Remembering Kristallnacht

Submitted by Matthew on 13 November, 2013 - 12:24
Synagogue in Hanover

Synagogue in Hanover, Germany, set ablaze during the Kristallnacht pogrom

On 9-10 November 1938, Germany and Austria were swept by vicious pogroms against Jews and Jewish property.

The day was called “Kristallnacht” (crystal night) for the way it covered the streets with broken glass. It signalled a shift in Nazi anti-semitism beyond legal and administrative discrimination, and towards mass, violent assaults on the Jewish population.

The pretext for the rioting was the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish-Jewish refugee. Grynszpan shot the junior ambassador, Ernst Vom Rath, five times.

He did not attempt to flee, and identified himself to police. In his pocket was a postcard to his family, reading “I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do. Forgive me.” He was only 17 years old.

Grynszpan was acting in retaliation for the persecution of his family in Germany. In August 1938, the Nazi government declared that residence permits for foreigners were cancelled. Permits could theoretically be renewed, but it was announced that Polish Jews would be deported. On 28 October, more than 12,000 Jews were rounded up, allowed only one suitcase of belongings, and transported towards Poland.

However, Polish guards refused them entry, leaving thousands of distressed and homeless Jews stranded on the border. Unable to find shelter in the small border villages in harsh weather conditions, the expelled Jews were caught in miserable suspension. Some tried to escape back into Germany and were shot by soldiers.

It was this catastrophe that lead Grynszpan to take revenge at the German embassy in Paris.

The assassination gave the Nazis an excuse (though they would have found another) to launch another wave of anti-Jewish violence. When Adolf Hitler heard of the death of Vom Rath, he abruptly left the commemorative dinner he had been attending. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels announced that “demonstrations should not be prepared or organised by the party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.” By ten o’clock that evening, Nazi Party paramilitaries in civilian clothing began attacking Jewish shops and property with axes and sledgehammers.

As the night wore on, the ferocity of the attacks intensified. Centuries-old synagogues were soon ablaze, and SS troops began beating and arresting young Jewish men. Torah scrolls and holy books were burnt and torn up in the street, and gravestones in Jewish cemeteries were smashed and uprooted. Fire-fighters were under instruction to intervene only where damage might spread to non-Jewish property. Jewish shops and homes were left to burn.

The state-induced rioting spread throughout Germany’s cities and into Nazi-controlled Austria. It is estimated that 200 synagogues and 7,000 shops were damaged or destroyed, and 91 people killed over two days of rioting, many of them beaten to death in the street or burnt alive.

Around 30,000 Jewish men arrested by the SS were subsequently deported to concentration camps. Suicides have been estimated to number in the thousands.

The reaction of the German public was complicated. Many were drawn into the hysteria of the riots, motivated by years of racist propaganda and by the opportunity to loot. But many others were revolted by what was happening to their neighbours. There are reports of Hitler Youth scouts refusing to carry out instructions, and even local Party functionaries treating their orders with horrified disbelief.

But in the main, the opposition to the riot was passive and too scared of repercussions to intervene. Nazi rule had crushed the labour movement, the left and strangled the traditional channels of dissent.

Eyewitness Arthur Flehinger remembered seeing the faces of people watching the destruction through the curtains and helplessly weeping.

In 2013, the Jewish Socialist Group produced this statement to mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht and to draw attention to the rise of racism today.

"On 9-10 November 1938, Nazi stormtroopers led a wave of violent attacks on Jewish people and property throughout Germany and Austria, which the Nazis had annexed.

"During these pogroms, 91 Jews were killed, thousands were taken from their homes and incarcerated in concentration camps, 267 synagogues were destroyed, and some 7,500 Jewish-owned shops were smashed and looted. The Kristallnacht pogroms presaged attempts to remove Jews from German life completely.

"Many Jews left hurriedly to seek refuge in friendly countries, including Britain, but Britain was already in the grip of an “aliens scare”. Newspaper headlines declared: “Alien Jews pouring in”, and claimed that “Refugees get jobs, Britons get dole”. The media accused Jewish asylum seekers of “overrunning the country”. Despite wide public revulsion at the violence of Kristallnacht, powerful elements in British politics and business continued to admire Hitler and the Nazi regime.

"Seventy-five years after Kristallnacht, racists and fascists inspired by the Nazis continue to attack minorities in Europe. In Hungary neo-fascists target Gypsies and Jews. In Greece Golden Dawn members and supporters brutally attack migrants and political opponents. Here in Britain, minority communities, especially Muslims, have been targeted in an atmosphere that is increasingly hostile towards migrants and refugees.

"Mindful of this history, we are equally alarmed at continuing fascist violence and the toxic sentiments expressed by many politicians and much of the media against migrants, asylum seekers, Gypsies and Travellers. We stand shoulder to shoulder with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in their efforts to live here in freedom and safety, to contribute to society and be treated as equals.

"As Jews we stand together with all communities seeking to combat racism and fascism here and elsewhere."

• List of signatories

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