Today in history: Nov. 9, 1938

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht – or Night of the Broken Glass.

On this daym the gloves came off. It was a nationwide attack on Jewish synagogues, businesses, homes. The destruction was massive. The message was clear. The attacks were meant to LOOK spontaneous, but they were directed from Goebbels and Hitler. The police were told not to interfere. Only Jews were arrested.

Only an ostrich would think that this thing would “blow over”. There are those who say ‘war never solves anything’. My response is: “Never? Really? Never?” War “solved” the problem of the Nazis. It was the only language they understood and it was the only thing that would have stopped them.

1938 was a devastating year. People at the time knew what was coming. Many were in denial, but many were not. Kristallnacht was a signal of the clear intentions of Hitler. Czechoslovakia, Munich, Kristallnacht….

Even the name “Kristallnacht” is chilling. In German it means “night of the broken glass”, but to my English ears, it sounds vaguely Christmas-y, like a crystal night of snow, something beautiful, and ceremonial. I learned about “Kristallnacht” in high school history, and I couldn’t get the idea that it meant “crystal night” out of my mind. It was something out of a nightmare. People singing Christmas carols as the synagogues burned.

From William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany:

On the night of November 9 – 10, shortly after the party bosses, led by Hitler and Goering, had concluded the annual celebration of the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, the worst pogrom tha thad yet taken place in the Third Reich occurred. According to Dr. Goebbels and the German press, which he controlled, it was a “spontaneous” demonstration of the German people in reaction to the news of the murder in Paris. But after the war, documents came to light which show how “spontaneous” it was. They are among the most illuminating — and gruesome — secret papers of the prewar Nazi era.

On the evening of November 9, according to a secret report made by the chief party judge, Major Walther Buch, Dr. Goebbels issued instructions that “spontaneous demonstrations” were to be “organized and executed” during the night. But the real organizer was Reinhard Heydrich, the sinister thirty-four-year-old Number Two man, after Himmler, in the SS, who ran the Security Service (SD) and the Gestapo. His teletyped orders during the evening are among the captured German documents.

At 1:20 am on November 10 he flashed an urgent teletype message to all headquarters and stations of the state police and the SD instructing them to get together with party and SS leaders “to discuss the organization of the demonstrations.”

a. Only such measures should be taken which do not involve danger to German property. (For instance synagogues are to be burned down only when there is no danger of fire to the surroundings.)

b. Business and private apartments of Jews may be destroyed but not looted …

d. …. 2. The demonstrations which are going to take place should not be hindered by the police …

5. As many Jews, especially rich ones, are to be arrested as can be accommodated in the existing prisons … Upon their arrest, the appropriate concentration camps should be contacted immediately, in order to confine them in these camps as soon as possible.

It was a night of horror throughout Germany. Synagoges, Jewish homes and shops went up in flames and several Jews, men, women and children, were shot or otherwise slain while trying to escape burning to death …

A number of German insurance firms faced bankruptcy if they were to make good the policies on gutted buildings (most of which, though they harbored Jewish shops, were owned by Gentiles) and damaged goods. The destruction in broken window glass alone came to five million marks ($1,250,000) as herr Hilgard, who had been called in to speak for the insurance companies, reminded Goering; and most of the glass replacements would have to be imported from abroad in foreign exchange, of which Germany was very short.

“This cannot continue!” exclaimed Goering, who, among other things, was the czar of the German economy. “We won’t be able to last, with all this. Impossible!” And turning to Heydrich, he shouted, “I wish you had killed two hundred Jews instead of destroying so many valuables!”

Man’s inhumanity to man. Still has the power to stun my entire brain to silence. No matter how much I learn, no matter how much I read, no matter how much I PACK my bookcases with books about genocide and dictators and autocracies and gulags, I will still never get it. I will still never get to the heart of what would make a Goering (or anybody) say something like that.

And here’s a quote from the journal of Viktor Klemperer – a German Jew – whose diary I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941 is one of the most extraordinary first-hand accounts of the entire period.

