Prelude to Genocide - Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich

Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich (2016)

Chapter 20. Prelude to Genocide

“The final goal of our overall policy is clear to all of us,” Hitler explained to NSDAP regional directors at the Nazi educational camp Ordensburg Vogelsang on 29 April 1937 about how he intended to proceed against Jews.

With me the main thing is never to take a step that I may have to withdraw or that will damage us. You know, I always go to the extreme of what I feel I can risk but no further. You have to have a nose for what you can and cannot do. In a struggle against an enemy as well.1

The recording of this secret speech was interrupted at this point by cheers and applause. Hitler continued:

I do not intend to immediately challenge my enemy to a physical fight. I do not say “Fight!” because I believe in fighting for fighting’s sake. I say “I want to destroy you. And now, I’ll ask my wits to help me to manoeuvre you into such a corner that you cannot lash out at me because you would suffer a fatal blow to the heart.” That’s how it is done.2

Hitler had raised his voice to maximum volume so that the words “That’s how it is done” positively exploded from his lips in what Saul Friedländer called an “orgiastic spasm.” It earned him frenetic applause from his audience.

Nonetheless, even when he seemed to be losing rhetorical self-control, Hitler knew exactly what he was saying. In fact, he was precisely describing his method for achieving all of his ends after he became chancellor. Just as he had always gone to the limit of what he could get away with in foreign policy, he gradually, step by step, worked his way towards radical measures of persecution in his anti-Jewish policies. In the spring of 1935, he gave the signal to start tightening the thumbscrews, whereas in the Olympic year of 1936, he ordered them relaxed somewhat. Even if his paladins fell over one another trying to “work towards the Führer” by suggesting their own initiatives to achieve his anti-Jewish aims,3 it was ultimately Hitler who made the final decisions and upon whom everything depended. He always made sure that he pulled the strings and determined when action would be taken. Yet despite showing tactical flexibility, he never lost sight of his “final goal”—the eradication of European Jews. In the beginning, however, “eradication” meant displacement and not mass murder. In later November 1937, after a long discussion with Hitler about the “Jewish question,” Goebbels noted: “Jews must leave Germany and all of Europe. That will take a while, but it will and must happen. The Führer is utterly decided on that.”4

In the first half of 1937, Nazi domestic policy focused on the Churches. In the second half of that year, Hitler’s concluding speech at the Nuremberg rally on 13 September introduced a new, radicalised phase of the persecution of the Jews. As he had the previous year, Hitler invoked the spectre of the “global peril” of “Jewish Bolshevism.” But in 1937, he combined his attacks with enraged rants against the “Jewish race,” which he tar-brushed as “inferior through and through.” Because this race was incapable of any sort of cultural or creative productivity, Hitler claimed, it had to pursue the “imminent extinction of the heretofore upper intellectual classes of other peoples” in order to establish a domination spanning the globe. “In the current Soviet Russia of the proletariat,” Hitler claimed, “more than 80 per cent of leading positions were occupied by Jews.” The fact that in his show trials of 1936 and 1937, Stalin also had Jewish Communists like Karl Radek killed, something which, a puzzled Goebbels noted in his diary,5 did not seem to have disturbed Hitler. He merely repeated, using nearly identical turns of phrase, what he had said in his speech “Why are we anti-Semites?” from 1920—a revealing example of the continuing of his paranoid hatred. It was no accident that he repeatedly referred to the German revolution of 1918 and 1919 as a purported Jewish grab for power: “Who were the leaders of our Bavarian Soviet republic? Who were the leaders of Spartacus? Who were the true money men and leaders of our Communist Party?…They were Jews and Jews only!”6

Hitler’s diatribe had the desired effect. In the free city of Danzig, where the Nazis, led by Gauleiter Albert Forster, had succeeded in bringing all institutions into line politically, there was major anti-Semitic violence in late October 1937.7 At the same time, a new wave of anti-Jewish boycotts began in many parts of the Third Reich. They were aimed at forcing Jews to stop doing business and thus increasing the pressure on them to emigrate. “The campaign of economic destruction against Jews in Germany is being pursued with extreme severity,” the Breslau teacher Willy Cohn wrote on 26 October. “The pressure to sell businesses is growing from day to day.”8 The removal of Hjalmar Schacht as economics minister in late November got rid of a further obstacle to economically plundering Jews.9 In an article in late January 1938, the German correspondent of the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung remarked that the “elimination of the Jewish element in all branches of the economy…had been pursued for some time now with increasing virulence.” The policy of “Aryanisation,” he added, was “depriving Jews of every basis of existence.”10 Of the approximately 50,000 Jewish businesses in Germany before the Nazis came to power, only 9,000—including 3,600 in Berlin—still existed by the summer of 1939.11

Those forced to sell their business usually only received a fraction of the true value. And those who decided to emigrate had to pay a series of fees, including a “tax for fleeing the Reich,” which meant that not much remained of their former assets. A new economic start abroad was made that much more difficult. In a letter to his local chamber of commerce in April 1938, one Munich businessman who identified himself as a National Socialist and an admirer of Hitler was “so disgusted by the brutal measures and the way Jews were coerced” that he refused to serve as an adviser for further Aryanisation of Jewish businesses. “As an old-fashioned, upright and honest merchant,” he wrote, he could no longer stand back and watch “how shamelessly many ‘Aryan’ businessmen, entrepreneurs, etc….try to get their claws on Jewish businesses, factories, etc. for a pittance.” He added: “To me these people are like vultures, with runny eyes and tongues lolling out, swooping down upon the Jewish cadaver.”12 But voices like this one were the absolute exception. A good many Germans enriched themselves at Jews’ expense, unscrupulously exploiting the desperate situation into which a harassed and persecuted minority had been forced.

