On November 10, 1938, after six years of escalating and systematic persecution of Jews, masses of Germans really let loose.
Across the Reich, mobs descended on Jewish-owned businesses and homes, smashing, looting and beating.
As horrid as this night was, it was only another escalation, not yet the major thrust, of official anti-Semitism, but it did serve to wake up some of the rest of world to the horror of the Third Reich.
Hitler’s regime was so besotted with its own anti-Jewish furor it was actually surprised that anyone outside the country was tremendously upset by the reports that dispatched to London, Paris and New York by correspondents and diplomats who had witnessed the “Crystal Night” nightmare.
On November 11, The Times of London summed it up: “No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults of defenceless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.”
Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s biographer, historian of the Second World War, and Holocaust expert, has laboured tirelessly to ensure that disgrace is not forgotten.
His most recent book, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, a distillation of his Holocaust research, addresses the significance of one particular night on a country, the world, and humanity in general.
One of the difficulties of containing the Holocaust, or even its Kristallnacht chapter, in one small book is that it is almost impossible to convey the barbarity without overwhelming the narrative.
Episode after episode of injustice and brutality become numbing. Where to start? Where to stop?
“Terrified children were turned sobbing out of their beds, which were then smashed to pieces.”
“There was an SS man … systematically smashing the glass on each pretty nursery picture.”
“Truckloads of Jews were taken by Storm Troopers to Doliner Street and put to work tearing down a synagogue.”
There were many such “typical” episodes before the worst horrors — the death squads, the camps, the gassings, mass machine-gunnings and the torture really got underway.
Before skinheads, before Neo-Nazis, before the demented rantings of the current president of Iran, even before I learned that in my lifetime there were North American country clubs that were off-limits to Jews and blacks, I suspected that the Germans might not be unique, that any group of us was capable of losing its wits and turning into a beast.
So some of Gilbert’s revelations are not shockingly new.
What fascinated me most, this time around, were the reports of courage by isolated gentile Germans in a time when even uttering, “poor Jews” was considered treasonous.
As the Daily Herald reported five days after Kristallnacht, “More than one good Aryan has had a beating-up for attempting to assist even aged Jews in distress.”
The Daily Telegraph reported on November 11 that “German women who remonstrated with children who were running away with toys from a wrecked Jewish shop ‘were spat upon and attacked by the mob.’”
A New Chronicle reporter witnessed “the strange sight of two German army officers in uniform who intervened to prevent the destruction of a shop and who were threatened with bodily assault by a howling mob.
“The officers were forced to retreat, their hands on their daggers.’”
Here and there gentile neighbours and concierges helped Jews hide from the Gestapo.
A minister dared to counsel that anti-Jewish brutality was not in keeping with the spirit of Christ.
“Pastor J. von Jan preached to his Lutheran congregation in Memmingen, whose synagogue had been burned down on Kristallnacht, ‘Our nation’s infamy is bound to bring down Divine punishment.’
“Dragged out of his Bible class by a Nazi mob, Pastor von Jan was brutally beaten….”
Later, in Berlin, Pastor Bernard Lichtenberg was denounced for offering a prayer for deported Jews and exhorting his congregation to “Love Thy neighbour.”
The brave pastor died on the way to Dachau. (As an example of the ongoing relevance of the Holocaust, I couldn’t help but think of contemporary ministers who have been censured, or have lost their jobs, for speaking out against intolerance toward gays.)
Meanwhile, what were foreign powers doing to ease the pain, rescue the persecuted and stop the slaughter?
Germany’s brutality brought out the best and the worst in the rest of humanity. What stands out now are individual acts of courage and decency, amidst complacency, political intransigence, and outright complicity.
When a disaster — such as global warming — is unfolding, one of the more effective ways to place a mask of reason upon the face of complacency is to accuse those who are drawing attention to the calamity of being alarmists.
“A great many of these are not in any sense political refugees, but Jews who panicked unnecessarily and need not have left,” said one British government official, Patrick Reilly.
Then Reilly went on: “Many of them are quite unsuitable as immigrants and would be a very difficult problem if brought here.”
What a good sop to the conscious of the inactive! One wonders how many of those “unsuitable” immigrants eventually perished in the ovens.
Meanwhile, as governments hemmed and hawed, opened doors to the persecuted and closed them, some of their officials showed heroic initiative.
On the border between Switzerland and Austria, a Swiss policeman named Paul Gruninger smoothed the way into his country for many desperate refugees.
“One of the most valuable rights of sovereignty is the right of asylum,” he wrote his superiors in his own unavailing defence.
He was fined and fired for his good deeds.
China’s consul in Vienna, Dr. Feng Shan Ho, earned censure and “demerits” from his superior for issuing as many visas as he possibly could to help Jews escape the Nazi terror. Many hundreds of lives were save thanks to Feng Shan Ho.
The Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux, Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes, also risked his career and life to expedite the escape of Jews.
Captain Frank Foley a British passport control officer in Berlin practically ran an escape network.
Too bad there weren’t many more people like these working for foreign governments.
Instead, there were many by-the-letter types in positions of power, the sort of people who could fret about German Jewish refugees from the slaughter being ‘enemy aliens’ who might support Hitler’s troops in an invasion of Britain!
One of the small chapters in all this bureaucratic rigmarole played out in Alaska.
US Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes realized that the huge territory of Alaska contained enough room to support refugees.
The visionary mayors of Seward, Petersburg, and our neighbour Skagway, agreed with him.
But some other Alaska municipalities sent a delegation to Washington complaining that bringing Jews into Alaska could spark anti-Semitism.
The lifesaving initiative stalled.
Meanwhile, some American Christians argued against admitting more Jewish children to the US, claiming to know that God wouldn’t want children separated from their parents — even though those parents were desperately trying to send their youngsters to safe haven.
Canada was divided as well, its more generous instinct frustrated by fear and prejudice.
Canada’s director of Immigration Frederick Blair warned that “no country ‘could open its doors wide enough to take in hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe…”.
Kristallnacht took place less than 70 years ago. As one reads through Gilbert’s minutely detailed account of that night, its prelude and its aftermath, it becomes obvious that little has changed.
The desperate of Darfur are officially discussed and just as officially ignored.
Armed American ‘patriots’ patrol the Mexican border hunting would-be refugees fleeing from poverty.
Oil companies and their pet politicians stifle scientists who warn about global warming.
Liberal journalists and lawyers are threatened, civil rights abrogated, and the fear of minorities, of ‘those others’ is wielded as a tool of government control.
Ministers exhort their congregations to gird themselves for battle against gays, liberals and scientists. Muslim clerics call for holy war.
But here and there, people do stand up against the reactionary tide: the “granola-crunchers,” tree huggers and people huggers, the same sort of folks who would have been denounced as “bad Germans” by their compatriots in 1938.
They will recognize the vital urgency of Gilbert’s most recent historical work.
Kristallnacht: Prelude to destruction, by Martin Gilbert, HarperCollins, 314 pages, $28.50 cloth