- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 22, 2006



By Martin Gilbert

HarperCollins, $21.95,

314 pages, illus.


The first sounds were of glass breaking, somewhere in the distance. The noise drew closer, at ever shorter intervals, like the sharp crackle of lightning in an approaching thunderstorm. But this was no natural disaster, and soon hundreds of thousands of shards of broken glass littered the sidewalks as looters crashed into shops, carting away anything they could carry. Fires lit the skies. Sirens screamed through a night suddenly made hideous.

November 10, 1938. The infamous black hours the Nazis proudly called Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass.” Storm troopers, many in their brown shirts and others in civvies, set bonfires in the streets, torching synagogues and the homes and businesses of Jews, always on the lookout for a Jew to humiliate, torment, torture and sometimes murder, taking delight at the sound of the glass crunching beneath their boots.

“Within 24 hours,” writes Martin Gilbert in “Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction,” a vivid account of government-orchestrated crimes suggesting greater evil to come, “30,000 Jewish men between the ages of sixteen and sixty, a quarter of all the Jewish men in Germany, were arrested and sent to concentration camps.” More than a thousand synagogues were burned or destroyed.

Nothing in the years of the Holocaust, between 1933 and 1945, was so widely covered by the newspapers throughout the world, and the details and personal stories sent shock waves through the civilized world.

Humane men and women were outraged everywhere, but only with hindsight does the evil of this night, which joined the Nazis with willing accomplices among ordinary people, emerge as a foreshadowing of the enormous tragedy that lay ahead for the Jews of Europe.

Martin Gilbert, a distinguished Churchill biographer and historian of World War II and the Holocaust, writes with insight and example of the ordinary men, women and children caught in the sweep of the tragedy.

With searing detail, based on newspaper stories and interviews of the last surviving witnesses, he recalls the drama of Kristallnacht with more immediacy than any grainy newsreel of that time now receding swiftly into history. He puts us inside the horror and chaos, giving us glimpses of the terror through the eyes of children watching their parents torn suddenly from their lives. We feel the fear of Jews who couldn’t know whom to trust. (There weren’t many.) We read with horror the handbills addressed to Hitler: “Fuehrer! Free us from the Jewish Plague!”

When Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, tells Hitler of the violence against Jews, he records in his diary der Fuehrer’s response: “… demonstrations should be allowed to continue. The police should be withdrawn. For once the Jews should get the feel of popular anger.” Goebbels gives his instructions, knowing that many Germans will act on their “healthy instincts,” which turn out to be a mixture of greed, cruelty and anti-Semitism.

The history is familiar. On Oct. 18, 1938, Hitler gave the order to expel 12,000 Polish-born Jews to return to their native country. Some were accepted, but most were held in miserable camps at the border, penniless and without food or shelter.

One young Jewish man in Paris, hearing of the deportation of his parents, went to the German embassy to assassinate the German ambassador but settled for shooting Ernst vom Rath, the third secretary. When vom Rath died of his wounds three weeks later, the Nazis began killing Jews. “This is one dead man who is costing the Jews dear,” Goebbels said with savage delight.

Martin Gilbert focuses on how Kristallnacht ignited the destruction of European Jews throughout Europe, with Berlin and Vienna dominating the narrative of a carnival of carnage. He writes of how grown men were made to crawl through crowds of spectators, of making them bow to their hecklers as if in appreciation of their humiliation. He also tells of how “righteous gentiles” put their lives in danger to save Jews. Diplomats and bureaucrats forged papers, manufactured visas and devised clever ways to bend government rules inside Germany and in other European countries. One empathetic German woman gave her identity card to a Jewish friend; a Swiss border officer who facilitated illegal immigration was suspended for his efforts. “I acted as a human being,” he said simply. Such generous Germans were few, but “large in spirit.”

Many could have done more, usually at small cost to themselves. President Roosevelt ordered that German refugees in America on temporary visas could remain here indefinitely, but he opposed raising the German immigration quota.

Harold Ickes, secretary of the Interior, investigated whether the open spaces of Alaska, then only a territory, could accommodate a quarter million refugees, but the idea failed when Alaskans thought it would “stifle assimilation.” The State Department, a traditional nest of anti-Semitism, stalled the issuing of visas.

Visas were often approved, but not issued, causing many to perish in the Holocaust. When Haiti, one of the poorest nations in the world, wanted to take in Jews, Secretary of State Cordell Hull pressured the Haitian government not to do it.

Mr. Gilbert accumulates facts that indict the upright men and women who, never doubting their own moral righteousness, nevertheless gave in to the overt and covert anti-Semitism that contributed to the death of millions of Jews.

“Six years of legalized anti-Jewish discrimination, isolating the Jews from their fellow Germans and depriving them of the rights of full citizenship, were replaced on Kristallnacht by the first manifestations of direct, nationwide, physical violence, combined with arson, the destruction of property, the theft of property, the impoverishment of a whole community, physical assault deportation and mass murder,” Mr. Gilbert writes. “Amid the ruins of civilization, civilization was reborn. But the losses are irreplaceable.” We suffer them still.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Times.

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