Remembering the November 1938 pogroms known as ‘Kristallnacht’

Nov. 9, 2015, marks the 77th anniversary of the 1938 pogroms launched throughout Germany, a nation that, after March 1938, also included Austria.
November 4, 2015

What’s in a name?

November 9, 2015, marks the 77th anniversary of the 1938 pogroms launched throughout Germany, a nation that, after March 1938, also included Austria. More than 1,000 synagogues were burned, 7,000 Jewish businesses were ransacked and looted and more than 30,000 Jewish men ages 16-60 were arrested and sent to newly expanded German concentration camps that, for the first time, held a majority of Jewish prisoners.

The pogroms were given the name Kristallnacht, the Night of Crystal, which is often mistranslated as the Night of the Broken Glass. The name itself is misleading. Crystal, as my wife often reminds me, is delicate and beautiful, and to use such a term beautifies and thus falsifies the events of 1938. German historians now refer to it as the November pogroms or the Reich’s pogroms, using a far less aesthetic term but one that at least connotes violence and lawlessness.

Even the term “pogrom” is quite misleading. Pogroms were generally regarded by Jews as acts of mob violence, lawlessness either sanctioned by the authorities or not significantly opposed by them as outlaw phenomena. But, in this case, the violence of Nov. 9-11, 1938, came at the instigation of the Nazi authorities and with their blessing. 

Just before midnight on Nov. 9, Gestapo Chief Heinrich Muller sent a telegram to all police units letting them know that “in shortest order, actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all of Germany. These are not to be interfered with.” Rather, the police were to arrest the victims. Fire companies stood by synagogues in flames with explicit instructions to let the buildings burn. They were to intervene only if a fire threatened adjacent Aryan properties.

The precipitating event was the attempted assassination of a minor German embassy official in Paris at the hands of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jewish youth who had received a note from his sister describing the conditions of his parents, Polish Jews living in Germany who had been expelled from Germany to Poland. Because Poland refused to accept Jewish citizens, Grynszpan’s parents were stranded in limbo. From the border town of Zbaszyn, they wrote to their son in desperation. His immediate response was to seek revenge. 

Germany had previously overlooked other assassinations, but the timing of Grynszpan’s attack coincided with the annual celebration by Nazi officials of their failed 1923 putsch against the government, which brought the party’s top leadership to Munich.

The date

The date was important to the perpetrators, as it also represented Hitler’s first — and failed — attempt to gain national power, as well as the emblem of the movement’s growth and maturation from the fringes to the mainstream. Sixty-six years later, in 1989, Nov. 9 again entered German history as the day the Berlin Wall fell. German citizens again took to the streets, this time to celebrate freedom and the reunification that was soon — and sure — to follow. Young marchers said: “This is a date that shall forever enter German history,” seemingly unaware that it had already entered German history, in 1923 and 1938.

The target

The attack on synagogues was far from accidental. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, synagogues became the public face of the German-Jewish community. Often built in prestigious downtown locations, they were near the great cathedrals of Germany and represented the arrival of the Jews within Germany’s economic, cultural and religious life. Some were modest facilities, others were grandiose, commissioned by the wealthiest Jews and designed by some of Germany’s finest architects. Just as Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles was set on Los Angeles’ finest boulevard and is surrounded by grand churches, and Temple Emanuel in New York was built on Fifth Avenue in the tony Upper East Side, Germany’s synagogues were meant to be seen and to connote the power and public face of the Jewish community. They were less the locus of prayer than a symbol of affluence and influence.

More significantly, during the early years of the Nazi regime, the role of the synagogues was dramatically transformed. 

We must recall David Marwell’s important admonition: “Just because Jews were powerless, does not mean that they were passive.” 

Synagogues became the center of Jewish activity, the lifeline of an embattled Jewish community.

Excluded from German society, many Jews turned inward, toward the Jewish community, toward one another. The synagogues responded accordingly. Persecuted throughout the city, synagogues became an oasis of tranquility and support for the Jews. They also became a hub of activity.