This wave of plunder was accompanied by a furious anti-Jewish smear campaign. On 8 November 1937, Julius Streicher and Goebbels opened an exhibition entitled “The Eternal Jew”—the German equivalent of the Wandering Jew—at Munich’s German Museum. It was intended to enlighten visitors about the “deleterious effect of Jewry all over the world.” An SPD-in-exile observer reported that “large yellow posters scream out announcements of the exhibition throughout the streets, and everywhere you can see the face of the Eternal Jew.” The exhibition, the observer predicted, would hardly fail to have the desired effect on ill-informed museum-goers since truth and lies had been “combined so cleverly” that the “lies will necessarily appear to be true.”13

As of the autumn of 1937, the ever more severe execution of anti-Jewish policies was directly connected with the regime’s transition to a foreign policy of aggressive expansionism. Hitler and his underlings largely ceased showing the sort of regard for foreign opinion that had previously encouraged them to maintain a degree of moderation. By then Jews’ economic position in Germany had been so undermined that there was little need to fear their final removal from commercial life would damage the German economy.14 On the contrary, the complete Aryanisation of Jewish assets promised relief for the Reich’s tight financial situation. The monies generated by plundering Jews could be used to finance armaments and preparations for war.

The amalgamation of Austria into the Reich in March 1938 noticeably radicalised the persecution of Jews. In 1933, over half a million Jews lived in Germany. By late 1937, 152,000 had emigrated, while 363,000 were still sticking it out in the country.15 All at once, 190,000 Austrian Jews were added to that number, and that rise, in the short term, seemed like a setback to German authorities’ efforts to get as many Jews as possible to leave the country. In fact, however, the Anschluss provided a new dynamic to the process of “de-Jewification.” It would reach a temporary zenith in the Kristallnacht pogrom on 9 and 10 November 1938. In the initial hours after German troops entered Austria, the violence against Jews on the streets of Vienna exceeded anything that had occurred in the “old Reich” after 1933. “That evening, all hell broke loose,” the dramatist Carl Zuckmayer recalled.

The underworld opened its gates and released its most base, most horrible and most filthy spirits. The city was transformed into a nightmare vision of Hieronymus Bosch. Lemurs and half-demons seemed to have hatched from squalid eggs and crawled from dank holes in the ground. The air was filled with a constant piercing, wild, hysterical screaming.16

For days Austrian Nazis and their sympathisers vented their pent-up anti-Semitic aggression on Viennese Jews, who were humiliated and abused in every way imaginable in front of salacious onlookers. “University professors were made to scrub the streets with their bare hands, and pious old men with white beards were forced into temples and compelled to perform leg squats and yell ‘Heil Hitler’ in unison,” the Viennese author Stefan Zweig recorded in his autobiography. “Innocent people were herded together on the street like rabbits and taken to sweep the grounds of SA barracks. All the hateful, sick, dirty fantasies that had been conceived in nocturnal orgies of the imagination were rampantly visible on the streets in broad daylight.”17 The uncontrolled terrorising of Jews reached such proportions that on 17 March Reinhard Heydrich threatened Gauleiter Josef Bürckel, who had been appointed Reich commissioner and made responsible for integrating Austria into the Reich, that he would arrest any Nazis who took part in “undisciplined” attacks.18 But it still took a while for the waves of violence to ebb. “On the streets today gangs of Jews, on their hands and knees scrubbing the Schuschnigg signs off the sidewalks, with jeering storm troopers standing over them and taunting crowds around them,” wrote William Shirer on 22 March.19 In late April, the Italian ambassador in Vienna, Ubaldo Rochira, still reported renewed anti-Jewish attacks. In one of the large streets of the second district, he wrote, “around a hundred Jews had been forced to walk on all fours or crawl in the dust.” The ambassador was surprised at the virulence of the anti-Semitism he encountered in all classes of the Viennese population, from intellectuals to ordinary workers.20

Panicked, many Viennese Jews immediately sought to leave Austria, and the number of suicides shot up dramatically.21 Within a short span of time, Germany’s special anti-Semitic laws were extended to the newly acquired part of the Reich. Within the space of a few months the process of Aryanisation, which had been in the hands of a so-called “Assets Office” in Vienna since May 1938, was also completed.22 To step up the pace with which Austrian Jews were driven from their home country, a “Central Office for Jewish Emigration” was set up in the former Rothschild Palace under the directorship of Adolf Eichmann, a member of the Jewish Office in the Reich Security Main Office (Division II 112). This committed anti-Semite and dutiful bureaucrat developed an efficient procedure for pushing through Jewish emigration. It allowed applicants to be processed quickly in the same building almost in the manner of a conveyor belt. Eichmann had the assets of wealthy members of Vienna’s Jewish community confiscated, using them to finance the emigration of poorer Jews. By May 1939, 100,000 Jews—more than half of Austria’s Jewish population—had left the country. The “Vienna model” was so successful that it served as the basis for similar initiatives in the “old Reich.”23

“Since the amalgamation of Austria, the fate of German Jews has entered a new stage,” an SPD-in-exile observer commented in July 1938.

The National Socialists have concluded from their experiences in Austria that rapidly pursuing anti-Jewish persecution does no harm to the system, and that unleashing the anti-Semitic instincts in the ranks of their members and tolerating open pogroms do not cause any economic difficulties or any loss of prestige in the world at large. Guided by this conception…the regime is ruthlessly applying the Viennese methods to the older parts of the Reich.24

Beginning in the spring of 1938, one discriminatory law followed another, all aimed at destroying the economic existence of Jews in the “Greater German Reich” and making their lives as difficult as possible. Jewish families were denied income tax deductions for children (1 February); Jewish business people were not allowed to compete for public contracts (1 March); and Jewish communities lost their legal status as public bodies (28 March). Especially pernicious was the decree of 26 April that required Jews to declare all of their assets in excess of 5,000 marks by 30 June. “What is the point of this ordinance?” asked Victor Klemperer, who filled out the form on 29 June. “We are used to living in this condition of having no rights and in expectation of the next outrage. It hardly ruffles our feathers.”25

On 6 July, a new addendum to the trade laws forbade Jews from engaging in various professions, including property, marriage-brokering and door-to-door sales. In late July, Jewish doctors had their licences revoked. An ordinance on 17 August required Jewish men and women to go by first names contained on a list or add “Israel” or “Sara” to their own names. “If the lists had been drawn up under other circumstances,” Saul Friedländer has remarked, “they could have served as evidence of the intellectual constitution of bureaucratic fools.”26 The lists had been compiled by the ministerial official at the Interior Ministry and legal commentator on the Nuremberg Laws, Hans Globke, who like so many other Nazis was allowed to continue his career after the war.27