December 3, 1938

Today is the Day of German Solidarity. Curfew for Jews from 12 noon until eight. When at exactly half past eleven I went to the mailbox and to the grocer, where I had to wait, I really felt as if I could not breathe. I cannot bear it anymore. Yesterday evening an order from the Minister of the Interior: local authorities are henceforth at liberty to restrict the movement of Jewish drivers both as to time and place. Yesterday afternoon at the library, Striege or Streigel, who is in charge of the lending section, an old Stahlhelm man of middling position and years …: I should come into the back room with him. Just as he had announced the reading room ban a year ago, so he now showed me the complete ban on using the library. The absolute end. But it was different from a year ago. The man was distressed beyond words, I had to calm him. He stroked my hand the whole time, he could not hold back the tears, he stammered: I am boiling over inside … If only something would happen tomorrow … — Why tomorrow? — It’s the Day of Solidarity … They’re collecting … one could get at them … But not just kill them — torture, torture, torture … They should first of all be made to feel what they’ve done … Could I not give my manuscripts to one of the consulates for safekeeping … Could I not get out … And could I write a line for him. — Even before that (I knew nothing about the ban yet) Fraulein Roth, vdery pale, had gripped my hand in the catalog room: Could I not get away, it was the end here, for us too — St. Mark’s was set alight even before the synagogue and the Zion Church was threatened, if it does not change its name … She spoke to me as to a dying man, she took leave of me as if forever …

But these few, sympathizing and in despair, are isolated, and they too are afraid. The developments of the last few days have at least rid us of inner uncertainty; there is no longer any choice: we must leave.

One of the ugliest days in the history of the human race.

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37 Responses to Today in history: Nov. 9, 1938

  1. Lisa says:

    I used to think that same thing about it sounding Christmasy. Weird, huh?

    I will NEVER understand racism and sectarianism. Never. Nothing anyone can tell me justifies it, ever. I’ve heard, “Oh, you don’t understand, that’s just the way it was. Those people [insert KKK member, or Nazi, or whatever] were good people, they just didn’t know any different, blah blah blah.” Bullshit.

    99% of all the conflicts in our world since time began were started by some sort of racism or sectarianism. The Nazis thought Jews inferior, the Protestants thought Catholics inferior, the whites thought blacks inferior, it’s the same story throughout the world. Tsutis and Hutus, Islam and Christian, etc., etc.

    Pisses me off.

  2. die Reichskristallnacht

    Sheila pointed out that today is an anniversary. Not a good one, but an important one, as 67 years ago, Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, began today and proceeded through the early hours of November 10, 1938. Kristallnacht…

  3. Kathy says:

    I’ve always thought the same thing about the word Kristallnacht, too! It does sound all pretty and Christmassy.

    Great post, Sheila.

  4. David says:

    Wow, have you gotten to the part of Red’s Bookshelf where “Broken Glass” is? It just hit me, the title. What a play that is, especially in context of this day in history.

  5. Rob says:

    I’m with Lisa. I hear that “It wasn’t right or wrong. Its just the way it was.” argument quite a bit, most recently from one of those half-crazed girls that screamed litlle nothings in the ears of the Little Rock Nine back in the 50s. I don’t buy it, either.

  6. syd says:

    The thing I really can’t comprehend is how you persuade that many people to believe and furthermore ACT in such an sinister way. I mean, it’s not hard to believe a few wackos could cook up something as sick as racism, or whatever… but how does it happen in such numbers?

    Thanks for this post, Sheila. We must never forget.

  7. Lisa says:

    Rob, I used to live in Little Rock (and still live in the area) and during the 50-year anniversary of the Central High School “incident” you heard that ad nauseam. They also try to cloak their reasons for fighting desegregation under a “state’s rights” banner, but it’s bullshit. They just didn’t want to go to school with black kids, period.

  8. Marti says:

    Sadly, these are still fears. For the past couple of years there have been attacks in (wow, I’m so shocked) Paris and the surrounding areas on synagogues, cemetaries, and even attacks of people (there was an incident where a group of masked men with clubs and pipes, etc, attacked a Jewish school soccar league). When I was in Germany in 1990, we visited Dachau and the kids from a high school trip were pointing and laughing at all of us who were breaking down in tears. In Poland in 1998 we ran into the same kind of thing, but also saw kindergarten-aged kids who had been taught to give the heil hitler salute as we walked by and people who started telling at us when they saw the stars of david on the coats we were wearing. Pretty scary. Not to mention the Sudan problems, India vs. Pakistan, and the dozen other dictatorial governments still thriving on the destruction of the minorities. It’s really amazing to think that in all this time we really haven’t gotten anywhere. As a person who firmly believes that everyone should just do their thing and accept that someone else will be doing their own different thing, it’s really unfathomable. You have to wonder how some people turn out the way they do.