When Jews were excluded from public schools, synagogues housed Jewish schools, staffed by professors who, since April 1933, had been banned from teaching at universities and gymnasiums. It was in the synagogue classrooms that education continued, and not only Jewish education or secular education, but also vocational education to acquire the portable and linguistic skills necessary for emigration. Mobile professions were taught: agriculture and plumbing, electrical repair and mechanics. Music and architecture also are mobile professions, while the practice of law is not. Filmmaking — Hollywood so benefited from the German émigrés — is a mobile profession that can be practiced elsewhere. Nurses are more useful than doctors because the requirements for licensing the former are much less restrictive than the latter.

On a Monday, for example, a synagogue might house a welfare office and a soup kitchen. On Tuesday evening, the Philharmonic might play a concert under the tutelage of one of Germany’s finest conductors who was unable to perform for an “Aryan” audience. Wednesday evening might be the occasion for a theater performance organized by the Jewish Kulturbund, directed by some of Germany’s finest directors and featuring some of their greatest actors, who had been excluded from their profession. These performances were not only good for the morale of the community, but also indispensable for the economic survival of the performers. Each day, the synagogue would also serve as a center for information on emigration, as a place that assisted Jews searching for visas to countries near and far and information as to which countries were least inhospitable to Jews — the double negative is deliberate. Few were hospitable, and none in the numbers that were needed.

Jewish life was far from neglected. Martin Buber, Germany’s most prestigious Jewish theologian, led the efforts on adult Jewish education, preparing his community for the long and arduous spiritual struggle ahead. Jewish history was of interest, as was Jewish philosophy. Spiritual and religious struggles were the companions of life’s struggles. Nathan Glatzer, who later headed the Near Eastern and Jewish Studies Department at Brandeis University, recalled that German Jews were on the verge of a renaissance on the eve of their destruction. Persecution turned people inward. Many who had previously been indifferent to their Jewish roots turned to Jews and Judaism for solace and inspiration.

The synagogues were full on Friday evenings and Shabbat mornings. Prayer was a form of spiritual resistance and also a means of instruction. In his memoirs, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a fiery orator who was a community rabbi in Berlin before he immigrated to the United States in late 1937, recalled that the Nazis prohibited him from preaching, so he asked the Gestapo agent whether he could lead prayers, at a time when prayer was still allowed in Nazi Germany. Granted permission, he had his congregation read aloud, again and again, in a chant, the lines from the private meditation after the Amidah: “And all who think evil of me, speedily frustrate their counsel, undo their designs.” His congregation got the message and recited the verse with greater and greater enthusiasm. Afterward, the Gestapo agent is reported to have said, “Your prayers are more dangerous than your preaching.”

The end of one stage, beginning of another

From 1933 onward, once the Nazis came to power, they imposed conditions on the Jews that would cause them to emigrate. The killing process did not begin until 1941, but the Nazis reasoned that if they made it impossible for Jews to live as Jews in Germany, they would leave. Two conditions made this plan unrealizable: No country was willing to receive the Jews in the numbers that were necessary, and the Reich kept expanding, so that with every expansion more and more Jews came under German rule. Between 1933 and 1938, some 150,000 Jews had emigrated from Germany, yet in March of 1938, when Germany incorporated Austria, more than 200,000 Jews came under Reich domination. With the annexation of the Sudetenland, its Jews came under German control. So, too, when, in 1939, Germany conquered the rest of Czechoslovakia, And in September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, and Poland was divided between the Soviet Union and the Reich, more than 2 million Jews came under German control. This vast a number of Jews could not be handled by emigration, not even to reservations or to islands, as the Nisko and Madagascar plans suggested.

So from 1933 to 1938, Jews faced severe discrimination in Nazi Germany. The goal of Nazi policy was a two-fold expropriation of Jewish property and possession, followed by forced emigration. The November pogroms intensified this policy and finalized the exclusion of Jews from German society. 

