Kristallnacht and today's extremist violence - opinion

It may have appeared a spontaneous, chaotic, unplanned riot.  In the smokescreen of chaos and violence, it was easy to miss the careful underlying planning.  

John Farmer

To the layperson, and even to some of its victims, the wave of arsons, assaults, arrests and murders unleashed on November 9, 1938, on the so-called Kristallnacht, may have seemed an unplanned, spontaneous eruption of outrage at the murder of a Nazi official in Paris.  

Synagogues, shops, homes were vandalized and burned in the thousands.  Over ninety Jews were murdered, countless others beaten. Some 20,000 Jews were seized and sent to the concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. Several hundred died at the hands of the guards.

It may have appeared a spontaneous, chaotic, unplanned riot.  In the smokescreen of chaos and violence, it was easy to miss the careful underlying planning.  

Earlier that day, orders were issued to the German Police and Fire Brigades by Reinhard Heidrich that spelled out in specific detail the rules of engagement.  No violent acts could be carried out that threatened German lives or property; stores and residences of Jews could be “destroyed but not looted”; non-Jewish businesses were to be “completely secured against damage”; demonstrations “which are in progress should not be prevented by the police but only supervised.”  In Frankfurt, the commander of the 50th brigade passed on the order, noting that "all the Jewish synagogues within the 50th Brigade are to be blown up or set on fire immediately.  Neighboring houses occupied by Aryans are not to be damaged. The action is to be carried out in civilian clothes.”

Kristallnacht’s significance as an inflection point in the campaign to destroy the Jewish population is undeniable.   As David Frum has put it, “Through the end of 1937, it remained possible to hope that the Nazi persecution might still respect some last limits of humanity. …”  On Kristallnacht, “the last of those illusions was smashed like broken glass.”   

But Kristallnacht is significant also for the template it set forth for organizing seemingly spontaneous extremist violence.  First, subject a population to unremitting sole-source propaganda for a period of time to lay a groundwork of popular belief.  Second, summon that population to demonstrate its grievances.  Third, enlist a relatively few trained participants to blend in with the demonstrators and incite specific acts of violence.  Fourth, claim after the fact that the whole thing was an expression of spontaneous outrage.

Over the past eighteen months, the Miller Center at Rutgers University, working with the Network Contagion Research Institute, has published a number of papers highlighting the use of social media platforms by extremist organizations to spread distorted beliefs, recruit new members, and plan and execute seemingly spontaneous acts of violence. 

Taken together, these reports demonstrate how social media’s algorithms, designed originally to reinforce commercial predilections, have operated in the realm of political speech to amplify extremist messaging and to enable the propagation of sole-source propaganda, with effects that threaten the foundations of republican government.  

A report from June 2020 entitled “COVID-19, Conspiracy, and Contagious Sedition:  A Case Study on the Militia-Sphere,” noted that “[t]he Militia-sphere’s messaging has grown increasingly extreme as the pandemic lockdowns have continued, promoting theories that the pandemic is being exaggerated to justify a police state; exploiting recent protests regarding the George Floyd incident, and transforming peaceful protests into violent chaos.”  The report also noted “how the largest online conspiracy group in the U.S., QAnon, exploits the opportunity presented by these events to draw populist support for increasingly violent and apocalyptic confrontations against the lockdown, law enforcement, and an ill-defined 'elite.’”  

These trends culminated in the events of January 6, 2021 at the nation’s Capitol.  The groundwork of propaganda having been laid for months, both before the election and after, and the masses having been summoned to Washington to protest the election of President Biden, the appearance of a spontaneous groundswell of outrage was well established.  But as the Miller Center/NCRI’s “Assessment of the Capitol Riots” made clear, the violence associated with the protest was anything but spontaneous:  “Explicit plans to `Occupy the Capitol’ were circulating across social media suggesting that the Capitol building was an explicit target of the violent vanguard from the beginning.” 

Messaging instructing militia members to “bring handcuffs and zip ties,” and that “barging into the Capitol from multiple entryways is the surest way to … apprehend these traitors [i.e., members of Congress]” preceded the event, as did the Proud Boys’ instruction to “be incognito and … spread across downtown DC in smaller teams.”  

By blending into the crowd, a relative few determined extremists were able to steer the protests toward the violence they planned to perpetrate.  A similar dynamic also affected some of the social justice protests in 2020.  The violence associated with some of those protests, covered in real-time by cable news networks as spontaneous eruptions of outrage, was shown to be carefully coordinated by extreme left-wing agitators: “on-the-scene mobs explicitly organize into regiments to attack police with projectiles (range soldiers), commit arson and throw fire (fire mages), as well as blind police officers with high powered lasers (light mages). Online, memes and graphics are to be developed and disseminated in real time, while group members in online forums both recruit reinforcements and act as sentinels watching over the real-world `battlefield,’ using online communication to report real-time-strategic updates on police positions.”

It is little wonder, then, that at the height of the social justice protests, many leaders despaired that the legitimate, peaceful protests had been hijacked by outside agitators. 

The obvious difference between Kristallnacht and contemporary extremist violence – that Kristallnacht was orchestrated by an extremist German government, not by right-wing militias or left-wing extremists – underscores the danger posed to democracy when the center fails to hold and the contest for power is left to the extremes.

One of those extremes might actually prevail, allowing the latent antisemitism endemic to extremist movements, already spreading through social media, to flourish. 

In the meantime, from the streets of our cities to the halls of Congress, the shattered glass will be everywhere. 

John Farmer is the Former Attorney General, New Jersey & the Director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, where he also leads the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience at Rutgers University.