From Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938–1944
This month marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht— literally “Night of Crystal,” but more often “Night of Broken Glass.” On November 9–10, 1938, the German Nazi Party carried out a pogrom, during which ninety-one Jews were killed, 26,000 men were sent to concentration camps, and the confiscation of Jewish property was accelerated. Over 250 synagogues were destroyed, many burned to the ground. The name of the tragedy came from the shattered glass from homes and Jewish-owned businesses that littered city streets.
Ostensibly in response to the assassination of a German official in Paris, the attacks were launched by Joseph Goebbels when he announced the news during a speech at a dinner commemorating the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch (Hitler’s first and unsuccessful attempt to seize power in 1923). Party leaders understood Goebbels’s message as a command: “Comrades, we cannot allow this attack by international Jewry to go unchallenged. . . . The Führer has decided that such demonstrations are not to be prepared or organized by the Party; but so far as they originate spontaneously, they are not to be interfered with either.” *
Although Kristallnacht is regarded as the most dramatic turning point yet toward the horrors to come, the carnage was long in the making. One American observer, the journalist Vincent Sheean, was in Europe when France, the United Kingdom, and Italy agreed to the September 29 Munich Pact, ceding to Germany the Sudetenland, the name for the Czechoslovakian borderlands inhabited primarily by German-speaking residents. During the month that followed—but before Kristallnacht—Sheean traveled around by train and car and wrote “Aufenthalt [Delay] in Rosenheim,” describing the dismay he felt as a witness to the increasing persecution of Jewish residents throughout German-occupied territories.
The following year, Sheean published his moderately successful book Not Peace But a Sword, in which he anticipated Europe’s unstoppable march to another world war. One chapter warned that “the whole machinery of a mighty state is thus set in motion to crush its Jewish subjects not because of anything they have thought, said or done, but simply because they are Jews,” and he remained baffled about how—and why—so many Germans had rallied so readily behind such animosity:
Somewhere in the mystery of mass suggestion the answer could be found, and can someday be analyzed upon dead material by the psychologists of the future. Now that the material is living, it is almost impossible to trace the process of transformation.* Nuremberg Document 3063-PS (Walter Buch, Nazi Party Supreme Court chief, to Hermann Göring, February 13, 1939).
Notes: On page 11, Sheean summarizes from memory passages from the memoirs of Bernhard von Bülow, the German imperial chancellor under Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1900–09. On the last page, he recalls a day in early October, after the Reichswehr (the word used until 1935 for the German armed forces) had occupied the “third zone”—one of four zones in the Sudetenland ceded to Germany by the Munich Pact.
* * *The car broke down not far beyond Siegsdorf on the Reichsautobahn to Munich—the great Reichsautobahn which is the most beautiful of all German motor roads, since it leads to the home of the Führer. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
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