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A Historical Perspective on Kristallnacht

Between the late evening hours of November 9 and the early morning of November 10, 1938, gangs of German brownshirts and the SS publicly destroyed and firebombed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. Historian Richard Evans noted that Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Main Office, the SS and police agency most responsible for implementing the Final Solution, instructed the police and the SS not to stop the destruction of Jewish property or restrain those committing violent acts against German Jews. At the same time, looting was prohibited, foreign nationals were to be unharmed even if they were Jewish, and German properties had to be shielded from being damaged, which meant no fires were to be started next to Jewish stores or synagogues.

In addition to burning down synagogues, Evans said stormtroopers shattered shop windows of an estimated 7,500 Jewish-owned commercial businesses and their wares looted or left strewn on the pavements outside, coated with broken glass. Before Heydrich directed the security police to thwart looting, there were many robberies; ledgers recording mortgages and unsettled debts owed to Jews were destroyed, wrote historian David Cesarani. Extortion burgeoned under the pretext of implementing Aryanization and creating areas free of Jews. In Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria, Jews signed a “declaration of their intent to leave the district immediately and never to return…”

Evans adds that Jewish homes and apartments were ransacked, and the contents, including jewelry, radios, cameras, electrical equipment and other consumer products were stolen. Furniture was smashed, books and valuables were tossed everywhere, and the residents were terrorized and beaten. In many towns, gravestones in Jewish cemeteries were trashed.

The ‘Degradation Ritual’

Systematic public humiliation became a harrowing part of this uncontrolled, disorganized and anarchic pogrom, according to Cesarani. In dozens of cities and towns, the “degradation ritual” took different forms: as their synagogues burned, Jews were forced to watch while it went up in flames; others were compelled to dance around it or kneel in front of it. Torah scrolls and prayer books were vandalized, frequently by German youth. In Vienna, many rabbis had their beards cut.

Jews were paraded through their city in their pajamas. Old-age homes and orphanages were ransacked. In the Jewish hospital in Nuremberg, patients were removed from the premises with such viciousness, several died.

‘Exodus of the Jews’

Germans forcibly seized Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60 and sent them to concentration camps. Cesarani said approximately 11,000 were transported to Dachau, 6,000 to Sachsenhausen, and less than 10,000 to Buchenwald. Hastily constructed, primitive accommodations could not protect the Jews from the elements. Overcrowding and malnutrition led to disease causing a number of deaths. At Dachau 187 died, 222 at Buchenwald and 100 at Sachsenhausen. according to Cesarani.

Cesarani added that on November 16, 1938, in response to public “disquiet” about the nationwide pogrom and his own “cynicism,” Heydrich ordered several groups of Jews to be discharged. Those with emigration papers, individuals prepared to sell their businesses and the lawyers required to assist them, were among this initial group. The next group included combat veterans and elderly men, and then those over 50 years old and teenagers. Just about 2,000 were still in the camps by early 1939. Though the incarceration did not last long, Cesarani said many Jews never recovered from the physical and psychological trauma they endured.

Beginning the Process

The objective of Kristallnacht was to coerce Jews to emigrate. As journalist Michael Dobbs reported, the horrors that Jews had experienced convinced many of them and their families to flee Germany as quickly as they could locate a country willing to admit them. As a result of Nazi decrees, taxes and restrictions against Jews, even those who had once been affluent were now destitute.

Even before Kristallnacht, Dobbs noted the increase in the number of anti-Jewish incidents pressured Jews to attempt to leave. Beginning in 1933, Jews who were taken to Dachau could be let free if they left the country. In the 12 months ending in June 1938, 22,000 Jews applied for visas to leave Germany and enter the U.S. Of these, 14,000 were rejected and never granted an appointment because they did not have the proper documentation. Another 1,200 Jews were declined an interview because of medical reasons or unacceptable affidavits. The remaining 6,800 presumably qualified applicants had to wait two, often three, years for an appointment with the consulate.

Each American consul general had autonomy in establishing eligibility of those seeking entry into the U.S. Applying financial requirements provided by the LPC (“Likely to become a Public Charge”) clause of the 1917 Immigration Act, the consul could reject a candidate’s entry by capriciously deciding that they might become dependent on the U.S. government for subsistence.

Antisemitism, Nativism And ‘America First’

Widespread antisemitism, nativism and a policy of “America First” were the primary reasons behind the campaign to exclude Jews from America, asserted historian David Wyman. During the war, he said, there were hundreds of bills in Congress to decrease immigration. Three, in particular, illustrate the prevailing sentiment. One called for the postponement of all immigration until the end of the war; another to terminate immigration at the end of hostilities; and to cut the quotas for a 10-year period.

Fear of the Fifth Column

The very word “refugee,” which implied “alien” to the bureaucrats and “secret agent” to the military, was used to justify excluding Jews. Compounding the problem, many Americans, including some members of Congress, believed Jews from Eastern Europe were radicals, perhaps even Communists, who would become a “fifth column” in the U.S.

The fear of allowing a “fifth column” into the U.S. played a significant and underrated part in determining immigration policy.

In “The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes: The Inside Struggle, 1936-1939,” U.S. Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes wrote on September 9, 1939: “The President related to us that someone who knew [Joseph] Goebbels [Reich Minister of Propaganda] well had talked to him recently and had just brought back word to the President of what was running in Goebbels’ mind. That gentleman believes that Germany will overcome Poland within a few days and will then quickly smash both France and England, largely from the air. His interlocutor asked him: ‘What next?’ Goebbels is said to have replied: ‘You know what, the United States is next.’ He was told that he could hardly expect to conquer the United States from a distance of thirty-five hundred miles of ocean. Goebbels’ reply was: ‘It will come from the inside’.”

Ickes concluded with his own observation: “I haven’t the slightest doubt that if Hitler should smash France and Britain before being bled white, he would next turn his attention to the richest country in the world and therefore the greatest prize of a conqueror, the United States.”

A Final Note

Kristallnacht became a wake-up call for German Jews. Historian Christian Gerlach pointed out that out of a Jewish population of 500,000 living in Germany at the beginning of 1933, 214,000 remained by 1939. By 1941, two-thirds of the German and Austrian Jews had emigrated. As Dobbs indicated, they had been forced to make choices that would affect their future: Should the family try to travel together, or should the children be separated from their parents? What about the elderly members of the family who might not be able to travel on their own or whose age and ill health made receiving a visa impossible?

Dr. Alex Grobman is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. (SPME)

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