In our collective memory of the Holocaust, Kristallnacht occupies a central but ambiguous place. If you look simply at the statistics, there is little reason why the events of November 9-10, 1938, should loom so large. According to the Nazis themselves, 91 Jews were killed in the nationwide pogrom that became known as the “Night of Broken Glass.” That figure, as Alan Steinweis points out in his illuminating new study Kristallnacht 1938, “included neither Jewish suicides nor the significantly larger number of Jews who were arrested in connection with the pogrom and would die in concentration camps in the following weeks and months.” But even when we remember that 30,000 Jewish men were arrested—about 10 percent of the entire Jewish population of Germany—Kristallnacht pales in comparison with later Nazi crimes. Why do Jews—and, as Steinweis points out, Germans—continue to remember Kristallnacht as a uniquely terrible event, even though the broken glass was followed, within a few years, by gas chambers and death camps?
To capture the full significance of Kristallnacht, it is necessary to see the pogrom not in hindsight, but through contemporary eyes—and that is the achievement of Steinweis’s short but revelatory book. Knowing what came after, we tend to see the pogrom of November 1938 as a prelude to genocide; but to those who lived through it, it was precisely the unprecedented quality of Kristallnacht that made it so momentous. For the previous six years, Hitler’s regime had persecuted Jews, driven them from their jobs, segregated them socially and legally, and compelled almost half the Jewish population of Germany to emigrate. But not until the night of November 9 did it become clear that the Jews in Germany were doomed—that there was no way for them to continue living in the midst of a population that applauded and connived in their destruction.
Kristallnacht 1938 offers a succinct narration of the well-known events leading up to the pogrom. On Monday, November 7, at 9:35 in the morning, a 17-year-old Jew named Herschel Grynszpan “presented himself to the receptionist at the German Embassy in Paris. A few minutes later, Grynszpan shot Ernst vom Rath, a 29-year-old junior diplomat.” When the French police asked him why he had done it, he replied, “I acted because of love for my parents and for my people, who were subjected unjustly to outrageous treatment.”
Herschel’s parents, Sendel and Rifka Grynszpan, were among the 18,000 Polish Jews living in Germany who, two weeks earlier, had been rounded up and deported across the Polish border. Because the Poles didn’t want the Jewish émigrés any more than the Germans did, the two “were compelled to live in the no-man’s land between the two countries, subject to the elements and with little food,” Steinweis writes. It was this treatment—a vivid demonstration of the Jews’ pariah status in Europe—that led Grynszpan to protest to the police, “It is not, after all, a crime to be Jewish. I am not a dog. I have a right to live. My people have a right to exist on this earth.”
To Grynszpan, then, the shooting of vom Rath was intended to make a clear political statement: it was an act of Jewish revenge against the Nazis. Ironically, the Nazis were only too glad to take that explanation at face value. It allowed them to make the ineffectual lashing-out of a helpless refugee sound like a strategic offensive in the war between Germany and “international Jewry.” At around 9:30 p.m., Steinweis shows in his meticulous reconstruction, the German News Agency—an arm of Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry—sent a memo to the nation’s newspapers, instructing them on how to report the crime. “Not only was the guilt of ‘international Jewry’ obvious,” Steinweis writes, “but so was its motive: ‘the extermination of National Socialist Germany.’” And if the Jews were collectively responsible for Grynszpan’s action, then “it would be ‘right and proper’ if ‘Jewry in Germany were to be called to account for the shooting in the Paris embassy.’” It is a characteristic example of the diabolical logic of Nazi anti-Semitism: the Nazis victimized German Jews, and if Jews abroad protested, it was proof of the international conspiracy that justified the victimization in the first place.
The news from Paris led to a few local anti-Jewish riots in Germany, notably in the city of Kassel. But it was not until November 9, when the news came that vom Rath had died of his wounds, that the highest Nazi leadership decided to call for a nationwide pogrom. One of the major strengths of Steinweis’s study is the way he places this decision in the context of contemporary politics, both domestic and international. It so happened that November 9, 1938 was the 15th anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s first attempt at a coup against the Weimar Republic, which ended with his imprisonment. Every year, veteran Nazis gathered in Munich to retrace the events of that day and remember the men who had been killed.
