Tag Archives: Germany
It is not widely known that many Australian colonial natural history collections are represented in German museums and herbaria, nor that there are initiatives to transform these artefacts of colonial heritage and science back into objects from living cultures with living custodians and their own stories to tell.
Dr Johann August Ludwig Preiss (1811–1883) played a significant role in this evolving story as the first professional botanist to collect systematically in the Colony of Western Australia from 1838 to 1842.
His collections of flora and fauna were pivotal in opening this globally significant region of biodiversity to the world — and he beat the British at their own game by bringing their new colony’s botanical wonder to scientists, nurserymen and gardeners in Europe.
Despite his unusually long sojourn collecting in Western Australia, Preiss has been largely forgotten – unlike his contemporary, the naturalist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt (1813–1848), well known for his work in northern and eastern Australia and his ill-fated 1848 expedition to cross the continent; and the globally active science visionary Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), whose birth anniversaries were celebrated in Germany and Australia in 2013 and 2019 respectively.
Preiss held no important posts in exploration, science or public office and left only a small selection of archived letters and some strangers’ impressions. So, we are left to speculate about the negative spaces between the known fragments of Preiss’s life and the agents – human and non-human – of the worlds he moved through.
The natural sciences in Germany and Britain in the 19th century shared much common ground: there were royal dynastic connections, cultural ties, migrations to Australia and complementary interests in advancing the natural sciences.
The British Empire, however, had the edge over Germany, with global networks plugged into the nerve centre of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew – an oasis of collecting, classifying, storing, propagating and dispersing exotic and useful plants in Britain and the colonies.
Germany had more diffuse networks of scientists, across scattered institutions – universities, herbaria and botanical gardens – focused on classifying and documenting the diversity of flora and fauna into rigid systems, using dried, preserved and some live specimens.
In Preiss’s time Germany had no colonies to draw on but collected on others’ turf. In British colonies this seemingly innocent practice was supported by their structures of privilege and violence.
While there were no legal prohibitions on German naturalists collecting in British colonies, Preiss irritated his hosts by staying so long, collecting so much and transporting most of it back to Germany, not London.
A botanising craze
Preiss came from humble origins in the small village of Herzberg am Harz, in the Harz Mountains of the Göttingen district of Lower Saxony. When I visited there in 2018 to learn about Preiss’s family and early life, the council archivist Dieter Karl Wolfe explained there was little local information known about his family.
Preiss was the eldest surviving son of 12 children, and his father was a master saddler (like his father before him), a vinegar brewer and land owner. His cousin Gustav Friedrich Preiss (1825–1888) was the family success: he printed the local daily newspaper Kreiss Zeitung from 1848, became the village mayor and built a fine home. There are portraits of him and his wife in the council archive.
Another more internationally minded relative helped start the town’s Esperanto Society in the early 1900s. Friendly Esparantists showed me public monuments for Esperanto and its Polish founder, Ludwik Zamenhof (1859–1917) – but there was nothing to commemorate Preiss, their local botanical achiever.
Speculating on why Preiss took up botanising in far distant lands, Wolfe extolled the benefits of Germany’s advanced education system for gifted youths of limited means – like Preiss and Leichhardt.
The ideal was a humanistic education to equip children with the foundations of learning and intellect, allowing students to build further knowledge and expertise in adult life. The curriculum included science and languages.
Preiss probably followed the same schooling trajectory as Leichhardt: boarding school, gymnasium, university. Preiss was university educated and held a German DPhil doctorate. This was more like a degree with an original research component than today’s formal doctorate qualification.
Preiss’s faculty “promoter” was probably Professor Johann Georg Christian Lehmann (1792–1860), director of Hamburg’s botanic garden, who sent Preiss to the Western Australian Colony.
The craze for botanising gripped both scholars and amateurs and opened new opportunities for serious study, teaching and collecting – assisted by new equipment, including the vasculum (a botanical tin case for collecting in the field), drying papers for preparing specimens, Wardian cases (ensuring safe transportation back to Europe) and glass houses for cultivating living plants.
