Karen Sutton

Premeditating Kristallnacht: The So-Called Pogrom

For the few of you who may think that the violence and destruction of the “Night of the Broken Glass,” or “Kristallnacht,” was the work of the outraged masses of ordinary Germans, this post may come as a complete surprise.  All the documentary and circumstantial evidence points to the contrary. The event was planned and orchestrated by the top Nazi leadership, as evidenced by the secret telegram sent by Reynard Heydrich, Chief of the SS, during the afternoon of November 9th. It  gave instructions to local Nazi headquarters (SD) to  carry out the measures against Jews beginning after nightfall. It called for synchronized attacks throughout the German cities, ordered police and firefighters to do nothing unless German property was involved, and finally, readied barracks in Dachau and Buchenwald to accommodate the more than 20,000 Jewish men of mostly wealthy status, who would soon be arrested and incarcerated there.

For most of you this is no surprise.  What I am suggesting, is that another look at who is ultimately responsible is in order.  Perhaps we can’t just blame Goebbels and Himmler and Heydrich for the escalation of violence against Jews that began November 9/10 1938.

Given  attempts on the part of current national leaders to manipulate and mobilize popular sentiment towards carrying out a political agenda, we ordinary people can’t step back and just watch what takes place on the streets and sidewalks. We, the people, are responsible for how events play out here and now.

On November 9, 1938, the horrors were orchestrated by the Nazi party leaders and carried out by stormtroopers, SS and Gestapo.  However, throngs of indifferent people lined the curbs, forming a lane of gapers.  They did not actually do the burning, beating, breaking or shattering of people’s lives or property that fateful night.  In fact, they did little of anything.  They stood by and watched while the synagogues, stores and homes of former classmates, neighbors and friends, were destroyed.  This is not always the case, in history; there are times when masses of people defy orders from above and decide to do the right thing.

However, the German leadership had masterfully prepared the mass mentality for a lack of response when the time came. The passive attitude and behavior, first among the German people and then the world, must take a hefty responsibility for Kristallnacht and later the Holocaust.

The near total passivity of the German populace to the horrors they collectively and individually witnessed on Kristallnacht can be explained by the fact that they were already acclimated to growing discriminatory measures against Jews in the five years preceding 1938.  And in experiencing the defaming of Jews, Germans felt a heightening of their own worth and value. The Nazi cultural resurgence that took place in Germany beginning in  1933 created a “born again German.”  Even the most humble German felt he was a member of the “elite” and therefore superior to and more entitled to the “good life” than any Jew.

Thus, the misfortunes of others was an acceptable price to pay. For the racially mixed, it meant forced sterilization in 1935.  For the congenitally challenged it meant euthanasia, which was eventually halted in 1938 due to religious pressure.  For the Jews, it meant the boycott, the Aryanization of Jewish property, the restrictions of Jews in participating in the cultural life and everyday activities of Germans. “No Jews on park benches, swimming pools, the stripping of German citizenship” had all been antecedents to Kristallnacht.  On the part of the non-German people each was “a call to inaction.”

General violence had not yet manifested itself against Jews. However, on that cold November night, the typical German was apparently ready to continue the do-nothing policy when the next step emerged– physical attacks and mass removal of Jews from German society.   I blame the masses of Germans for allowing that timeline and sequence of abuses to prevail and grow stronger.

International newspapers covered the story with outrage and foreign governments also expressed anger and condemnation for the night’s activities.  Although President Roosevelt announced that he was withdrawing his ambassador to Germany, neither the U.S. nor any other government, with the exception of England, which allowed 12,000 Jewish children to emigrate there, presented any solutions to aid the thousands of Jews who were now trying to get out of Germany. Kristallnacht serves as a harsh warning to the people of America about the power of government and press manipulation. We must constantly be vigilant in what we are doing and what we are not doing to fight acts of hate and injustice on any scale wherever they occur.



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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