When vom Rath died, just as this blood ritual was underway, Steinweis writes, “he … became the newest martyr for the Nazi cause.” That afternoon, according to Goebbels’s diary, Hitler decided to declare open season on the Jews: “I describe the situation to the Führer. He decides: let the demonstrations continue. Withdraw the police. For once the Jews should feel the rage of the people.” As always, Hitler was acting with his larger political and military ambitions in mind. Less than six weeks earlier, he had won a diplomatic victory with the Munich Agreement, in which Britain and France acquiesced in Germany’s annexation of part of Czechoslovakia. This emboldened Hitler to prepare for the war that was soon to come and made him less concerned than ever about foreign reaction to Nazi persecutions of the Jews. As Steinweis writes, “Hitler no longer recognized a need for discretion in matters of Jewish policy.”
Accordingly, on the night of November 9th, at a “comradely evening” for senior Nazis at Munich’s Old Town Hall, Goebbels instructed the leadership of the Party, the SS, and the paramilitary SA that “Jewish businesses be destroyed and synagogues set ablaze. The police were not to interfere, and fire departments were to intervene only to protect ‘Aryan’ property.” The haste with which this decision was made, and the informal way it was handed down, were typical of the improvisatory nature of Nazi rule. As Steinweis shows, after Goebbels’s remarks his listeners hurried back to their hotels to find telephones, in order to relay instructions to their subordinates back home. These orders made their way down the party hierarchy during the evening and night of November 9; the violence began that night, and continued until the following afternoon, when Goebbels issued an order to halt it.
In such chaotic circumstances, it was inevitable that two parts of Hitler’s mandate—that no Jews should be killed, and that there should be no looting—would be garbled or overlooked. In fact, “the acts of violence on November 9 and 10 were committed primarily by members of the SA,” which was less disciplined and more broad-based than the SS. These stormtroopers took the lead in burning down synagogues, smashing up Jewish homes and businesses, and beating and imprisoning Jews—especially wealthy Jewish men, who could be extorted into handing over their property to “Aryan” owners.
Steinweis draws many details about Kristallnacht from the court cases brought against perpetrators in West Germany after the war. Some SA men were reluctant to join in the violence, like August F., a 63-year-old navy veteran who initially resisted orders, before giving in to his comrades’ taunting and shooting a Jewish doctor and his wife (with the words, “I have been instructed to carry out a difficult assignment”). Many others had no such qualms and invented sadistic tortures for their Jewish neighbors: “In Nuremberg, Storm Troopers invaded the Jewish hospital and forced the patients to stand at attention, even those who were in bad shape and those who had just been operated upon. Several died as the result of embolisms and bleeding.” Other Germans were glad to use Kristallnacht as an excuse to settle private scores—beating up creditors and destroying financial records. One German Steinweis mentions singled out the Jewish divorce lawyer who had represented his ex-wife.
The consoling postwar myth, often repeated in German commemorations of Kristallnacht, is that most Germans stood aloof from the Nazi atrocities and disapproved of them. But Steinweis’s central thesis is that, while “most Germans were not directly involved[,] a very large number of Germans nevertheless witnessed, or soon became informed of, the pogrom and its immediate consequences … the size of the minority who were sympathetic to its aims and methods should not be underestimated.” That included a large number of women, who took the lead in looting Jewish homes and shops after the men had vandalized them.
To the Jews who lived through Kristallnacht, it became clear that the government, the Nazi Party, the police and fire departments, and even their own neighbors were of one mind: the Jews were their enemies, with no claim on the protection of the law. The few people brave enough to say otherwise were quickly punished. On the Sunday after the pogrom, a small-town Protestant pastor named Julius von Jan delivered a sermon condemning the violence. As a result, “he was subsequently attacked by a Nazi mob and taken into ‘protective custody’ by the Gestapo.” A people capable of Kristallnacht, it was clear, would be capable of anything.
Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor to Tablet Magazine and the author of Benjamin Disraeli, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.