In the 1830s, the botanical world was abuzz with news of Western Australia’s unique floral diversity. Transport of plants to London was still in its early days in 1836 when Lehmann first recognised the chance for expansion through the 25-year-old Preiss.
Preiss recalled being instructed to collect everything – flora, fauna, minerals and fossils – and hoped to “collect the products of [natural history] and arrange those products in a useful way for the purpose of Science”.
Lehmann and his wealthy friend, Wilhelm von Winthem (1799–1847), a private collector and entomologist with extensive collections, organised funds for him through a form of venture capital under which the von Winthem family company publicised and sold shares to private citizens and collecting institutions.
On Preiss’s return, investors would choose items from his collections equal to the value of their shares.
Arriving in Perth in late 1838, a dusty village huddled between vast expanses of sea, bush and hinterland, Preiss encountered a parochial society.
Local collectors who worked with London’s botanical elite guarded their status jealously. Most colonists were disillusioned by false promises of rich farming lands and worn out by the struggle to survive.
I imagine Preiss as lonely and friendless.
The local landscape would have been so strange for Preiss, humanised by millennia of Nyungar curation but an apparent wilderness to the colonists’ eyes.
Botanical scientist Steve Hopper has revealed how the deep time of the region’s unusually stable environmental evolution both helped shape the unique floristic richness and endemism of this area and enhanced Nyungar people’s deep knowledge (kartijin) of their country – enabling them to live well off the diversity of plant foods they cultivated and nurtured with practices they adapted to the environment and passed down over many thousands of years.
This richness drew Preiss in.
Preiss began collecting immediately. In contrast to local British collectors he had the freedom of sufficient funds and no domestic encumbrances or civic duties. He also had no rights to own land.
His extensive collecting implicated him in the process of multispecies destruction and dispossession. The Indigenous Nyungar people were already in a state of crisis as colonists destroyed their ancient accommodations to the land and replaced them with their own hasty adaptations of species and farming.
The destruction intensified during the 20th century with the clearing of 90% of the region for wheat farming. In fewer than 200 years this encounter between Old and New World ecosystems transformed the landscapes of exceptional floral riches into a canary in the coalmine for climate change.
A new critical approach to Australian 19th century natural history collections in German institutions has been prompted by concerns about their colonial provenance and reports of environmental damage.
In 2018 in Berlin, curators and scholars attended an international conference on the politics of natural history and decolonising of collections and museums.
There were calls to open conversations with Indigenous custodians and reflect on issues of climate change. Environmental knowledge in Preiss’s field notebooks, now missing, could have made an important contribution.
In a report on the colony published in Flora (1842), Preiss wrote that he “recorded [information] about specimens he observed and learned accurately from the Aborigines”.
The field books from his 1841 survey commission held in the State Records Office in Perth suggest the extent of the loss, being richly illustrated with botanical and landscape features and detailed annotations of measures and calculations.
They speak eloquently today of how seriously Preiss took this colonial project to map “the significance of the earth … as a space to be occupied”.
Preiss wrote that he “traversed this land in all directions … [and] observed the greatest diversity of plants”. It seems he had no transport or equipment for long surveys, so often walked lengthy distances alone.
This was an intimate way for Preiss to come to know the bush. His proximity to plants and the earth sharpened his eye for shapes and colours as well as his capacity to interpret signs along bush pathways. He sometimes travelled with colleagues, and visited Rottnest Island with the colony’s chief botanist James Drummond and John Gilbert, who collected for British ornithologist John Gould.
And he relied on the hospitality of homesteaders and assistance from Nyungar people. The colony’s Advocate-General George Fletcher Moore noted an instance, perhaps disapprovingly, of Preiss walking out of the bush with a Nyungar woman, both of them loaded down with plants.
He added that “the natives seem quite surprised at his collecting the jilbah [shrubs] and are very curious to know what he does with them”, suggesting that Preiss was following the colonial practice of collecting without their permission.
Despite being the colony’s best qualified botanist, Preiss was never invited to join its British collecting networks. Instead, Preiss built his own networks in London and Germany.
