On the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht

Today, November 9, 2018, marks the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous Nazi pogrom carried out in Germany and the then-recently-annexed Austria on the night of November 9-10, 1938.

Today, most conventional accounts of Kristallnacht report that 90 Jews were murdered that night throughout the Reich. (See, for example, the Yad Vashem Museum website.) That number, however, is wrong, because it refers only to Jews who died that night. A more accurate figure of deaths would somewhere over 2,000, counting people who died later of injuries sustained during Kristallnacht, suicides in the wake of the pogrom, and subsequent deaths in concentration camps of people arrested and deported during Kristallnacht.

The conventional figure of the number of synagogues destroyed during Kristallnacht is 267. (See, for example, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.) This is, in itself, a truly stunning figure, because, in order to reach that number, synagogues had to be destroyed not only in cities and towns but even in small villages and shtetls throughout the Reich. But even that stunning number is significantly low, because it includes only synagogues destroyed by arson, and not an additional 1700 synagogues ransacked, vandalized, or looted.

Over 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses were vandalized or destroyed during Kristallnacht; an untold number of Jewish homes were ransacked or vandalized. Thirty thousand Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps (mainly Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen); this was the first mass round-up of Jews in the Nazi era, and was a foreshadowing of what was to come.

These were the temporally proximate events that led up to Kristallnacht.

On October 27, 1938, the Nazi government expelled from Germany some 12,000 Jews of Polish origin. Among the Jews so deported were Sendel and Rivka Grynszpan, and two of their three children. Their third child, Hershel Grynszpan, was living in Paris at the time. (Sendel Grynszpan survived the war, and in 1961 he testified at the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem.)

On Thursday, November 3, Hershel Grynszpan received a postcard from his mother and sister describing their plight.

The following Monday, November 7, Hershel Grynszpan walked into the German Consulate in Paris and shot a lower-level Nazi functionary who harbored doubts about Nazi anti-Semitism (more on this below), Ernst Vom Rath.

On Wednesday morning, November 9, Vom Rath died. The Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, used the Vom Rath assassination by a Jew as the occasion, or excuse, to launch the pogrom. It is, of course, important to bear in mind the distinction between a true cause and a mere excuse, a subject about which I have written elsewhere.

At the time, in November 1938, the Nazi propaganda machine portrayed the events of Kristallnacht as having been spontaneous. Goebbels put out a statement that said, “The justified and understandable outrage of the German people against the cowardly Jewish assassination of a German diplomat in Paris vented itself on a large scale last night.” According to Goebbels, the events of Kristallnacht were the “spontaneous answer.” Indeed, according to Goebbels, some “synagogues ignited themselves”!

After the war, Nazi documents were uncovered revealing the degree to which the pogrom had been orchestrated from the top. On the night of November 9, at 11:55 PM, Heinrich Müller (who became the head of the Gestapo the following year) sent a telex to Gestapo offices throughout the Reich with instructions for the pogrom, the torching of synagogues, and the mass arrest of Jews. At 1:20 AM Reinhard Heydrich, who later became a principal architect of the Final Solution, sent a follow-up telex with rather more exquisitely detailed instructions for the mayhem.

In fact, the reality was that Kristallnacht was something of a hybrid between spontaneity and coordination. As the Müller and Hydrich telexes make clear, there certainly was organization and coordination. Yet, the encouragement from the top also resonated with the deeply held anti-Semitism of the German population-at-large. As one scholarly account (Kristallnacht 1938, by Alan E. Stenweis, Harvard University Press 2009) puts it:

The national pogrom that had been unleashed was not… a spontaneous mass uprising of the German people. But neither was it a carefully executed operation that had been planned in advance… The explanation for its destructiveness lies… in the readiness of tens of thousands of Germans to commit violence against their neighbors.

To the extent that Kristallnacht was an admixture of spontaneity and coordination, it mimicked an earlier event. Up until Kristallnacht, what had been perhaps the worst pogrom in European history, in Kishinev, Russia, April 19-21, 1905, had also been a combination of some advance planning that succeeded wildly because the seeds of planning fell into exceptionally fertile soil. (See Easter in Kishinev: Anatomy of a Pogrom, by Edward H. Judge, New York University Press 1995.)

Today, on the eightieth anniversary of the event, Kristallnacht is largely unknown to Americans. This has always been the case.

Thirty years ago, during the summer of 1988, in the run-up to the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, I was a summer intern working at a large (read: sophisticated) Wall Street law firm. One day a senior partner (read: a well-educated person) called me in to her office to give me what she thought would be a difficult research assignment on an obscure topic. (Remember, this was before the internet, so the research would have to be done in a library.) The firm had as a client a philanthropist who was interested in organizing a fiftieth anniversary commemoration of Kristallnacht; but the senior partner had no inkling what this strange word might mean. My job was to figure out what the word could possibly mean. The senior partner knew that this would be difficult, so she gave me a week to complete the assignment.

Imagine her surprise when I immediately replied, “Kristallnacht was an anti-Semitic riot in Nazi Germany on November 9-10, 1938.”

