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Kristallnacht, a word even those of us who know no German recognize immediately as a harbinger of real, barbaric terror. The very sound of it is to so many whose forbears suffered horribly through those days, and also to those of us who only know of its murderous rampages by study and reading, terrifying.
Many of us, now removed both by 84 years of time and a rapidly fading memory of that epochal event, recall it by envisioning pictures of broken shop windows and Synagogues in flames. But, sadly, we have very little understanding of why it was such a world-changing couple of days in early November of 1938 and how it set in motion the greatest crime against humanity in the history of the world.
This essay will briefly examine that history and, against that background, ask these questions: (1) can it happen here, or, perhaps more accurately, (2) has it, or some iteration of it, already happened here?
Prompted to discuss this nightmare in history by a passage in remarkable novel we just read, Hour of the Cat, a work referred to by some reviewers as a work of “History Mystery” as it draws on actual events and features real figures from history in WWII as protagonists, such as Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donavan and Admiral Canaris, I decided it would be a good project to learn more about Kristallnacht in view of the eerie parallels between what I read there and events happening right here in America in recent times, beginning with the riots precipitated by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. As I read this passage, I was struck by powerful emotions- first, and obviously, pure revulsion that this kind of sick cruelty could be unleashed on one’s own fellow countrymen; second, questioning how this is any way different from what has been done to American citizens in cities across our own Nation; third, a renewed sense of bafflement and perplexity at how many of our “leaders” have either remained silent about this savagery or, as in the case of the Vice President and the Speaker of the House, actively encouraged it. Finally, I found myself wondering why there haven’t been any number of “thought pieces” raising what I hope to examine here: why are these two events, both repugnant to every tenet of Western Civilization, not being considered in tandem so as to illustrate the truly dangerous point we have reached in the America of Biden and the far-far-left ideologues he genuflects before?
Before considering the history of the events of 1938, here is a brief extract from the passage which got me to thinking about these matters:
BERLIN, Nov. 10- The havoc wreaked upon Germany’s Jewish population over the last two days represented a major escalation in the Nazi regime’s anti-Semitic campaign. Estimates of the number of Jews arrested are as high as 30,000. Most were immediately shipped to concentration camps. Though there are as yet no official figures, it’s thought at least 100 Jews lost their lives and thousands more were injured. While the police stood by, Germany’s towns and cities reverberated with the sounds of shattering glass as Jewish businesses were looted and vandalized, and homes and apartments raided and pillaged. In Berlin and Munich, the major synagogues were put to the torch. A similar fate befell other Jewish houses of worship throughout the country. (p. 373)
Kristallnacht: November 9 and 10, 1938, Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland.
Of the many sources of solid information describing Kristallnacht, its origins, and its aftermath, the most comprehensive I found was from, not surprisingly, the United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial, and the document to which I refer below can be found here. For anyone seeking to expand their knowledge of this bleak history and its relevance to our current precarious situation in America, I cannot recommend it too highly.
Kristallnacht, literally, “Night of Crystal,” is often referred to as the “Night of Broken Glass.” The name refers to the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms which took place on November 9 and 10, 1938. This wave of violence took place throughout Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of the Sudetenland View This Term in the Glossary in Czechoslovakia recently occupied by German troops.
Kristallnacht owes its name to the shards of shattered glass that lined German streets in the wake of the pogrom—broken glass from the windows of synagogues, homes, and Jewish-owned businesses plundered and destroyed during the violence.
The violence was instigated primarily by Nazi Party officials and members of the SA (Sturmabteilung: commonly known as Storm Troopers) and Hitler Youth.
In its aftermath, German officials announced that Kristallnacht had erupted as a spontaneous outburst of public sentiment in response to the assassination of Ernst vom Rath. Vom Rath was a German embassy official stationed in Paris. Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew, had shot the diplomat on November 7, 1938. A few days earlier, German authorities had expelled thousands of Jews of Polish citizenship living in Germany from the Reich; Grynszpan had received news that his parents, residents in Germany since 1911, were among them.
Grynszpan’s parents and the other expelled Polish Jews were initially denied entry into their native Poland. They found themselves stranded in a refugee camp near the town of Zbaszyn in the border region between Poland and Germany. Already living illegally in Paris himself, a desperate Grynszpan apparently sought revenge for his family’s precarious circumstances by appearing at the German embassy and shooting the diplomatic official assigned to assist him.
Vom Rath died on November 9, 1938, two days after the shooting. The day happened to coincide with the anniversary of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, an important date in the National Socialist calendar. The Nazi Party leadership, assembled in Munich for the commemoration, chose to use the occasion as a pretext to launch a night of antisemitic excesses. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, a chief instigator of the Kristallnacht pogroms, suggested to the convened Nazi ‘Old Guard’ that ‘World Jewry’ had conspired to commit the assassination. He announced that “the Führer has decided that … demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.”
Goebbels’ words appear to have been taken as a command for unleashing the violence. After his speech, the assembled regional Party leaders issued instructions to their local offices. Violence began to erupt in various parts of the Reich throughout the late evening and early morning hours of November 9–10. At 1:20 a.m. on November 10, Reinhard Heydrich, in his capacity as head of the Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei) sent an urgent telegram to headquarters and stations of the State Police and to SA leaders in their various districts, which contained directives regarding the riots. SA and Hitler Youth units throughout Germany and its annexed territories engaged in the destruction of Jewish-owned homes and businesses. Members of many units wore civilian clothes to support the fiction that the disturbances were expressions of ‘outraged public reaction.’
As indescribably horrible as these two days were, the murders, looting, pillaging, seizure of property, etc., paled in comparison to what Kristallnacht set in motion- The Final Solution:
The events of Kristallnacht represented one of the most important turning points in National Socialist antisemitic policy. Historians have noted that after the pogrom, … anti-Jewish policy was concentrated more and more concretely into the hands of the SS. Moreover, the passivity with which most German civilians responded to the violence signaled to the Nazi regime that the German public was prepared for more radical measures.
The Nazi regime expanded and radicalized measures aimed at removing Jews entirely from German economic and social life in the forthcoming years. The regime moved eventually toward policies of forced emigration, and finally toward the realization of a Germany “free of Jews” (judenrein) by deportation of the Jewish population “to the East.”
Thus, Kristallnacht figures as an essential turning point in Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, which culminated in the attempt to annihilate the European Jews.
A few scenes are presented here only for the purpose of reminding ourselves, as in “Never Again,” of the similarity of these scenes from 1938 to the ones 82 to 84 years later: