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Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass)

In October 1938, Germany was trying to return around 50,000 Polish Jews to Poland. Poland refused to take them. German police dragged some 3,000 Polish Jews from their homes and put them onto trains destined for the German-Polish border. At the border the Poles pushed the Jews back and for a couple of days the Jews were left between the borders, in the rain and mud. The Poles relented and allowed the Jews entry, to an animal stable, where, on the third day a little bread was dumped on them – their first food in three days.

A young Polish Jew who had grown up in Germany and was illegally in Paris, Herschel Grynszpan, was outraged. He learned by letter that his family had been among the deported. On the 7th of November, he bought a handgun and bullets and went to the German Embassy where he put five rounds into a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath. (Had he known vom Rath he might have wished to take revenge against some other German. Vom Rath was one of those Germans who was not anti-Semitic, and he had enough contempt for Hitler's policies that he was willing to damage his career as a diplomat.) It was another foolish act with unfortunate consequences.

Herschel Grynszpan's act gave the German government an excuse to retaliate against Jews collectively. Jewish children were barred from state-run elementary schools. Jewish cultural activities were indefinitely suspended. The government halted the publication of Jewish newspapers and magazines, including the three national German Jewish newspapers.

Rath died on November 9th. Germany's Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, sent his country's deplorables on a mission against the Jews, and also on the 9th, according to Britannica, Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller sent a telegram to all police units informing them that "in shortest order, actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all of Germany. These are not to be interfered with."

That attacks began in the early morning hours of November 10, to be known as the "Night of the Broken Glass — Kristallnacht. Britannica describes it as follows:

In two days and nights, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned or otherwise damaged. Rioters ransacked and looted about 7,500 Jewish businesses, killed at least 91 Jews, and vandalized Jewish hospitals, homes, schools, and cemeteries. The attackers were often neighbours. Some 30,000 Jewish males aged 16 to 60 were arrested. To accommodate so many new prisoners, the concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen were expanded.
Many Germans didn't like what they saw. Wikipedia writes:
The reaction of non-Jewish Germans to Kristallnacht was varied. Many spectators gathered on the scenes, most of them in silence. The local fire departments confined themselves to preventing the flames from spreading to neighbouring buildings. In Berlin, police Lieutenant Otto Bellgardt barred SA troopers from setting the New Synagogue on fire, earning his superior officer a verbal reprimand from the commissioner. The British historian Martin Gilbert believes that "many non-Jews resented the round up", his opinion being supported by German witness Dr. Arthur Flehinger who recalls seeing "people crying while watching from behind their curtains". The extent of the damage was so great that many Germans are said to have expressed their disapproval of it, and to have described it as senseless.

In response to Kristallnacht, British newspapers editorialized that Germany had returned to the Dark Ages, that Germany had engaged in an "orgy of savagery" that would send a chill of horror throughout the civilized world. In the United States, former president Hoover spoke out against the attacks, as did the former governor of New York, Alfred Smith, and New York's District Attorney, Thomas Dewey. Union members agreed to tithe part of their earnings for the victims. School children took up collections from their classmates. The journalist Dorothy Thompson began to rally help for Herschel Grynszpan. In response to Kristallnacht, President Roosevelt expressed dismay and horror. He sent a protest to Germany and brought his ambassador to Germany home for consultations. The American Legion endorsed Roosevelt's statement, as did the CIO labor organization. Prominent movie stars – Fred Astaire, Claudette Colbert and Bette Davis – spoke out against the brutalities, Bette Davis suggesting that the US sever all economic ties with Hitler's Germany.

Support among US citizens for the appeasement policy of Britain's prime minister, Chamberlain, diminished. In a Gallup poll that month, 94 percent expressed disapproval of "Nazi treatment of Jews." In that same poll, 97 percent disapproved of "Nazi treatment of Catholics." Also, Charles Lindbergh, who admired much that was German, was perplexed by Germany's treatment of the Jews as expressed during Kristallnacht. He could not, he said, understand why the Germans were handling their "Jewish problem" unreasonably.

In Germany the economics minister, Walter Funk, declared that it had become a disgrace to be a German. Senior army generals – Stulpnagel, von Hanneken and von Roth – demanded an audience with Hitler. Hitler refused to see them, and the generals complained instead to the leading National Socialist Hermann Goering, President of the Reichstag, telling him that the persecutions of Jews were a dishonor to Germany and that Jews who wanted to leave Germany should be allowed to do so with their capital. Goering was also upset. He complained that he had been asking people to save empty toothpaste tubes and bent screws and in only one night millions and millions of marks worth of merchandise had been stupidly destroyed.

On November 21, Hitler took a step toward what he must have thought was a correction. He ordered the release of several hundred Jews from concentration camps. There are reports that Hitler castigated Goebbels for Kristallnacht, aware of its effect on public opinion abroad.

As for opinion among National Socialist Party members, after Kristallnacht the psychologist Michael Müller-Claudius interviewed 41 randomly selected Party members on their attitudes towards racial persecution, and 63 percent expressed indignation against it while only 5 percent expressed their approval. Sarah Ann Gordon, author of Hitler, Germans, and the Jewish Question (published in 1984) observes that by 1938 large numbers of Germans had joined the Nazi Party for pragmatic reasons rather than ideology, diluting the percentage of rabid anti-semites in the Party.

Kristallnacht, meanwhile, inspired a number of Jewish Germans to get out of Germany, people who otherwise would have perished in Hitler's concentration camps. In the United States the issue of immigration had risen, and in the winter of 1938-39 some people denounced helping what they called "refu-jews." Seventy-one to eighty-five percent of those Americans polled opposed increasing national immigration quotas. Sixty-seven percent of those polled opposed admitting any refugees to the United States, and sixty-seven opposed a one-time admission of ten thousand refugee children. Roosevelt acquiesced to public opinion and did nothing to help change immigration quotas. A bill to admit 20,000 refugee children won no backing from Roosevelt and died in Congress. In private, however, Roosevelt was concerned about Jewish refugees and angered by Great Britain's appeasing Arab opposition to an increase in immigration to Palestine.


CONTINUE READING: Hitler and War to October 1939

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