Every November, communities around the world hold remembrance events on the anniversary of the Nazi’s first large-scale assault on the Jews of Germany, known as Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass.
In recent years, these events have been weighted with the knowledge that anti-Semitism is on the rise across the globe. This is especially true in parts of Eastern Europe, where most Holocaust survivors have passed away, memory has been distorted, and neo-Nazi and far-right parties have been growing in influence. There, the commemorations of Kristallnacht have become fraught with conflict.
A Senate resolution introduced this week, calling for “recognition of the anniversary of Kristallnacht, and paying tribute to the more than 6,000,000 Jewish people killed during the Holocaust,” highlights the need to educate a generation far removed from the events of World War II about the evils that launched it.
Introduced by Senator Chris Murphy, D-Ct., the resolution calls for increased efforts to combat mounting Jew-hatred domestically, citing the recent assaults on Jewish places of worship in Pittsburg, Pa. and Poway, Ca., that killed twelve Jews.
“While the United States has made progress towards addressing anti-Semitism, recent events demonstrate that much work remains,” the resolution states, noting that the lessons of Kristallnacht impress upon mankind “how hate can proliferate and erode societies.”
“[Kristallnacht] must serve as a reminder,” the resolution concludes, “that the United States must advance global efforts to ensure that barbarism and mass murder never occur again.”
THE HOLOCAUST DID NOT BEGIN WITH KRISTALLNACHT
A popular misconception has gained traction in some quarters that Hitler’s war of annihilation against the Jews began with Kristallnacht in 1938. The fact is that Nazi leaders began to systematically persecute German Jews soon after Hitler came to power five years earlier.
During the first six years of Hitler’s regime, until the outbreak of war in 1939, German Jews were targeted with more than 400 hundred anti-Semitic decrees that restricted all aspects of their public and private lives. Initially, the persecutions were mostly non-violent, but the racist oppression coupled with random physical attacks led hundreds of thousands of German Jews to flee.
Historians note that the anti-Semitic legislation engaged hundreds of state, regional, and municipal officials in all levels of government. In their fervent embrace of Nazism, these German functionaries, on their own initiative, devised and enforced racist measures to further oppress Jews in their own localities. No corner of Germany was left untouched.
At their annual rally held in Nuremberg in September 1935, the Nazi leaders announced new laws which incorporated the corrupt racial theories that dominated Nazi ideology. These “Nuremberg Laws” excluded German Jews from Reich citizenship and deprived German Jews of their political rights.
In line with the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, Jewish patients were no longer admitted to municipal hospitals in some cities; German judges could not cite legal opinions written by Jewish authors; Jewish officers were expelled from the army; and Jewish university students were not allowed to take doctoral exams.
Other regulations accomplished the complete removal of Jews from German society and even historical recognition; for example, in December 1935, the Reich Propaganda Ministry issued a decree forbidding Jewish soldiers to be named among the dead in World War I memorials.
In identifying who was to be considered a Jew, the Nuremberg Laws defined anyone who had three or four Jewish grandparents as Jewish, regardless of whether the person identified or affiliated as a Jew. Many German Jews who did not practice their religion and even those who had converted to Christianity, found no refuge in their abandonment of Judaism. They, too, were caught in the grip of Nazi terror.
Government agencies at all levels aimed to impoverish German Jews by ousting them from the economic and commercial spheres and confiscating their wealth.
Jews were forced to register their domestic and foreign property and assets, a prelude to their confiscation through the process of “Aryanization. This process involved the transfer of companies and enterprises to non-Jewish Germans, who bought them at prices well below market value.
From April 1933 to April 1938, “Aryanization” gradually robbed almost all German Jews of their businesses, properties and valuables, leaving the community in increasingly dire straits. Resistance of any sort was met with severe punishment.
During these years of escalating persecution, over 300,000 German Jews left the country. As Jewish life drastically deteriorated, another 115,000 Jews managed to flee, leaving everything behind. Yet many chose to wait things out, hoping for better times, or because they could not part with elderly or ill family members.
On Nov. 9, 1938, Hitler unleashed the first country-wide aktion against German Jews. Mob violence broke out all over Germany, Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia, with Nazi paramilitary squads and ordinary citizens vandalizing and destroying Jewish-owned stores, businesses and countless private homes, smashing windows, beating people and looting.
The violence targeted Jewish places of worship all across Germany and its territories. Over a thousand shuls with their sifrei Torah and sacred books were torched. The pogrom continued into November 10, 1938, with mobs abusing and assaulting Jews in the streets and in their homes, killing 96 Jews in cold blood. The rampage culminated with the arrest of 30,000 Jewish men on the pretext of “protecting” them from the mob. Most were dragged off to concentration camps.
