Karen Sutton

Orchestrating Kristallnacht: From Vom Rath to Wrath

On the 81st  anniversary of “the beginning of the end” for the Jews of Europe, almost all of us are now aware that Kristallnacht, November 9/10 1938, was not the “spontaneous outburst of rage by the German people against the Jews” as proclaimed by the Nazis in the press releases immediately following the event.  The paper trail of official Nazi records reveal a plethora of factual evidence recording that the horrific violence and destruction of that night were well-planned and orchestrated by Nazi government agencies, mainly the Gestapo and S.S., prior to that night of widespread mob violence.  Ordinary police and fire departments throughout the towns and cities of Germany and Austria were also previously informed and instructed to stand by and watch except for cases where Christian property might be damaged.

Rank and file members of the Nazi party who had previously signed on to participate in actions against Jews were notified earlier in the evening of November 9th to be ready to enjoy a night of smashing, breaking, burning and brutalizing.  Cleverly, when given their order, Nazi volunteers were bused and trucked to neighboring cities and towns to avoid recognition from the local citizens.  Beginning on the night of November 9th and “working” through the wee hours of the morning of November 10th these  party activists were successful in destroying over about 7,000 Jewish shops and businesses.

Windows of homes and apartments, anything Jews owned could be broken.  Possessions were smashed and thrown on the sidewalks and streets. Remnants of toys and dolls along with valuable china and crystal lay piled higher and deeper forming barricades of precious possession, now only ruins.  In all, 300 synagogues were torched with Torah scrolls and sacred books either burned by hand-held torches or ripped apart by crude man-made bladed tools.

Silence from Ordinary Germans

A crowd of gapers gathered along the piles of refuge on the main streets.  Many eyewitnesses state that they just wanted to get a better view of what was going on right in front of their eyes. Accounts from both Jews and Christians state that most of the local population just stood by and watched.  Some were good friends and neighbors of Jews who stated that there was little they could do to stop the frenzy.  However, contrary to Nazi propaganda reports, ordinary Germans neither rendered assistance to Jews nor participated in the horrific events that were later dubbed Kristallnacht.  Unfortunately, their silence spoke loudly to both the victims and perpetrators.  Later, when even more horrific events would occur, silence would again  be the operative word of the day.

About 25,000 Jewish men were arrested that night.  Most of these “November Jews,” targeted for their wealth were sent to Dachau and Buchenwald.  After being starved and beaten, those imprisoned in camps returned home in a broken state after only a few long weeks.  Some family members record that their loved ones had aged beyond recognition during their relatively short incarceration. The Nazis extracted a hefty ransom to release the November Jews whose families could afford to pay and acquire the necessary documents indicating that they would emigrate shortly.  Ironically, some booked passage on the SS St Louis, the ship that was forced to turn back from Cuba to Europe.

The Financial Toll of Kristallnacht

Hermann Goring stated that the Jews themselves would be forced to pay for the massive damage of Kristallnacht and that any insurance claims due to them would be confiscated by the State. To add insult to injury, he also ordered Jews to clean up the layers of broken glass that lay strewn on the sidewalks and gutter.

In sum, financially and otherwise, Kristallnacht may be assessed as a win/win for the Nazis. Unlike the 1933 Boycott of Jewish Stores, Kristallnacht was a highly successful financial venture with large sums of money transferring into the pockets of the Nazis. It proved a catalyst for getting Jews to emigrate from Germany, and demonstrated concretely to the world just how much wrath the ordinary Germans had against their Jewish countrymen.  Most germane to Hitler’s plan to make the world “Judenrein” is that although leaders and the press in America and England expressed shock and outrage at the horror of Krystallnacht, very few did anything of substance to support Jewish victims or sanction Hitler.

The Murder of Vom Rath

We now know that events depicting the life and death of the diplomat, Ernst Vom Rath might also have been largely fictionalized by the Nazis. In life, Rath was not a Nazi and, in fact, opposed anti-Semitism.  After Grynszpan shot the 3rd Secretary to the German Consul in Paris several times, Vom Rath was seriously wounded but not yet on death’s bed.  Evidence suggests his condition was slightly improving the day after he was shot. No proven data supports the assertion that the Nazis had a hand in the death of Vom Rath, yet when he died on the following day, November 9th), it was certainly in their best interests.  He was portrayed as dying a hero’s death with a hero’s funeral.  This occasion would provide the “just cause” that “moved” millions of Germans to violently act out their wrath against Jews. As horrendous as Herschel Grynszpan’s actions may have been, he was not responsible for Kristallnacht.

And now a word on what precipitated Grynszpan to commit the heinous murder.  On November 7th Grynszpan, living in Paris without papers, received a letter from his sister. He became crazed with anger and wrath.  The letter spoke of the inhuman conditions his family was experiencing after suddenly being deported by the Germans to Poland.  In late October 1938, the Grynszpan family along with thousands of other Jews of Polish descent living in Germany were forcibly removed from their homes and transported in cattle cars to Poland.  Apparently. the Poles didn’t want these Jews either. So they were simply dumped along the border.  The letter told of how desperate his family was without adequate shelter, food, water or sanitation.

In a fit of rage, Grynszpan bought a gun and took the metro to the German Embassy.  He shot the first German official he came upon, who happened to be the 3rd Secretary.  The subsequent Nazi ruse that Grynszpan’s actions gave rise to became known as the Night of the Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht. Grynszpan himself was placed in a French prison and never actually tried for his crime. His actual fate is unknown, though most records place his death as some time before the end of the war.

Hitler used the events leading to Kristallnacht, and indeed Kristallnacht itself, as a political weapon blaming the all the Jews of Germany for killing a German diplomat.  That his accusations were blatantly exaggerated, and the facts manipulated made, little difference at the end of that November 9th day.  Whether the majority really believed him was not really the operative.  They supported him and had the means and ability to make Hitler’s wildest dreams come true.  Perhaps in closing,  the title of the new Auschwitz exhibit at the Holocaust museum in New York, can also be applied to this event,  “Kristallnacht– not long ago, not far away.”

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