Drummond became his occasional helper and nemesis. He warned his London patron, Sir William Hooker (1785–1865), that the new German botanist was collecting for the Russian, Prussian and some German states.
The German botanist Dr Ludwig Diels (1874–1945), who collected in the area in 1906, imagined the two men as benign opposites: the older “bushman, always in the saddle” out collecting rather than “arranging his specimens in order” and young Preiss, the “cultured scientist of old Europe” and first collector in the colony to have “each item in his collection carefully labelled, giving the locality and other data”.
However, simmering resentments erupted after Preiss challenged Drummond’s identification of a poison plant killing stock and quaffed an infusion of its leaves to prove his point. Preiss survived the ordeal but lost the argument after Drummond proved the plants’ toxicity for stock.
The more Preiss wore out his welcome in the colony, the more determined he became to stay and in 1839 he decided to try his luck as a British subject, with all the benefits and moral compromises this bestowed.
In 1839 he wrote to the colonial governor requesting naturalisation as a British subject, referring to British connections with the kingdom of Hanover near his birthplace.
He outlined his intention to return to Germany to raise funds for expeditions into the northern interior to explore, collect and open up the land and then become a farmer.
He proposed to sell his collections to the British government for £3,000 – “being produce of a British territory” – and added, “I flatter myself that such a collection has never been sent from this country to England” and there were many new species “not known in Britain and Europe”.
He also proposed a German immigration scheme to help resolve labour shortages in the colony, suggesting that 50 young farming families be enticed from Saxony and the Rhine Province in a payback arrangement with other settlers and for his own farming needs, with government land grants payable for bringing out workers.
If his proposal was not accepted he would seek Prussian and Russian funding to explore the north coast.
The British government refused Preiss’s offers, preferring to acquire from established British collectors such as Gould and Gilbert. His request for naturalisation was finally granted in 1841. The next year he travelled back to Europe, taking with him the largest collection then to leave the colony.
Lauded at the time, Preiss’s actions of taking Indigenous plant material and knowledge without consent for scientific gain would now be condemned as bio-piracy.
The collection included 200,000 plants with around 2,500 species and collections of algae, fungi, lichens, bryophytes as well as species of birds, reptiles, mammals, shells and more, as well as his copious notes.
Packed firmly in tin-lined boxes, they travelled well. Ironically, Preiss’s boxes left no space on board for Drummond’s collection of seeds and specimens to be sent to London. Delays in its passage meant that nurseries lost an entire season for planting – while Preiss’s quality collections and duplicate plants entirely spoiled the market for Drummond.
Diels lavishly praised Preiss’s collections for the sheer quantity of specimens he had collected in such a short period, the range of plant specimens, detailed information to identify flowers and plants and his collecting sites, the overall presentation that made his collections and notes so useful to science, and the outstanding achievement of producing the first West Australian collection for Europe’s leading herbaria.
Australian naturalist Rica Erikson (1908–2009) observed that his collections were “far superior to others being offered for sale in England”, but that British botanists “were prejudiced in favour of collectors of their own nationality”.
Preiss’s return to Germany via London was troubled – although he did manage to sell some plants and seeds to fund his journey across to Hamburg. But the situation he found there was disastrous.
The Great Fire of Hamburg in May 1842 had killed more than 50 people and destroyed many public and private buildings. The huge costs of rebuilding would cripple the state – and plans for the natural history museum that would have housed Preiss’s collections were shelved, along with their purchase.
Preiss was now forced to advertise the collections for sale – both to cover his debts from the trip and to offload the sheer quantity of material remaining after his investors’ selections.
He placed advertisements praising the excellence of his collections in botanical and gardening journals, wrote letters to institutions and private collectors, and published his report in the Flora with observations of natural features of the colony.
He also announced his intention to make a second longer journey in Australia from the Gulf of Carpentaria across country to the Swan River Colony. A portion of the current collections, he said, would be delivered to Lehmann “as soon as they are generally arranged, and … description and publication [entrusted] to him and other celebrated natural historians”.