Nazi officials disguised the organized nature of the riots, spinning them as a spontaneous public response to the shooting of a German diplomatic official in Paris by an unstable 17-year old Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan. The youth had learned days earlier that his parents had been among thousands of Polish Jews who were expelled from Germany. Denied entry to Poland, they were forced to live in abysmal conditions in a refugee camp on the border of the two countries.
In reality, the Kristallnacht riots had been meticulously planned by Nazi officials led by Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. The violence was ready to be launched all across Germany and the territories annexed by Hitler. All that was needed was the right vehicle to cast the violence as a grassroots eruption against the Jews. The Grynszpan incident provided that pretext.
Kristallnacht did not take place in a vacuum. The carefully plotted pogrom was kept waiting in the wings until the Nazis was assured that Germany would suffer no serious international consequences from the atrocity.
This assurance came in the form of a catastrophic failure on the part of 32 nations at the Evian conference of July 1938 (organized by the United States) to propose concrete measures against the mounting oppression of German Jewry, and to assist their exodus from Europe.
The conference ended without offering the slightest aid. The diseased minds in Germany planning to unleash unimaginable horrors understood that the nations of the world would not stand in their way. Their indifference telegraphed a clear message: the Jews are not wanted.
That was the green light Hitler was waiting for.
“I REMEMBER MY MOTHER PHONING HER NON-JEWISH FRIENDS…”
Although Kristallnacht took place three years before Adolf Hitler began to implement his “final solution”—the murder of all of Europe’s Jews—the wild rampages of November 9th and 10th 1938 marked a turning point, foreshadowing the violence and mass murder that was to come.
Kristallnacht offered a terrifying vision of what lay ahead just, but one too ghastly for anyone to believe.
In 1941, Nazi anti-Jewish policy became more radical as Jews were marked with the yellow star, and the first deportation of Jews to the ghettos and camps in Poland began. Of the 180,000 Jews remaining in Germany, most were now doomed.
“The problem at the heart of Germany Jewry was that it was so much a part of German society, the Nazi blow hit it from within, shocking them to the core,” wrote the late Holocaust historian and survivor Prof. Zvi Bachrach of Israel.
“Until 1938, my parents never thought of leaving Germany. ‘There’s no way the Germans we live among will allow this to continue. It’s only isolated episodes,’ they said. That was the atmosphere. They couldn’t make sense of the Jew-hatred.”
Young Zvi was ten years old when the violence of Kristallnacht struck his hometown in Hanau, Germany. “I remember my mother standing pale and crying…” Bacharach recalled decades later in his Yad Vashem testimony. “I remember her phoning her non-Jewish friends – she had more non-Jewish friends than Jewish ones. No answer. No one answered her.”
Zvi and his family fled to Holland and in January 1942, they were arrested and deported to the infamous Westerbork transit camp. From there, on Yom Kippur, 1943, they were deported to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz.
His mother perished on the death train. In March 1945, Zvi, his father and brother were sent on a death march. Zvi’s father was shot in front of his sons during the march. The two brothers survived and were liberated by American soldiers.
GERMAN CITY DECLARES ‘NAZI EMERGENCY’
In recent years, as the last survivors of the Holocaust pass away and neo-Nazi and far-right parties proliferate across Europe, the commemoration of Kristallnacht in many cities has become fraught with conflict.
These clashes were on display during the past weekend. As Europe marked the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht in several commemorative events, a spate of anti-Semitic incidents took place.
In Sweden, Jewish communities were shocked to find dozens of yellow “Jude” badges stuck onto Jewish buildings and homes. And in Denmark the night before, at least 80 Jewish graves were desecrated at the Ostre Kirkegard cemetery in the town of Randers.
Timing their march to coincide with the Kristallacht anniversary on Nov. 9, neo-Nazis in both Berlin and the western city of Bielefeld chanted, “Zionists rule Germany,” and “Hitler was not responsible for Kristallnacht.”
In the East German city of Dresden, capital of Saxony, a German state with one of the highest levels of far-right and neo-Nazi activism, the city council declared a “Nazi emergency” last week, ahead of Kristallnacht.
The council noted that “right-wing-extremism including violence in Dresden, are occurring with increasing frequency. We have a Nazi problem in Dresden and have to do something about it.”
The Dresden-based neo-Nazi (NPD) party has amassed increasing electoral support, and in September got one of their candidates elected as mayor of a city in southwestern Germany. The move sparked angry efforts to reverse the election, ultimately compelling the neo-Nazi candidate to step down.