  9. mitch says:

    As to “how people turn out the way they do”, I strongly recommend Hitler’s Willing Executioners, by Daniel Goldhagen. It debunks a lot of the self-serving myths the Germans erected to shield themselves from what their nation did – that it was “just the Nazis”, that the majority of Germans didn’t support the Holocaust. It examines signs that eliminationist anti-semitism was an endemic part of German society – politics, mythology, German lutheran and catholic practice, day to day life. It gives a context for Kristallnacht and the Holocaust that explains a lot. Goldhagen, by the way, ends the book with praise for the Germans’ success in eradicating this impulse in their society. I have my doubts at times.

    If you haven’t read it, Red (and I think it likely you have!), you should…

  10. red says:

    Mitch – yeah, I’ve read it. I agree with you about the essential thesis of the book. It went that far because the culture at large encouraged it to go that far … not out of ignorance but out of acceptance. I have to say I found much of the book extremely boring – all the charts, and statistics. I had to force myself to keep going. (It reminded me of the sociology text books I had to suffer through for one course in college) I went along with it, because I knew he was building his case, and it took all those charts about membership in boy’s clubs and soccer clubs, etc. to make his point. In the end, he made a very strong case for the entrenched anti-semitism in the culture. Way pre-dating the rise of the Nazis.

    Very scary book.

    Also the chapters on the death marches were brutal. Nearly unreadable. You can’t help but imagine what those people went through. It still has the power to stun me, again, into complete silence.

    I highly recommend the book as well.

  11. Emily says:

    I don’t want anybody to take this as condescending, because I don’t mean it that way, but my step-mother and her family are German. I’ve lived in Germany and have known plenty of people that were there when this horrible stuff was happening. There’s not a person among them who haven’t insisted Goldhagen’s book is complete rubbish. This doesn’t excuse any of the atrocities of the Holocaust, but a lot of people completely forget that there was a rule that came with life under the Nazis: toe the line or die. It’s all good and well for us to sit here and say that we would have been brave warriors against the madness that was the Nazi party when we don’t have death staring us in the face.

    Think about it: the absolute rightful shame that nearly every German feels about the Holocaust. Does it make sense that the entire nation would have been insanely infected with anti-Semitism and then just *snap* wake up be over it when the war ended? If the country was so entrenched with hatred for the Jews, where does the massive shame come from? That sort of bigotry is not weeded out overnight. It remains for a long time. It’s a difficult attitude to change, especially in an entire culture. Look at how long it took for America to adopt civil rights. Many Germans were seeing those pictures from the camps for the first time when the rest of the world were.

    And no, I’m not denying the Holocaust. I’m not saying things weren’t that bad. I’m saying that there were plenty of ordinary Germans who did not and the one’s who did were lacking in the courage to give up their lives in protest. Indeed, some of them were not.

  12. red says:

    There were a couple of things that bothered me about his book, Emily – besides the graphs and statistics and long lists of numbers – and one of them was the assumptions he took from lists of benign statistics (always an iffy thing, I think. Sure, statistics of how many people belonged to how many clubs is interesting … but it NEVER paints an entire picture. That’s the problem with sociology, in general – or one of the problems.) Not that statistics are not indicative of trends … but there were leaps he took that didn’t quite add up. In my opinion.

    I am still glad I read it, but your point is well taken.

    Klemperer’s journals (have you read them?? Amazing) paints a vivid picture of helpless outraged Germans (like the wrenching portrait of the librarian in the excerpt I posted today).

  13. Emily says:

    I haven’t read the journals, but they’ve been recommended many times. I think I even have a copy floating around my house somewhere.

    There’s this great story the Monty Python fellows once told about their trip to Germany to tape episodes of the show in German (you should hear Eric Idle tell the story. “So, the Germans came to us and said ‘look, we don’t have a sense of humor…'”). When they arrived the first place their hosts took them was Dachau, as if to say to their foreign visitors “this is what we did.” They wear their shame openly and honestly. They arrived just as the camp was closing and were initially refused entry. So Graham Chapman shouts “tell them we’re Jewish!”

    They let them in after that.

  14. red says:

    “So, the Germans came to us and said ‘look, we don’t have a sense of humor…'”


    If you ever feel like some dense upsetting reading – pick up Klemperer’s journals. :)

    I feel like a little old lady for saying this – but the paperback versions of the book has SUCH SMALL TYPEFACE that I could hardly read it. That’s my only complaint. Way too small type.

  15. ricki says:

    I feel compelled to say “never again!” or something along those lines.

    Looking at it in retrospect – it is just so horrible. So much so that I would like to believe those who went along with the actions are a totally different species of human from me, or that it’s some kind of weird biological mutation that’s no longer in the population, or it’s a virus that infected the population once but won’t again. But as much as I’d like to believe that, I don’t.