Preiss’s expedition never eventuated, but the book hinted at in his report was a triumph. The two-volume publication named Plantae Preissianae (1844– 1847) was compiled by Lehmann with leading German botanists working from the collections, all with extensive publications on Australian species.
This was the first major reference book on Western Australian flora, and preceded by decades the British seven-volume Flora Australiensis (1863–1878) compiled by botanist George Bentham (1800–1884) – although that work, too, featured several of Preiss’s specimens.
There were further honours for Preiss: he was commemorated in the names of around 100 plants – a matter of considerable status; in 1843 he was elected to membership of the National Academy of Germany; and in the same year his name was added to the registry of the Regensburg Royal Botanical Society.
And his collections began their own journeys. Splitting them for sale dispersed them into private collections and an estimated 35 European herbaria, with the “original” or standard reference set of specimens for Plantae Preissianae passing from Lehmann to his widow, and eventually to its final resting place in the Lund herbarium in Sweden when Germany declined to buy it.
Preiss’s extensive zoological collections of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and other material did not fare so well.
Some were sold to European museums or dealers but many simply disappeared or can no longer be identified as his. Credit for his “discoveries” of new species was given to other collectors.
His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography laments that “had Preiss the backing of an ambitious and enterprising zoologist, as Gilbert had in Gould, it is certain that he would have been much better known today”.
Despite the success of the book and his standing among Europe’s natural historians, in 1843 Preiss suddenly announced that he was leaving Hamburg along with his collections – at the “urgent wishes of my father” – and that all future letters should be sent to him at Herzberg.
He gave no further explanation for this; in the modern parlance, it seems he just “left the building”.
This sudden shift by Preiss from a very public life to a very private one remains an unsolved mystery. Preiss’s legacy, however, is enduring.
His remarkable achievements in the few years between 1838 and 1843 created a permanent link between the botanical sciences in Western Australia and Germany. His sudden withdrawal opened a space for others to lead.
But how will the collections fare under the well-deserved critical scrutiny of their colonial origins and histories in German institutions? Can they be decolonised to take on new tasks relevant for today?
A couple of years ago, sitting with Preiss’s dryandra specimens at the Göttingen herbarium, I was inspired to see them as potential message sticks with agency to bring people together.
Now I’m part of a new project, Healing Land Healing People, based at Dryandra Woodlands south-east of Perth in the country of our project leader, Nyungar Elder Darryl Kickett.
We are working with the knowledge of Nyungar families, botanists, historians and artists to restore the biodiversity of the land and community cultural strengths. We work with similar projects at other sites in the south-west region.
In Germany we are linked with the Centre for Australian Studies at the University of Cologne and the Rachel Carson Center at the University of Munich. My role is to identify other collections from the region in European museums and herbaria and their curators.
With Nyungar Elders and curators sharing their knowledge and stories we can map the journeys of the message sticks from the sites where they were collected to their present locations.
With our German colleagues we can weave new narratives of biodiversity loss and restoration to engage the public, heal the past and ensure a future for our corner of Western Australia and other global biodiversity hotspots.
This piece is republished with permission from GriffithReview69: The European Exchange, edited by Ashley Hay and Natasha Cica, and published in partnership with the Australian National University griffithreview.com
Modern Britons associate The Great Escape with the 1963 film of that name starring Steve McQueen, reffering to, of course, a mass escape by Allied prisoners during the second world war. But this title might more appropriately be applied to the rescue of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk between May 27 and June 4 1940.
As the UK marks the 80th anniversary of that escape, we shall hear much of the author JB Priestley’s first “postscript” for BBC Radio on Wednesday June 5. That broadcast coined the phrase “Little Ships” and even acknowledged Priestley’s own part in shaping understanding of Dunkirk. He asked listeners: “Doesn’t it seem to you to have an inevitable air about it – as if we had turned a page in the history of Britain and seen a chapter headed ‘Dunkirk’?”
But there was nothing inevitable about it.
Before pledging to “fight them on the beaches”, Winston Churchill himself reminded the House of Commons in the same speech that “wars are not won by evacuations”. He acknowledged that the BEF had courted disaster before depicting its escape as “a miracle of deliverance”. That the British public regards it as a triumph owes much to the work of British newspaper journalists and the Royal Navy press officers who briefed them.
