Why Kristallnacht could happen anywhere

Jewish communities across the globe have been commemorating the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the name given to the orgy of pogroms visited upon the Jews of Germany and Austria in early November 1938.

These attacks, which resulted in the deaths of 90 Jews, the arbitrary arrests of many thousands more, and the wholesale destruction of synagogues (including 95 in Vienna) and of Jewish commercial and domestic premises, shocked the civilised world, not only on account of their extent, intensity and ferocity, but because they were perpetrated by “ordinary” people, assisted by Nazi paramilitaries. No building where Jews dwelt was safe from the mobs. Even schools and hospitals were smashed to pieces, their occupants literally fleeing for their lives.

Kristallnacht did not come out of the blue. Its immediate cause was the murder by Herschel Grynszpan of Ernst vom Rath, a diplomat attached to the German embassy in Paris. Vom Rath was actually an anti-Nazi, who at the time of his death was under investigation by the Gestapo. Grynszpan, 17, was the son of a Polish-Jewish family that had moved to Germany before the First World War.

In October 1938, the Nazi government of Germany had ordered the summary deportation of Polish Jews, including Grynszpan’s parents. The killing of vom Rath was an understandable but senseless and irresponsible act, which gave Hitler and his cronies the excuse they had been waiting for. The Kristallnacht pogroms were planned and orchestrated. There was nothing spontaneous about them.

There were German Jews who found redeeming features in Nazi policies

A careful observer might, however, have seen Kristallnacht for what it really was: the inevitable culmination of five years of state-sponsored discrimination against Jews that had been tolerated, and therefore encouraged, not merely by the international community but even by Jews themselves.

It is too often forgotten that, when the Nazi Party became the dominant force in German politics and government, there were those within the German Jewish communities who actually argued that Nazism had some redeeming features. Nazi ideology was (for example) antithetical to feminism, preferring women to be homemakers and mothers rather than students aiming for professional careers.

If the Nazis wished to criminalise intimate relationships between Jews and gentiles, it was argued, so be it: emancipation had, after all, led only to outright assimilation. The more barriers that were put in its place, the better. “We are not German Jews,” the argument went, “we are Jews living in Germany.”

Then there was the international dimension to consider. Many more Jews had been, and were being, persecuted in Stalin’s Russia than in Hitler’s Germany: better the ordered discrimination of the Nazi state than the irrational persecutions meted out against Jews in the Soviet empire.

These arguments sound astonishing, even incredible, to us now. But, at the time, in the early 1930s, they were seriously advanced by some German-Jewish leaders, including Yechiel Weinberg, rosh yeshivah of the Hildesheimer rabbinical seminary in Berlin, and Elie Munk, then rabbi in Anspach.

In 1933, Weinberg gave press interviews denying that Jews had anything to fear from the Nazis, while Munk (Lady Jakobovits’s father) spoke effusively of Nazism’s opposition to “the democratic principle.”

German Jewry as a whole was infected with what turned out to be a lethal virus — namely a dangerously excessive loyalty to the German state that blinded the community to what lay just beneath the surface of an apparently cultured society.
From January 1933, the writing was on the wall. But far too many German Jews hoped that “something would turn up”.

Kristallnacht changed all that. A late friend of mine, whose German-born father was an insurance broker, told me that it was only when he saw his local synagogue in ruins, that his father admitted that the time had come for him to take his family and leave the Germany he loved, and which he thought loved him. The family escaped just in time.

More broadly, the lesson of Nazism is that any society, put under sufficient strain, can succumb to Judeophobia.
That, I suggest, is Kristallnacht’s ultimate meaning.

Last updated: 11:07am, November 15 2013