Remembering Kristallnacht, Hitler's Last Pogrom Before the Holocaust

The grim memories of Kristallnacht teach us that it is the silence of those who ought not be silent that could ultimately lead to ruin.

“The ending is nearer than you think, and it is already written. All that we have left to choose is the correct moment to begin.”
Alan Moore, V for Vendetta (1988)

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as the chancellor of Germany. It was a momentous occasion that had come at the end of a season of fiery rhetoric by Hitler. His public speeches had ridden waves of fear and uncertainty among the German people in the aftermath of World War I, which had left Britain and France as the preeminent economic superpowers of Europe. It signalled the triumph of nationalism and nationalist politics – as much as it confirmed the ambivalence many had suspected prevailed among the then-ruling class. Elections in 1932 had failed to yield a majority government but President Paul von Hindenburg had been convinced by his associates that appointing Hitler as chancellor would allow the leadership to become popular among the working class once again.

And so, the Nazi Party chief had come to power. In the six years that followed, Germany progressed rapidly on two fronts: out of economic depression and towards socio-political aggression. Much of Hitler’s ire was directed against the Jews, whom he accused of displacing Germans out of jobs as well as, crudely, lebensraum (“living space”). He was particularly effective in placing the Jews in the crosshairs of German fear and anger. Nonetheless, just the way the Reichstag fire in February 1933 had sealed the rise of Nazi Germany by prompting the Nazi Party to arrest and harass their closest political rivals, Nazi Germany needed just one more tiny provocation for its simmering antisemitism to boil over into a full-fledged massacre and fuel Hitler’s war-machine. That ‘opportunity’ came on November 7, 1938.

The night of broken glass

On that day, a seventeen-year-old Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan shot a German diplomat named Ernst vom Rath (who, interestingly, was anti-Hitler). Grynszpan was the son of two Polish immigrants who had been abandoned at Germany’s border with Poland because neither government wanted to take responsibility for them, along with almost 10,000 other Polish Jews. Grynszpan apparently murdered Rath after receiving a postcard from his parents about their plight and had hoped the whole world would pay heed to his ‘protest’. The Nazi Party’s reaction, however, was the Kristallnacht pogrom. It began on November 9 – coinciding with the fifteenth anniversary of Hitler’s first major attempt at seizing power (the Beer Hall Putsch) – exactly 78 years ago.

The name translates roughly to ‘Crystal Night’, an allusion to the breaking of shop-windows. It was a two-day country-wide programme whose express intent was to convey to all German Jews that they simply did not belong – and using a “coarseness and brutality of language” the only precedent for which, according to historian William Shirer, had been Martin Luther’s antisemitic rhetoric in the 16th century. Over November 9 and 10, almost all German-Jewish synagogues, cemeteries, shops, businesses, hotels, theatres, schools, stores and homes in Germany and Austria were damaged or destroyed; graves desecrated; books, scrolls and other artefacts burnt; almost 3,000 people killed and over a million Jews arrested and sent to concentration camps.

From the shadows, the Nazi Party fattened itself on the spoils, which were particularly important since the failure of Fall Grün, a set of operations that would have resulted in the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in October 1938. At the time, Britain had intervened to broker a peace: in exchange for increased autonomy of the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia, Hitler would not go to war. But the real reason Hitler backed down was because of the German economy’s dependence on British oil imports – and the threat of what their suspension would do to an economy that was militarising itself. As his finance minister, it was Hermann Göring’s idea to confiscate the wealth of the country’s Jews instead.

Even so, there would be war less than a year later, and Kristallnacht provided a glimpse of what Hitler was prepared to do – in his eyes – to make Germany great again. His propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had attempted to disguise the pogrom as a spontaneous outburst of the German peoples following Rath’s death, although documents have shown that Heinrich Himmler, the head of the secret police, and his deputy Reinhard Heydrich had planned the “outbursts” at least a day in advance.

Build-up to pogrom

Then again, given Hitler’s intentions since the days of the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, a Kristallnacht had remained in the offing since assuming his chancellorship. The first step was the passing of the Enabling Act in March 1933 that allowed the Nazi Party to enact laws, even those that could deviate from parts of the constitution, without the Reichstag’s support for four years. As a result, by 1938, Hitler had completely dismantled his political opponents, abolished the post of president and assumed leadership of the German armed forces.

The second was the active persecution of the Jewish community, starting with a boycott of Jewish businesses, scholarship and services in 1933. By the time the seventh annual rally of the Nazi Party rolled around in 1935, Hitler had had multiple copies of a new law drafted that would go so far as to define a Jew and subsequently dictate which civil rights they would no longer enjoy. In effect, the Nuremberg Laws sanctified ‘German blood’ and created a pseudoscientific racial difference between Germans and Jews that triggered a swell of violence in civil societies. After the Berlin Olympics finished in 1936, Jews began to be divested of their jobs and positions en masse – even as they were kept from emigrating because the new laws also imposed a hefty ’emigration tax’.

So, Goebbels’s declaration about the cause of Kristallnacht was clever because it was not implausible – but it also left the German and Austrian societies more fragile than they had begun as. Shirer writes in Rise and Fall of the Third Reich that many people in Germany had even been horrified by the scale and intensity of the attacks. At the same time, the obliging attitude of once-sensible leaders, whose sense of greatness had become more populist than ideological, paved the way for Hitler, Himmler and Göring to consider killing the Jews. Over one night, ‘the night of broken glass’, one nationalist leader and his party were able to manufacture all the social and economic excuses they needed to concentrate power in a few hands.

But more than the actions of those who will try to erode what we have strived for so long to build, the grim memories of Kristallnacht teach us that it is the silence of those who ought not be silent that paves the road to ruin.