How the ‘miracle’ came about
Dunkirk was not reported in eyewitness accounts from the beaches. The few war correspondents who struggled back with the retreating armies had no means by which to communicate. Reports, such as Evelyn Montague’s The Miracle of the BEF’s Return for the Manchester Guardian of Saturday June 1 1940, were penned by journalists invited to witness the Royal Navy’s delivery of evacuated soldiers to the ports of south-east England. There, they were briefed with patriotic fervour and naval pride as well as facts.
The first sentence of Montague’s piece gives a flavour of the mood that was inspired:
In the grey chill dawn today in a south-eastern port, war correspondents watched with incredulous joy the happening of a miracle.
The reporter – a grandson of the famous Guardian editor and owner C.P. Scott – did not fail to give the Royal Navy credit. Having described a waterfront hotel in which “every armchair held its sleeping soldier or sailor, huddled beneath overcoat or ground sheet”, Montague turned to the scene in the port:
As the rising sun was turning the grey clouds to burnished copper the first destroyer of the day slid swiftly into the harbour, its silhouette bristling with the heads of the men who stood packed shoulder to shoulder on its decks.
Back in 1940, the Times did not award reporters bylines. Its report of the BEF’s return on June 1 was by “Our Special Correspondent”. He too witnessed the scenes in a south-eastern port (security censorship forbade more precise identification). The men, he wrote, were “weary but undaunted”. Protected by “the ceaseless patrol maintained by British warships and aeroplanes in the English Channel”, men who had displayed “steadiness under a cruel test” were “pouring onto the quays”.
The Daily Mirror’s Bernard Gray, writing in its stablemate, the Sunday Pictorial, gave his verdict in a column on June 2 headlined simply “The Whole Magnificent Story”. “There have been many glorious episodes in the history of Britain”, he opined, “but, if that great English historian Macaulay were able to select from 2,000 years the most glorious week in the annals of the British Empire, this last seven days would surely be the week he would have chosen.”
Gray did not hesitate to offer comparisons:
Never mind the defeat of the Armada. Forget even the Battle of Waterloo, the epic of Trafalgar. For this week has seen the British Empire at its mightiest – in defeat.
Standing “in the streets of an English Channel Port”, G. Ward Price of the Daily Mail was similarly enthralled in his front-page piece, Rearguard Battles On, on June 1: “It is a picture of staggering heroism, fighting spirit and determination that never weakened in the face of overwhelming odds in men and material.”
A defeat, however ‘glorious’
It took Hilaire Belloc, the Anglo-French author of Cautionary Tales for Children, to recognise in his column for the Sunday Times (The Evacuation and After, June 2) that the withdrawal from Belgium and the collapse of Britain’s key ally, France, constituted a “catastrophe”.
In his defining examination of the elements that comprise Britain’s “received story” of 1940, The Myth of the Blitz, Scottish historian and poet Angus Calder noted that elements of the way the story was reported were misleading. However, Calder agreed that “Dunkirk was indeed a great escape”.
I celebrate the work British newspapers did to stiffen resolve and sustain morale at this time of grave national peril. In a democracy fighting totalitarianism, newspapers must balance their obligation to hold power to account and their duty to the national cause. The newspapers surveyed here certainly colluded in the creation of myths about Dunkirk, but their readers might not have welcomed any efforts to report Dunkirk any other way.
After all, myths are not lies and this one was studded with harsh facts. In Bernard Gray’s words for the Sunday Pictorial, Dunkirk was glorious despite the truth that: “The British Army has not won a battle. The British Army has retreated. The British Army has had to leave the Battlefield.”
For me, David Low captured the prevailing mood in his famous “Very Well, Alone” cartoon for the Evening Standard just a few weeks later on June 18. It depicts a British soldier alone before a raging sea and gesturing with a raised fist towards the Nazi-occupied continent from which German troops were expected to arrive at any moment.
