On the night of November 9, 1938, exactly 80 years ago, Nazi Germany put on a display of unbridled anti-Semitic violence that was quickly dubbed Kristallnacht—the night of broken glass. For those Americans living there at the time, the scenes they witnessed or heard about left indelible memories:
Angus Thuermer, a recent University of Illinois graduate who was studying German in Berlin, recalled hearing “the smash and tinkle of broken glass” as thugs with Nazi armbands bashed in the windows of Jewish-owned shops; inside one of them another Nazi smashed a grand piano to pieces. Thuermer also saw smoke rising from a synagogue that had been set alight, one of approximately 1,000 synagogues that were destroyed across the country. “I was seeing, eye-witnessing an unreal frenzy,” he recalled. “It was the n-th power of what I had seen in Nazi rallies. That was sound. This was fury.”
Charles Thayer, a diplomat assigned to the U.S. consulate in Berlin, heard horror stories from all around the city. One of his friends saw the Nazis throw a small boy from a second-floor window to the mob below. “His leg broken, the boy began to crawl on hands and knees through the forest of kicking black boots until my friend plunged into the mob and rescued him,” he recounted. While more synagogues burned, the thugs ransacked Jewish-owned department stores. At Wertheim, they pushed grand pianos off the gallery level so they would shatter on the main floor six floors down.
Even more chilling was the reaction—or lack of reaction—of local bystanders. “The citizens were just walking along staring straight ahead, pretending they didn’t know what was happening,” Thuermer recalled. The few policemen in evidence were standing back, clearly following instructions not to intervene. Aside from the wanton beatings and destruction of property, the Nazis arrested about 30,000 Jews during Kristallnacht, dispatching them to concentration camps.
Panicked Jews quickly besieged the U.S. consulate, pleading for visas or passports—“anything to save them from the madness that had seized the city,” Thayer wrote.
But the real madness had begun with the rise of the Nazi movement years earlier and Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933. There was never any secret about his hatred of the Jews, and his willingness to use them as scapegoats for everything from Germany’s loss in World War I to the country’s desperate economic situation following the Wall Street crash of 1929 that triggered the great depression.
Hitler had ranted nonstop against Jews in his autobiography Mein Kampf and his speeches, denouncing them as “maggots” and “vermin.” As Dorothy Thompson, the most famous American woman foreign correspondent of that era, explained after interviewing Hitler in late 1931, “Take the Jews out of Hitler’s program, and the whole thing…collapses.”
Yet what was truly remarkable about Kristallnacht that its fury still caught many people by surprise. It was only then that those who had previously wanted to believe that Hitler’s regime would eventually temper both its rhetoric and its actions started to recognize that they had been wrong all along. This was true of many foreign observers, and it was even true in the case of some German Jews who had clung in desperation to the illusion that their country would not give way to total madness. They were the ones who had ignored the early warning signs and waited too long to try to get out. Given strict U.S. immigration quotas, most of them had no chance of escape across the Atlantic at that point.
What accounts for the persistence of such illusions for so long?
When Hitler and his ragtag band of followers began to hold rallies in Munich in the early 1920s, Robert Murphy, the acting U.S. consul, attended some of them along with Paul Drey, a German employee of the consulate who was a member of a distinguished Jewish family. Murphy asked Drey: “Do you think these agitators will ever get far.” Drey’s response: “Of course not! The German people are too intelligent to be taken in by such scamps.”
The irony was that, despite all the post-World War I political and economic turbulence, the short-lived Weimar Republic featured an outburst of artistic creativity that transformed Berlin into Europe’s cultural capital. According to Edgar Ansel Mowrer, the Berlin correspondent of the Chicago Daily News, it also exuded “a sexual exuberance which…reached an almost orgiastic intensity.” Old laws and customs, including those about “sexual perversions,” were jettisoned. “It is hard to conceive a more tolerant society,” he reported.
German Jews, who only numbered about 500,000 as compared to the three million Jews who lived in neighboring Poland, appeared to be well integrated into their country’s life and institutions. Little wonder that in the freewheeling postwar atmosphere, they found it hard to believe at first that a radical movement like the Nazis represented an existential threat to them. Even when the depression hit and Hitler attracted more and more supporters, many German Jews were inclined to side with those who wrote his movement off as somewhat of a fluke.
So did many Americans. Abraham Plotkin, a Jewish-American labor organizer who arrived in Berlin in 1932, was at first inclined to view the anti-Semitism of the Nazis as similar to the prejudices that were prevalent in his own country, and he saw the Communists as a much stronger and more lasting force. “Hitlerism is going to pieces,” he maintained.
Even Dorothy Thompson, who had accurately identified Hitler’s anti-Semitism as his core belief, predicted that this upstart politician—whose eyes “have the peculiar shine which often distinguishes geniuses, alcoholics, and hysterics”—would prove to be no match for more experienced German politicians. “If Hitler comes into power, he will smite only the weakest of his enemies,” she wrote after meeting him.
But Mowrer, who had observed the spell Hitler seemed to cast on his followers at rallies and how he incited them to violence, arrived at the conclusion that the Nazi leader represented a mortal threat to the Jews—and to the world—even before 1933. He warned that Hitler would prove to be both powerful and extremely dangerous. To German Jews, his message was simple: “Get out, and fast.”
Many more Jews recognized the evident dangers after Hitler took power and implemented his Nuremberg racial laws and other measures meant to strip them of all rights. By the end of the 1930s, more than half of German Jews had managed to seek refuge elsewhere. But it still took Kristallnacht to convince those who had been most stubborn in refusing to follow suit.
Hugh Wilson, the U.S. ambassador in Berlin who had tried to work with the Nazis, finally admitted that it was futile to keep hoping that it would be possible to encourage “some moderation of the National Socialist racial policy.” The Roosevelt administration recalled him to Washington for consultations, and his post was left vacant during the remaining time that the embassy stayed open—that is, until Hitler declared war on the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
In the meantime, Hitler’s forces had invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, then conquered most of Western Europe and launched its attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The Holocaust began with mass shootings of Jews in the newly occupied Eastern territories, followed by early experiments with gas chambers to accelerate the killings. As terrifying as Kristallnacht was, it was only a foretaste of the horrors that soon followed.