Early Nazi Persecution
In the 1920s, most German Jews were fully integrated into German society as German citizens. They served in the German army and navy and contributed to every field of German business, science and culture. Conditions for the Jews began to change after the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany on 30th January 1933, and the Enabling Act (23rd March 1933) assumption of power by Hitler after the Reichstag fire of 27th February 1933. From its inception, Hitler’s regime moved quickly to introduce anti-Jewish policies. Nazi propaganda singled out the 500,000 Jews in Germany, who accounted for only 0.86% of the overall population, as an enemy within who were responsible for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and for its subsequent economic disasters, such as the 1920s hyperinflation and Wall Street Crash Great Depression. Beginning in 1933, the German government enacted a series of anti-Jewish laws restricting the rights of German Jews to earn a living, to enjoy full citizenship and to gain education, including the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service of 7th April 1933, which forbade Jews to work in the civil service. The subsequent 1935 Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship and forbade Jews to marry non-Jewish Germans.
These laws resulted in the exclusion of Jews from German social and political life. Many sought asylum abroad; hundreds of thousands emigrated, but as Chaim Weizmann wrote in 1936, “The world seemed to be divided into two parts – those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.” The international Evian Conference on 6th July 1938 addressed the issue of Jewish and Gypsy immigration to other countries. By the time the conference took place, more than 250,000 Jews had fled Germany and Austria, which had been annexed by Germany in March 1938; more than 300,000 German and Austrian Jews continued to seek refuge and asylum from oppression. As the number of Jews and Gypsies wanting to leave increased, the restrictions against them grew, with many countries tightening their rules for admission. By 1938, Germany “had entered a new radical phase in anti-Semitic” activity. Some historians believe that the Nazi government had been contemplating a planned outbreak of violence against the Jews and were waiting for an appropriate provocation; there is evidence of this planning dating to 1937. In a 1997 interview, the German historian Hans Mommsen claimed that a major motive for the pogrom was the desire of the Gauleiters of the NSDAP to seize Jewish property and businesses. Mommsen stated:
“The need for money by the party organization stemmed from the fact that Franz Xaver Schwarz, the party treasurer, kept the local and regional organizations of the party short of money. In the fall of 1938, the increased pressure on Jewish property nourished the party’s ambition, especially since Hjalmar Schacht had been ousted as Reich minister for economics. This, however, was only one aspect of the origin of the November 1938 pogrom. The Polish government threatened to extradite all Jews who were Polish citizens, but would stay in Germany, thus creating a burden of responsibility on the German side. The immediate reaction by the Gestapo was to push the Polish Jews—16,000 persons—over the borderline, but this measure failed due to the stubbornness of the Polish customs officers. The loss of prestige as a result of this abortive operation called for some sort of compensation. Thus, the overreaction to Herschel Grynszpan’s attempt against the diplomat Ernst vom Rath came into being and led to the November pogrom. The background of the pogrom was signified by a sharp cleavage of interests between the different agencies of party and state. While the Nazi party was interested in improving its financial strength on the regional and local level by taking over Jewish property, Hermann Göring, in charge of the Four-Year Plan, hoped to acquire access to foreign currency in order to pay for the import of urgently-needed raw material. Heydrich and Himmler were interested in fostering Jewish emigration”.
The Zionist leadership in the British Mandate of Palestine wrote in February 1938 that according to “a very reliable private source – one which can be tracked back to the highest echelons of the SS leadership”, there was “an intention to carry out a genuine and dramatic pogrom in Germany on a large scale in the near future.”
Expulsion of Polish Jews in Germany
In August 1938, the German authorities announced that residence permits for foreigners were being cancelled and would have to be renewed. This included German-born Jews of foreign origin. Poland stated that it would not accept Jews of Polish origin after the end of October. In the so-called “Polenaktion”, more than 12,000 Polish-born Jews, were expelled from Germany on 28th October 1938, on Hitler’s orders. They were ordered to leave their homes in a single night, and were allowed only one suitcase per person to carry their belongings. As the Jews were taken away, their remaining possessions were seized as loot both by the Nazi authorities and by their neighbours.
