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Posted by on Nov 10, 2010 in International, Places, Politics, Religion, Society, War | 0 comments

Kristallnacht, and the Lessons of History

Yesterday, 72 years ago, the Holocaust was ushered in by the two nights of organized rioting against Jews called Kristallnacht (night of broken glass). One of Michael Stickings’ co-bloggers at The Reaction reminds us that the significance of Kristallnacht was that it moved Hitler’s Germany from the first stage of the Holocaust — legislated disenfranchisement and persecution of the German Jewish population under the Nuremberg Laws — to the second stage — rounding up Jews in massive numbers and deporting them to concentration camps in Germany (like Dachau) and to points farther East. The third, final stage of course was the gassing and burning of millions of Jews in extermination camps over the next five to six years, until the Soviets, Americans, and British liberated some of the camps at the end of the war.

None of this happened overnight. It happened over a period of a dozen years — more than that if you count the years prior to and leading up to Hitler’s takeover of power in 1933. It happened because the world allowed it to happen (emphasis is mine):

… After the initial laws were passsed, it only got worse. In 1935, Hitler personally signed the infamous Nuremberg Laws — which prohibited Jews from being citizens and made intermarriage between Germans and Jews/Gypsies/blacks illegal and punishable.

At this point, many of the wealthier the Jews realized what was going on.* However, the world’s borders began to shut — as fewer and fewer nations were willing to take in the German refugees, especially Jews. On October 18, 1938, Hitler ordered 12,000 Polish born Jews expelled – they were given only a few hours to leave and not allowed to take most of their property. The Nazis seized what was left behind. They were dropped at the Polish border.

The turning point came when Herschel Grynspyn, a 17-year old German Jew enraged by his family’s expulsion from Germany, walked into the German Embassy in Paris on November 6, 1938 and fired five shots at a minor German diplomat Ernst vom Rath “in the name of the 12,000 Jews.” Two days later, the ambassador died.
The German government’s reaction was swift and harsh. On November 8, all Jewish publications were shut down. Jewish children were banned from attending “Aryan” schools and all Jewish cultural activities were suspended. But the legal steps were not enough for a good portion of the population that was filled with hate and animosity toward the Jews. Within hours, Germany found itself in the grip of skillfully orchestrated and severe anti-Jewish violence. Businesses and homes were destroyed, Jews were beaten and arrested, the angry mobs could not be controlled (frankly the German police did nothing to quell the violence). November 10th was also the 455th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther. Many Germans used Luther’s pamphlet Jews and Their Lies as another justification for the violence.
Over 25,000 Jews were arrested and deported to concentration camps like Dachau. 200 synagogues were burned and vandalized, thousands of Jewish businesses were simply destroyed. Joseph Goebbels justified German behavior during Kristallnacht as “healthy instincts.”
Kristallnacht was a precursor of things to come. Germany was never the same – Hitler had his excuse to begin his systematic persecution and ultimately murder of the Jews. Hermann Goring further foreshadowed the impending Final Solution. On November 11th, the day after Kristallnacht he stated, “The Jewish problem will reach its solution if, in any time soon, we will be drawn into war beyond our border — then it is obvious that we will have to manage a final account with the Jews.” For the Jews under German control, their fate was sealed. On September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland — and World War II began. Five and half years later — the world would come to know what Auschwitz, Belzec, Buchenwald, Sobibor, and Treblinka really were.  By that time 6 million were nothing but ashes.
The world did react, albeit tepidly – the U.S. recalled its ambassador, but did not break off diplomatic relations. While world opinion turned against Hitler’s regime, the West sat back and did nothing. Nothing stopped the Nazis from their growing militarism, power and continued persecution. It only fueled more German nationalism.
History does not repeat itself exactly. The same events do not recur; patterns continue under the surface of daily life, and resurface but never in precisely the same form. The Holocaust, in its meaning as the extermination of six million Jews, will never happen again. But you know what? People have not changed. They still take “never again” to mean “never this event again in this way to these people,” and they still fail to understand that historic events as horrific as the Holocaust do not occur because of a few concrete actions or inactions by one or two leaders that, if they had been reversed, would have prevented the evil.
It’s easy, satisfying, and fun to say that World War II, and thus the Holocaust, happened because Neville Chamberlain appeased Hitler, allowing him to annex Austria and the Sudetenland, and to invade Czechoslovakia, and because Britain only declared war when Germany invaded Poland. But by the time all those actions occurred, nothing could have stopped the horrors that lay ahead (although different actions and decisions made differently could have saved many lives, and eased much of the suffering on an individual level).
The reasons why World War II, and thus the Holocaust, happened go back decades before 1939, and occurred all over the world, not just in Europe. Here is an abbreviated list:
  • World War I (which was a perfectly useless and unnecessary war, which is why no one ever refers to it as The Good War, and why actually everyone would just as soon forget it ever happened — but they can’t because World War I was a major cause of World War II).
  • The Depression.
  • Anti-Semitism (globally — the Holocaust could not have happened without the silent assent of the rest of the world, particularly that of Britain and the United States).
  • The Western media, most particularly major news organizations in the United States, which notably included the New York Times, which systematically, methodically, and steadily covered up and downplayed the annihilation of the Jewish people in Europe, and misled the American people about what was going on, long after they knew quite well what was going on.
  • The FDR administration, which in numerous ways blocked, put a stop to, and refused to support dozens of specific actions and efforts intended to rescue European Jews in danger of extermination, including barring the entry of Jewish refugees into the United States, even when immigration quotas were unfilled (which was pretty much throughout the war when it came to the Jews).
Some of these are interrelated; for example, much of the media inattention and the reluctance to be seen engaging in rescue efforts aimed specifically toward Jews, was motivated and fueled by anti-Semitism, both among media and government leaders, and among the American public in general.
This is why Distributorcap’s last two sentences pack such a powerful punch.
* Like my maternal grandfather. In 1940, he fled with his two children (my mother and her brother — my uncle) through France and Portugal and from Lisbon sailed to the United States. He came from an upper-middle-class French family, and had the money to persuade people to either help him or look the other way. He was abusive to my mother and her brother verbally and in my mother’s case also sexually — he was in short a bastard. But he did one supremely good thing in his life, and because of that I exist — and my brother, David; and my daughter, Maggie; and my cousins, Alan and Eric; and Eric’s daughter. They all exist because my grandfather the bastard did one incredibly good thing in his life.
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