67 years ago tonight: Kristallnacht

One of the "myths" of the Holocaust common among those who have not studied its history other than superficially or who have obtained their concept of what the Holocaust was through popular culture is that the Holocaust equals gas chambers (and, no, I do not use the term as Holocaust deniers do, who mean to imply falsely that the Holocaust was a "myth"). Gas chambers were indeed a major part of the machinery of the Holocaust, but in reality they were a fairly late development. Hitler took power in January 1933. Yet, the first large scale gassings did not occur until late 1941, when at the Chelmno extermination camp that mobile gas vans using diesel exhaust were first used to kill the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto and other towns of the Warthenegau, as well as the Roma rounded up in the area. It is true that smaller scale gassings using carbon monoxide occurred as part of the T4 euthanasia program in late 1939 through 1941, and it was during this operation to rid the Reich of the "feeble-minded" or "life unworthy of life" that the techniques of using gas to kill large numbers of people were first developed, a "proving ground," if you will, for what was to follow. It was not until January 1942 at the Wannsee Conference that the decision was made to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Large scale gassings at stationary camps using carbon monoxide from diesel exhaust began at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka soon thereafter. At Auschwitz, experiments with Zyklon-B, which generated cyanide gas, led to an even more efficient means of killing., which was adopted by other camps. Other extermination camps also sprang up. However, the majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust died of other causes, including starvation, over 1 million shot by the Einsatzgruppen, hanging, and disease.

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)
Klapproth was not alone, although he was clearly far braver than most. The liberal middle classes also voiced distaste for the pogrom, mostly quietly, but unmistakably. Reactions were formed by many factors, including common decency, humanitarianism, Christian values, and fear of the vile example being given to the young, who made up the bulk of the gangs partaking of the violence. One consequence of this popular disapproval of the pogrom is that the Nazis discovered that, although they had satisfied the bloodlust of their hardcore followers, the majority of Germans were profoundly uncomfortable with such open displays of violence, despite the intensity of anti-Semitism prevalent in the nation. It also disturbed Germans that such barbarism and murder could occur in their civilized country and the government appeared to have so little regard for private property. The Nazis' reaction to criticism from abroad, in contrast, was full of bravado: "We have become immune to any increase in the great screaming of world Jewry."

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.


  1. The Grynszpan / vom Rath incident is also the subject or inspiration for Sir Michael Tippet's magnificent and chilling oratorio, A Child of Our Time. It's one of the great works of art inspired by the horrors of the Nazi era.

  2. Thanks for this very nicely written and thorough history. I didn't know about the Polish refugee incident: It's an interesting piece of data to have when talking about the later Holocaust in Poland....

  3. This post a real public service. Thank you.

  4. While at the library with my daughter I noticed the book "Maus I, A Survivor's Tale" by Art Spiegalman. I checked it out, and later read "Maus II", which had a vivid description of the prisoner march you described just recently.

    Absolutely incredible.

    Now I think I will Orac's Holocaust logs more closely.

  5. Spiegelman's Maus is rightfully regarded as one of the best examples of graphic novels. It is very impressive, and definitely among Spiegelman's best work (I think that only his twin tower cover for The New Yorker comes even close).

    The post is very good and informative - thank you Orac.

  6. There's another anniversary on the same date: the fall of the Berlin Wall.
    The logical fall, anyway, as we say in the computer biz; the pyhsical fall was a bit later. There's a special savor to the coincidence of dates, in that the opening at that date was largely unintentional, but could have been reversed only by massive violence, which the notoriously brutal East German government was unwilling, or afraid, to undertake.

    BTW, congratulations to the RINOs, who I assume are feeling cheerful over the recent testicular reactivation among House Republicans in the matter of the Alaskan wildlife refuge.


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