, location, or political inclination failed to condemn Germany. Now even those that, prior to Kristallnacht, had been reluctant to admit that violent persecution was a permanent fixture in Nazism criticized Germany.”

Across Europe, condemnation of Nazi Germany was similarly unsparing and close to universal. With the exception of France, democratic European governments issued formal protests. But practically speaking, they did not matter.

The notion that “the world was silent” has become an unquestioned assertion in discussion about the Holocaust. The phrase was the title of the first iteration of Elie Wiesel’s Night – Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (And the World Remained Silent) – published in Yiddish in 1956. Anticipating the anniversary of Kristallnacht on November 9-10, Echoes and Reflections – the best-known Holocaust education initiative created through a collaboration between the ADL, the USC Shoah Foundation, and Yad Vashem – headlines its Kristallnacht programming, “Silence is what did the harm.” Nevertheless, at least as far as Kristallnacht, silence was not the problem. The problem was empty speech.

Indeed, one can argue that speaking out – at least from the safe distance of a newspaper or government office – can serve as a diversion from meaningful action. Condemnation, especially moralistic condemnation, easily fosters the illusion of “doing something.” After which, with clean conscience, one can return to not doing anything.

What would have been meaningful action? Most obviously, changing immigration policy in a way that would have aided Jews’ flight from Germany. For the most part, the opposite happened. As at Evian a few months earlier, there was near-universal commitment not to change immigration policy. Trying to protect its interests in the Arab world, Britain closed the doors of Palestine to fleeing Jews, and no alternative havens were imagined. The notorious voyage of the St. Louis in early 1939 became a symbol of the situation. Desperate passengers were barred from Cuba, from the United States, and finally selectively provided haven in Belgium, France, and England. Even then, the London Express warned that such generosity “must not set a precedent. There is no room for any more refugees in this country.”

The irony of protesting the brutal pogrom while rejecting asylum for its victims was not lost on Hitler himself, who made much of the hypocrisy of Germany’s critics. It seems grotesque to agree with Hitler about anything, but it is hard to disagree with him on this.

With the anniversary of Kristallnacht upon us, we will inevitably hear much – as we already have heard much – about the sin of silence. But we will hear little about the emptiness and impotence of speech alone. And that may be the most important lesson of the November pogrom.

About the Author
Henry (Hank) Greenspan is a psychologist and playwright at the University of Michigan who has been interviewing, teaching, and writing about the Holocaust and its survivors since the 1970s.
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