    And it makes me sick to my stomach to think there are people in the U.S. who consider the Kristallnacht behavior acceptable. True, they’re a lunatic fringe, but it still makes me feel ill.

    now I’m all pessimistic – wondering about, if something like that happened here, if I’d be brave enough to say “Hell no! You can’t do that!” and be killed as a result. Or join an underground resistance force and risk death daily.

  16. red says:

    ricki – I have the same train of thought.

    Philip Gourevitch describes, vividly, standing in line for the Holocaust Museum in DC. And he was reading the Washington Post – it was 1994. And the pictures of bodies clogging the rivers of Rwanda were all over the front page.

    He looked up at all the Never Again signs – the long line of waiting people – looked back down at the newspaper – and basically that was the impetus to write his unbelievable book on the Rwandan genocide.

    “Never again” is too easy. They’re just words. It takes vigilance to stop certain people from acting like genocidal maniacs.

    It goes back to our conversation yesterday or whenever it was about the Russian Revolution, and politically correct language.

    No matter what you do, or how much you hope, some people in this world just will not play by the rules. “Never again” cannot be passive – it must be active and firm.

  17. Emily says:

    There was a really great play written by a guy named Rolf Hochhuth called The Deputy about a man who stood up to the Nazis, or more specifically, to Pope Pius XII after he signed a concordat with Hitler agreeing not to speak out publicially against him as long as Der Fuhrer didn’t come after Catholics. I highly recommend it. It’s very sad, but very, very good.

  18. Cullen says:

    “Never again” is too easy. They’re just words. It takes vigilance to stop certain people from acting like genocidal maniacs.

    Amen. And pray for our troops. Tomorrow is the U.S. Marine Corps’ birthday.

  19. David Foster says:

    It did indeed take tremendous courage to oppose the Nazi state, and we should all remember those few who did, like Hans & Sophie Scholl and Hans Oster.

    It’s also important to keep in mind that Naziism did not spring into being fully-formed, with control of the police and the army..when it began, it was just one more political party. It was able to gain control over the state in part because of its intimidation of political opponents through violence. If you spoke forthrightly against Naziism in 1932, you didn’t risk arrest, because the Nazis did not then control the police–you did, however, risk being beaten up and even killed by thugs. So even then it took courage to oppose Naziism, though not quite so much as it took later.

  20. Marti says:

    But I thought Hitlet DID go after the Catholics?

    While I agree that no one can say the entire population was against the Jews, I will say that there still is a large population who were and are anti-semitic. Perhaps Emily’s family were among those with a sense of decency, but like I said, I saw firsthand how people still feel and that they’re not ashamed to hide it. Again, I’m not saying everyone, I’m saying some. It’s recorded that people continued killing Jews as they were returning to the homes they had been forced to leave during the war. I just don’t like how they say (in the official Dachau video) that no one knew what was going on because the distance between Dachau and Munich was hardly anything.

  21. Lisa says:

    Was it Dachau where Patton drug the burgermeister (Is that a real title? I thought it was made up for that Christmas show.) through the camp and then the BM went home and committed suicide because he was so overwhelmed?

    I just find it hard to believe that the majority of the German people had no idea that the concentration camps where there. I mean, where did they think their neighbors WENT? I’m not saying there weren’t some — especially in larger cities — that didn’t figure it out, but the country as a whole didn’t know? I have a hard time believing that.

  22. Emily says:

    They knew there were camps “where the enemies of the Third Reich are concentrated in one place to be rendered harmless.” Jews weren’t the only ones held there – anyone who oppossed the Nazi state was sent to the camps. What they didn’t know was the kind of horrors that were going on inside.

    When rumors first started circulating, a lot of people didn’t believe them because they sounded too horrible to be true.

  23. red says:

    Elias Canetti’s book on crowd dynamics (Crowds and Power) – and how crowds behave (he is a German – he lived through World War II) – comes very close to getting to the heart of the matter. Here’s a link to the book.

    It’s a theory – it’s his ruminations on how “crowds” behave. Human beings from the dawn of time have clumped up together. We group up. And what are the elements of such clumps? How do crowds behave?

    What happens when symbols replace reality (he says that that’s one of the signs of an organized crowd – you start to see symbols standing in for reality) — You can see this occur in any fascistic or autocratic regime. It’s all about the symbols.

    The logical brain starts to be discounted and ignored – in favor of succumbing to the group.

    It’s like someone yelling Fire in a movie theatre. There will be mass panic, people running, trampling – and LOGICALLY we may KNOW that if you just line up calmly and go out the Exit doors, you will get away … but there is very little LOGIC in crowd behavior.

