Kristallnacht Anniversary: What Was Known and What Wasn’t Done

Photo: GettyImages/Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive

On November 10, 1938, Hugh Greene – a correspondent of The Daily Telegraph – wrote from Berlin: “Mob law ruled in Berlin throughout the afternoon and evening and hordes of hooligans indulged in an orgy of destruction. I have seen several anti-Jewish outbreaks in Germany during the last five years, but never anything as nauseating as this. Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete hold 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.”

By Paweł Jędrzejewski, editor of the Polish Jews Forum.

Eighty-three years have passed since the fateful night of November 9 and 10, 1938, when the largest pogrom of a Jewish population in history, organised by the state machine, took place in Germany on the very anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther, who’d called for violence against Jews in 1543: “Set fire to their synagogues and schools (...) Destroy and demolish their houses.” It also took place on the 15th anniversary of the Munich Coup – otherwise known as The Beer Hall Putsch – yet the primary pretext in 1938 was the murder of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jew named Herschel Grynszpan.

Just a few months earlier in July a conference announced by the U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was held in Évian, France to consider the Jewish refugee problem. But it turned out to be nothing more than an act – partially propaganda, overwhelmingly rhetorical – with the actual tentative aim more focused on what to do with refugees in Europe deprived of their rights and citizenship, primarily Jews from Germany and Austria.

The conference was the last chance to make decisions that could save Jewish lives. Representatives from 32 countries, in addition to 24 international organisations, were present, yet the only individual actually representing Jews was Golda Meir, who was never allowed to speak.

Upon hearing of plans to convene the conference, Hitler made an unusually practical, even accepting statement: “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

But the conference ended with nothing. Neither the United States nor any other country expressed its readiness to accept Jewish refugees. In other words, the world announced its indifference; Britain claimed unemployment, France claimed to be “saturated with refugees.” Only Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic expressed “interest” in the fate of the Jews. The remaining thirty countries explicitly refused to help.

The world had managed to gather… and readily washed its hands. Later it’d explain that “they simply didn’t know then.” But that wasn't the whole truth. While the world may not have known about the scale, depth, and ultimate intention of German antisemitism, the politicians absolutely could’ve known if only they’d wanted to. After all, there were people who saw it very clearly. For example, a journalist from The New York Times, Anne O'Hare McCormick, wrote two days before the start of the conference: “A great power free to act has no alibi for not acting. (...) It is heartbreaking to think of the queues of desperate human beings around our consulates in Vienna and other cities, waiting in suspense for what happens at Evian. (...) It is a test of civilisation. (...) Whatever other nations do, can America live with itself if it lets Germany get away with this policy of extermination? (...) For its own sake, the civilised world must meet the problem Germany foists upon it.”

Prophetic words! Written in 1938, they turned out to be appallingly true. The United States of America and Western Europe had essentially allowed Germany to go unpunished for an official administrative policy of extermination. So ironically, the very moment when rescue was still possible – and the actions of the Third Reich such as the Anschluss of Austria left no doubt about its aggressive policy of power and lawlessness – turned out to be Hitler’s essential green light to implement the Holocaust as soon as logistics and technical reality permitted.

In reaction to the Évian Conference failure, Hitler triumphed a few months later in his famous speech of January 30th, 1939: “In connection with the Jewish question, I have this to say: It is a shameful spectacle to see how the whole democratic world is oozing sympathy for the poor tormented Jewish people but remains hard-hearted and obdurate when it comes to helping them, which is surely in view of its attitude, an obvious duty. The arguments that are brought up as an excuse for not helping them actually speak for us Germans and Italians. For this is what they say: 'We' – that is, the democracies – 'are not in a position to take in the Jews.' Yet in these empires, there are not even ten people to the square kilometre, while Germany with her 140 inhabitants to the square kilometre is supposed to have room for them!”

Quite simply, the Évian Conference was an open invitation to Kristallnacht. And Kristallnacht was a technical prelude to the Holocaust. At least 91 Jews were murdered that night. (Consequently, an exponentially larger number of those attacked died of injuries and mistreatment in prisons and camps.) 171 synagogues were burned down, over 1,400 synagogues and houses of prayer were damaged. Roughly 7,500 shops and 29 large, Jewish-owned department stores were destroyed. 171 houses were demolished, almost all Jewish cemeteries were desecrated, and about 30,000 Jews were imprisoned in the preliminary concentration camps – mainly Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen.

German fire brigades stood by burning synagogues unwilling to put out the fires. Similarly, police squads intentionally refused to defend the beaten and humiliated, standing aside to witness the lawlessness. And ordinary German citizens crowded the streets and openly watched the violence with undisguised satisfaction, even expressive joy. Thousands of them actively participated in beating Jews, in intentional vandalism, in a calculated antisemitic robbery.

That evening, when Nazi leaders met to celebrate the anniversary of the Putsch, Joseph Goebbels delivered a speech, ordering all Jewish enterprises and synagogues to be destroyed, the police were forbidden to interfere in the attacks.