After Nov. 9, 1938, most Jews were without illusions. Jewish life in the Reich was no longer possible. Many committed suicide. Most desperately tried to leave. Unwanted at home, Jews had only a few havens abroad. They could not stay. Yet they had nowhere to go. 

Germans, too, had learned important lessons. Because of the bourgeois sensibilities of the urbanized Germans, many opposed the events of Kristallnacht. The sloppiness of the pogroms and the explosive violence of the SA, the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party, were soon replaced by the cold, calculated, disciplined and controlled violence of the SS. They would dispose of the Jews outside the view of most Germans.

Violence was not the last word. Violence was followed by rational, disciplined planning.

On Nov. 12, 1938, Field Marshal Hermann Goering convened a meeting of Nazi officials to deal with the problems that resulted from Kristallnacht. Historians are fortunate that the stenographic records of that meeting survived, for few documents reveal more candidly or more directly German policy toward the Jews at this transitional moment. Joseph Goebbels, a Ph.D. from Heidelberg and Hitler’s minister for public enlightenment and propaganda, attended the meeting. Several ministries had urgent matters, including justice and economic ones, and one industry in particular had much at stake in the outcome of the meeting — the insurance industry, which stood to lose huge sums of money if it were to pay claims from those whose property had been destroyed, yet risk losing credibility and customers if it did not pay for the losses.

Goering was clearly disturbed by the damage of the two-day rampage — not to the Jewish shops, homes and synagogues, but to the German economy. It’s insane to burn a Jewish warehouse and then have a German insurance company pay for the loss, he said. We suffer, not the Jews.

The idea was introduced to solve the Jewish problem once and for all, but in 1938, that meant in economic terms. Only later, in 1941, would the language be genocidal.

There was still the concern for “legality,” for maintaining the stability of the economy. Thus, while the economic elimination of the Jews could not be done all at once, the change in direction of policy is clear. Jews were to disappear even more from German economic life. When concerns were raised about foreign Jews, the Foreign Ministry expressed interest, not willing to surrender its authority or pre-eminence. Its concerns were assuaged, but not fully satisfied. The ministry would be consulted only for important cases, but not for every case.

There was much give-and-take at the meeting and some brainstorming. Several concrete results were achieved, all economically lethal to the Jews. The community would be fined 1 billion reichsmarks ($400 million); Jews would be responsible for cleaning up their losses and would be barred from collecting insurance. The insurance companies could offer to pay, but Jews could not collect.

Apartheid was introduced. Jews were barred from theaters; they would travel in separate compartments on trains; they would be denied entry to German schools and parks. By Jan. 1, 1939, Jews were forbidden to operate retail trades.

Concern was expressed not for those who were looted from, but for their possessions — the booty in furs and jewels belongs to the state, not to individuals. In the end, Goering expressed regrets over the whole messy business: “I wish you had killed 200 Jews and not destroyed such value.” He concluded, on a note of irony, “I would not like to be a Jew in Germany!”

Through a series of policy decisions, the Nazis transformed these pogroms into a program eliminating Jews from German economic life.

On Nov. 15, Jews were barred from schools. Two weeks later, authorities were given the right to impose a curfew. By December, Jews were denied access to most public places. 

The November pogroms were the last occasion for street violence against Jews in Germany. While Jews could leave their homes without fear of attack, a lethal process of destruction that was more effective and more virulent was set in place.

No event during the first years of the Nazi regime brought as much protest from abroad. Americans were united in their condemnation — religious freedom was a core American value. Clergy of all denominations protested, as did politicians of all points of view. The president of the United States called back the U.S. ambassador to Germany, one step shy of severing diplomatic relations. Yet while more than nine in 10 Americans opposed the attacks on synagogues in Germany, this did not translate into support for immigration to the United States.

What are we to learn from the events of the November pogroms? We live in a world in which synagogues, mosques and churches continue to be blown up. When we see them set aflame, we must ask: What did this institution mean to those who regarded it as sacred? What does setting these buildings aflame say about the perpetrators and their intentions? What is next? And what is to account for the rage?

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. 

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