By Alan E. Steinweis
Belknap/Harvard University Press – £17.95
I’ve never understood why Nazi Germany made it so horribly difficult for German Jews to leave the country. Given that Hitler and his wretched cronies despised Jews, you’d think they’d have gladly opened Germany’s borders, and allowed them to leave – especially if voluntarily. But no; not only did the leaders of The Third Reich make life utterly unbearable for the German Jewish population after 1933, they also ensured they wouldn’t be allowed to leave that easily: ‘’Producing the paperwork necessary to secure the release of the Jewish men was a task left, in a great many cases, to their wives […]. The women in many cases took it upon themselves to sell homes or businesses even while their husbands languished in the camps. They waited in long lines for days at foreign consulates, attempting to obtain visas, and then had to deal with the Gestapo and other German authorities to arrange for the release of the men.’’
A paradox? Divine cruelty?
As Alan E. Steinweis reiterates on a number of occasions throughout the exceptionally powerful Kristallnacht 1938, Germany as a nation, as an ideology, had sunk beyond such a realm of depraved depravity, that its vicissitude of open victimization evolved unto a pinnacle of accepted hell on earth.
Writing in the book’s Introduction ‘A German Pogrom,’ he emphatically states: ‘’In many localities, entire workforces of business enterprises mobilized to participate in the vandalism of Jewish homes and the desecration of synagogues. Entire troops of the Hitler Youth did the same. Similarly, classes of schoolchildren were marched from their schools and set loose on Jewish targets, egged on by their teachers. Large crowds often assembled to look on as synagogues were destroyed, Jewish shops looted, and Jews roughed up and humiliated. The members of these crowds are usually represented as passive bystanders, but post-war trial testimony as well as accounts from Jewish victims suggests that many of the onlookers were far from passive.’’
That Kristallnacht itself, was supposedly in retaliation for the death of the Paris based German diplomat Ernst Von Rath – at the hands of Jewish teenager Herschel Grynszpan – is blatant, hypocritical nonsense. It just enabled members of the Nazi Party and indeed ordinary Germans, to further subscribe to an already condoned mode of inexorable perversion: ‘’Through laughter, applause, heckling, and chanting, they expressed their approval of what they were witnessing, in the process providing psychological support for those who were physically engaged in the attacks. To the extent that the violence can be understood as a ritual performance of anti-Semitic hatred, many of the onlookers served as the appreciative audience. Moreover, many onlookers ultimately joined the mob and participated directly in the brutality – a point also made abundantly clear in the postwar trials.’’
Just as Giles Macdonough also made clear in his recent book 1938: Hitler’s Gamble, the citizens of Vienna were particularly vile towards their fellow countrymen – as Steinweis reaffirms in the chapter ironically entitled ‘The Time For Revenge Has Now Arrived’: ‘’Treatment of the arrested Jews was especially cruel in Vienna. One Viennese Jew later reflected that his arrival in Dachau on November 16 actually came as a relief after the horrors he experienced upon his arrest and detention in his home city.’’
As I mentioned at the outset, the fraudulent and despicable behaviour of the Nazi Party has never ceased to both amaze and appal me; and this chilling, yet altogether remarkable book, has done nothing to alleviate these thoughts. As the author of Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City, Gordon J. Horwitz states: ‘’ Kristallnacht 1938 […] yields unexpected insights into the nature of a regime and society whose actions continue to unsettle the conscience of humankind.’’