Kristallnacht 1938

Richard J. Evans finds a crystal-clear picture of the Night of Broken Glass bolstered by trial records

March 11, 2010

On the night of 9-10 November 1938, Nazi Germany witnessed an outburst of anti-Semitic violence unprecedented in modern history. All over the country, which by this time included Austria, annexed earlier in the year, rampaging mobs burned down synagogues - more than 1,000 of them, in virtually every town and city in the land - and broke into Jewish-owned shops, trashing them comprehensively, smashing their display windows and leaving strewn over the pavement the shards of glass that gave the pogrom its popular name - Reichskristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, probably a coinage of the traditionally bitter and ironic humour of the inhabitants of Berlin, where many of the 7,500 shops subjected to this treatment were located.

The houses and flats of many German Jews were broken into, the people who lived in them beaten up and insulted, and the contents wrecked or stolen. On the direct orders of the Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps, and often subjected to sadistic violence on the way. They were kept there for periods of up to several weeks before being released with assurances that they would be permitted to leave the country. The Nazi leadership banned insurance companies from paying for the damage, and imposed a huge fine on the country's Jewish population after the event.

Soon, German Jews had been driven from the remaining parts of the economy by a rapid process of "Aryanisation" of their property and assets. In many ways, this was the beginning of what the Nazis came to call "The Final Solution of the Jewish Problem in Europe", which by the middle of 1945 had led directly to the murder of nearly 6 million European Jews.

A great deal has been written about these appalling events, but Alan Steinweis makes excellent use of a hitherto untapped source, namely the documentary record of more than 1,000 separate trials, involving some 7,000 perpetrators, conducted in Germany and Austria in the years following the end of the war, to tell the story again. His account adds fresh and often illuminating depth and detail to the familiar picture, and for anyone looking for a readable and accurate portrayal of the pogrom, its origins and its aftermath, this book is now the best place to go.

Unfortunately, however, Steinweis' ambitions go further, and this is where the book runs into trouble. He argues that previous studies have seen the pogrom as almost exclusively carried out by Nazi stormtroopers, and that his work proves a large measure of participation by ordinary Germans as well. In fact, however, the participation of ordinary Germans, particularly the young, in some areas, has been well documented in the literature for many years.

More seriously, when Steinweis claims to present a new picture of widespread popular approval of the pogrom, he does so only by failing to mention the many instances of popular disapproval recorded in sources such as the voluminous secret reports of the Social Democratic Party and the reports filed by British and American consular officials. He relies too much on official reports, which overemphasised for obvious reasons the level of popular support for the pogrom. Yet by his own evidence, many people spoke out against the violence, while a number of policemen and officials, especially in Berlin, did their best to conduct the arrests professionally, without gratuitous violence, or even intervened to help the victims. And, as he also points out, many Germans were afraid to voice their opposition to the pogrom for fear of being arrested themselves.

Nevertheless, while this book's claim to transform the accepted historical picture of these terrible events is not really justified, it does deliver a powerful, nuanced and detailed account that should be required reading for everyone concerned with the history of Nazism and indeed more generally with the place of racial hatred in the modern world.

Kristallnacht 1938

By Alan E. Steinweis

Harvard University Press

224pp, £17.95

ISBN 9780674036239

Published 26 November 2009

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