‘The Night of the Broken Glass’
On this day in 1938, a great evil spread across Germany and Austria. The German Nazi party launched a cancerous campaign of terror against the Jewish people, destroying homes and decimating businesses. This event, later dubbed ‘Kristallnacht’, bore witness to unfathomable acts of cruelty.
‘The Night of Broken Glass’ left approximately 100 Jews dead, 7,500 Jewish business damaged and countless schools, homes, synagogues and graveyards devastated. An estimated 30,000 Jewish men were arrested, many of whom were sent to concentration camps, only to be released on the promise of leaving Germany. The two day terror represented a histrionic intensification of the campaign generated by Adolf Hitler to purge Germany of its Jewish population. Today, one year after the 75th anniversary, we continue to reflect on the importance of remembering those who lost their lives.
In the fall of 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew, became the scapegoat of this horrifying event. After discovering the Nazi party had exiled his parents to Poland from Hannover, the aggrieved teenager shot a low-level diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, in Paris. Dying two days later of his wounds, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister for public enlightenment and propaganda, immediately seized on the assassination to rile Hitler’s supporters into an anti-Semitic frenzy. Goebbels ordered German storm troopers to carry out violent riots disguised as “spontaneous demonstrations” against Jewish citizens. Nazi officials ordered German police officers and firemen to do nothing as the riots raged and buildings burned, although firefighters were permitted to extinguish blazes that endangered Aryan-owned property. In the face of all the devastation, some Jews, including entire families, committed suicide.
In the immediate aftermath of this two day hate campaign, the Nazis held the German-Jewish community liable, fining ‘them’ 1 billion marks. As means of restitution, the government seized Jewish properties and kept insurance money owed to the Jewish people. Hell bent on creating the master Aryan race, the Nazi government would soon enact a number of discriminatory policies, systemically excluding and demonising Jews in every aspect of public life.
Over 100,000 Jews fled Germany for other countries after Kristallnacht. The international community was outraged by the appalling events; some countries broke off diplomatic relations in objection, but in truth, the ramifications proved redundant. Arguably this lacklustre retort from the international community served only to fan the flames of the deranged ideological persuasion of the Nazi party. The free world’s muted reaction to the Kristallnacht pogrom foreshadowed the terrible silence with which it would greet the Nazis’ Final Solution Drastic intervention could have potentially prevented the atrocity which was to follow.
‘The Night of the Broken Glass’ coincided with two important dates in the Nazi calendar. Firstly it represented the twentieth anniversary of what Hitler declared the infamous “stab in the back” by the “November criminals” (Jewish community) who had forced the Kaiser to abdicate, declare Germany a republic and signed the debilitating armistice that ended World War I. Moreover it represented the fifteenth anniversary of the failed Beer Hall putsch in Munich. It was no happenstance that the atrocities were conducted during November.
What can we learn?
Kristallnacht represented the tangible manifestation of the genesis of the Holocaust. Historians have argued that the international community had been aware of Hitler’s intentions as early as 1933, but never before had they been so transparent. As it is often remarked through the lenses of hindsight, such events become important not just a moral scale, but on a human level. Remembering the tragedy inflicted on the Jewish community during the days of November 1938, culminating in the mass murder of 6 million innocent lives, is not just our duty, but our collective responsibility.
By Alex Scarfe