Kristallnacht: The shattering of illusion

Over Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – the pent-up barbarism and antisemitic mania of the German nation exploded in unparalleled fury and destruction.

November 7, 2019 21:52
4 minute read.
The Nazi party desperately needed a massive influx of funds to pay for the German war machine...

The Nazi party desperately needed a massive influx of funds to pay for the German war machine... Jewish money was an obvious source of income. (photo credit: Courtesy)

If the Holocaust represents the darkest night in all of Jewish – if not human – history, as Elie Wiesel famously wrote, then the events of November 9-10, 1938 may very well be the very darkest night of the Shoah. In what would later come to be known as Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – the pent-up barbarism and antisemitic mania of the German nation exploded in unparalleled fury and destruction.

On the pretense of the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynspan, a Polish-German Jew whose parents had been brutalized, Nazi SA storm-troopers and Hitler Youth rampaged throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland, destroying everything Jewish in their path. Some 1,500 synagogues and study halls were looted, desecrated and burned; more than 7,000 Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed; hundreds of Jewish cemeteries and thousands of graves were defiled. 30,000 Jewish men were sent to the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, many never to return, and as many as 700 Jews were murdered on the spot.

The motivation for these atrocities was manifold. Of course, local antisemitism was not a new phenomenon in Germany; it had been raging and rising since Hitler took power in 1933. The Jews were demonized for a host of despicable “crimes,” including their allegedly having been responsible for Germany’s crushing defeat in World War I, and for causing hyper-inflation and the Great Depression. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 institutionalized Jew-hatred, making it socially acceptable, and primed the German public for the eventual purge of its Jews.

There was also a significant financial factor. The Nazi Party desperately needed a massive influx of funds to pay for the raw materials that supplied the voracious German war machine, soon to be unleashed on the world. Jewish money was an obvious source of income, and so a huge amount of Jewish goods and property were summarily confiscated. Indeed, Kristallnacht’s Jewish victims themselves were forced to pay one billion marks ($5.5 billion in today’s terms) for vom Rath’s murder.

Moreover, this was a way for the Nazis to accelerate their plan to make Germany completely Judenrein. In the 10 months following Kristallnacht, more than 115,000 Jews – almost half of the remaining Jewish population that had not yet fled Germany – emigrated from the Reich. Coming close on the heels of the Evian Conference – which had failed miserably in its attempt to find an international solution for the Jewish refugee problem – Kristallnacht was Hitler’s way of emphatically telling the world, “Whether you want them or not, the Jews will have no place in our country.”

I want to suggest another, no less appropriate name for Kristallnacht: “The Night of Shattered Illusions.” While Hitler’s genocidal designs upon world Jewry were certainly no secret – Mein Kampf had outlined them already in 1925 – this one event made it crystal-clear to the entire world that every Jewish life was now in mortal danger. No amount of wishful thinking or rationalization – such as British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s infamous “Peace in our time” declaration, made just five weeks earlier – could deny or dismiss the outpouring of Nazi hatred. Foreign journalists witnessed and reported it; even The New York Times made it their lead story in bold headlines. And while some Germans did condemn the attacks, massive crowds of ordinary civilians enthusiastically participated in the riots and joined in the carnage against their neighbors.

Kristallnacht is widely considered to be the date the Holocaust began. From this moment on, the truth was painfully, undeniably clear for all to see. No Jew could be safe anywhere the Nazi tentacles reached. Unlike other tragic periods in our history, when our persecutors might be bought off with money or political influence, the Shoah was obsessively single-minded and virtually impenetrable; it meant to eradicate every last member of our faith, with no exceptions whatsoever – even including many who had no inkling that they had any Jewish blood at all.

If there is anything positive to be gleaned from the horrendous legacy of Kristallnacht – and all that was to follow – it is the imperative to take antisemitism seriously, for it is deadly serious. What begins as “benign prejudice” – slanderous words of hate and mere threats – can quickly morph into very real acts of violence. Society can rapidly fall victim to charismatic demagogues, adopting a mob mentality that defies both logic and cultural norms. For reasons that no one has yet definitively identified, Jews become the traditional target of choice for the ills of society, real or imagined. The rantings of an Erdogan, the Nazi-like imagery of Palestinian journalism, the rise of American white supremacy and left-wing BDS on campus are all threats not to be ignored or excused.

Glass, we know, is a medium that allows us to view events clearly. But that is only when we choose to open our eyes and grasp the reality that is staring us in the face.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;

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