Once again, administrative measures “from above” and violence “from below” combined to hasten radicalisation. Anti-Semitic rioting broke out in many parts of the “old Reich” in the spring of 1938 in the wake of the pogrom in Vienna.28 As he had in 1935, Goebbels seized the initiative. In late April, he conferred with Berlin Police President Count Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorf about how to further ramp up anti-Jewish persecution. “Jewish businesses get combed out, and what happens? Jews open up a new swimming pool and a couple of new cinemas and cafés,” Goebbels wrote in his diaries. “We’re going to end the Jewish paradise in Berlin. Jewish businesses are going to be designated as such. In any case, we’re now going to proceed more radically.” Hitler declared himself in agreement with the idea but asked that concrete action only be undertaken after his trip to Italy in early May 1938.29 At Helldorf’s behest, the state police office in Berlin came up with a “Memorandum on the Treatment of Jews in the Reich Capital in all Areas of Public Life” on 17 May. It foresaw a host of discriminatory measures: from the introduction of special badges for Jews and the abolition of compulsory education for Jewish children to the visual identification of Jewish businesses and the establishment of segregated train carriages for Jews.30

The section of the Security Service responsible for Jewish affairs objected that “addressing the question of how to regulate the Jewish problem in Berlin independently of the Reich in its entirety is counter to our purposes.”31 But Goebbels insisted that the Reich capital had to lead the way. On 24 May, he once again conferred with Helldorf about the “Jewish question” in Berlin. “We want to force Jews out of economic and cultural life, indeed out of public life altogether,” Goebbels wrote in his diary. “We have to start somewhere.” Five days later he reassured himself of Hitler’s support, and on 30 May he instructed the police president to “initiate the anti-Jewish programme.”32 On 31 May, Berlin police staged a large-scale raid on Kurfürstendamm and arrested 300 Jews, although most of them were released the following day. Goebbels was indignant, writing: “I’m going to kick up a storm as never before.” In a speech to police officers on 10 June, he tried to win them over to his line: “I’m rebelling. Against every form of sentimentality. The watchword is not the law, but harassment. The Jews leave Berlin. And the police are going to help me.”33

Beginning on 11 June, anti-Jewish activities were reported in most Berlin districts. “Starting late Saturday afternoon, groups of civilians, consisting usually of two or three men, were to be observed painting on the windows of Jewish shops the word ‘JUDE’ in large red letters, as well as the Star of David and caricatures of Jews,” relayed the U.S. ambassador in Berlin, Hugh R. Wilson, to his secretary of state. “The painters in each case were followed by large groups of spectators who seemed to enjoy the proceedings enormously.”34 Wilson understood this action as an organised attempt to identify all Jewish businesses, and he remarked that it went further than anything which had happened since 1933. The excesses reached their temporary zenith on 20 and 21 June. The journalist Bella Fromm, who would emigrate a few weeks later to the United States, wrote in her diary:

The entire Kurfürstendamm was full of graffiti and posters…In the district [behind Alexanderplatz] where the small Jewish shops are located, the SA went on a particularly terrible rampage. Everywhere you could see repulsive, bloodthirsty drawings of Jews beheaded, hanged or hacked to bits, accompanied by disgusting slogans. Windows had been smashed, and “plunder” from poor little shops lay scattered on the pavements and in the gutters.35

The corresponding report of the responsible Security Service officer noted laconically: “The operation was carried out with permission from local Berlin police authorities.”36 But the Berlin police did not just sit on their hands. As part of a large-scale operation targeting so-called “antisocials,” they arrested some 1,500 Jews in mid-June 1938; most of them were taken to Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar. Goebbels was satisfied, writing: “Helldorf is now proceeding radically on the Jewish question. The party is helping him. Many arrests…We will make Berlin Jew-free. I’m not going to let up.”37

But on 22 June, from the Obersalzberg, Hitler ordered an immediate stop to the operation. Goebbels, who gave a virulently anti-Semitic speech in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium to celebrate the summer solstice that evening,38 had to retreat. The anti-Semitic campaign in Berlin had created an enormously negative echo in the foreign press at a point where international tensions were rising daily because of the “Sudetenland crisis” provoked by the Nazi regime. Hitler thus decided for tactical reasons to temporarily put a lid on anti-Jewish activism.39 He had not given up his ultimate goal, of course, and Hitler and Goebbels reached a mutual understanding during the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth on 24 June 1938. Goebbels noted: “The main thing is that the Jews will be forced out. In ten years they must be completely removed from Germany. But in the short term we want to keep the rich ones as collateral.”40

In late June Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorf issued to all Berlin police officers “Guidelines for the Treatment of Jews and Jewish Affairs,” in which he drew on the lessons from the operation in June. The goal, he wrote, was “to cause Jews to emigrate and not just to harass them randomly without any hope of achieving this end.”41 All Berlin police officers were called upon to “free Berlin from Jews and in particular the Jewish proletariat as much as possible.” A catalogue encompassing seventy-six points described in detail how officers could put pressure on the defamed minority in daily life without exceeding the limits of the discriminatory laws already in place. “Helldorf has given me a list of the measures taken against Jews in Berlin,” Goebbels noted, pleased with the work of the police president. “They are rigorous and comprehensive. In this way we’ll be able to drive the Jews from Berlin in the foreseeable future.”42

But there was an internal contradiction within the policy of forcibly driving away Jews. By doing everything in its power to rob Jews of the basis of their economic existence, the Nazi regime restricted their ability to emigrate. “While Jews are quickly being transformed into a proletarian community, which will soon be dependent on public welfare,” reported Argentina’s ambassador to Germany, Eduardo Labougle Carranza, in August 1938, “it is growing more difficult for them to emigrate, especially where money is concerned.”43 At Security Service headquarters, the dilemma was no secret either. One could no longer ignore, read a report for the months of April and May 1938, “that the chances for emigration have decreased just as much as the pressure to emigrate has grown.” The increasing exclusion of Jews from economic life, the report added, was causing a reduction in income to Jewish communities and aid organisations, which came up with most of the money used to pay for Jewish emigration.44

To make matters worse, the readiness of Western countries to take in Jews was by no means rising as quickly as the persecution of Jews in Germany was intensifying. At a conference called in the French spa town of Evian on the initiative of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in July 1938, none of the thirty-two participating countries was willing to significantly raise its quotas for German-Jewish immigration. In this regard they played right into the hands of Nazi propaganda. “No one wants them,” jeered the Völkischer Beobachter.45 In his concluding speech at the Nuremberg rally in 1938, Hitler made fun of the hypocrisy of Western democracies that complained, on the one hand, about the “boundless cruelty” with which the Third Reich was trying to “rid itself of its Jewish element” while shrinking back, on the other, from the burdens connected with accepting such a large number of Jewish immigrants. “Plenty of morality,” Hitler scoffed, “but no help at all.”46