I was surprised at her surprise (which is why I remember the episode decades later), but I really should not have been surprised. I know of no scientifically conducted survey that considers what the percentage may be of Americans that could correctly identify Kristallnacht, but I guess the figure would be fewer than one in a thousand – either in 1988 or today.

To be fair, I come by my knowledge honestly. My family were all refugees from Nazi-occupied Vienna (and today historians agree that Vienna saw an unusually brutal Kristallnacht). (See, for example, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, by Martin Gilbert, Harper Perennial 2006.) In November 1938, both my parents were teenagers, and both experienced Kristallnacht first-hand. My mother’s family’s home was raided by local (Austrian) SA men (SA = Sturmabteilung, or storm troopers). They broke dishes, smashed furniture, and terrorized my mother, her sister, and their mother. They also took kitchen knives and cut open the family eiderdowns, sending tiny, white feathers everywhere. “After they left, it looked like there had been a snowstorm indoors,” my mother told me.

At my father’s house, the SA came to arrest my father, his older brother, and their father. My father was actually home at the time, but was hustled out the back door by his mother (my grandmother) while the storm troopers came in through the front door. Several soldiers were posted in the apartment to await the return of the men. In what could have turned out disastrously, my grandmother so berated and chastised the Austrian toughs that they were eventually shamed into leaving. Given this reprieve, the family soon emigrated to England and then the United States.

Historian William Shirer considers Kristallnacht in his much-celebrated The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. (Simon & Schuster. The book was first published in 1960, and was subsequently updated several times. Among other honors, the book received a National Book Award). Shirer was among the early historians who uncovered the nocturnal telexes of Müller and Heydrich, and so showed that the event was not entirely spontaneous.

Shirer makes the following observation about Hershel Grynszpan’s assassination of vom Rath in Paris:

There was an irony in [Ernst vom] Rath’s death, because he had been shadowed by the Gestapo as a result of his anti-Nazi attitude; for one thing, he had never shared the anti-Semitic aberrations of the rulers of his country.

I will pass over, without extended comment, the obvious mistake in this passage: the anti-Semitism of Germany’s Nazi rulers were not aberrations; their anti-Semitism was fairly reflective of the deeply held, centuries-old views of the German public. I pass over this because I want to make a deeper point.

There is nothing whatever “ironic” in the fact that the assassinated vom Rath was not an ideological anti-Semite, but merely a lowly, work-a-day functionary who had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is the very nature of war. War is an occasion where we kill large numbers of people who by any reasonable definition are truly innocent of any wrong-doing.

Take, for example, the allied firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, in which 25,000 civilians were killed, or the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 in which 100,000 civilians were killed (and another million people made homeless). We know with actuarial certainty that many thousands of those dead were children under the age of five. Indeed thousands of the dead were nursing infants who could not yet walk or speak. These children, these nursing infants, were surely as innocent of any wrong-doing as the putatively non-anti-Semitic functionary vom Rath. Yet those thousands of deaths of nursing infants in Dresden and Tokyo were an ordinary and necessary part of war. No historian refers to those deaths as “ironic.”

Note that I carefully did not use as my exemplar the massacre of 504 civilians, some nursing infants, at My Lai on March 16, 1968. I did not use My Lai because some Americans mistakenly believe that that event was somehow an aberration and not a result of long-standing and deliberate U.S. policy in Vietnam. I did not use My Lai as exemplar, because I wanted to avoid the debate of whether My Lai did or did not represent ordinary government policy.

Note that I carefully did not use as my exemplar the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in which 80,000 civilians, some of them nursing infants, were slaughtered on August 9, 1945. I did not use Nagasaki because some Americans mistakenly believe that the bombing was “necessary” to end the war – “necessary” despite the fact that the Japanese government had attempted to surrender before August 9.

The reason I chose the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo as my exemplars is that no one argues that those events were aberrations or anything other than the normal and ordinary way that a civilized nation conducts warfare. Indeed the reason that today the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo are scarcely remembered (by Americans) is precisely because they were so ordinary. What Shirer considers to be “ironic” is not ironic at all. It is the very essence of warfare that truly innocent people are killed.

It is this fact that gives rise to the pacifist’s belief that war, in and of itself, is a crime against humanity. For those of us who are pacifists, the reason that we cannot participate in any war – for any reason or under any pretext – is that it is the very nature of war that participants are called upon to kill people (like nursing infants) who are wholly innocent of any wrongdoing.

Killing innocent strangers is not ironic. It is immoral.

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About Jerry H Elmer 2 Articles
Jerry Elmer was a Vietnam-era draft resister. He is the author of Felon for Peace: The Memoir of a Vietnam-Era Draft Resister (Vanderbilt University Press 2005). In December 2005, Felon for Peace was published in Vietnamese translation as Tôi phạm vì hòa bìng by Thế Giới (Hanoi), Vietnam’s pre-eminent publishing house. This was the first book ever by a U.S. peace activist to be published in Vietnam.

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