The events of November 9-10, 1938 in Germany sealed the fate of the Jewish population in Germany and set the stage for the horrible, unspeakable events that were to follow in what we now call the Holocaust.
Hitler’s henchmen all had a deep-seated hatred of the Jews and on the flimsiest of pretenses, they organized and began the events known in German as “Kristallnacht” or Night of the Broken Glass. Jewish shops, businesses, and synagogues were burned to the ground and severely vandalized. Jews on the streets were beaten and over 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. The persecution of the Jews under Nazi Germany went from the political, social and economic discrimination to outright physical beatings and forced deportations. Historian Max Rein in 1988, “Kristallnacht came…and everything was changed.”
This included the treatment of Nazi Germany by foreign governments who saw thru the subterfuge and were appalled at the acts of Hitler’s henchmen.
Ominous Beginnings: By the early 1920s, despite the latent Anti-Semitism that beat just below the surface of Europe, the Jews in Germany had fully assimilated themselves into German society. German Jews had served with distinction in the military during World War I, were respected members of academia and many had careers in the civil service.
All of this changed when Hitler came to power in 1933. Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, although he wasn’t even a German (he was born in Austria) and immediately initiated anti-Jewish programs. In 1933, the 500,000 German Jews accounted for just 0.86 percent of the German population. Yet according to Hitler and the Nazis the Jews, the bogeyman of Europe were responsible for Germany’s defeat in WWI, the resulting economic collapse of Germany, the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression.
Hitler first fired the Jews from all Civil Service jobs with the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” in April 1933.
In 1935, Jews were no longer allowed to marry non-Jewish Germans and were basically stripped of their citizenship under the Nuremberg Laws. The handwriting was on the wall. Many Jews tried to emigrate away but as Hitler’s noose tightened, the rest of world not only turned a blind eye but empowered the Nazis by imposing limits on the amount of Jews that they would allow into their borders.
Everyone in the world knew that in 1938, that a massive pogrom was going to be initiated against the Jews in Germany, the Nazi party wanted the appropriate the Jews wealth for their own and were only waiting for the slightest provocation.
The Expulsion of Polish Jews and the Assassination of Von Rath: The Germans in August 1938, began to expel Jews of Polish origin. They forced 12,000 to leave all their belongings and were allowed to carry only one suitcase per person with less than 24-hours notice. The Polish government turned its back on them and would only allow 4000 to enter. The rest were forced back across the border where they were stuck in exile between two countries that didn’t want them. Conditions were horrible, with no food, water or shelter. The Nazis looted their belongings as soon as they left.
One couple Sendel and Riva Grynszpan who were expelled to Poland had a son, Herschel who was living in Paris. When he heard of his parents’ plight he decided to strike back at the Nazi regime.
He went to the German embassy and asked to see an official. He was shown into the office of Ernst Von Rath, a career diplomat with the German Foreign Service. Grynszpan pumped two bullets into Von Rath, and he died the next day. The bitter irony of this was, Von Rath had spoken out against the Nazis publicly, specifically for their treatment of the Jews. The Gestapo had a file on him, accusing him of being disloyal and there were thoughts of having him removed from the Foreign Service. Now there was no need. Von Rath became an unwilling pawn in the very operation that he abhorred.
Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels told the Party leadership that ‘World Jewry’ had conspired to commit the assassination. He added 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.”
The Pogrom Begins: The Nazis acted quickly. The next morning, November 9, they barred Jewish children from German state elementary schools, indefinitely suspending Jewish cultural activities, and stopped the publication of Jewish newspapers and magazines, including the three national German Jewish newspapers.
Reinhard Heydrich, Commander of the German SA sent an urgent secret telegram to the Sturmabteilung (SA), containing instructions regarding the riots. The security police were to protect the lives of foreigners and non-Jewish businesses and property. Police were instructed not to interfere with the riots in any way unless the guidelines were violated. The SA and Police were also instructed to seize Jewish archives from synagogues and community offices and to arrest and detain “healthy male Jews, who are not too old”, to be sent to the concentration camps.
The well-planned “spontaneous” demonstrations began all over Germany during the night. Over 7500 Jewish shops were smashed and vandalized. 267 synagogues were burned to the ground. Some 29 department stores, owned by Jews were destroyed. Local fire departments were told not to intervene unless the fires were spreading to non-Jewish buildings Jewish cemeteries were vandalized and many had their headstones ripped out of the ground. Important papers, religious scrolls, books and other Jewish artifacts were burned. Over 30,000 men were rounded up and sent to the concentration camps at Dachau, Belsen, and Sachsenhausen.
Mob rule took over and the resultant orgy of violence began to spill over to the people. Although there were guidelines in place not to bring physical violence to the people, especially foreigners, even Jewish foreigners but that soon became moot as Germans began beating and robbing of Jews on the streets. Although exact numbers were never made available, it is believed that more than 90 people were killed during the pogrom. The German government then did what you’d expect.
They accused the Jews of igniting this “spontaneous” protest and fined the Jewish community 10 billion Reichsmarks.
After the ransacking and destruction of their property during Kristallnacht, the Jews were forced to pay another “community” fine of one billion Reichsmarks for the murder of Von Rath. And all Jewish property was immediately assessed a special tax where 20 percent of all Jewish property was levied to the state. The insurance that Jewish shop and business owners had taken out to protect their business? The six million Reichsmarks owed to them was instead paid to the state for “damages.”
After Kristallnacht, the treatment of the Jews became more and more under the auspices of the SS.
While the world was appalled by what they saw, they mostly stood by and did nothing. Some refugees were allowed into the United States and into Palestine. Britain approved the Kindertransport of refugee children. But many others turned a blind eye or their backs to the Jewish refugees who were trying to flee what was to be certain death at the hands of the Nazis. And just seven years later, the world would see first-hand the cost of turning their attention away from the Jewish plight when American and Russian troops began to liberate the concentration camps.