Kristallnacht Perspective

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Kristallnacht Perspective

“Among the emigrants was Zindel Grynszpan, who had been born in western Poland when it was part of the Imperial Reich and had moved to Hanover, where he established a small store, in 1911. On the night of October 27 Grynszpan and his family were rousted out of their home. Grynszpan’s store and the family’s possessions were confiscated. Penniless, famished, soaked to the skin and freezing, they were herded over the Polish border.

Zindel Grinszpan’s seventeen-year-old son, Herschel, was living with an uncle in Paris. When he received a letter from his father containing an account of the expulsion, he decided to strike back in order to demonstrate that `Jews are not animals.’ Resolving to assassinate the German ambassador, he went to the embassy on November 7. When he was unable to get near his target, he settled on a more accessible diplomat, Third Secretary Ernst vom Rath. Rath, who, as it happened, was an anti-Nazi, was critically wounded.

Grynszpan’s action was doubly unfortunate in that it came two days before the annual party ceremony commemorating the November 1923 putsch in Munich. Hitler was just leaving the evening festivities in Munich on November 8 when Goebbels brought him word that Rath had died. Grynszpan’s provocation could be turned to good account, just as van der Lubbe’s firing of the Reichstag had been, Goebbels argued. For years the party had been fighting a futile battle against Germans shopping in Jewish stores, where prices were low and quality better. Goebbels’s perpetual propaganda that the failure of the standard of living to improve was due to the plotting of the international Jewish financiers was wearing thin. Here was the opportunity to give the average Nazi a chance to vent his spleen in a `spontaneous’ outburst of indignation, to terrorize the Jews into a mass exodus, to take the wealthy ones hostage for ransom, and to dramatize to Jews in other countries what would happen to their coreligionists in Germany if they did not cease to speak out and halt their economic boycott.

Hitler, in a state of high excitement, agreed. To him, the assassination was not the act of a desperate Jewish youth, but a conspiracy by the `International Jews.’ The victim was not a minor foreign office official, but, symbolically, he himself. Goebbels, returning to the party leaders who remained gathered, reported that anti-Jewish demonstrations during which shops were demolished and synagogues set on fire had broken out in two districts. The Fuehrer, at his, Goebbels’, suggestion, `has decided that such demonstrations are not to be prepared or organized by the party, but so far as they originate spontaneously, they are not to be discouraged either.’

The Gauleiters (district chiefs), Kreisleiter (county chiefs), and SA and SS leaders were accustomed to reading between the lines of such declarations. If they had any doubts, they were resolved by a teletype message sent out a few minutes before midnight by Heinrich Müller, the head of the Gestapo, to all central police stations.

1. Actions against the Jews and in particular against their synagogues will occur in a short time in all of Germany. However, it is to be made certain that plundering and similar lawbreaking will be held to a minimum.
2. Insofar as important archive material is present in the synagogues, it is to be secured by immediate measures.
3. The seizure of some twenty to thirty Jews in the Reich is to be prepared. Wealthy Jews above all are to be chosen. More detailed directives will appear in the course of this night.’

This message was followed an hour and a half later by one from Heydrich. Heydrich directed that the police leaders were immediately to confer with the party leaders `about the handling of the demonstrations. Only such measures may be taken which do not jeopardize German life or property (for instance, burning of synagogues only if there is no danger of fires for the neighborhood). Business establishments and homes of Jews may be destroyed but not looted. The police have been instructed to supervise the execution of these directives and arrest looters. Subjects of foreign countries may not be molested even if they are Jews … For the performance of the measures of the Security Police, officers of the Criminal Police as well as members of the SD, the special troops, and the SS may be used….After the arrests have been carried out, the appropriate concentration camp is to be contacted immediately with a view to a quick transfer of the Jews to the camps. Special care is to be taken that Jews arrested on the basis of this directive will not be mistreated.’

Since these teletypes were open to considerable leeway in interpretation, officials in various jurisdictions reacted differently, and these differences were exacerbated as the directives were passed on from one level to the next. The casuistry, hypocritical criminality, and moral perversity of the orders were typical of the Nazi regime. The Kristallnacht,* as it came to be known, joined the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre as an example of an aberrant government’s insensate incitement of riot against a portion of its own subjects.

* The term `Krystallnacht’, coined by Funk, was a measure of poetic license, and referred to the fact that the shards of glass from the thousands of broken windows glittered like crystal in the streets.

The attacks were intended to take place under the cover of darkness; and in some places the riots got under way at two or three o’clock in the morning. But since, in most areas, a few hours of organization were required, people on their way to work in the bleak hours of the dawn were greeted by the astonishing sight of men and youths shattering the doors and windows of synagogues, applying gasoline, then setting the structures afire _ while all the time firemen and their engines stood by to keep the flames from spreading, and police officers were on hand to preserve order.

