75 Years Later: How the World Shrugged Off Kristallnacht

By Klaus Wiegrefe

Photo Gallery: Diplomatic Accounts of Kristallnacht Photos
Getty Images

In the days surrounding Nov. 9, 1938, the Nazis committed the worst pogrom Germany had seen since the Middle Ages. To mark the incident's 75th anniversary, an exhibition in Berlin gathers previously unknown reports by foreign diplomats, revealing how the shocking events prompted little more than hollow condemnation.

Consul-General Robert Townsend Smallbones had already seen much of the world. He had been in Angola, Norway and Croatia, and he had spent eight years in Germany with the British diplomatic corps. Despite the Nazi dictatorship, the 54-year-old held Germans in high esteem. They were "habitually kind to animals, to children, to the aged and infirm. They seemed to me to have no cruelty in their makeup," Smallbones wrote in a report to the British Foreign Office.

Given his impression of the Germans, the representative of the British Empire was all the more astonished by what he experienced in early November 1938. In Paris, Herschel Grünspan, a 17-year-old Jewish refugee from the northern German city of Hanover, had shot the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in an act of protest against Hitler's policies regarding the Jews. At first, the Nazis only hunted down Jews in the Hesse region of Germany, surrounding Frankfurt. But, after Rath's death on Nov. 9, the pogroms spread throughout the German Reich, where synagogues were burned, Jewish shop windows were smashed and thousands were taken to concentration camps and mistreated.

Smallbones reported from Frankfurt that Jews had been taken to a large building and forced to kneel and place their heads on the ground. After some of them had vomited, Smallbones writes, the "guards removed the vomit by taking the culprit by the scruff of the neck and wiping it away with his face and hair." According to Smallbones' account, after a few hours, the victims were taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where many were tortured and a few beaten to death. The prisoners were even forced to urinate into each other's mouths. This was one of the details Smallbones learned from a golfing partner, a German Jew, after the latter's release from Buchenwald.

"I flattered myself that I understood the German character," the consul-general wrote, but added that he had not expected this "outbreak of sadistic cruelty."

The pogroms in November 1938 lasted several days, although history books often refer to the event merely as one "Night of the Broken Glass" (Kristallnacht) because Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels announced on the radio on Nov. 10 that the excesses had ended. Experts estimate that up to 1,500 people died in the days surrounding Nov. 9. It was the worst pogrom in Germany since the Middle Ages.

Gathering Contemporary Diplomatic Accounts

This week marks the 75th anniversary of what Leipzig-based historian Dan Diner has called the "catastrophe before the catastrophe." This prompted the German Foreign Ministry to take the unusual step of asking 48 countries that had diplomatic missions in Germany in 1938 to search their archives for reports on the November pogrom.

For months, the Foreign Ministry has been receiving copies of historical documents previously unknown to experts. Beginning next Monday, the Foreign Ministry and the Berlin Centrum Judaicum will display a selection of the documents at the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse, in an exhibition titled "From the Inside to the Outside: The 1938 November Pogroms in Diplomatic Reports from Germany."

Despite the often-truncated form of the reports and the detached language of the diplomats, these are impressive documents with historical value. They attest to the fate of the Jewish orphanage in Esslingen, near Stuttgart, where a mob of Nazi sympathizers drove children out into the streets; of Jews who were forced to march in rows of two through Kehl, in southwestern Germany, and shout "We are traitors to Germany"; and of terrified people hiding in forests near Berlin.

What is also noteworthy about the documents is what they do not contain. In this respect, they point to the failure of the international community and its far-reaching consequences. The diplomats almost unanimously condemned the murders and acts of violence and destructions. The British described the pogrom as "Medieval barbarism," the Brazilians called it a "disgusting spectacle," and French diplomats wrote that the "scope of brutality" was only "exceeded by the massacres of the Armenians," referring to the Turkish genocide of 1915-1916.

Nevertheless, no country broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin or imposed sanctions, and only Washington recalled its ambassador. Most of all, however, the borders of almost all countries remained largely closed for the roughly 400,000 Jewish Germans.

Many diplomatic missions were already in contact with victims because men from the SS and the SA, Nazi Party officials and members of the Hitler Youth were also harassing foreign Jews who lived in Germany. In early November, more than 1,000 Jews fleeing from the Nazis took refuge at the Polish consulate in Leipzig. In an account of the fate of the Sperling family, the local consul wrote that they had been practically beaten to death, and that "many valuable objects" had been stolen from their apartment, "including a radio, a check for 3,600 Reichsmarks, 3,400 Reichsmarks in cash and other valuable things." The thugs had apparently undressed the wife and tried "to rape her."

German Jews also sought protection in foreign consulates, especially those of the Americans. "Jews from all sections of Germany thronged into the office until it was overflowing with humanity, begging for an immediate visa or some kind of letter in regard to immigration, which might influence the police not to arrest or molest them," reported Samuel W. Honaker, the US consul-general in Stuttgart.

Searching for Reasons

Most of the diplomats were well informed about the scope of the atrocities through the accounts they had heard from desperate people describing their experiences. Besides, the smashed windows and ransacked premises of Jewish businesses were clearly visible.

At that point, at least according to a Finnish envoy, Hitler was less interested in murdering Jews in Germany than in driving them out. "The position of the German state toward the Jews is so well known that there is no point in writing much about it," he wrote in a report to his government. "Harsher and harsher steps are being taken against them, with the goal of getting them out of the German Reich in one way or another."