The experts in the Security Service envisioned Jewish emigration to Palestine as the solution to the situation, but the Nazi leadership saw itself facing the dilemma that if it encouraged Zionist activities, it might help create a new centre of “global Jewry,” whose alleged power the regime was trying to break. In June 1937, Foreign Minister von Neurath told the German embassy in London in no uncertain terms: “The formation of a Jewish state or a state apparatus run by Jews under a British mandate is not in German interests.”47 One year later, while the conference in Evian was going on, Alfred Rosenberg published an editorial in the Völkischer Beobachter with the headline “Where to with the Jews?” It summarised the mains points of the debate. First: “Palestine is out of the question as a large centre for immigration.” Second: “The states of the world do not consider themselves in a position to take in the Jews of Europe.” Third: “We will have to look around for a closed territory not settled by Europeans.”48 In this context, in the spring of 1938, the island of Madagascar off the eastern coast of Africa began to play a role in Hitler’s calculations. On 11 April, Goebbels noted: “Talked for a long time over breakfast. Discussed the Jewish question. The Führer wants to drive the Jews entirely out of Germany. To Madagascar or somewhere like it. Correct! He’s convinced that they originated in a former penal colony. It’s possible. A people condemned by God.”49

The idea was not new in itself. In the 1880s, one of the pioneers of popular anti-Semitism, the orientalist Paul de Lagarde, had advocated resettling Jews on Madagascar in conjunction with German expansion in eastern Europe, and since the 1920s, this “solution to the Jewish question” had been propagated by anti-Semites in various countries. In June 1926, for instance, the Völkischer Beobachter ran a front-page article by Englishman Henry Hamilton Beamish, who wrote: “Where is the paradise granted to the Jews, where they can live in happiness and peace, keep themselves pure and pursue…their ideals? It’s Madagascar.” The cynicism of Beamish’s appeal was difficult to top since both he and the other advocates of the idea knew that conditions on the island were so forbidding that the majority of Jews deported there would die. The SS hate newspaper Der Stürmer openly acknowledged the genocidal aspect of the Madagascar idea in the 1930s. Its New Year’s edition in 1938 opened with the headline “Madagascar” and a caricature of a horrified Jew with his back pressed to a globe. The caption read: “He sees the end coming.”50

Hitler had not reached a decision—Goebbels’s words “Madagascar or someplace like it” suggest that the dictator was considering a number of options—but it is clear that he considered it an absolute necessity to drive all Jews from Germany. In mid-August 1938, he told a small circle that the Nuremberg Laws were “actually too humane.” As his army attaché recalled: “He was considering the use of additional laws to so restrict Jewish life in Germany that the vast majority of the Jewish population simply would not want to stay in Germany. That would be the best way of getting rid of them.”51 In late September 1938, with the threat of a large-scale European military conflict over the “Sudeten question” temporarily averted by the Munich Agreement, new anti-Semitic unrest flared up. The fear of war that had taken hold of many parts of the German populace that spring vented itself in heightened aggression towards the Jewish minority. In numerous places, particularly in southern and central Germany, synagogues and Jewish institutions were attacked. The violence had “a semi-pogrom character,” according to a Security Service report in October 1938. Many party activists were convinced that the “moment of finally liquidating the Jewish question had come.”52 Presciently, Willy Cohn wrote in his diary on 4 November 1938: “I think the remaining Jews in Germany are in for some very tough times.”53 The pogrom throughout the Reich a few days later hardly came from nowhere. It was the culmination of the anti-Semitic violence that had grown ever more radical over the course of 1938. Once again it was Hitler who gave the decisive signal for Germans to give free rein to their hatred and destructive desires.

On 7 November, 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan, a Jew who had grown up in Germany but who was a Polish citizen, shot and seriously injured the legation secretary of the German embassy in Paris, Ernst von Rath. The attack was an act of revenge. In late October, German police and SS men had rounded up some 17,000 Polish Jews who lived in the Third Reich and taken them to Germany’s Polish border. Among the people deported, who had to exist for days under pitiful conditions in no man’s land between the two countries, were Grynszpan’s parents and siblings. “My heart bleeds when I think of our tragedy,” Grynszpan wrote in a message to his uncle. “I had to protest in a way that the whole world would hear.”54

Grynszpan’s act of desperation gave the Nazi regime a welcome excuse to strike a coordinated blow against German Jews and what property they had left. Goebbels in particular saw a chance to repair his personal relationship with the Führer, which had been damaged in the previous months by his love affair with the Czech actress Lida Baarova, by demonstrating his exceptional zealotry.55 On the evening of 7 November, the Propaganda Ministry instructed the press to report very extensively on the attack and to publish editorials making clear that it “would have to have the most serious consequences for Jews in Germany.”56 On 8 November, the Völkischer Beobachter published an editorial with the headline “The Criminals” that all but came out and called directly for a pogrom:

It is clear that the German people will draw its conclusions from this latest deed. It cannot be that within our borders hundreds of thousands of Jews still dominate whole commercial streets, populate places of amusement and pocket the rent of German tenants as “foreign” property owners while their racial comrades abroad call for war upon Germany and gun down German civil servants.57

On the morning of 9 November, news agencies reported that Rath would die any minute. In Berlin, the young journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich registered “a fearful pressure in the air like before a thunderstorm.”58

During the nights of 7-8 November and 8-9 November, there had already been anti-Jewish outbursts in the city of Kassel and surrounding areas. They had been organised by local NSDAP functionaries who believed they were acting on behalf of the regime by taking the initiative. “In the state of Hesse there were large-scale anti-Semitic events,” Goebbels noted. “Synagogues have been burned down. If we can only unleash popular anger now.”59 That required an unambiguous expression of will by Hitler, which Goebbels did not yet have. In his traditional speech at Munich’s Bürgerbräu beer cellar on the evening of 8 November on the anniversary of the 1923 putsch, Hitler did not mention the attack in Paris. But his unusual silence did not mean that he wanted to play down the matter. On the contrary, it was a clear indication that he was up to something.60 Unlike in the aftermath of the attack on Wilhelm Gustloff in early February 1936, when Hitler had forbidden anti-Semitic violence with an eye towards the Winter Olympics, this time he was determined to lash out at the Jews. But he wanted to wait until Rath died. In the night of 7-8 November, he sent his personal physician Karl Brandt to Paris, together with the head of the Munich Surgical Clinic, Georg Magnus. Both examined Rath and kept Hitler regularly informed about his condition.61

