How the World Shrugged Off Kristallnacht

Despite the often-truncated form of the reports and the detached language of the diplomats, these are impressive documents with historical value. They attest to the fate of the Jewish orphanage in Esslingen, near Stuttgart, where a mob of Nazi sympathizers drove children out into the streets; of Jews who were forced to march in rows of two through Kehl, in southwestern Germany, and shout "We are traitors to Germany"; and of terrified people hiding in forests near Berlin.

What is also noteworthy about the documents is what they do not contain. In this respect, they point to the failure of the international community and its far-reaching consequences. The diplomats almost unanimously condemned the murders and acts of violence and destructions. The British described the pogrom as "Medieval barbarism," the Brazilians called it a "disgusting spectacle," and French diplomats wrote that the "scope of brutality" was only "exceeded by the massacres of the Armenians," referring to the Turkish genocide of 1915-1916.

Nevertheless, no country broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin or imposed sanctions, and only Washington recalled its ambassador. Most of all, however, the borders of almost all countries remained largely closed for the roughly 400,000 Jewish Germans.

Many diplomatic missions were already in contact with victims because men from the SS and the SA, Nazi Party officials and members of the Hitler Youth were also harassing foreign Jews who lived in Germany. In early November, more than 1,000 Jews fleeing from the Nazis took refuge at the Polish consulate in Leipzig. In an account of the fate of the Sperling family, the local consul wrote that they had been practically beaten to death, and that "many valuable objects" had been stolen from their apartment, "including a radio, a check for 3,600 Reichsmarks, 3,400 Reichsmarks in cash and other valuable things." The thugs had apparently undressed the wife and tried "to rape her."

German Jews also sought protection in foreign consulates, especially those of the Americans. "Jews from all sections of Germany thronged into the office until it was overflowing with humanity, begging for an immediate visa or some kind of letter in regard to immigration, which might influence the police not to arrest or molest them," reported Samuel W. Honaker, the US consul-general in Stuttgart.

Searching for Reasons

Most of the diplomats were well informed about the scope of the atrocities through the accounts they had heard from desperate people describing their experiences. Besides, the smashed windows and ransacked premises of Jewish businesses were clearly visible.

At that point, at least according to a Finnish envoy, Hitler was less interested in murdering Jews in Germany than in driving them out. "The position of the German state toward the Jews is so well known that there is no point in writing much about it," he wrote in a report to his government. "Harsher and harsher steps are being taken against them, with the goal of getting them out of the German Reich in one way or another."

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