November 9, 2008 marked the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. It was a night of terror which constituted the commencement of the Holocaust. It was a horrible night, but it was merely a foreshadow of the doom yet to come. This anniversary should not merely commemorate the horrible events that took place in 1938. Rather, it should serve as a warning that we must learn the lessons of history lest we repeat our mistakes; we must take our enemies’ words seriously, and we must not be complacent in the face of evil.
Hitler disguised his plan to exterminate Jews when he first seized power in 1933. Instead of announcing his plan for genocide, he implemented more palatable anti-Semitic policies, which were incremental, systematic, and strategic. Initially, the policies deprived Jews of social, economic, and legal rights. They helped to desensitize the public to discrimination and hate. Eventually, the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 stripped the Jews of their German citizenship and they remained legally nationless.
In October of 1938, the Nazis deported approximately 17,000 Polish Jews back to their land of origin. Each was allowed to take one suitcase of belongings. Their businesses, homes, and other possessions were confiscated by the German government. However, Poland refused to take the Jews back, as they were no longer Polish citizens. They remained on the border of Poland in military stables, penniless, jobless, and in hideous conditions.
Herschel Grynzpan, a 17-year-old student in Paris, learned that this was the plight of his family. His sister, Berta, had sent him a postcard from the Polish outskirts, asking him to send money. Enraged, Herschel bought a gun. On November 7, 1938 he went to the German Embassy and fired five shots at the Third Secretary, Ernst von Rath, whom he mistook for the Ambassador. Herschel took this drastic action to draw attention to how Germany was treating the Jews. Two days later, von Rath died.
The assassination was the perfect pretext for Nazi reprisal against the Jews. Josef Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, organized what later became known as “Kristallnacht” or “night of the broken glass.” Some historians believe that the Nazis had planned an act of violence against the Jews well before the shooting, and were merely waiting for the right moment to implement it.
On November 9, 1938, Richard Heydrich, head of the office that oversaw the Gestapo, the SA, and the State Police, issued a telegraph to all headquarters and police stations. It informed them that riots against the Jews in Austria and Germany would occur that night and into the next morning. It instructed them not to interfere with the violence and to protect only the lives and property of non-Jews.
That evening, acting under Nazi instructions, mobs of Germans and Austrians incited riots. Dozens of Jews were killed, Torah scrolls were desecrated, and hundreds of synagogues were burned to ashes, many of which had been historical houses of worship standing proudly in Germany for centuries prior. Firemen were forbidden from extinguishing the flames.
Approximately 7500 Jewish shops, businesses and homes were vandalized, pillaged and ransacked. This included orphanages and hospitals for sick Jewish children. Some standers-by joined in the rampage, including women and children. Others cried, and more remained silent. Thirty thousand young, healthy Jewish males were arrested, imprisoned and sent to concentration camps. The next morning, the streets were littered with shattered glass from the broken windows.
When all was said and done, some complained that destroying Jewish goods affected German businesses. As a result, the Jews were fined one billion marks to pay for the damage that had been done to them. Claims paid by insurance companies for the broken glass were taken by the state. It took six months for the windows to be completely replaced.
Kristallnacht signaled a dramatic shift in policy from political, social and economic persecution to physical beatings and murder. It was the inevitable progression of incremental discrimination and hate-filled policies. It was also the first violent pogrom in Western Europe in centuries. Further, it marked the end of the German-Jewish legacy which included centuries of religious scholarship, business-building, social activism, culture, science, government service and other Jewish contributions to German society. Previously, many Jews had even fought and died as German soldiers out of loyalty to their Fatherland.
The day after Kristallnacht, Goebbels announced, “[W]e shed not a tear for them. They stood in the way long enough. We can use the space made free more usefully than as a Jewish fortress.” He announced government-sanctioned reprisals against the Jewish community. Within weeks after the shooting of von Rath, Jewish newspapers and magazines were banned from publication, Jewish children were banned from “Aryan” state elementary schools, and all Jewish cultural activities were suspended indefinitely. The Nazis issued a “Decree on Eliminating the Jews from German Economic Life.” Jewish businesses were not allowed to re-open unless they were managed by non-Jews. Jews were no longer allowed to own radios or have driver’s licenses. They were given curfews and geographically segregated. Virtually no Jewish-German contact was permitted in public life, whether related to transportation, schooling, or hospitals.
Though many newspapers and magazines throughout the world condemned the Nazis, little action was taken to actually help the Jews in Germany. Some Jews were permitted to enter England. President Roosevelt stated that refugees already in America on visas could remain. However, the U.S. legislature voted not to open its doors to additional Jewish refugees. And for the most part, other western countries did not change their immigration policies to come to the rescue of the Jews.
The apparent apathy of the “civilized world” in response to Nazi brutality against the Jews only emboldened them. It led them rightly to believe that they could commit ever increasing acts of violence and cruelty without consequence. Jews in Germany, who were no longer citizens of any country, remained trapped in Germany without legal or physical protections from any government. They were no longer human; they were “untermenschen” (subhuman).
During the 1942 Wannsee Conference, the SS adopted the “Final Solution” as official government policy. It paved the way for them to implement policies toward a Judenfrei Europe, and to extinguish the Jewish race as humans would extinguish rodents. Heydrich, who had previously participated in the meeting to remove Jews from all economic life, was appointed Chief Executor of the Final Solution.
Today it is not Aryan supremacists who want to extinguish all Jews, but Islamist supremacists who want all countries to be ruled by Sharia. In some regions of the world, Islamists are imposing their will through acts of violence and terrorism. In the West, they are using non-violent means to achieve the same radical goals. They are lobbying, legislating, litigating, and infiltrating our governments and universities. They are fighting to obtain preferential treatment and take away our freedom.
We must stop our enemies in their first steps on the path toward evil. We cannot give them a foothold. If we do, we have been forewarned. In the face of apathy and complacency, our values, freedom, and national security will be at risk.
Edmund Burke once said “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”. Make no mistake about it -- Hitler is back with a different name. After WWII, the world vowed never again. Today, we have another chance to look evil in the eye and take action to defeat it. Will we rise to the challenge? Or will we, once again, sit idly by?