Ernst von Rath died around 4:30 p.m. on the afternoon of 9 November, and the news of his death was communicated to Hitler by telephone in his private apartment in Munich’s Prinzregentenstrasse.62 The dictator thus had sufficient time to form a clear idea of how to proceed before he headed off at 6 p.m. for the annual commemorative ceremony with the “old fighters” in the ballroom of Munich’s City Hall. As the historian Richard Evans has shown, the events that followed that evening were a drama carefully staged by Hitler and Goebbels.63 Around 9 p.m., over dinner, Hitler was brought a telegram relaying the news of Rath’s death. Hitler feigned surprise, appeared shaken and immediately began talking agitatedly to Goebbels, who sat next to him. Goebbels’s diary entry for this date is extremely terse but still makes it clear that this was the moment when Hitler gave the green light for the Kristallnacht pogrom. Goebbels noted: “He decided to let the demonstrations go on. Withdraw the police. The Jews will be allowed to feel the anger of the people. That is only correct. I immediately gave the relevant orders to the police and the party.”64

Immediately after his conversation with Goebbels, and without giving his customary speech, Hitler left the event and returned to Prinzregentenstrasse. Apparently he wanted to avoid being directly connected with the events to come. Goebbels spoke in his stead. The wording of his speech was not recorded, but the effect it was meant to have was clear from a report published by the Supreme Party Court a few months later. All party leaders had understood the message “to be that to outsiders the party should not appear to be the originator of the demonstrations but that in reality it should organise and carry them out.”65Goebbels himself noted about the reception of his speech: “Frenetic applause. Everyone ran to the telephone. Now the people will act.”66 This turn of phrase was typical of the central conceit that the Kristallnacht pogrom was an expression of popular fury—which helped the actual instigators, Hitler and Goebbels, remain in the shadows. In keeping with this, the Gauleiter and SA Gruppenführer who had assembled in Munich passed on instructions to subordinate offices throughout the Reich. The commands were then smoothly transferred to district and town directors.

Among the “old fighters” celebrating in the Bürgerbräu beer cellar were thirty-nine members of the “Storm Troop Adolf Hitler,” which had been run as a veterans’ organisation after its ban in 1924. A short time after Goebbels’s incendiary speech, they were on a rampage through Munich’s streets, destroying a number of businesses and setting fire to the Ohel Jakob Synagogue in Herzog-Rudolf-Strasse. (The city’s main synagogue on Herzog-Max-Strasse had already been torn down in June.) Goebbels, who accompanied the Gauleiter of Munich and Upper Bavaria, Adolf Wagner, to Gau headquarters on Prannerstrasse, was able to inspect the destruction with his own eyes. “The storm troop went about its work,” he noted. “And it was very thorough.” One of the vandals was Hitler’s personal assistant Julius Schaub. “Schaub shifted into high gear,” Goebbels remarked. “His storm-trooper background was reawakened.”67

Before he administered the traditional midnight oath of loyalty to new SS recruits, Hitler agreed with Heinrich Himmler that the SS would not participate in the pogrom. Reinhard Heydrich called the head of the Berlin Gestapo, Heinrich Müller, who sent a memo informing all state police offices that “very soon operations against Jews, especially against their synagogues, will be taking place throughout Germany.” The operations were “not to be disturbed,” but “plundering and other special excesses were to be stopped.” Moreover, the Gestapo was to take 20,000-30,000 Jews around the Reich into custody.68 Goebbels’s diary makes it clear that these orders went directly back to Hitler himself.69 In an urgent telegram that went out at 1:20 a.m., Heydrich added specifics to Müller’s instructions: “Only such measures as do not entail any danger to German lives or property are to be taken.” Rioters were only allowed to destroy, but not plunder, Jewish businesses. Archival material from all synagogues and official Jewish sites was to be confiscated and handed over to local Security Service offices. The police and the Security Service in all districts were instructed to take into custody as many Jews, especially the better off, as there was space to hold them: “After their detention has been completed, contact needs to be established with the responsible concentration camps to quickly accommodate the Jews.”70

In the meantime the pogrom had already commenced in many parts of the Reich. Everywhere SA men and party activists, mostly out of uniform, marched with canisters of petrol to the nearest synagogues, where they ransacked and set fire to the buildings. As ordered, local police did nothing, and fire brigades only intervened to prevent the flames from spreading to neighbouring buildings. At the same time, other troops of thugs attacked Jewish businesses, throwing their goods out on the street and smashing windows, so that the following morning the pavements glistened with broken glass; Berliners thus coined the euphemistic phrase “Reich Crystal Night” to describe the pogrom. Other vandals forced their way into Jewish families’ houses, smashed the furniture and abused the inhabitants. There had not been such a massive outbreak of unfettered anti-Semitic violence in Germany since the Middle Ages.71

On the morning of 10 November, Goebbels conferred with Hitler about how to proceed. “To keep going or put a stop to it?” he noted. “That’s the question now.” The two men agreed to halt the “operation,” at least temporarily. “If we allow it to continue, there is the danger of a mob forming,” Goebbels wrote, explaining their decision.72 On Hitler’s order, he wrote a text “strictly calling upon” the German populace to “desist from all further demonstrations and acts of retribution in any form against Jewry.” Goebbels promised: “Jewry will be given the ultimate answer to the Jewish assassination in Paris in the form of legislation and ordinances.”73 Hitler approved the text that noon in Osteria Bavaria.74 The message was broadcast in the afternoon on German radio and was published on the front pages of newspapers the following day. Simultaneously, Goebbels ordered the press to be judicious in reporting the pogrom. German newspapers were not to run front-page headlines or pictures of the events.75 That evening, in a speech to press representatives in the new “Führer Building” on Königsplatz, Hitler did not mention the events of the previous night at all. On 17 November, he took part in a memorial ceremony for Ernst von Rath in Düsseldorf, but unlike at Wilhelm Gustloff’s funeral two and a half years previously, he chose not to speak. This was intended to maintain the illusion that he had had nothing to do with the pogrom.76