Neo-Nazi marches and rallies by the fast-growing PEDIGA [Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West] testify to the mounting appeal far-right groups have in Germany, particularly in territories that were formerly East Germany.
DRESDEN: RALLYING CRY FOR NEO-NAZIS
Historians ascribe the movement’s success in Dresden and surrounding areas to decades of a culture of victimhood, in which citizens of Dresden define themselves through the wartime past, when the city was fire-bombed by the Allies in the waning months of the war.
The bombing remains a rallying cry for Germany’s far right. They echo Nazi propagandists of 80 years ago who seized on the raid to criminalize the Allies for demolishing an “innocent” city of great cultural and architectural value, for the sole purpose of taking vengeance.
In reality, Dresden was Germany’s seventh largest city, an important transportation and communications hub. It was completely Nazified, with more of its citizens in the NSDAP (Nazi party) than almost any other German city.
Dresden hosted 126 factories supplying war munitions, manned by thousands of slave laborers, who were shipped from the notorious Flossenberg concentration camp. Conditions were unspeakable, with thousands dying from starvation, overwork and executions.
One of the SS factories made ammunition, including internationally banned “dum-dum” bullets. These were bullets designed to expand upon impact with a human body to cause maximum internal damage.
The Allied bombing halted all factory production, crushed German morale and helped shorten the war. With the Allies ruling the sky, flattening Germany’s largest cities one after the other, the Nazis’ surrender was inevitable. But Hitler insisted his troops fight to the death, and ordered the execution of all Jews still alive in the death camps.
Every day that surrender was delayed meant continued fighting and loss of life. For a great many of the starving, sick inmates of the death camps hanging on to the last spark of life, these delays were fatal.
Finally, with Berlin in Soviet hands, Hitler’s top deputies made the decision to ignore orders and surrender. This enraged the demented fuehrer who ordered his senior officers arrested minutes before he committed suicide in a Berlin bunker.
The Nazis’ defeat came too late for most of the 6,000 Jews of Dresden, who had been murdered in Riga, Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. The last few dozen Dresden Jews were marked for deportation to Auschwitz on Feb. 16, 1945. Another 4,000 political prisoners in a nearby town were scheduled to be executed by SS troopers the same day.
In a stunning reprieve, the Allied aerial attack on Dresden just three days ahead of that date collapsed the Nazis’ plans. The firebombing turned the city into a seething inferno, burning thousands of Germans alive and reducing bodies to ashes in the ensuing firestorm.
In the chaos, many of the Jews, and prisoners being forced by the Gestapo to dig their own mass grave, were able to escape.
After the war, the Soviet Union installed a communist puppet government in East Germany. The communist leadership found it useful to perpetuate the fiction of an unwarranted Allied attack against Dresden, casting it as a symbol of “Western aggression.” Some historians continue to espouse that view today.
Countering this narrative, a RAF bomber who took part in the raid, commented, “In Dresden, terror met terror. The Nazis had abolished all moral limits. Imagine the consequences if we had been too “honorable” to meet them on their own turf. That form of surrender would have been the ultimate war crime.”
For the next 44 years, Dresden was almost totally cut off from western influence. Decades of communist rule with its suppression of history left their legacy; the fate of the city’s Jews was totally forgotten.
After the fall of communism in 1989, Dresden became a hotbed of neo-Nazi activity, with anti-Semitic elements forming alliances with extreme far-right groups, staging anti-immigrant and anti-Israel rallies.
Today, the city that was utterly destroyed in the battle against Nazism has become the epicenter of its revival.
THE NEW GERMAN ANTI-SEMITISM
Reporting on the “new German anti-Semitism” in a May feature in the New York Times, the writer quoted Wenzel Michalski, the Jewish director of Human Rights Watch For Germany, as suggesting that post-war German society, for all its lip service, never truly reckoned with anti-Semitism deeply embedded in German culture.
“Germany restored synagogues, built memorials to the victims,” paid Holocaust restitution and outlawed Nazism, but “nobody really dealt with anti-Semitism within the family,” Michalski said. “The big, the hard, the painful questions were never asked.”
While the rabid anti-Semitism at the core of Nazism was rejected by post-war German governments and the laws of the land, those realities “do not necessarily reflect changes in long-standing anti-Semitic attitudes on the ground,” the author writes.
Few would dispute that German society today is witnessing a resurgence of grassroots anti-Semitism. Once kept underground, it is now open and unabashed, and treated with a level of tolerance that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.
Two years ago, notes the NY Times feature, the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) was elected to the German Parliament for the first time, becoming the third-largest party. Its politicians have trivialized Germany’s Holocaust “remembrance culture,” expressing scorn for what they call a “guilt cult.”
