Saturday, November 9, 2013

Seventy-Five Years After Kristallnacht

Seventy–five years ago, Nazis in Germany and Austria launched Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, which was designed to intimidate German Jews.

Actually, it did a lot more than intimidate the Jews, I suppose, and I don't mean to belittle the significance of the event by using that word.

One can reach many conclusions about Kristallnacht's role in the Holocaust — whether it was truly the starting point for the Holocaust or merely another step in a process that had been under way for years (the persecution of the Jews, observes TIME magazine, was "already intense by the mid–1930s").

If it was the latter, it was a massively violent step and signaled more clearly than anything that had come before — to those who did not turn away and ignore what was happening, which was still a sizable number in 1938 — the Nazis' intention to eliminate the Jews from Europe. Synagogues were burned, Jewish schools, homes and businesses were vandalized, and nearly 100 Jews (men, women and children) were killed.

Some context is necessary here.

A few days earlier, a 17–year–old German Jewish refugee shot and killed the third secretary of the German embassy in Paris. "The youth's father had been among 10,000 deported to Poland in boxcars shortly before," wrote historian William Shirer, "and it was to revenge this and the general persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany that he went to the German embassy intending to kill the ambassador."

Instead, the third secretary was sent out to see what the young man wanted and paid with his life.

As Shirer observed, there was irony in the death of the third secretary — "[H]e had been shadowed by the Gestapo as a result of his anti–Nazi attitude," Shirer wrote. "[H]e had never shared the anti–Semitic aberrations of the rulers of his country."

But it was used as the pretext for the Night of Broken Glass.

All through the night of Nov. 9–10, 1938, the sound of shattering glass could be heard throughout Germany and Austria as the Nazis carried out their search–and–destroy mission.

"According to Dr. (Joseph) Goebbels and the German press, which he controlled, it was a 'spontaneous' demonstration ... in reaction to the news of the murder in Paris," Shirer wrote. "But after the war, documents came to light which show how 'spontaneous' it was. They are among the most illuminating — and gruesome — secret papers of the prewar Nazi era."

Those papers revealed that it was Reinhard Heydrich — perhaps the main architect of the Holocaust and "the man with the iron heart," in Hitler's words — who was the "real organizer" of Kristallnacht, Shirer asserted.

On Nov. 9, Goebbels ordered that the "spontaneous demonstrations" were to be "organized and executed" during the night.

But Heydrich issued more specific instructions on how the demonstrations were to be organized:
  • "Only such measures should be taken which do not involve danger to German life or property. (For instance, synagogues are to be burned down only when there is no danger of fire to the surroundings.)"
  • "Business and private apartments of Jews may be destroyed but not looted ..."
  • "The demonstrations which are going to take place should not be hindered by the police."
  • "As many Jews, especially rich ones, are to be arrested as can be accommodated in the existing prisons ... Upon their arrest, the appropriate concentration camps should be contacted immediately, in order to confine them in these camps as soon as possible."
The thing I found telling was that the numerous rapes on Kristallnacht were of greater concern to Nazi leaders than the killings — because it was a violation of the Nuremberg racial laws for Gentiles to have sex with Jews. That says a lot about the priorities of the Third Reich. The day after Kristallnacht, Heydrich made a preliminary confidential report:
"The extent of the destruction of Jewish shops and houses cannot yet be verified by figures ... 815 shops destroyed, 171 dwelling houses set on fire or destroyed only indicate a fraction of the actual damage so far as arson is concerned ... 119 synagogues were set on fire, and another 76 completely destroyed ... 20,000 Jews were arrested. 36 deaths were reported and those seriously injured were also numbered at 36. Those killed and injured are Jews."
In the story and timeline of the Third Reich, what was the significance of Kristallnacht? Was it a perpetuation of a policy that was already in place, or was it the introduction of a new and more sinister phase of the Third Reich's rule? The Los Angeles Times favors the latter, writing that Kristallnacht "marked the Nazis' transition from discrimination to genocide." Given the historical record, it was reasonable for BBC News to wonder recently "how strong is anti–Semitism in Germany?" The answer to that question is unclear, but Stephen Evans of BBC News writes that "[w]hat does seem to be clear is that anti–Semitism is rising in Germany."

Evans cited figures from the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an anti–racism organization, that reported more than 800 attacks on Jews in Germany in 2011. The number was more than 850 last year. The trend has continued this year; figures show 409 attacks in the first half of 2013. Not all the attacks have been physical; some have been verbal.

Makes me wonder if civilization has learned anything in the last 75 years.

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