A report published by the Jewish division of the Reich Security Main Office on 7 December 1938 put the number of Jews killed at thirty-six. The figure was later revised upwards to ninety-one. In fact, the number was considerably higher, if suicides and those who died in or en route to concentration camps are included. More than 1,000 synagogues and prayer rooms were set on fire, and 7,000-7,500 Jewish businesses were ransacked and plundered. The damage done in the violence was estimated at around 50 million reichsmarks.77

Even worse than the material damage was the humiliation and harassment Jews suffered. Just as in Vienna the previous March and April, Jews were subject to an “explosion of sadism.”78 They were forced to kneel in front of synagogues and sing religious songs, dance or prostrate themselves and kiss the ground, while SA men punched and kicked them. In many places, Jewish men were herded through the streets in broad daylight before being taken away to concentration camps amidst jeers and insults from local officials, SA and SS men and Hitler Youths. Large crowds usually watched the demeaning spectacle. “They stood packed together and watched us pass,” a Jewish department store owner from the city of Hanau recalled. “Hardly anyone said anything, and only a few people laughed. You could see pity and horror in many people’s faces.”79

In total more than 30,000 Jews were arrested and taken to Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen concentration camps, where they were subjected to horrific mistreatment by SS guards. As soon as they arrived, kicks and blows rained down upon them. Many were forced to run to the point of exhaustion around camp grounds or to stand at attention for hours in the November cold, without being allowed to move. “It was a chain of endless physical and emotional suffering,” one of the misfortunates wrote about the reality of Buchenwald.

The first days were the worst. They deprived us of water. Water was scarce to begin with, and they did not give us any at all. Your mouth completely dried out, your throat burned and your tongue literally stuck to your gums. When they handed out bread on the third day, I could not choke it down because I did not have any saliva in my mouth. Nights were terrible. People became hysterical and broke down. One man screamed that people were trying to kill him. Another gave a kind of sermon. A third babbled something about waves of electricity. There was screaming, crying, praying, cursing, coughing, dust, filth and a horrible stench. It was as if all hell had broken loose.80

Most of the detainees were released after a few weeks if they promised to immediately begin making plans to leave Germany. They also had to promise not to tell anyone about what they had experienced in the camps. But much of the truth seeped out. “The terrified hints and fragments of stories from Buchenwald are horrific,” Victor Klemperer noted in early December 1938. “Despite the gagging order, people say that you won’t return from that place a second time—ten to twenty people die there every day anyway.”81

The night of 9-10 November 1938 was a complete shock for Jews still living in Germany. “In terms of suffering, privation, humiliation and terror, nothing that had happened previously could compare with this night,” recalled Hugo Moses, a former Oppenheim Bank employee.82 All of a sudden the pogrom had made Jews realise that they were without legal protection of any kind. They could be beaten, robbed and killed without the custodians of law and order lifting a finger or the perpetrators being threatened with any form of punishment. A line had been crossed: Germany had left the community of civilised nations. “We’ll never again return to this country if we get out alive,” the Berlin doctor Hertha Nathorff wrote in her diary one week after Kristallnacht.83

Although the Nazi Party press never ceased depicting the pogrom as a spontaneous expression of popular outrage, it was clear to everybody that this was a fictional narrative. Given the fact that the violence had obviously been organised, a state police office in Bielefeld concluded in late November 1938, the constant repetition of the propaganda version of events was “almost laughable.”84 In its report in November, the Reich Security Main Office also stated: “The people who carried out the operation generally were the party’s political organisers, members of the SA and the SS, and individual members of the Hitler Youth.”85Foreign observers saw the participation of young people as a particularly bad sign. It revealed “the moral demise of the young generation of Germans who are capable of all sorts of attacks and violence if ordered to carry them out by the party,” the Polish consul general in Leipzig reported.86 In some places, ordinary citizens had joined in with the SA troups, encouraging the perpetrators of violence and sometimes getting directly involved. But in general, the Security Service observed that “the civilian population was only very slightly involved in the operation.”87

So what did the German people think about the pogrom of November 1938? Did they approve of or reject what had happened? It is difficult to arrive at a clear answer since there was no public sphere in Germany in which people could freely articulate their opinions and attitudes. “If we could only find out who was for it and who was against it!” Ruth Andreas-Friedrich wrote after witnessing a silent crowd looking at the smouldering ruins of the synagogue in Berlin’s Fasanenstrasse on 10 November.88 On 14 November, the Argentinian ambassador to Germany reported: “It cannot be determined what people’s inner feelings about the events were since it is publicly known that the regime does not permit or tolerate criticism of the actions of party members and those working for them.”89 Publicly announcing one’s disgust would have been risky since there were enough people in the general populace whose loyalty to the regime made them only too happy to turn others in to the Gestapo.90 On 12 November, the Italian consul general in Innsbruck wrote that the population was “deeply outraged” at the pogrom, but was “very cautious about voicing opinions since word has it that three Aryans were taken off to the Dachau concentration camp at night for openly expressing their disapproval.”91

Drawing on information gathered throughout the Reich, the SPD-in-exile reports concluded that the “excesses were strongly condemned by the vast majority of the German people.”92 But of course the information collected by people trusted by the SPD tended to come from former Social Democratic circles and probably only reflected the views of part of the populace. Still, foreign observers like the American consul general in Stuttgart, Samuel W. Honacker, also found that around 80 per cent of Germans disagreed with the violent operation while only 20 per cent had expressed satisfaction with it.93 Even reports made by local officials, mayors and Gestapo offices spoke of “widespread disagreement” with the “operation” of 9-10 November and of a “generally quite unpropitious” effect on the popular mood. Even party members had rejected it, although they were “extraordinarily careful with their criticism lest they be branded Jew-lovers.”94

