Category Archives: Germany
Every November, communities around the world hold remembrances on the anniversary of the Nazis’ brutal assault on the Jews during “Kristallnacht.”
Also known as “the Night of Broken Glass,” it’s one of the most closely scrutinized events in the history of Nazi Germany. Dozens of books have been published about the hours between Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, when Adolf Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, decided to unleash violence against Jews across Germany and the annexed territory of Austria with the aim of driving them out of the Third Reich.
Attacks on Jewish homes, however, are barely mentioned.
It’s an aspect of the story that has rarely been researched and written about – until now.
A pattern emerges in survivor accounts
In 2008, when I arrived at the University of Southern California from Germany, I had been researching Nazi persecution of the German Jews for 20 years. I had published more than six books on the topic and thought I knew just about everything there was to know about Kristallnacht.
The university happened to be the new home of the Shoah Foundation and its Visual History Archive, which today includes over 55,000 survivor testimonies. When I started to watch interviews with German-Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, I was surprised to hear many of them talk about the destruction of their homes during Kristallnacht.
Details from their recollections sounded eerily similar: When Nazi paramilitary troops broke the doors of their homes, it sounded as though a bomb had gone off; then the men cut into the featherbeds, hacked the furniture into pieces and smashed everything inside.
Yet none of these stories appeared in traditional accounts of Kristallnacht.
I was perplexed by this disconnect. Some years later, I found a document from Schneidemühl, a small district in eastern Germany, that listed the destruction of a dozen synagogues, over 60 shops – and 231 homes.
These surprising numbers piqued my interest further. After digging into unpublished and published materials, I unearthed an abundance of evidence in administrative reports, diaries, letters and postwar testimonies.
A fuller picture of the brutal destruction of Jewish homes and apartments soon emerged.
For example, a Jewish merchant named Martin Fröhlich wrote to his daughter that when he arrived home the afternoon of that fateful November day, he noticed his door had been broken down. A tipped-over wardrobe blocked the entrance. Inside, everything had been hacked into pieces with axes: glass, china, clocks, the piano, furniture, chairs, lamps and paintings. Realizing that his home was now uninhabitable, he broke down and – as he confessed in the letter – started sobbing like a child.
A systematic campaign of destruction
The more I discovered, the more astonished I was by the scale and intensity of the attacks.
Using address lists provided by either local party officers or city officials, paramilitary SA and SS squads and Hitler Youth, armed with axes and pistols, attacked apartments with Jewish tenants in big cities like Berlin, as well as private Jewish homes in small villages. In Nuremberg, for example, attackers destroyed 236 Jewish flats. In Düsseldorf, over 400 were vandalized.
In the cities of Rostock and Mannheim, the attackers demolished virtually all Jewish apartments.
Documents point to Goebbels as the one who ordered the destruction of home furnishings. Due to the systematic nature of the attacks, the number of vandalized Jewish homes across Greater Germany must have been in the thousands, if not tens of thousands.
Then there are devastating details about the intensity of the destruction that emerge from letters and testimonies from postwar trials.
In Euskirchen, a house was burned to the ground.
In the village of Kamp, near the Rhineland town of Boppard, attackers broke into the house of the Kaufmann family, destroyed furniture and lamps, ripped out stove pipes, and broke doors and walls. When parts of the ceiling collapsed, the family escaped to a nearby monastery.
In the small town of Großauheim, located in the state of Hesse, troops used sledgehammers to destroy everything in two Jewish homes, including lamps, radios, clocks and furniture. Even after the war, shards of glass and china were found impressed in the wooden floor.
‘Everything ravaged and shattered’
The documents I found and interviews I listened to revealed how sexual abuse, beatings and murder were commonplace. Much of it happened during the home intrusions.
In Linz, two SA men sexually assaulted a Jewish woman. In Bremen, the SA shot and killed Selma Zwienicki in her own bedroom. In Cologne, as Moritz Spiro tried to stop two men from destroying his furniture, one of the intruders beat him and fractured his skull. Spiro died days later in the Jewish hospital.
In a letter dated Nov. 20, 1938, a Viennese woman described her family’s injuries to a relative:
“You can’t imagine, how it looked like at home. Papa with a head injury, bandaged, I with severe attacks in bed, everything ravaged and shattered… When the doctor arrived to patch up Papa, Herta and Rosa, who all bled horribly from their heads, we could not even provide him with a towel.”
The brutality of the attacks didn’t go unnoticed. On Nov. 15, the U.S. consul general in Stuttgart, Samuel Honaker, wrote to his ambassador in Berlin:
“Of all the places in this section of Germany, the Jews in Rastatt, which is situated near Baden-Baden, have apparently been subjected to the most ruthless treatment. Many Jews in this section were cruelly attacked and beaten and the furnishings of their homes almost totally destroyed.”
These findings make clear: The demolition of Jewish homes was an overlooked aspect of the November 1938 pogrom.
Why did it stay in the shadows for so long?
In the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht, most newspaper articles and photographs of the violent event exclusively focused on the destroyed synagogues and stores – selective coverage that probably influenced our understanding.
