(CRISIS and WAR in EUROPE, 1937 to 1940 – continued)

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CRISIS and WAR in EUROPE, 1937 to 1940 (3 of 11)

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Night of the Broken Glass (Kristallnacht)

Germany was trying to return 50,000 or so Polish Jews in Germany to Poland. Poland refused to take them, and in late October, 1938, Germany forced the issue. German police dragged some 3,000 Polish Jews from their homes and put them onto trains destined for the German-Polish border. At the border, the Poles tried to force the expelled Jews back to Germany. The Jews, including the old, sick and weak, were left for a couple of days between the borders, in the open and the rain and mud. Then the Poles relented and allowed the Jews entry, to an animal stable, where, on the third day a little bread was dumped on them – their first food in three days.

A young Polish Jew who had grown up in Germany and was illegally in Paris, Herschel Grynszpan, received a letter that his sister had written while she was on the deportation train heading for the German-Polish border, a letter telling Grynszpan that his family had been deported and describing the appalling treatment by the Germans. Outraged, Grynszpan, on November 7, went to the German Embassy and shot and wounded a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath. No evidence exists that Grynszpan knew Vom Rath. Had he known vom Rath he might have wished to take revenge against some other German. Vom Rath was one of those Germans who was not anti-Semitic, and he had enough contempt for Hitler's policies that he was willing to damage his career as a diplomat.

Two Nazi German doctors arrived in Paris and took charge of vom Rath's care from the French, who believed that vom Rath was recovering. Shortly thereafter under mysterious circumstances vom Rath died. This made Grynszpan's shooting vom Rath appear more horrendous to the German public than if vom Rath had lived. And to make the crime appear worse, German authorities elevated vom Rath's ranking in the diplomatic corps.

Paul Goebbels, the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, sent National Socialists on an orgy of collective punishment against Jews. National Socialist razed at least 267 synagogues (a number derived from Nazi sources). note52 ¬†Jewish stores were attacked, around 7,500 such stores having their windows smashed. Jewish shops were looted. Jewish cemeteries were attacked with sledgehammers. The attackers gutted 177 private homes. They beat and killed Jews. In the middle of the night, attackers pulled old men into the streets and forced them to scrub the street on their hands and knees with toothbrushes. Jews feeling utter despair and humiliation killed themselves. Police rounded up around 30,000 Jewish men and sent them to concentration camps. Some of those rounded up died in the camps. Only four rapes had occurred, and those who committed the rapes were tried, not for rape but for having violated Germany's miscegenation laws. 

Dr. Goebbels described the rising against the Jews as spontaneous, but few believed him. British newspapers swung against Germany, editorializing that Germany had returned to the Dark Ages, that Germany had engaged in an "orgy of savagery" that would send a chill of horror throughout the civilized world. In the United States, former president Hoover spoke out against the attacks, as did the former governor of New York, Alfred Smith, and New York's District Attorney, Thomas Dewey. Union members agreed to tithe part of their earnings for the victims. School children took up collections from their classmates. The journalist Dorothy Thompson began to rally help for Herschel Grynszpan.

Angry senior army generals, among them Stulpnagel, von Hanneken and von Roth, demanded an audience with Hitler. Hitler refused to see them, and the generals complained instead to the leading National Socialist Hermann Goering, President of the Reichstag, telling him that the persecutions of the Jews was a dishonor to Germany and that Jews who wanted to leave Germany should be allowed to do so with their capital. Others were angry with Goebbels, blaming him for instigating the rising, and they were angry over the insurance costs involved with all the broken windows. Goering was annoyed, complaining that he had been asking people to save empty toothpaste tubes and bent screws and in only one night millions and millions of marks worth of merchandise had been stupidly destroyed. The economics minister, Walter Funk, declared that it had become a disgrace to be a German.

On November 21, Hitler ordered the release of several hundred Jews from the concentration camps. Goebbels tried to redeem himself. The Jews were required to pay for the damages to storefronts, lamp posts and streets. Insurance money that Jews were to receive was deemed fraudulent.

Kristallnacht, meanwhile, scarred a number of Germans into leaving Germany, people who otherwise would have perished in Hitler's concentration camps.


Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.