67 years ago tonight: Kristallnacht
But in early 1942 the Third Reich had been in existence nine years. It had already passed through three quarters of its life and only had slightly more than three years before its demise. The exterminationist phase of the Holocaust was the last phase. Before that, much had happened to lay the groundwork for the paroxysm of slaughter carried out during the last three years of the war.
After obtaining power in January 1933, Hitler wasted little time in carrying out his designs on the Jews and others he viewed as threats to his new order. Within a few months after taking power, the Nazis constructed the first concentration camp Dachau. On April 1, Hitler called for a boycott of Jewish businesses, and storm troopers were placed in front of Jewish shops, to discourage any who might decide to defy the boycott. Six days later, "The Law of the Restoration of the Civil Service" was introduced, which barred "non-Aryans" from civil service positions. All Jews in the civil service immediately lost their jobs. Later that month, Jews were prohibited from serving as doctors in state-run insurance institutions or as patent lawyers, and a law placed tight limits on the number of Jews who would be permitted to enroll to public schools. On May 10, the first massive burning of books by "Jewish intellectuals" was held. By October, the Civil Service law had been made stricter, so that spouses of non-Aryans could no longer work for the government; Jews had been banned from all cultural and entertainment activities; and all Jewish newspapers had been placed under Nazi control.
In September 1935, the Nuremberg Race Laws were passed. The first of these, the Reich Citizenship Law, stripped Jews of their German citizenship and made "subjects" of the Reich. The second Nuremberg Law, the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, forbade intermarriage between Jews and Germans, outlawed sexual relations between Germans and Jews, prohibited Jews from employing Germans under the age of 45 in their household, and denied Jews the right to fly the German flag.
By November 1938, Jews had no rights in the Reich and had been under steadily increasing restrictions and degradation. They were no longer allowed to work for the government or practice in government institutions and could no longer marry non-Jews. They could not participate in the arts or even go to shows. They were banned from many professional occupations, including being accountants, teachers, or dentists and had to carry special identity cards, as well as register all their business, wealth, and property with the government. Jewish doctors could no longer practice.
It was against this backdrop that Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) occurred.
In the months leading up to Kristallnacht, the Polish government, in a desperate attempt to stem the tide of Jewish refugees fleeing Austria in the wake of the Anschluss in March 1938, rendered stateless thousands of Poles living abroad, including 50,000 Polish Jews living in Germany. If the plight of German Jews was bleak, the plight of foreign Jews in the Third Reich was even bleaker, if that could be imagined. In October, Nazi authorities rounded up 17,000 Polish Jews violently and forced them to the border, where the Poles refused to admit them, leaving them stranded in a no-man's-land between the two nations. The deportees included the family of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew who was living alone in Paris. He sought an audience with the German ambassador on November 7, but was referred to a lesser official, Ernst vom Rath, whom he shot five times.
The Nazi propagandists seized on this shooting, labeling it the product of an "international Jewish conspiracy," even though vom Rath was a lukewarm Nazi at best. Schemes to "punish" the Jews with a retaliatory tax were revived. vom Rath managed to hang on for two days. He finally died of his wounds on November 9, which, by perhaps the worst stroke of luck imaginable, happened to coincide with one of the "holiest of holy" days on the Nazi calendar, the 15th anniversary of the failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923. By 1938, November 8 and 9 had developed into a two-day event of myth-making and commemoration of those who had died in the botched attempt to take over the government. It was Hitler's custom to give a speech each year at Bürgerbräukeller and then march with blood-stained flags to the graves of the dead. Against this backdrop, vom Rath's death was bound to stir up passions. Already, there had been reported attacks on synagogues and businesses, as well as assaults on Jews. It would not take much to provoke a pogrom.
And provoke one Goebbels did, with Hitler's tacit approval: "The SA should be allowed to have a fling." Later that evening, Goebbels delivered a fiery anti-Semitic tirade with a call for vengeance against the Jews, after which the assembled Party and SA made a flurry of phone calls to local Nazi leaders with instructions. Stormtroopers were to incite the outrage of crowds, and local law enforcement officials were instructed not to intervene, except to save German life or property. Orders were given that, while Jewish shops and homes could be destroyed, that looting would not be permitted (mainly because the Nazis intended to seize the property after the pogrom was over).
As these calls were being made, all over Germany, mass violence against Jews, synagogues, and Jewish businesses erupted, spurred on by the SA and local Gauleiters. An estimated 7,500 business were damaged or destroyed. In some cases, Jewish men were murdered in their own homes in front of their wives and children. Looting was widespread, despite the orders. In some places, Jews were publicly humiliated by being forced to walk over their prayer shawls; to sing the Nazi Horst Wessel song; or to read passages from Mein Kampf aloud. In Beuthen in Upper Silesia, Jews were made to stand for hours in front of their burning synagogues The pogrom and a wave of arrests of Jews continued throughout Germany and Austria and in some places didn't peter out in some parts of Austria until as late as November 13. There were at least 91 deaths, and it was estimated that 680 Jews committed suicide in Austria in the wake of this pogrom. In its aftermath, the Nazis intensified their efforts to pressure Jews to emigrate, and Hermann Goering imposed a fine of one billion Reichsmark on the Jews of Germany--a final insult.
The pogrom provoked disgust among other nations, with intense and vocal criticism from abroad directed at the Nazi regime. Indeed, significant numbers of Germans also viewed the pogrom with disgust, particularly (but not limited to) Catholics, who viewed Nazi racial anti-Semitism as being of a piece with Nazi anticlericalism and neopaganism. Indeed, in December, a Protestnant pastor named Eric Klapproth even went so far as to write a letter to Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels, in which he said, in part:
The events that occurred amongst our people on and after November 9 of this year force me to take a clear stand. Far be it from me to disregard the sins that many member of the Jewish people have committed against our Fatherland...and far be it from me to deny the right of orderly and moderate proceedings against the Jewish race. But not only will I on no account justify the numerous excesses against Jewry that took place on or after Nov. 9 of this year (it is unnecessary to go into details) but I reject them deeply ashamed, as they are a blot on the good name of Germans...I, as a Christian Protestant, have no doubt that carrying out and tolerance of such reprisals will evoke the wrath of God against our people and the Fatherland, as sure as there is a God in heaven. (From: Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History)
However full of bravado they were, however, the Nazis were not stupid. They realized that excessive open violence and perception of lawlessness could hurt their standing with Germans. Consequently, they reverted back to legalized forms of persecution, rather than mass violence, at least in the short term. However, through this orgiastic and spasmodic outpouring of mass violence against its perceived deadliest enemy, the regime had become further radicalized. Economic separation of Jews and Germans was no longer enough. From this point on, in Germany proper at least, the Nazis conducted mass violence against Jews more quietly or even in secret.
The seeds for what would come later had been sown.