Goebbels wrote in his diary the next day: “I go to the party reception in the Old Town Hall. A gigantic event. I describe the situation to the Führer. He decides: let the demonstrations continue. Withdraw the police. For once the Jews should feel the rage of the people. I issue corresponding instructions to the police. (...) Then I speak briefly to the officials of the party. A storm of applause. They all rush to the telephones. Now the people shall act!”

And the people absolutely acted.

What happened during Kristallnacht is, of course, universally blamed on Third Reich Nazi authorities, but the majority of the German people who lived at that time – not the political opponents of Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP locked up in concentration camps – must also be considered critically. After all, while the actual Holocaust was at least partially secret from most German citizens because it was intentionally and exclusively carried out in distant occupied territories seized from defeated Poland, the actions of Kristallnacht were carried out in German cities where not a single German wouldn’t have found out the very next morning in the press or on the radio. The reality was there were hundreds of thousands of ordinary Germans who witnessed the lawlessness, violence, and crime of Kristallnacht with their own eyes, and at least thousands who actively and voluntarily participated.

Kristallnacht was Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Hanover, Nuremberg, Lübeck and hundreds of other cities and towns. After that night, no adult German – no German citizen of any age – had the right to say, “I didn't know”.

Furthermore, that “right of denial” was also no longer possible for the politicians who’d failed their hopes at the Évian Conference a few months earlier. Yet as we’ve seen so many times, the same Western politicians managed to repeat their Évian propaganda, this time in Bermuda in April 1943.

Four years later, thanks to the detailed information provided from occupied Poland, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill possessed full knowledge of mass genocide being committed against Jews. First, they’d received information from Szmul Zygielbojm, a politician of the Bund Jewish party, trade union activist, journalist, who at that time was a member of the National Council of the Republic of Poland in London. Then they received a full analysis from Jan Karski – the emissary of the Polish underground government – who’d snuck into the Warsaw ghetto twice, and disguised as a Ukrainian guard of the auxiliary SS formation, travelled to the very camp from which Germans transported Jews to their deaths. The information he obtained became the basis for a report announced to the world by the Polish government in London. “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland” addressed to the Governments of the United Nations on December 10, 1942, provided the Allies with detailed information about the Holocaust.

The Polish government believed – naively as it turned out – that the West would react. That it must react. But Poland was wrong. On July 28th, 1943, Karski presented information about the Holocaust personally to President Roosevelt. Roosevelt not only failed to react, but he also refused to even take up the subject.

Subsequent analyses and explanations claim Roosevelt didn’t react because under the pressure of public opinion caused by articles in British and American newspapers; he’d already organised another propaganda spectacle with Great Britain – a conference in Hamilton, Bermuda “designed and promoted” to answer the question, “How to help Jews?” (Keep in mind that while the conference took place, there were still hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews waiting to die.)

But sadly, it was all a fictional act. Again. The real “problem” that “tormented” the conference participants had little to do with “helping Jews.” Real thinking proved more myopic, self-centred, and disaffected. “What if we tell Hitler to hand over the Jews to us instead of murdering them, and he will agree? What will we do with them then?” “It was a conflict of self-righteousness, a facade of inaction,” said Richard Law, the British chairman of the delegation at the Bermuda Conference, years later. A week after the Bermuda Conference, the American Zionist Committee bought a full-page advertisement in The New York Times explicitly condemning the lack of results and the breach of promises. They called the conference a “cruel mockery.”

Western politicians revealed their full “reactionary spectrum” by expressing their views on helping the threatened Jews in 1938 and then on the genocide committed against those very same people in 1943. The citizens of Germany, however, determined and demonstrated their attitude on the night of November 9 and 10 in 1938.

What more could be said? What more should be said? Perhaps there’s this…

It’s worth recalling – if only for the sake of contrast – that in occupied, terrorised, and dehumanised Poland, where hiding or assisting Jews was punishable by death, the Committee to Aid Jews (Żegota) was active beginning in September 1942.

This organisation supplied Jews with Catholic baptismal certificates, fake IDs, marriage licenses, and employment paperwork – all designed and created just to help them survive. In the end, about 50,000 false documents were issued. Żegota also provided financial assistance however it could during the active occupation. The Children's Department of Żegota, led by Irena Sendler, saved many hundreds of Jewish children. All in all, until August 1944, tens of thousands of people were covered by some form of assistance from the Council to Aid Jews. The Yad Vashem website itself claims as much. “Thousands of Jews were saved from death as a result of the systematic and ramified work carried on by the Council until the liberation, and its cooperation with the Jewish National Committee and the Bund.”

Of course, when all was said and done, it wasn’t enough to stop or even slow down the Holocaust – the first chord, the first real-world “flare” of which was Kristallnacht. But it did exemplify the most important breach in the ocean of a world's indifference.

In other words, at least in Poland much was known and as much was done as could be, while across the world, just as much was known, much more was even said, yet much too little was ever done.