On the evening, throughout the night, and during the following day of November 10/11, 1938 Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany ramped up to a whole new level surpassing the commonly accepted “respectable” antisemitism practiced in so much of the world community in the early twentieth century.
The events of this night came to be known as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass” after the vast quantity of shattered glass that littered the streets of most major German cities following this pogrom.
Historian Martin Chalmers explains the importance of this terrible night in his “Preface” to the diaries of Victor Klemperer where he writes,
The point at which some kind of normal life, under the conditions of a racist dictatorship, becomes impossible is the November 1938 pogrom (‘Kristallnacht’) and not the war that begins less than a year later with the German attack on Poland. The pogrom is at once the peak & conclusion of mob violence against Jews and the date when what could still be considered harassment of a minority gives way to the measures that lead to the ‘Final Solution.’ It is the point at which Jews realize that there is no one & nothing to protect them.
Chalmers goes on to point out that, after Kristallnacht, the measures taken by the Nazis to alienate, disenfranchise, isolate, and persecute the Jewish population,
come thick and fast: the ban on Jews owning cars, on using public libraries, cinemas, swimming pools, on entering parks; the bans on telephones, radios & typewriters; the ban on Jews owning pets; the curfew for Jews; the ban on Jews buying tobacco & cigarettes, on buying flowers reduced food rations for Jew. And so on. (Martin Chalmers, “Preface” I Will Bear Witness 1933-1941: A Diary of the Nazi Years, Victor Klemperer, xiv,xv)
More than 400 synagogues were set on fire, 76 were completely destroyed. More than 7,000 Jewish businesses and homes were looted, about 100 Jews were killed, as many as 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps, of whom 1,000 would die within a few weeks. In the next 10 months over 100,000 Jews would emigrate from Germany. The majority of Jews who remained were in their forties or older.
The events of Kristallnacht were known outside Germany. The Daily Telegraph carried the story. Martin Gilbert writes,
In the words of the Daily Telegraph correspondent in Berlin, ‘Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete control of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable middle-class mothers held up their babies to see the “fun”’…. That day a London evening newspaper reported that many of these fires ‘were still blazing fiercely this afternoon.’ So too were many shops and businesses. Any Jews who tried to enter their burning premises ‘to rescue goods were prevented from doing so. They stood by and watched their possessions burn, while the crowd jeered.’ (Gilbert, Martin. Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction. NY: HarperCollins, 2006, p. 47, 50)
The rest of the world has no justification for standing in judgement on the Germany of 1938. While most of the world’s population may not have clapped its hands and screamed with glee at the events of Kristallnacht, they certainly stood by with general indifference in full knowledge of the horror being brought against Germany’s Jewish population. As Gilbert makes clear, the events of Kristallnacht were widely reported in the western press and in diplomatic circles. Yet hardly a voice was raised in protest. Gilbert reports,
Sir George Ogilvie Forbes telegraphed to the Foreign Office in London that many Berlin Jews ‘are wandering about in the streets and parks afraid to return to their homes.’ He added: ‘I can find no words strong enough in condemnation of the disgusting treatment of so many innocent people, and the civilized world is faced with the appalling sight of 500,000 people about to rot away in starvation.’ (Gilbert, 147)
No foreign observer then in Germany doubted the severity of the implications of Kristallnacht. Sir George Ogilvie Forbes [senior British diplomat in Germany] wrote to London from Berlin on November 16 that Kristallnacht had ‘let loose forces of medieval barbarism.’ The position of the German Jews was, he commented, ‘indeed tragic’, and he added: ‘They dwell in the grip and at the mercy of a brutal oligarchy, which fiercely resents all humanitarian foreign intervention. Misery and despair are already there, and when their resources are either denied to them or exhausted, their end will be starvation.’ The Jews of Germany, he feared, were ‘not a national but a world problem which if neglected contains the seeds of a terrible vengeance.’ (Gilbert, 156,157)
This “world problem” was ignored, denied, or actively approved by most of the world community until it was too late to stop the unspeakably tragic events that would follow the horrors of Kristallnacht. After November 10/11, 1938 “the seeds of a terrible vengeance” were irrevocably set to sprout into the poisonous plant of death and destruction that would pollute the world stage for the next seven years.
Kristallnacht is a shocking admonition to pay attention. Do not let the little things slip by.
In fact, there are no little things.
There are no small divisions we can afford to tolerate. There are no words of disrespect it is acceptable to let slip. We cannot allow, even in their most subtle form, expressions of prejudice, racial slurs, bigotry of any kind, misogyny, or hatred.
We must guard our hearts and minds. We must not give in to the dark forces that lurk in every human being. We must be the world we hope to see.
Here are two further descriptions of Kristallnacht from Martin Glibert:
Seven-year-old Kurt Fuchsl was bewildered by the events of Kristallnacht, and by being forced to leave home with his family early on the morning of November 10 (1938). He later recalled: ‘What happened, as recounted to me by Mother, was that an interior decorator had taken a picture of our beautiful living room and displayed this picture of our apartment in his shop window. A Frau Januba saw the picture and heard that we were Jewish. She came around to the apartment and asked if it was for sale. She was told it wasn’t, but a few days later, on the morning of Krstallnacht, she came back with some officers and said, “this apartment is now mine.” She showed a piece of paper with a swastika stamped on it and told us that we would have to leave by six that evening.’ Kurt Fuchsl’s mother protested to the officers who were accompanying Frau Januba that she had a sick child at home who was already asleep. ‘All right,’ they told her, ‘but you have to get out by six in the morning.’// Next morning, as Kurt Fuchsl remembered, ‘when Frau Januba showed up, my father told her that she was stealing what he and my mother had worked for. She said, “Stop talking like that, or I’ll have you sent to a concentration camp.” I had seen this Frau Januba when she first came to look at the apartment, and when I saw what was happening now, I dashed in and yelled at her, “You lied to us when you were here last time, You’re a bad woman!” She was terrified at this onslaught and said, “Get the child out of here!” And that is what happened. We packed up what we could, left the rest, and moved in with a neighbour.’ 62,63
Marianne David was fifteen years old on Kristallnacht, at boarding school in Bad Kreuznach, more than three hundred miles from her home in Hamburg. Six decades later she described ‘that awful night’ in vivid terms. ‘I was woken in the middle of the night by shouting and banging, then men in Nazi uniforms burst into my room screaming: “Raus, raus!” On the table was my new alto recorder, of which I was very proud, as I had so far only owned a soprano. One of the men picked it up and broke it by hitting it on the table’s edge. I got dressed and went outside where everybody was gathering in a frightened group. Matron was there trying to keep everyone calm. The Nazis were bringing items, books and other things, out of the building, piling them up to be set alight… as I came out of my room into the long corridor, there was an SS man going along it with a club, systematically smashing the glass on each pretty nursery picture on the wall. Frightened as I was, it still struck me as such a pointless thing to do.’ 73,74