    There is a sense – espeically as the crowd gets more and more organized – that one tiny voice just… wouldn’t matter. You cannot see your way out of the crowd. It’s too thick, it’s all around you …

    His book Crowds and Power is not about Germany – he is looking at the larger picture of human behavior – but one of the reasons he wrote it is to try to understand what had happened in his country.

    A country of individuals coalesced into a heaving mass of terrifying one-ness. At least to the outside. How does this happen?

    His book is well worth a look to anyone fascianted by crowd-politics. It’s dense, it’s not history – it’s more philosophy and psychology – but as a person obsessed with genocidal dictators, theocracies, and fascism – I could not put it down.

  24. red says:

    Here’s an excerpt – if anyone wants to take a look at Canetti’s work.

    It’s not for everyone – You have to be willing to get into a state of “not knowing the answer” to read the book. Many people find that state intolerable and the last time I posted excerpts, a couple of know-it-alls pooh-poohed it – but I still think his theories about crowds should be considered.

    His chapters on religion, the “crowds” of different religions, should be essential reading.

  25. Patrick says:

    Thanks for this post Sheila. A horrible day. However, something else happend in Germany on this day 51 years later. The Berlin Wall was opened by East Germans. Man’s inhumanity to man contrasted with man’s inability to endure that inhumanity and oppression forever.

  26. red says:

    Patrick – really? Today was the day??

    Damn, I’m usually so on top of my large historical moments … Thanks for the reminder!

  27. red says:

    also propaganda – If you are only fed on a diet of propaganda, then slowly your brain loses that logical critical edge.

    It happened at the height of Soviet Russia – and again that goes back to what we discussed yesterday, in terms of language.

    If you control LANGUAGE, you can control an entire population.

    No internet, no television, no 24-hour news cycle …

    MUCH easier to control what information gets in. They read what we WANT them to read.

  28. Emily says:

    I don’t know if my step-family had a “sense of decency” as you suggest. My step-mother’s father, whom I never met, was a member of the Afrika Korps during WWII. I’m not sure about my Oma, because I was too young to ask questions and she didn’t talk about the war at all. I do know that if they were anti-Semites, they did not raise their children to be. Bigotry of any kind was a punishable offense when I was growing up.

    My Oma had a stroke that left her paralyzed on her left side, after which she lived for a year. The last couple weeks of her life, she’d slipped into complete dimentia. She would babble about her childhood, talk about it as if she were a little girl. Mumble about the war, that kind of thing. One day, when I was in her room feeding her, she randomly threw her right arm up in the air and shouted “Heil Hitler!”, knocking the bowl I was holding and sending it flying through the air.

  29. Emily says:

    Sheila – yup. November 9, 1989. I still remember coming home and my grandmother, a Berliner, being in complete tears.

  30. red says:

    Wow, Emily. What a moment …

  31. red says:

    I remember watching it on television with Mitchell, and we just could. not. believe it. We kept looking at each other, like … WHAT???

  32. red says:

    And then of course the strange strange sight of David Hasselhof standing on top of the wall, singing his ass off, as the crowd went wild.

    The US’ representative at that historic moment was David frigging Hasselhof.

    I know the Germans love him and he’s huge over there. I know. But … I mean, honestly.

  33. Emily says:

    When we passed through Checkpoint Charlie, the East German soldiers weren’t allowed to search us our the car we were traveling in, but they’d nonetheless make the empty gesture of circling around the car and looking inside through the windows. Once, we had our little dachshund Schatzie with us and he just went *off* on the soldier. We COULD NOT get him to stop barking. You could really see how irritated the guy was, getting all unnerved by a tiny little creature who barely stood a foot off the ground.

  34. The Colossus says:

    Two Days In German History

    One of them terrible, the other glorious. Sheila O’Malley reminds us that November 9 is the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Robert Mayer at Publius Pundit reminds us that it also marks the fall of the Berlin Wall. What do these two things have in common?…

  35. The Colossus says:

    Two Days In German History

    One of them terrible, the other glorious. Sheila O’Malley reminds us that November 9 is the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Robert Mayer at Publius Pundit reminds us that it also marks the fall of the Berlin Wall. What do these two things have in common?…

  36. kerry says:

    Thank you for your blog…..

    Thank you for this post…

    It touches me so deep……

  37. rachel says:

    i am doing a project in World History about Kristallnacht and this website was VERY helpful. thank you :)

    ..*rachel emma berkowitz

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