The deportees were taken from their homes to railway stations and were put on trains to the Polish border, where Polish border guards sent them back over the river into Germany. This stalemate continued for days in the pouring rain, with the Jews marching without food or shelter between the borders. Four thousand were granted entry into Poland. A British newspaper told its readers that hundreds “are reported to be lying about, penniless and deserted, in little villages along the frontier near where they had been driven out by the Gestapo and left.” Conditions in refugees camps “were so bad that some actually tried to escape back into Germany and were shot”, recalled a British woman who was sent to help those who had been expelled.
The storefronts of about 7,500 Jewish stores and businesses were shattered, hence the appellation Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). Jewish homes were ransacked all throughout Germany. Although violence against Jews had not been condoned by the authorities, there were cases of Jews being beaten or assaulted.
About 200 synagogues, many Jewish cemeteries, more than 7,000 Jewish shops, and 29 department stores were damaged, and in many cases destroyed. More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps; primarily Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.
The synagogues, some centuries old, were also victims of considerable violence and vandalism, with the tactics the Stormtroops practiced on these and other sacred sites described as “approaching the ghoulish” by the United States Consul in Leipzig. Tombstones were uprooted and graves violated. Fishes were lit, and prayer books, scrolls, artwork and philosophy texts were thrown upon them, and precious buildings were either burned or smashed until they were unrecognisable.
After this, the Jewish community was fined 10 billion Reichsmarks. In addition, it cost 40 million marks to repair the windows.
Göring, who was in favour of expropriating the Jews rather than destroying Jewish property as had happened in the pogrom, complained directly to Sicherheitspolizei Chief Heydrich immediately after the events: “I’d rather you had done in two-hundred Jews than destroy so many valuable assets!” (“Mir wäre lieber gewesen, ihr hättet 200 Juden erschlagen und hättet nicht solche Werte vernichtet!”). Göring met with other members of the Nazi leadership on 12th November to plan the next steps after the riot, setting the stage for formal government action. In the transcript of the meeting, Göring said,
I have received a letter written on the Führer’s orders requesting that the Jewish question be now, once and for all, coordinated and solved one way or another… I should not want to leave any doubt, gentlemen, as to the aim of today’s meeting. We have not come together merely to talk again, but to make decisions, and I implore competent agencies to take all measures for the elimination of the Jew from the German economy, and to submit them to me.
The persecution and economic damage inflicted upon German Jews continued after the pogrom, even as their places of business were ransacked. They were forced to pay Judenvermögensabgabe, a collective fine of one billion marks for the murder of vom Rath (equal to roughly $US 5.5 billion in today’s currency), which was levied by the compulsory acquisition of 20% of all Jewish property by the state. Six million Reichsmarks of insurance payments for property damage due to the Jewish community were to be paid to the government instead as “damages to the German Nation”.
The number of emigrating Jews surged, as those who were able left the country. In the ten months following Kristallnacht, more than 115,000 Jews emigrated from the Reich. The majority went to other European countries, the US and Palestine, and at least 14,000 made it to Shanghai, China. As part of government policy, the Nazis seized houses, shops, and other property the émigrés left behind. Many of the destroyed remains of Jewish property plundered during Kristallnacht were dumped near Brandenburg. In October 2008, this dumpsite was discovered by Yaron Svoray, an investigative journalist. The site, the size of four Association football fields, contained an extensive array of personal and ceremonial items looted during the riots against Jewish property and places of worship on the night of 9 November 1938. It is believed the goods were brought by rail to the outskirts of the village and dumped on designated land. Among the items found were glass bottles engraved with the Star of David, mezuzot, painted window sills, and the armrests of chairs found in synagogues, in addition to an ornamental swastika.
Kristallnacht as a turning point
Kristallnacht changed the nature of the persecution from economic, political, and social to physical with beatings, incarceration, and murder; the event is often referred to as the beginning of the Holocaust. In the words of historian Max Rein in 1988, “Kristallnacht came…and everything was changed.”
While November 1938 predated the overt articulation of “the Final Solution”, it foreshadowed the genocide to come. Around the time of Kristallnacht, the SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps called for a “destruction by swords and flames.” At a conference on the day after the pogrom, Hermann Göring said: “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.”