How the World Shrugged Off Kristallnacht

But the diplomats were puzzled over why the Nazis were acting so violently, especially given the resulting damage to their international reputation. France's representatives believed that it had to do with a power struggle within the Nazi leadership. The Swiss envoy assumed that it was Hitler's way of demonstrating his power. British diplomat Smallbones suspected that the outbreak of violence had been triggered by "that sexual perversity … very present in Germany."

But, as historians discovered after World War II, Hitler was merely taking advantage of an opportunity. He was in Munich on the afternoon of Nov. 9, when the news arrived of the death of Rath, the diplomat. It was the same day on which the top party leadership met each year to commemorate Hitler's failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. After consulting with Hitler, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels goaded on the other officials in the meeting until, as he wrote in his diary, they "immediately rushed to the telephones." They gave their instructions to the Nazi foot soldiers, who were already itching to harm Jews. The excesses began that night.

1,406 Destroyed Synagogues

Many synagogues in the Württemberg, Baden and Hohenzollern regions were "set

on fire by well-disciplined and apparently well-equipped young men in civilian clothes," reported US Consul-General Honaker, noting that the process was "practically the same" in all cities. "The doors of the synagogues were forced open. Certain sections of the building and furnishing were drenched with petrol and set on fire. Bibles, prayer books and other sacred things were thrown into the flames," he wrote. A total of 1,406 synagogues were burned down.

Then they began smashing shop windows. The shops were easy to identify, especially in Berlin. A few months earlier, Nazis had forced Jewish shop owners in the capital city to write their names in white paint and large letters on the shop windows.

The second wave came during the course of the next day, as the Hungarian chargé d'affaires reported from the German capital: "In the afternoon, after school, 14- to 18-year-old teenagers, mostly members of the Hitler Youth, were unleashed on the shops. They forced their way into the businesses, where they turned things upside down, destroyed all furniture and everything made of glass, jumbled all the merchandise and then, while cheering for Hitler, left the scene to search for other places to ransack. In the city's eastern districts, the local populace also looted the devastated shops."

As instructed, the perpetrators were not wearing party uniforms. Goebbels wanted the public to believe that the pogrom was a reflection of "the justified and understandable outrage of the German people" over the death of Rath, the diplomat -- and that the police were powerless.

But none of the diplomats believed this version of the events, especially, as a Brazilian embassy counselor scoffed, in a country with the "most powerful, tightly organized, perfectly equipped and most brutal police force in the world, in the best possible position to promptly suppress any turmoil within the population."

The 'Unimaginable' on the Way to Reality

The uniformity of the approach in hundreds of cities and villages was enough to expose this lie. But most of all, the majority of Germans did not behave the way the regime had expected.

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