Nearly all the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland, were murdered – either sent to the gas chambers or worked to death. Life expectancy in many of these camps was between six weeks and three months.
While male and female slave laborers in Auschwitz faced the same ultimate fate, my research on gender and the Holocaust finds that some of their behaviors and responses to captivity differed.
Methods of sabotage
Gender has been long overlooked in Holocaust research. Writing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, early scholars such as Joan Ringelheim and Sybil Milton had to fight for their legitimacy in a field that insisted that separating stories of Jewish men and women under the Nazi regime was a blow to their joint fate or to Jewish solidarity.
Today, however, the topic is being explored in depth, allowing us to better understand not only how Jews died during the Holocaust, but also how they lived.
During the late 1980s, I conducted a study of Jewish men and women who had been part of Auschwitz’s “Canada Commando,” the forced labor detail responsible for sorting through the possessions inmates had brought with them to the camp and preparing those items for reshipment back to Germany for civilian use.
Since the barracks were the only place in the camp where one could find almost unlimited food and clothing, this forced labor troop was named after Canada – a country seen as a symbol of wealth.
Examining the behavior of the men and women of the Canada Commando, I noted an interesting difference. Among the items of clothing sorted there were fur coats. While both male and female prisoners in the Canada Commando tried to sabotage this work, acts punishable by death, their methods differed.
Male prisoners would usually rip the lining and seams of the coat to shreds, keeping only the outer shell intact. At first use, the coat would come apart, leaving the German who wore it coatless in the winter.
The few surviving women in the commando whom I interviewed did not use this tactic. Rather, they told me, they decided together to insert handwritten notes into the coat’s pockets that read something along the lines of: “German women, know that you are wearing a coat that belonged to a woman who has been gassed to death in Auschwitz.”
The women, in other words, chose psychological sabotage. The men, physical.
Coping with hunger
One of the most central experiences of all camp prisoners during the Holocaust was hunger. While both men and women suffered from hunger during incarceration, male and female prisoners used disparate coping methods.
While men would regale each other with tales of the fantastic meals they would enjoy once liberated, women would often discuss how they had cooked they various dishes they loved before the war, from baking fluffy cakes to preparing traditional Jewish blintzes. Cara de Silva’s 1996 book, “In Memory’s Kitchen,” movingly documents how this phenomenon played out among women prisoners in the Terezin camp.
The differences between men’s and women’s coping methods may have derived from the gendered behavior in their lives before the war, in which men ate and women cooked – at least in the middle and lower classes.
In the case of women, this may also have been a female socialization process meant to solve two dilemmas simultaneously: the psychological need to engage – at least verbally – with food, and the educational need to prepare the young girls in the camp for culinary and household tasks after the war.
Under normal circumstances, mothers would have taught their daughters by example – not story.
Motherhood under Nazi rule
Various historical studies make mention of motherly sacrifices during the Holocaust, such as women who chose to accompany their children to death so that they would not be alone during their last moments on Earth.
During the “selections” at Auschwitz – when prisoners were sent either to live or die – prisoners arriving were usually divided by sex, with the elderly, mothers and small children being separated from men and older boys. The mothers with small children, along with the elderly, were automatically sent to death.
Borowsky writes about a number of young mothers who hid from their children during the selection, in an attempt to buy themselves a few additional days or possible hours of life.
If a German soldier found a small child alone at a “selection,” Borowsky writes, he would take the child up and down the rows of prisoners while screaming, “This is how a mother abandons her child?” until he tracked down the hapless woman and condemned them both to the gas chambers.
At first, the female Auschwitz survivors I’ve interviewed said they’d never heard of any such thing. Eventually, however, after I returned to the question several times via different topics, a few women admitted to hearing that a handful mothers who arrived in Auschwitz with small children did indeed try to hide to save their own lives.
Historians are not judges. I do not mention the actions made in mortal fear to condemn these women but rather to contribute, 75 years later, to our understanding of Jewish life and death under Nazi terror. Doing requires relinquishing preconceived notions about both men and women, mapping out a broader canvas of the grim reality at Auschwitz.
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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