Kristallnacht, the massive anti-Jewish pogrom that burned across all of Germany on the night of 9 November 1938 and into the next morning, is commonly regarded as the opening shot of the Holocaust. It was the big coming out party for the Nazis, when the knives were finally unsheathed and what was unsubtly implicit in Nazi doctrine was suddenly and tragically made violently explicit. Nothing about this sudden crystallization of the rancid anti-Semitism curdling up from just beneath the surface should have been surprising to anyone who had been paying attention to the Nazi party and their raving leader through the ‘20s and ‘30s—though for much of the ‘30s it did quite seem that no one outside Germany was paying any attention at all.
What might have been surprising though, in the wake of “The Night of the Broken Glass” (as it’s commonly referred to in English), was the degree of complacency, and even direct complicity, for this violence among the regular German civilian population. If 9 November was a warning shot, not only for the Jews of Germany, but for all of Western Europe (and the world), it pointed to a much more endemic, latent, deep seated anti-Semitism that coursed through pockets of the German population, which the Nazis were able to exploit and build on, plunging all the world into the nightmare of World War II and the Holocaust.
Michael Kloft’s short program about the pogrom of 1938 is short on context and scene setting. It assumes a certain degree of familiarity with the history of Nazi Germany among its audience, and is also part of a larger series on the Third Reich by Kloft. So, the short run time of 50 minutes is understandable, given that it’s a piece of a larger whole. Even so, it’s perhaps too brisk and economical for such an important event. It does get points for efficiency though – it cuts to the quick, getting right down to the business of the riots that led to 91 deaths, the destruction of thousands of businesses and homes, the burning of hundreds of synagogues, and the arrest and internment of 30,000 Jews in concentration camps.
After a brief recap of the events that triggered the pogroms – the assassination, by a Jewish German of Polish descent, of a German official at the Germany embassy in Paris (echoes of WWI, though this didn’t directly ignite WWII), and then the stoking of anti-Semitic fervor by Goebbels on the night of 9 November – “The Night of the Broken Glass” spends much of its run time on firsthand accounts culled from interviews with Jewish eyewitnesses, most of whom were able to flee Germany as small children. Their stories are obviously harrowing and terrifying, and their recall is as crystal clear as if the events happened yesterday, and not 70 years ago.
The program seems to be, at points, rather preoccupied with Jewish architecture and the destruction of synagogues, devoting most of its run time to the horrible images and rare footage of temples engulfed in flame. Of course, the synagogue being the center of Jewish life, its destruction was highly symbolic, but just as important was the destruction and ransacking of Jewish shops and businesses and homes. This was a wholesale assault of the entirety of Jewish life – the economic and domestic, as well as the religious - but the show, maybe in the interest of time, mostly focuses on the religious end.
Of course, the interviews bring us back to the true impact of this dark event, the wholesale across the board terror of how deep Nazi (and German) anti-Semitism ran. There are repeated accounts of how passers-by looked on in indifference, if not out and out hostility, as houses were destroyed and Jews were rounded up and carted off. The civil servants most trusted with maintaining civil order – police and firemen – were under direct orders to abstain from intervening, except perhaps to keep fires from affecting the homes of ‘real’ German citizens.
The coup de grace for the Nazis in the direct wake of the pogroms? After the destruction to Jewish property had been rigorously assessed by Nazi officials, Jews got stuck with the bill, forced to pay for the destruction of their own homes, businesses and temples.
Of course, all of this pales in the face of the humiliation, violence and unspeakable horror of what was to come. If Kritallnacht was indeed the warm up for the escalating institutionalized anti-Semitism, which in turn quickly ramped up to the implementation of the death camps and the Final Solution, it was also one of the most obvious and clear warning bells for the rest of Europe. The real tragedy is that even still, throughout 1938 and into 1939 and the outbreak of the war, everyone turned a blind eye to what Germany was doing, both within its borders and without, as it devoured its own population and launched a genocide against the Jews of Europe.