The assault against Jewish stores was launched concurrently with the firing of the synagogues _ and here confusion reigned. In some cases merely the windows were smashed; in others the windows were smashed, the shelves ripped off the walls, and the contents chopped to pieces; in still others, the goods were heaved into the streets; in a lesser number, the entire establishment was put to the torch. To Germans starved of consumer goods and squeezed by inflation, it seemed madness to destroy what was in short supply; so widespread looting _ or, in many cases, simply scavenging _ set in.

This was the visible element of the Kristallnacht, and it was met by the average German, steeped in law, order, and the sanctity of property, with numbness and incomprehension; the same Nazis who had rioted against the Communists, Social Democrats, and Weimar Republic now seemed to be rioting against themselves. (No one, of course, was fooled by the pretense of spontaneity or noninvolvement of the Nazi Party when the burning of the synagogues was orchestrated in every detail, and the men leading the rampages were the neighborhood block leaders and SA Scharführer [sergeants]. If there was one element lacking in the German character, it was spontaneity.)

Yet it was the invisible and theoretically unsanctioned activity that was by far the more horrifying. Armed Nazis broke into Jewish homes throughout the land, smashed furniture, threw belongings into the street, looted money and valuables, and raped women and girls as young as thirteen before the eyes of their families. Any sign of resistance _ even a word or a gesture -was suppressed with ruthless brutality. Women as well as men and boys were beaten, knifed, and shot. Pets were hurled out of upper-story windows alongside their owners. Jews were plunged into ice-cold rivers. When they tried to claw their way out, German boys were encouraged to throw bricks at them, onlookers were ordered to spit at them, and party members kicked them in the face. A number of the victims drowned. Those few Germans who dared come to the defense of the Hews were beaten and threatened with incarceration. A few prominent Germans who protested were arrested. Goebbels announced that there was `a spontaneous wave of righteous indignation throughout Germany as a result of the cowardly Jewish murder of Third Secretary vom Rath.’ Jews were imprisoned for assault when they tried to defend themselves, and for arson when their shops were burned down. More than one hundred Jews were killed; and thirty thousand men between the ages of sixteen and sixty, nearly twenty percent of the total, were picked up and packed off to concentration camps. Goebbels, lying with inimitable crudeness and aplomb, told foreign reporters: `Not a Jew has had a hair disturbed.’ All stories to the contrary were `stinking lies.’

It was typically Hitlerian that the Nazis acted without fully considering the consequences; thus it was not until the day after that the government was made startledly aware that many of the stores, although they carried Jewish names, had previously been purchased by Gentiles. Even more distressing, most of the Jewish stores were located on Christian-owned property and insured by German firms, who were now faced with staggering claims. The amount of plate glass broken equaled half a year’s production of the entire Belgian glass industry, the only source for Germany (which did not manufacture plate glass itself). On November 12, Goering convoked what was, essentially, a cabinet meeting. He himself was furious; and Hitler, whose spleen had come home to roost, was fed up.

`The stenographic report on this meeting is an extraordinary document,’ Commander Albrecht remarked to the judges, `and it does not make pretty reading.’

`Gentlemen! Today’s meeting is of a decisive nature,’ Goering announced. `I have received a letter written on the Führer’s orders requesting that the Jewish question be now, once and for all, coordinated and solved one way or another.’

`Since the problem is mainly an economic one, it is from the economic angle it shall have to be tackled. Because, gentlemen, I have had enough of these demonstrations! They don’t harm the Jew but me, who is the final authority for coordinating the German economy.

`If today a Jewish shop is destroyed, if goods are thrown into the street, the insurance companies will pay for the damages; and, furthermore, consumer goods belonging to the people are destroyed. If in the future, demonstrations which are necessary occur, then, I pray, that they be directed so as not to hurt us.

`Because it’s insane to clean out and burn a Jewish warehouse, then have a German insurance company make good the loss. And the goods which I need desperately, whole bales of clothing and whatnot, are being burned. And I miss them everywhere. I may as well burn the raw materials before they arrive.

`I should not want to leave any doubt, gentlemen, as to the aim of today’s meeting. We have not come together merely to talk again, but to make decisions, and I implore competent agencies to take all measures for the elimination of the Jew from the German economy, and to submit them to me.’

The conference marked the pivotal point in the history of the German Jews. It was more important in sealing their fate that the Nuremberg Laws of the developments that were to follow after the onset of the war. Having been stripped of their citizenship, they were now to become pariahs, open to exploitation and terrorization by every petty bureaucrat and tyrant, and totally subject to the caprice of a government wallowing in corruption and hypocrisy.