Yet, it was the destruction of the home – the last refuge for the German Jewish families who found themselves facing heightened public discrimination in the years leading up to the pogrom – that likely extracted the greatest toll on the Jewish population. The brutal attacks rendered thousands homeless and hundreds beaten, sexually assaulted or murdered.
The brutal assaults also likely played a big role in the spate of Jewish suicides that took place in the days and weeks after Kristallnacht, along with the decision that tens of thousands of Jews made to flee Nazi Germany.
While this story speaks to decades of scholarly neglect, it is, at the same time, a testament to the power of survivor accounts, which continue to change the way we understand the Holocaust.
Wolf Gruner, Shapell-Guerin Chair in Jewish Studies and Professor of History; Founding Director, USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Ask any of the few remaining World War II veterans what they did during the war and you’re likely to get a humble answer. But ask the person on the street how important their country’s contribution to the war effort was and you’ll probably hear something far less modest. A new study suggests people from Germany, Russia, the UK and the US on average all think their own country shouldered more than half the burden of fighting World War II.
Our national collective memories seem to be deceiving us, and this is part of a far more general pattern. Aside from those veterans who have no desire to revel in the horrors of war, we may have a general psychological tendency to believe our contributions are more significant than they really are.
You can see this in even the most mundane of tasks. Unloading the dishwasher can be a perennial source of family irritation. I suspect that I’m doing more than my fair share. The trouble is that so does everybody else. Each of us can think: “The sheer injustice! I’m overworked and under-appreciated.”
But we can’t all be right. This strange magnification of our own efforts seems to be ubiquitous. In business, sport or entertainment, it’s all too easy for each participant to think that their own special stardust is the real reason their company, team or show was a hit.
It works for nations, too. A study last year, led by US memory researcher Henry Roediger III, asked people from 35 countries for the percentage contribution their own nation has made to world history. A dispassionate judge would, of course, assign percentages that add up to no more than 100% (and, indeed, considerably less, given the 160 or so countries left out). In fact, the self-rating percentages add up to over 1,000%, with citizens of India, Russia and the UK each suspecting on average that their own nations had more than half the responsibility for world progress.
A sceptic might note that “contributing to world history” is a rather nebulous idea, which each nation can interpret to its advantage. (The Italians, at 40%, might focus on the Romans and the Renaissance, for example.) But what about our responsibility for specific world events? The latest study from Roediger’s lab addresses the question of national contributions to World War II.
The researchers surveyed people from eight former Allied countries (Australia, Canada, China, France, New Zealand, Russia/USSR, the UK and the US) and three former Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan). As might be expected, people from the winning Allied side ranked their own countries highly, and the average percentage responses added up to 309%. Citizens of the UK, US and Russia all believed their countries had contributed more than 50% of the war effort and were more than 50% responsible for victory.
You might suspect that the losing Axis powers, whose historical record is inextricably tied to the immeasurable human suffering of the war, might not be so proud. As former US president John F Kennedy said (echoing the Roman historian Tacitus): “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” Perhaps the results for the Allied countries just reflect a general human tendency to claim credit for positive achievements. Yet citizens of the three Axis powers also over-claim shares of the war effort (totalling 140%). Rather than minimising their own contribution, even defeated nations seem to overstate their role.
Why? The simplest explanation is that we piece together answers to questions, of whatever kind, by weaving together whatever relevant snippets of information we can bring to mind. And the snippets of information that come to mind will depend on the information we’ve been exposed to through our education and cultural environment. Citizens of each nation learn a lot more about their country’s own war effort than those of other countries. These “home nation” memories spring to mind, and a biased evaluation is the inevitable result.
So there may not be inherent “psychological nationalism” in play here. And nothing special about collective, rather than individual, memory either. We simply improvise answers, perhaps as honestly as possible, based on what our memory provides – and our memory, inevitably, magnifies our own (or our nation’s) efforts.
How do you calculate real responsibility?
A note of caution is in order. Assigning responsibilities for past events baffles not just everyday citizens, but academic philosophers. Imagine a whodunit in which two hopeful murderers put lethal doses of cyanide into Lady Fotherington’s coffee. Each might say: “It’s not my fault – she would have died anyway.” Is each only “half” to blame, and hence due a reduced sentence? Or are they both 100% culpable? This poisoning is a simple matter compared with the tangled causes of military victory and defeat. So it is not entirely clear what even counts as over- or under-estimating our responsibilities because responsibilities are so difficult to assess.
Still, the tendency to overplay our own and our nation’s role in just about anything seems all too plausible. We see history through a magnifying glass that is pointing directly at ourselves. We learn the most about the story of our own nation. So our home nation’s efforts and contributions inevitably spring readily to mind (military and civilian deaths, key battles, advances in technology and so on). The efforts and contributions of other nations are sensed more dimly, and often not at all.
And the magnifying glass over our efforts is pervasive in daily life. I can find myself thinking irritably, as I unload the dishwasher, “Well, I don’t even remember the last time you did this!” But of course not. Not because you didn’t do it, but because I wasn’t there.