On November 9-10, 1938, Nazi storm troopers throughout Germany and Austria went into Jewish homes and ransacked them; they marauded through the streets, breaking the windows of Jewish-owned stores and looting merchandise; they set fire to synagogues; they randomly attacked Jewish men, women and children and they arrested thousands of men. When the violence ended, at least 96 Jews were dead, 1,300 synagogues and 7,500 businesses were destroyed, and countless Jewish cemeteries and schools were vandalized. A total of 30,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. The broken glass strewn through the streets from the mayhem led the pogrom to be called “Crystal Night” or Kristallnacht.
Some Germans claimed after the war that they did not know what the Nazis were doing to the Jews. On Kristallnacht, for the first and only time during the Third Reich, historian Ian Kershaw observed, “the German public was confronted directly on a nation-wide scale with the full savagery of the attack on the Jews.” After Kristallnacht, a member of the Hitler Youth admitted, “no German old enough to walk could ever plead ignorance of the persecution of the Jews, and no Jews could harbor any delusion that Hitler wanted Germany anything but judenrein, clean of Jews.”
While many Americans would also feign ignorance about what happened during the Holocaust, claiming they were unaware of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, the events of November 10 were well documented. The New York Times ran a story on the front page on November 11: “A wave of destruction, looting, and incendiarism unparalleled in Germany since the Thirty Years War and in Europe generally since the Bolshevist Revolution swept over Great Germany today as National Socialist cohorts took vengeance on Jewish shops, offices and synagogues for the murder by a young Polish Jew of Ernst vom Rath, third secretary of the German Embassy in Paris.” Another Times story was headlined, “All Vienna’s Synagogues Attacked.”
Franklin Roosevelt made no immediate comment after Kristallnacht and referred questions about it to the State Department. It was only after five days of widespread public outrage that he took any action. He recalled the U.S. ambassador from Germany and held a press conference in which he proclaimed, “The news of the past few days from Germany has deeply shocked public opinion in the U.S. Such news from any part of the world would inevitably produce a similar profound reaction among American people in every part of the nation. I myself could scarcely believe that such things could happen in a 20th century civilization….”
Roosevelt agreed to allow 15,000 German Jews who were already in the United States to remain, but he resisted all calls to increase the overall quota of immigrants allowed to come from the Nazi-occupied countries. Equally significant, his failure to take any action against Germany, or to mobilize an international coalition to challenge Hitler, sent the message that the world would not intervene to save the Jews. How much he could have done given the isolationist and xenophobic mood of the American public at that time is debatable, but the consequences of his doing nothing were demonstrably catastrophic.
On January 21, 1939, Hitler told the Czech foreign minister, “We are going to destroy the Jews.” Nine days later he spoke of “the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe.”
By the time the war started in September 1939, most Jews, about 370,000, had escaped Germany and Austria. The 175,000 who remained were viewed by the Nazis as hostages in case the Jews outside Germany were considering any vengeful acts.
The deportation of German Jews to their deaths began in October 1941. At the end of April 1943, 150 Jewish children who had been living on a farm training to be Zionist pioneers were deported in one of the final transports of German Jews. Most died in concentration camps. Fewer than 10,000 of the 131,800 German Jews targeted for extermination by the Nazis survived. Of the 43,700 Austrian Jews who had failed to escape the Nazis, fewer than 2,000 returned to their homes after the war.
On this 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht we should be reminded of Edmund Burke’s warning: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Mitchell Bard is author of 48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/Dawn of the Holocaust – An Oral History