Saturday, November 10, 2007

On This Day

On this day in 1938 (actually, the night of November 9-10), the Nazis in Germany perpetrated Kristallnacht, a state-organized and controlled pogrom that aimed to terrorize the German Jewish population and to remove Jews from German economic life.

The pretext for the pogrom was the shooting of Ernst vom Rath, a junior diplomat at the German embassy in Paris, by Herschel Grynszpan, a German-Polish Jew currently resident in Paris, on November 7. Grynszpan's family were among the Polish-born Jews resident in Germany that were expelled on October 28, 1938. The Polish government initially refused to allow them into Poland, and they were forced to live in no-man's-land between the German and Polish border crossings in deplorable conditions for several days. Eventually, the Polish government relented and allowed the refugees to live in camps inside Poland, where conditions were only slightly less deplorable than they were in no-man's-land. Grynszpan received a letter from his family describing their plight, and he sought revenge on the first German official that he saw.

Vom Rath died of his wounds on the evening of November 9 as Adolf Hitler was preparing to address the Nazi party faithful on the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch. The timing could not have been more fortuitous. Hitler ostentatiously left the hall without speaking, and Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister, announced that Vom Rath had died and that anti-Jewish demonstrations should not be organized by Party officials but that they should be allowed to take place "spontaneously" without interference. It was an obvious signal that Hitler wanted the demonstrations to take place and that he wanted the Party to take part. And take part they did. Thousands of Jewish-owned stores were destroyed (the name of the pogrom, Kristallnacht, refers to the broken plate-glass windows of those stores), and nearly every synagogue in the country was damaged or destroyed. Countless Jews were roughed up, and 91 were murdered. Some thirty thousand were arrested and sent to concentration camps. The whole thing was organized and controlled by elements of the German government (primarily the SS and the Gestapo) with an eye toward preventing non-Jewish property from being damaged and Jewish property from being looted (at least by private individuals).

In the aftermath of the riots, the German government adopted a number of new anti-Semitic measures, including a collective fine on the entire Jewish population for Grynszpan's crime, the confiscation of all insurance payouts to Jews for the damage done by the riots, and the expropriation of Jewish property.

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