Given all of these indications, it is fairly safe to say that the majority of the German populace reacted negatively to the Kristallnacht pogrom, although their public rejection of the violence was largely based not on empathy with the Jews but rather on their dismay at the destruction of valuable commodities. “On the one hand, we save toothpaste tubes and tin cans,” complained an NSDAP member from the city of Duisburg, “and on the other houses are destroyed, and windows are smashed.”95 Significantly, Hitler as the main instigator again remained exempt from criticism. Various reports registered remarks such as “The Führer surely did not intend this.”96 The dictator’s strategy of passing himself off as the disengaged statesman far above any such unpleasantness, while delegating responsibility to his underlings, was a complete success. On 26 November the temporary British consul general reported from Munich: “A childlike faith in the Führer and the conviction that he had nothing to do with the ‘Pogrom’ subsists, but criticism can be heard of other Party leaders, especially Goebbels, Himmler, Göring and von Schirach.”97

There were isolated cases of neighbours and friends showing solidarity with those being persecuted and trying to help them, but they were the exceptions. As a rule, people expressed sympathy with the victims and outrage at the perpetrators only in private. On 24 November, the Freiburg historian Gerhard Ritter wrote in a letter to his mother that what he had seen in the previous few weeks was “the most shameful and terrible spectacle that has happened in very many years.” Nonetheless, Ritter, a conservative patriot, hoped that those responsible would have “an internal change of heart and a return to being calm.”98 Ulrich von Hassell, whom Hitler had removed from his post as German ambassador to Italy at the beginning of the year, noted on 25 November that he was “still under the burdensome impression of the vile persecution of Jews.” There was no doubt, he added, that “this was an officially organised tempest against the Jews unleashed at one and the same hour of the night throughout Germany—a true scandal!”99 Like Ritter and Hassell, many Germans seem to have felt ashamed that the barbaric excesses of 9-10 November could have happened in their ostensibly civilised nation. The Swiss consul general in Cologne reported being asked by people from all walks of life in the days following the pogrom: “What do you say to these terrible events?” Every one of them, the consul continued, had added: “It makes you ashamed to be German.”100

Nonetheless, people’s rejection of the pogrom did not worry the regime because it remained in the private sphere. Nowhere was there vocal public protest, not even within the Churches, as might have been expected.101 That being the case, Hitler and his henchmen could consider Kristallnacht a success. They had unleashed anti-Semitic violence against the Reich’s Jewish minority on a previously unprecedented scale without encountering any resistance. That was a clear sign that the majority of Germans had accepted the exclusion of Jews from the “ethnic-popular community,” even if they had reservations about open brutality. As Richard Evans has rightly concluded, the National Socialists now knew that they could do whatever they wanted to Jews, and no one would stop them.102

As far as further action on the “Jewish question” was concerned, Hitler set the agenda at a noon meeting with Goebbels in the Osteria Bavaria on 10 November. “His views are radical and aggressive,” Goebbels noted afterwards. “The Führer wants to move on to extremely strict measures against the Jews. They will have to repair their businesses themselves. Insurance companies will pay them nothing. The Führer then wants to gradually confiscate the businesses and give their former owners certificates, which we can devalue at any time.”103 On 11 November, Hitler instructed Göring, as the head of the Four Year Plan, to convene a conference in order to “centrally summarise the decisive steps.”104

The conference took place the following day between 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. in the Aviation Ministry. Hundreds of civil servants, ministers and state secretaries took part, including Wilhelm Frick, his deputy Wilhelm Stuckart, Interior Ministry “race expert” Bernhard Lösener, Foreign Ministry Political Division Director Ernst Woermann, and his “Jewish expert” Emil Schumburg; Goebbels, Finance Minister von Krosigk, Justice Minister Gürtner, Economics Minister Funk and his ministerial director and the director of the division for economic organisation and Jewish affairs, Rudolf Schmeer; as well as Reinhard Heydrich, Kurt Daluege and Adolf Eichmann as representatives of the Security Service and the police. Minister for Economics, Labour and Finances Hans Fischböck and Reich Commissioner Josef Bürckel attended from Austria.

The detailed protocol of the conference has been preserved almost in its entirety. It is a horrific document—not only for the pitilessness with which the participants pursued their ideas to their logical conclusions, but also for the completely unrestrained language, free from any sort of moral scruple, that they used. “I would have preferred it if you had killed 200 Jews and not destroyed so many things of value,” Göring declared after a representative of the German insurance industry, Eduard Hilgard, had broken down the damage done during Kristallnacht into individual categories. Citing the list drawn up by Berlin’s police president the previous June, Goebbels suggested a whole series of harassment initiatives aimed at forcing Jews “from every corner of the public sphere,” where they were behaving “provocatively.” For example, Jews could be banned from attending cultural events. They would only be allowed to travel in segregated train carriages. They could be prohibited from public swimming pools and other leisure facilities and be banned from setting foot in a “German forest.” “Today, there are packs of them running around in [Berlin’s] Grunewald [forest],” Goebbels added. Göring suggested that one could perhaps set aside a “certain section” of forest for Jews and proposed that his forestry expert Friedrich Alpers “could see to it that animals that resembled Jews—elk have such hooked noses—were brought and settled there.” Heydrich suggested that for the rest of the time they spent in Germany, Jews be required to wear a “distinguishing badge”—an idea that would be first realised with the introduction of the notorious yellow star in September 1941. Göring supported the creation of ghettos within cities so as to completely isolate Jews. Heydrich rejected this idea, arguing that ghettos were “perennial hiding places for criminals…impossible to keep under police surveillance.” At the end of the conference, during which conservative ministers and ministerial civil servants uttered not a single word of disapproval or moderation, Göring summed up the results: “This will work. These swine won’t be so quick to commit a second murder. And I have to say it again. I would not want to be a Jew in Germany.”105

The most immediate result of the conference was that that very day Jews were required to pay an “atonement contribution” of one billion reichsmarks for the Paris assassination. In addition, as of 1 January 1939, they were prohibited from running businesses or working as tradesmen and required to pay for all the damage to their businesses and residences during the pogrom themselves. The sums due to them from insurance policies were confiscated by the Reich. “In any case, it’s now tabula rasa,” wrote a happy Goebbels. “The radical opinion has emerged victorious.”106 A Finance Ministry decree of 21 November 1938 required Jews to pay out to the state 20 per cent of their assets in four instalments by August 1939. A further Finance Ministry edict of 3 December established the regulations for the Aryanisation by administrators of those Jewish businesses that still existed and required Jews to turn over stocks and bonds, jewellery and art to state depots.107 With that, the Nazis had got their hands on nearly all of the Jewish people’s wealth. The “atonement contribution” alone increased Reich revenue by 6 per cent in one fell swoop, offering noticeable relief to Germany’s state finances, which accelerated rearmament had left extraordinarily tight.108 “The benefits from all Aryanisation must exclusively go to the finance minister and not any other individual in the Reich,” Göring stressed at a speech to Gauleiter, senior municipal officials and Reich governors on 6 December. Otherwise it would be impossible to carry out the Führer’s armaments programme.109

