Coming barely a couple of days after my visit to Yad Vashem (Jerusalem’s intensely evocative and memorable Holocaust Museum), this weekend marks the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) in Nazi Germany. It was this night that showed Germany’s fatal intentions towards its Jewish population. The pretext was the 1938 assassination of the third secretary of the German embassy in Paris, Ernst Vom Rath. Vom Rath’s killer was a Jew, 17 year old Herschel Grynzspan. Grynzspan was outraged over the scandalous treatment of his parents at the hands of the Nazis and took the law into his own hands. His actions served as a pretext for mass violence across Germany.
Though conditions were ripe for such a reaction, Kristallnacht would have been inconceivable barely two years earlier. Indeed in February 1936 a young Jewish man David Frankfurter assassinated Wilhelm Gustloff, the Nazi Gauleiter for Switzerland. There was no obvious backlash to Frankfurter’s action. Even though Vom Rath was a lower ranking Nazi official than Gustloff (who headed up a country’s Nazi apparatus), conditions had changed drastically by November 1938. It was now easy to enact, what today’s Jerusalem Post called “brutal vandalism [against] the Jewish community”.
Germany had been exposed to a steady barrage of anti-Jewish propaganda since 1933 with the Nuremburg Laws of 1935 relegating Jews to second-class citizens. The law and propaganda worked hand in hand to crush Jewish life. Authorities rushed to become “Judenreit” (Jew free) and movies and cartoons portrayed Jews as vermin, extortionists and rapists.
The world beyond Germany tacitly participated in this downgrading of an entire race of people. The 1938 Evian Conference held in the French Alps was called to discuss the growing problem of Jewish refugees anxious to get away from the troubles of the Third Reich. However none of the countries attending the conference were anxious to take the Jews in. As an exhibit in Yad Vashem points out, Australia does not come out well from this shameful conference. Australia’s representative T.W.White is quoted as saying “We have done all we can. Australia does not have a racial problem and is not desirous of importing one”. His view was mirrored by the other western powers. A Nazi observer returned to Berlin overjoyed with the news he gave Hitler. “you can do what you like with the Jews, no one is interested in them,” he told the Fuhrer.
This view was reinforced by the experience of the SS St Louis. The St Louis set sail from Hamburg with its cargo of 900 refugees. Its destination was Havana and Cuba had already issued visas in advance, on the understanding the visitors were tourists not refugees. However by the time the boat landed in Havana, the Cuban government had changed its mind and refused to allow the refugees land. The boat then drifted off Florida waters before it became obvious US authorities were not going to allow it to land either. The captain had no alternative but to set sail back for Hamburg. But when the passengers threatened to commit mass suicide, the captain landed in Belgium and homes were grudgingly found for the Jews in Belgium, Holland, France and Britain.
There was an upsurge in anti-Jewish violence after Evian. On 30 October 1938, Germany expelled 20,000 Polish Jews who did not have German citizenship. Among these were Grynzspan’s parents. Young Herschel wanted to call world attention to the plight of these people and acquired a gun with which he intended to kill the German ambassador. As this proved impossible he shot Vom Rath instead on 4 November. Iironically Vom Rath had been under Gestapo surveillance for having Jewish sympathies. He died two days later from his wounds.
Vom Rath’s shooting was the perfect pretext to launch a major action against Germany’s Jews. The day he died, Gestapo headquarters sent out a sinister message to all its staff: “At very short notice actions against Jews, especially against synagogues, will take place throughout Germany. They are not to be hindered.”
The “actions” received popular support. The night of 9 November 1938 became known as Kristallnacht with many Germans zealously supporting the Nazis in targeting the Jewish community. 267 synagogues were gutted by fire, 7,000 Jewish shops were looted, 91 Jews were killed and anywhere between 20,000 and 200,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Insurance reports estimated the damage caused by shattered glass at $6m. Goering publicly regretted the action but went on to impose a penalty of 1 billion Reichmarks ($400m) to be paid by the Jewish community for the damage caused to them.
His regret was about the violence’s amateur nature. From then on, violence against the Jews would be left to the specialists. The road to the Wansee Conference and the Final Solution was already laid out. Already the Manchester Guardian of August 1938 announced the existence of three concentration camps at Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. When told of Kristallnacht, American president Franklin Roosevelt said “I could scarcely believe such things could occur in 20th century civilisation”. But civilisation or not, things were to get a lot worse than this for the Jews during FDR’s watch.