But the diplomats were puzzled over why the Nazis were acting so violently, especially given the resulting damage to their international reputation. France's representatives believed that it had to do with a power struggle within the Nazi leadership. The Swiss envoy assumed that it was Hitler's way of demonstrating his power. British diplomat Smallbones suspected that the outbreak of violence had been triggered by "that sexual perversity … very present in Germany."

But, as historians discovered after World War II, Hitler was merely taking advantage of an opportunity. He was in Munich on the afternoon of Nov. 9, when the news arrived of the death of Rath, the diplomat. It was the same day on which the top party leadership met each year to commemorate Hitler's failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. After consulting with Hitler, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels goaded on the other officials in the meeting until, as he wrote in his diary, they "immediately rushed to the telephones." They gave their instructions to the Nazi foot soldiers, who were already itching to harm Jews. The excesses began that night.

1,406 Destroyed Synagogues

Many synagogues in the Württemberg, Baden and Hohenzollern regions were "set

on fire by well-disciplined and apparently well-equipped young men in civilian clothes," reported US Consul-General Honaker, noting that the process was "practically the same" in all cities. "The doors of the synagogues were forced open. Certain sections of the building and furnishing were drenched with petrol and set on fire. Bibles, prayer books and other sacred things were thrown into the flames," he wrote. A total of 1,406 synagogues were burned down.

Then they began smashing shop windows. The shops were easy to identify, especially in Berlin. A few months earlier, Nazis had forced Jewish shop owners in the capital city to write their names in white paint and large letters on the shop windows.

The second wave came during the course of the next day, as the Hungarian chargé d'affaires reported from the German capital: "In the afternoon, after school, 14- to 18-year-old teenagers, mostly members of the Hitler Youth, were unleashed on the shops. They forced their way into the businesses, where they turned things upside down, destroyed all furniture and everything made of glass, jumbled all the merchandise and then, while cheering for Hitler, left the scene to search for other places to ransack. In the city's eastern districts, the local populace also looted the devastated shops."

As instructed, the perpetrators were not wearing party uniforms. Goebbels wanted the public to believe that the pogrom was a reflection of "the justified and understandable outrage of the German people" over the death of Rath, the diplomat -- and that the police were powerless.

But none of the diplomats believed this version of the events, especially, as a Brazilian embassy counselor scoffed, in a country with the "most powerful, tightly organized, perfectly equipped and most brutal police force in the world, in the best possible position to promptly suppress any turmoil within the population."

The 'Unimaginable' on the Way to Reality

The uniformity of the approach in hundreds of cities and villages was enough to expose this lie. But most of all, the majority of Germans did not behave the way the regime had expected.

Although there was some looting, many diplomats, like Finnish representative Aarne Wuorimaa, reported on "withering criticism" from members of the public. According to Wuorimaa, "As a German, I am ashamed" was a "remark that was heard very frequently." However, the reports generally do not delve into whether the critics fundamentally rejected the disenfranchisement of the Jews in general or just the Nazis' brutal methods.

US Consul-General Honaker estimated that about 20 percent of Germans supported the pogrom. There is a surprising parallel between this number and the result of a poll that American officials took in 1945, after the Holocaust, in their zone of occupation. At the time, one-fifth of all respondents still "agreed with Hitler over the treatment of the Jews." In other words, they admitted to being murderous anti-Semites.

For many of the later perpetrators of the Holocaust, Kristallnacht marked a turning point. Suddenly everything seemed possible, writes historian Raphael Gross, alluding to the emerging mood. The Nazis felt "like pioneers who had just successfully entered new territory," Gross says.

In the ensuing weeks, the regime enacted a large number of measures designed to harass and expropriate the Jews. Jewish children were no longer permitted to attend ordinary schools, and Jewish adults were barred from running craft businesses or entering universities. In a cruel irony, the victims were forced to pay a huge "atonement tax" of one billion Reichsmarks. "I wouldn't want to be a Jew in Germany," said Hermann Göring, one of the leading members of the Nazi party.

Unfortunately for the German Jews, many international observers failed to notice how radically the Nazis now felt about their victims. If they hadn't, perhaps some exile countries, such as the United States or Brazil, might have relaxed their rigid immigration requirements, which became a key obstacle to Jews trying to emigrate.

Even the diplomats from Hitler's closest ally, Italy, were still writing in November 1938 that it was "unimaginable" that the Jews in Germany "will all be lined up against the wall one day or condemned to commit suicide, or that they will be locked up in giant concentration camps."

Nevertheless, this "unimaginable" thing -- the systematic murder of European Jews -- would begin roughly three years later.

The "From the Inside to the Outside: The 1938 November Pogroms in Diplomatic Reports from Germany" exhibition runs from Nov. 12, 2013 to May 11, 2014. For more information, visit its website here.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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6 total posts
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1. optional
goatfarmer 11/06/2013
Interesting article, in particular, the failure of the international community to realize the growing trend of persecution.
2. 20%
medalsguy 11/06/2013
It is striking that it requires only 20% of a population to plunge a civilized nation into barbarism.
3. responsibilty of all nations
yaroc 11/07/2013
Excellent article gives an insight into how little the great powers did or rather didn't do to assist the plight of German Jews, leaving an open road for the Nazis to upgrade their criminality against the Jews. It is little wonder today that in Israel, where so many of the few who survived found refuge, they have such a strong belief in living in a country where they are not a minority and why they are not wanting to rely on others to protect them from aggression. And yet still so many nations would like to see them destroyed.
4. optional
spon-facebook-628161795 11/07/2013
Many thanks to you for publishing this.
5. Scary
spon-facebook-741730675 11/07/2013
More than 70 years later it's still scary to read about the madness that engulfed a nation...with no global outrage
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