On November 9, 1938, in an event that we now recognize as the beginning of the Holocaust, Hitler’s Nazis began their campaign of terror against Jewish people by destroying their homes and businesses in Germany and Austria. The violence, which continued through November 10 and was later dubbed “Kristallnacht,” or “Night of Broken Glass,” left approximately 100 Jews dead, 7,500 Jewish businesses damaged and hundreds of synagogues, homes, schools and graveyards vandalized. About 30,000 Jewish men were arrested, with many of them sent to concentration camps for several months until they promised to leave Germany.
The November 7 murder of a German diplomat in Paris by a 17-year-old Polish Jew became the provocation for the Kristallnacht attacks. On, 1938, Following the episode, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ordered German storm troopers to carry out “spontaneous demonstrations” against Jewish citizens, with local police and fire departments ordered not to interfere. Terrified by the sudden outpouring of official hate, some Jews, including entire families, committed suicide.
In a clear demonstration of the state of German ethics and justice at the time, Nazis blamed their Jewish victims for Kristallnacht and fined them 1 billion marks (or $400 million in 1938 dollars) for the low-level diplomat’s death. This allowed the government to seize Jewish property and any insurance money owed to Jewish people for the destruction. The Nazis then enacted policies and laws that excluded Jews from all aspects of public life.
Despite outraged condemnation from the international community, the Nazis saw little tangible negative consequences of their actions of November 9 and 10, leading them to believe they could get away with the mass murder that was to come.
In my experience, the average American under the age of 60 knows nothing about Kristallnacht, and the schools do not teach it.
When I last wrote about the event on Ethics Alarms, on the occasion of its 75th Anniversary, I concluded in part,
If July 4, 1776; September 11, 2001; December 7, 1941, and November 22, 1963, are moments in history that all of us should remember, honor and think about because we are Americans, November 9 and 10th present the same obligations because we are human beings, and citizens of the world.
75 years ago, a regime of unequaled cruelty and evil announced to the world what was to come, though only in hindsight were the signs seen with clarity and understanding. Because we thought we were civilized, because we thought we had fought the war to end all wars and triumphed, because our imaginations were not sufficient to grasp the enormity of the evil in front of us, and because it was not happening to us, the Night of Broken Glass was permitted to usher in the most terrible genocide humanity had ever inflicted on itself, lighting the fuse of “The Final Solution” and ensuring that the war to come would dwarf all previous conflicts in size, cruelty, and horror.
Americans especially need to remember, because after Kristallnacht, the nation that was founded on the dual commitments to human rights and freedom from tyranny looked away for three long years as a human rights nightmare perpetrated by a hellish despot continued and deepened. Over the span of those two November days and one horrific night between, the Nazis staged violent attacks against the Jewish communities in Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland. Synagogues, Jewish-owned stores, community centers, cemeteries, and homes were vandalized, looted, and burned, or otherwise destroyed as police and fire brigades refused to come to their rescue. Germany went to war against its citizens. 1400 synagogues and 7,500 Jewish businesses were reduced to trash, glass and rubble, with more than 90 Jews killed . Across Europe, indignation was expressed and ink was spilled in barrels to express moral outrage, but the nations of the world did little of substance. The primary U.S. response was recalling its ambassador. No nation cut off diplomatic relations with Germany. 400,000 German Jews were obviously in mortal peril, yet national borders were mostly closed to them, especially ours. Six years later, almost all of the 400,000, and millions more too, were dead, victims of mass extermination.
Remembering Kristallnacht, not just every 75 years, but every year, is beyond important, and not just to honor its victims and the millions of victims of the Holocaust that followed. It is essential, if we are to be vigilant about the stealthy approach of evil around us, which always will take essentially decent people by surprise. It is vital if we are going to fulfill the United States’ historical and irreplaceable role as a nation that does not only look out for itself, but others, especially the weakest and most oppressed, with the best interests of humanity at heart. Most of all, it is mandatory for all of us to ensure that the slogan of the Jewish Defense League—“Never again!”—becomes an accurate prophecy. That is will is very much in doubt.…We must not let the clarifying events of history fade into obscurity. Our priorities must remain clear….
A shrug accurately describes our culture’s attitude toward the ideas, inspirations, concepts, visions, people and events that shaped us. This is disrespectful to our past. This is dangerous to our future, and not just our future, but humanity’s.
We have a duty to remember much, and we have a special duty to remember, and mark, Kristallnacht.