This weekend, on the night between November 9th and 10th, falls the seventy-fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogrom in Nazi Germany and Austria that, at least in a sense, formally initiated the reign of terror we have come to refer to broadly as the Shoah, the Catastrophe.
Contemplating the numbers is unsettling enough. Ninety-one Jewish people were killed. (Later on, of course, a mere ninety-one deaths in the context of the Nazi war against the Jews would sound almost paltry. But at the time it was an unimaginable number. There were, for example, fewer than seventy deaths in the infamous Kishinev pogroms of 1903, at the time widely considered to have constituted the worst example of anti-Semitic violence in Europe since medieval times.) More than thirty thousand Jewish men and women were arrested and sent to concentration camps. (This kind of mass incarceration of Jews had no precedent at all in earlier instances of anti-Semitic violence.) Over one thousand synagogues were destroyed. By most counts, more than seventy thousand Jewish businesses were ransacked, most ruined beyond repair. But these numbers, as horrific as they are, do not really explain in what sense Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass—changed everything. In retrospect, the potential for anti-Semitic violence in Germany and Austria seems obvious from events far earlier than 1938. And yet…there is something about Kristallnacht that feels like a turning point, like a kind of almost seismic shift in the social landscape of central Europe both in terms of what it suggested about the future of European Jewry and what it said all too clearly about the degree to which the general German populace was prepared to look away while the vandals did their worst.
But, all that notwithstanding, the concept of Kristallnacht as turning point has even more to do with the rest of the world than with Germany itself. The events of 9-10 November were widely and accurately reported in the world press. The opportunity for the leaders of the free world to rise up as one and to insist that the Nazis back down, to say unequivocally that the world simply would not tolerate violence on that level prompted solely by anti-Semitism of the most virulent, malicious sort, to insist that the Jews of Germany and Austria be treated with basic human respect—this was the time for those leaders to do something if ever they were going to do anything. But they did nothing at all.
Or almost nothing. FDR recalled the American ambassador from Berlin for consultations in Washington and extended the visitors’ visas of about 12,000 German Jewish visitors who were already in the United States. But our president, one of the two or three individuals in the world whose forceful action could conceivably have made a real difference in 1938, also announced that he had no intention whatsoever of relaxing the quotas for Jewish immigrants who wished to escape Europe and settle here. And Roosevelt himself was responsible for seeing to it that the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have admitted 20,000 Jewish children to the United States outside the quota system, never became law. (The Nazis eventually murdered seventy-five times that many Jewish children. It would have been at least something. But, to borrow the famous phrase and for once to mean it almost literally, none was too many.)
More to the point is that the real weapons in the hands of the world’s major powers were left in their holsters. There were no economic sanctions levied against Germany. No nation—not even a single one—severed its diplomatic ties to Germany in the wake of the pogrom. The British refused even to consider relaxing the restrictions that kept Jews from freely emigrating to British Palestine. In the end, no countries renounced their immigration quotas and simply invited those whose lives were in danger to escape to safety by settling on their territory. In a sense, this was to be expected. The Evian Conference of July 1938, which attracted delegates from no fewer than thirty-eight countries to discuss the issue of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi terror and which was actually convened by President Roosevelt, was an abject failure. (The single country that indicated its willingness to accept a significant number of Jewish refugees was, of all places, the Dominican Republic.) There were some harsh words of condemnation of Nazi racism and anti-Semitism, to be sure. But harsh words are, in the end, just so much hot air and the German leadership got the real message of Evian all too clearly, understanding that there actually was no bottom line, no level of violence directed against the Jews of Germany and Austria that the world would not, at least in the end, learn to tolerate. Readers interested in learning more will find the picture of how things were the most clearly and authoritatively drawn in Martin Gilbert’s book, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, published in 2007 by HarperCollins and still widely available. The background to the Evian Conference is covered extensively in Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman’s FDR and the Jews, published earlier this year by Harvard University Press.
In my opinion, that is the sense in which Kristallnacht is correctly understood as the threshold across which the world stepped in 1938 which led almost inexorably to Treblinka and Auschwitz, to Sobibor and to Buchenwald: not because of the specifics of what happened that awful Wednesday night, as horrible as they were, but far more direly because of the specifics of what failed to happen. As Germany fell deeper and deeper into the realm of the demonic, the sole factor that might have acted as a meaningful brake would have been world opinion, united and unequivocal, accompanied by the universal resolve to respond to Germany anti-Semitism forcefully and meaningfully by striking at the Germany economy and at the very right of Germany to its place in the world as a respected member of the family of nations. Was Germany by 1938 so deeply in the thrall of evil itself that that kind of concerted world reaction would have mattered? Who can say? The leadership had already descended into madness. So had large cross-sections of the populace. Perhaps nothing would have mattered in the long run. No one can know…but the inverse is surely something I surely do know: that by collectively shrugging its shoulders, even while muttering the requisite words of condemnation, the world signaled to the German leadership that, in the end, the degradation of the Jews in Germany and Austria was something the world could learn to accept as essentially an internal German matter, something to be regretted but ultimately endured. And when the Germans began to extend out the boundaries of the Reich by swallowing up countries all across Europe, including countries with immense Jewish populations, the die of non-interventionalist apathy had already been cast.
For moderns looking back over the years and contemplating these events from the vantage point of all these intervening years, there is no more troubling aspect to the story of the Shoah than the one symbolized specifically by the events of 9-10 November 1938 and their aftermath. That there are bad people in the world will come as no surprise to any of my readers at all. But we feel safe in our beds at night not because we imagine that the world is populated solely by the righteous and the decent, but because we rely on ever widening circles of officials to make us safe: our local police forces, our local fire departments, the various national agencies that look after the safety of the citizenry on a national level, the Armed Forces itself that defends us against foreign aggressors and terrorists. We feel safe because, for the most part, we are safe. And that, I believe, is the correct context in which to understand Kristallnacht correctly: not so much in terms of the destruction it entailed, but in terms of the permanent way it altered the way any sane Jew living under the Nazis could imagine ever again feeling safe or secure.
To the extent that the horrors of that November evening long ago managed finally to convince some of those who still had the wherewithal to flee that the time had finally come to go, I suppose we could say that some good came of Kristallnacht. That surely is true, but, at least for those of us who know what came next, it seems odd in the extreme to describe this particular event as anything but tangible evidence that Germany had embraced the demonic and transcended its own politics to put itself fully in the thrall of evil. Uncountable books have been written about the ultimate reasons for Nazi anti-Semitism, about the specific reasons that a nation so renowned for its contributions to world culture could abandon even the outer trappings of civility and embrace a code of behavior so outside the norms of its own cultural standards that even today the German embrace of violence and political extremism seems impossible fully to fathom. I hope one day to make my own contribution to this discussion, and to do so by focusing on the nature of evil in the world rather than on politics or history. The medievals wrote extensively about the kingdom of King Samael and Queen Lilith, the monarchs of the demonic realm. It is on that specific terrain that I hope to set up camp…and perhaps in so doing to make some sort of modest contribution to the twin questions that churn and roil at the center of the matter. How can this even have happened? And what can we do to prevent it ever from happening again?