There were waves upon waves of discriminatory laws and edicts. On 15 November, the Education Ministry ordered all Jewish pupils to be thrown out of German schools since it was “intolerable” for German pupils to sit in the same classroom with Jews after “the ruthless assassination in Paris.”110 On 28 November, the Interior Ministry gave senior municipal officials the right to declare certain districts off-limits to Jews and to restrict their access to public spaces—a first step towards ghettoisation.111 On 3 December, Jews had their driving licences revoked on the orders of Himmler as Reichsführer-SS and head of the German police. Five days later, Jews were banned from university libraries. These two prohibitions hit Victor Klemperer particularly hard. Previously he had enjoyed driving around the environs of Dresden with his wife—“it was a bit of freedom and life”—and even after his dismissal as a professor, he had been allowed to do research in Dresden’s university library. Now he could do neither.112

“One step at a time,” noted Goebbels, speaking for both himself and Hitler. “We’re not going to ease up until we’ve got rid of them.”113 On 20 December, the Labour Ministry decreed that “all unemployed, able-bodied Jews” should be required to do forced labour. On 23 February 1939, the Transport Ministry prohibited Jews from using sleeper or dining cars on trains, and on 30 April, Jews were stripped of most of the rights they enjoyed under tenant-protection laws.114

At the conference of 12 November 1938, Heydrich had already suggested using the Viennese model to force Jews to emigrate, since Austria had succeeded in “forcing out” 50,000 Jews within a short span of time.115 Göring agreed, and on 24 January 1939, he established a “Central Office for Jewish Emigration” in Berlin. Heydrich was put in charge, and with that he became one of the key figures in the Third Reich’s “Jewish policy.”116 As much as officials insisted, on the one hand, that Jews emigrate, the more they did, on the other, to make this more difficult by inventing bureaucratic formalities and harassment. “Not only were there hefty fees to pay, so that the assets you still had were practically worthless,” remembered a Jewish department store owner from Hanau, who emigrated in April 1939.

You had to run around endlessly and go through all sorts of drudgery to collect all the necessary forms. You had to go to the passport office, the police, customs, the currency office, the city treasury, the emigrants’ advisory office, the registrar’s office and other places. And you had to return everywhere three times, even if all you wanted was the simplest of forms.117

Despite all the obstacles, 115,000 German Jews succeeded in emigrating between 10 November 1938 and the start of the Second World War in early September 1939. That meant that in total 400,000 Jews had left the Reich, excluding Austria, since the National Socialists came to power.118

Those who stayed behind were completely marginalised and pauperised. “There is no Jewish life any more,” wrote Fritz Goldberg, a former assistant theatre director in Berlin who would get out of Germany in the nick of time in the summer of 1939. “There is only a host of frightened, hunted people who have no houses of worship, who are banned from entering any café, public square or hospital, who can no longer attend any places of amusement and whose entire belongings have been stolen and destroyed.”119 By the end of the year, the Nazi leadership was already dropping dark hints as to what they intended to do with the “broken rest” of the Jews who stayed in Germany.120 If in the “foreseeable future” the Reich became involved in a “foreign-policy conflict,” Göring had announced at the conference of 12 November, there would have to be “a major reckoning with the Jews.”121 On 24 November 1938, Hitler received South African Defence and Economics Minister Oswald Pirow at the Berghof. On that occasion, he declared that it was his “unshakeable will” to solve the “Jewish problem” before too long. This, Hitler declared, was not just a German, but a European problem. Half cynically and half threateningly, he added: “What do you think would happen to Jews in Germany, Mr. Pirow, if I withdrew my protective hand from them? The world cannot imagine it.”122

On 30 January 1939, in his speech to the Reichstag on the sixth anniversary of taking power, which was also broadcast on radio, Hitler publicly emphasised for the first time his determination to “deport the Jews.” Europe, he declared, would “never settle down before the Jewish question is solved.” There were enough “settlement areas” in the world, the dictator declared, most likely referring to the Madagascar idea. “The opinion that the Jews are a people destined by God to exist to a large extent off the body and the labour of other peoples must be thrown out once and for all.” Such statements remained within the framework of what Hitler had repeatedly said throughout 1938. What followed went further. In his life, Hitler claimed, he had been “a prophet often enough” and had mostly been “laughed at.” But he now offered a further prophesy: “If international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe once again succeeds in plunging various peoples into a world war, the result will not be the Bolshevisation of the world and the triumph of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”123

This speech has been interpreted as evidence that Hitler was already envisioning the “final solution”—the physical destruction of Jews. Yet at the time of the speech, Hitler probably intended his threat as a way of increasing pressure upon German Jews to emigrate and upon Western governments to relax their restrictive immigration policies.124 With this in mind, Foreign Ministry State Secretary Ernst von Weizsäcker had declared on 15 November 1938 to the Swiss ambassador in Paris that “Jews are going to have to be deported since there is no way they can remain in Germany. But Weizsäcker had added: “If, however, no country can be found to accept them, sooner or later they will face complete destruction.”125

But there was more to Hitler’s declarations that German Jews would be annihilated than just tactics. On the contrary, they were embedded in a broader plan for the future. By the winter of 1938/9, it was already apparent that the aggressive expansionism of the Nazi regime would lead, sooner or later, to military hostilities in Europe. In the event that this conflict developed, as it had in 1914-1918, into a “world war” involving the United States, “international finance Jewry” was to be blamed. In this sense, Hitler’s threats had an all-too-real, sinister core. If they fell into the hands of Himmler and his henchmen, Jews living in Europe had to reckon with the worst—being murdered.126 In his declaration of 30 January 1939, Hitler was testing the waters for an extreme solution to the “Jewish question.” It was no accident that he would repeatedly refer back to his earlier “prophecy” in 1941 and 1942 as the genocide of Jews got under way.