In a speech last June, one of the party’s leaders referred to the Nazi period as nothing more than “a minor stain” in over 1000 years of successful German history.”
There are 200,000 Jews living in Germany today, a nation of 82 million. In a recent European Union Survey, 85 per cent spoke of anti-Semitism in the country as a “very big” problem, one that has grown worse in the past five years.
The 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht was an occasion to assess how much has changed since 1938, and how much still needs to change. While few Jews living in Germany are ready to pack their bags, most admit to being increasingly fearful.
The Forgotten Mass Destruction of Jewish Homes
Prof. Wolf Gruner, Founding Director of the USC Shoah Foundation which contains over 55,000 survivor testimonials, has written about the Nazi assault on Jewish homes during Kristallnacht, often overlooked in historical studies of the atrocity.
Gruner found devastating details about the intensity of the destruction of private homes all over Germany that emerge from diaries, letters and testimonies from postwar trials. The Nazis, he concludes, took careful aim at the Jewish home—the last refuge and sanctuary of families suffering stifling oppression.
As evidence, he cites the long lists of Jewish addresses provided to the paramilitary SS squads and Hitler Youth, by either local Nazi officers or city officials. Armed with these lists and with axes and pistols, gangs systematically attacked apartments with Jewish tenants in big cities like Berlin, as well as private Jewish homes in small villages.
“In Nuremberg,” he writes, “attackers destroyed 236 Jewish apartments. In Dusseldorf, over 400 were vandalized. In the village of Kamp, near the Rhineland town of Boppard, attackers broke into the house of the Kaufmann family, destroyed furniture and lamps, ripped out stove pipes, and broke doors and walls. When parts of the ceiling collapsed, the family escaped to a nearby monastery.”
The documents and survivor testimonies revealed how physical abuse, beatings and murder were commonplace all across Germany. In Linz, two SA men attacked a Jewish woman. In Bremen, the SA shot and killed Selma Zwienicki in her own bedroom. In Cologne, as Moritz Spiro tried to resist a home intrusion, one of the intruders beat him and fractured his skull. Spiro died days later in the Jewish hospital.
In a letter dated Nov. 20, 1938, a Viennese woman described her family’s injuries to a relative. “You can’t imagine the scene here… Papa with a bandaged head injury, I too weak to get out of bed, everything ravaged and shattered… When the doctor arrived to treat Papa, Herta and Rosa, who were all bleeding profusely from their heads, we could not even provide him with a towel.”
The brutality of the attacks was reported in diplomatic correspondence on Nov. 15 from U.S. consul general in Stuttgart, Samuel Honaker, to the U.S. ambassador in Berlin.
“Of all the places in this section of Germany, the Jews in Rastatt near Baden-Baden have apparently been subjected to the most ruthless treatment,” Honaker wrote. “Many Jews in this section were cruelly attacked and beaten and their homes almost totally destroyed.”
Media Coverage of Kristallnacht Follows Goebbels’ Script
The propaganda ploy of making a government-orchestrated pogrom appear as a popular outburst of rage against the Jews was successful at the time, as illustrated by the Nov. 11 front page coverage of the Daily Express, a British newspaper. The headline read:
“Looting Mobs Defy Goebbles; Pogrom Goes On Till Night; Jewish Homes Fired, Women Beaten”
“All over Germany tonight, the Jews are cowering in terror,” the article began. “Their shops are wrecked and looted; their synagogues are burning. Their homes are at the mercy of mobs drunk with destruction. Not even the proclamation of Goebbles, the propaganda minister—broadcast this afternoon and again tonight—ordering the stoppage of pogroms, could cure the madness of the mobs.”
The New York Times late city edition on Nov. 11 gave a more nuanced view, identifying the marauders in its lead article as Nazis who ultimately responded to orders from Goebbels.
“Nazis Smash, Loot and Burn Jewish Shops, Temples Until Goebbels Calls Halt,” the headline read.
“All Vienna’s Synagogues Attacked; Fires and Bombs Wreck 18 of 21,” the subtitles proclaimed. “Jews Are Beaten-15,000 Jailed During the Day-20 Suicides”
A second NYT article on the same page promoted the Goebbels deception that the pogrom was sparked by public fury over the shooting death of the German diplomat Von Rath. The writer noted that police “stood idle” as the mob rampaged.
Thousands Arrested for “Protection” as Gangs Avenge Paris Death; Plunderers Trail Wreckers in Berlin; Police Stand Idle
The Nazi leadership watched the international scene for evidence that Germany would have to pay a diplomatic price for the atrocities of Kristallnacht. No reaction was forthcoming. Goebbles’ propaganda prevailed. The world’s continued silence sealed the fate of the Jews.