`The Jew being ejected from the economy transfers his property to the state,’ Goering continued. `The Aryanization of all the larger establishments, naturally, is to be my lot. The trustee of the state shall estimate the value of the property and decide what amount the Jew shall receive. Naturally, this amount is to be set as low as possible. The representative of the state shall then turn the establishment over to the Aryan proprietor.

`There the difficulties start. It is easy to understand that strong attempts will be made to get all these stores to party members. I have witnessed terrible things in the past; little chauffeurs of Gauleiters have a million. You, gentlemen, know it. Is that correct?’

A chorus of assents responded, though a few smiles were suppressed. Goering, who had arrived broke in Berlin ten years before, was now one of the world’s plutocrats. The chief robber was decrying petty larceny.

Goering went on: `Of course, things like that are impossible. I shall not hesitate to act ruthlessly in any case where such a trick is played…. We must agree on a clear action that shall be profitable to the Reich. … Anyway, the Jew must be evicted pretty fast from the German economy.’

After Goering promulgated the robbery of the Jews, Goebbels took over to institute their segregation. `In almost all German cities, the synagogues are burned,’ he announced.

`How many synagogues were actually burned?’ Goering asked.

`All together there are one hundred and one synagogues destroyed by fire,’ Heydrich responded. `Seventy-six synagogues demolished. And seventy-five hundred stores ruined in the Reich.’

`I am of the opinion that this is our chance to dissolve the synagogues,’ Goebbels spoke animatedly. `We shall build parking lots in their places or new buildings. [Furthermore] I deem it necessary to issue a decree forbidding Jews to enter German theaters, movie houses, and circuses. Our theaters are overcrowded. We have hardly any room. I am of the opinion that it is not possible to have Jews sitting next to Germans. It is still possible today for a Jew to share a compartment in a sleeping car with a German. Therefore, we need a decree from the Reich Ministry for Communications stating that separate compartments for Jews shall be available. They shall not mix with Germans, and if there is no more room they shall have to stand in the corridor.’

Dalüge answered with alacrity: `The order has already been given. According to reports, one hundred and fifty were arrested by yesterday afternoon.’

Hilgard requested that, in order to maintain the international integrity of the German insurance industry, insurance companies not be prevented from paying claims.

Heydrich has the answer: `The insurance may be granted, but as soon as it is paid, it’ll be confiscated. That way we’ll have saved face.’

`One moment!’ Goering resumed command. `You have to pay in any case because it is the Germans who suffered the damage. But there’ll be a lawful order forbidding you to make any direct payments to Jews. You shall also have to make payment for the damage the Jews have suffered, but not to the Jews, but to the minister of finance.’

`Ah ha!’ Hilgard exclaimed.

`We estimate that the damage to property, to furniture, and to consumer goods amounts to several hundred million,’ Heydrich reported.

`Most of the goods in the stores were not the property of the owners but were kept on the books of other firms, which had delivered them, which definitely are not all Jewish but Aryan,’ Dalüge went on.

`I wish you had killed two hundred Jews,’ Goering groaned, ` and not destroyed such valuables.’

`There were thirty-five killed.’ Heydrich apologized that the number was not greater. (The final figure, actually, turned out to be over a hundred, and innumerable others died as a result of maltreatment in the concentration camps.)

`Now for the damage the Jew has had.’ Goering turned to the next item. `He is the one who has to suffer the damage. As far as the jewels may be returned again by the police, they belong to the state.’ Goering, who loved to trickle his glowing horde of gems though his fingers, was already envisioning his share.

`I wonder to what an extent insurance companies in foreign countries might be involved in this?’ Hilgard mused.

`Well, they’ll have to pay. And we’ll confiscate that.’ Goering had the answer. `The Jew shall have to report the damage. He’ll get the refund from the insurance company, but the refund will be confiscated.’ Since the insurance companies would have to pay the full damages, Goering complimented Hilgard on making a profit.

Hilgard was mystified. `The fact that we won’t have to pay for all the damages is called profit?’

`If you are compelled under the law to pay five million, and all of a sudden there appears an angel in my somewhat corpulent form and tells you: you may keep one million _ why cannot that be called making a profit? I should actually split with you, or whatever you call it.’ With Goering, that was not an idle suggestion. `I can see it, looking at you _ your whole body isgrinning! You made a big profit!’ (Conot, 164-172)

Work Cited:
Conot, Robert E. JUSTICE AT NUREMBERG. New York: Harper & Row, 1983

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