- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 29, 2009

By Alan E. Steinweis
Belknap/Harvard University Press, $24.95, 224 pages

The Nazi war against Jews had many infamous moments in its dozen years of murder and mayhem, and the gigantic temper tantrum dubbed Kristallnacht (literally night of crystal or glass, on account of all the broken windows in Jewish shops) rightly has a prominent place on its dishonor roll.

The story of this orchestrated response to the assassination of a minor German diplomat in Paris by a young Jewish man whose family had been expelled from the Reich has been told many times, sometimes on its own, more often as part of the whole story of Nazi judeophobia succinctly and chillingly characterized by the doyen of Holocaust scholars Raul Hilberg: You cannot live here as Jews; you cannot live here; you cannot live. The shameful events of those November days 71 years ago cannot be described too often, for their significance is enormous.

In this brief but searing book, Mr. Steinweis, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont, provides a vivid retelling, buttressed by numerous accounts of individual incidents and also provides a new slant on what actually happened in those terrible days. The thrust of his argument is not so much to dismiss the notion that what transpired was orchestrated by the Nazi leadership but rather to augment it.

Certainly, Hitler and his circle encouraged what went on, but they did not, could not, force the populace to indulge in such an orgy of destruction. The shocking thing is that, by and large, ordinary Germans, particularly in smaller communities, were willing and worse still eager to smash and destroy businesses, loot their contents and burn synagogues.

Prior to this, the Nazi harassment of German Jews had been largely economic, legal and bureaucratic, although Mr. Steinweis points out that “isolated” instances of violence since 1933 were in fact much more common than generally realized. Still, as the author acknowledges, the magnitude and widespread nature of Kristallnacht makes it an undoubted watershed: “But what endows Kristallnacht with much of its historical significance is the fact that it was both a pogrom and a step in the destruction process.”

Mr. Steinweis‘ use of the word pogrom is in itself an interesting and significant choice. The word was associated with the violent attacks on Jews endemic in Czarist Russia and would until the Nazi period have been unthinkable in Germany, where Jews had lived in peace for many centuries and which had offered their co-religionists from all over Europe and particularly Russia opportunities for higher education denied them at home.

In addition, the cliched bewilderment of so many observers all over the world that Germany, the land of Goethe and Schiller, should indulge in such an orgy of barbarism was not risible. Germany had indeed been a beacon of civilization in Europe’s social and cultural development, providing not only great literary and philosophical figures of the Enlightenment but, from the Reformation onward all manner of progressive innovation.

Indeed, so pervasive was the German disdain for pogroms and their like that even Hitler, we learn from this well-researched and insightful book, shared it, at least early in his career, preferring the oxymoronic term “antisemitism of reason.” But, as Paul Johnson has pointed out, the 20th-century totalitarian triumvirate of monstrous dictators were happy to borrow from their confreres’ caches of nastiness, and by 1938 Hitler was calling for madder alien measures in his campaign to destroy the Jews.

And of course the decision to impose the cost of repairing all the damage done to their property on the Jewish community itself was a governmental decision. As was the rounding up and imprisonment, needless to say, without trial or any form of due process, of tens of thousands of Jewish men.

In such concentration camps as Buchenwald and Dachau — not yet death camps, as they would later become — officials of the state subjected these hapless men to dreadful humiliations and ill-treatment that led to some of them in fact dying. Still, as Mr. Steinweis, tells us, to some prisoners, their treatment in Dachau was better than what they had encountered back home:

“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.”

When the surviving prisoners were released after some weeks or months, they were made to pay a fine! For what, one asks? For being a victim? (My wife’s grandfather, a veteran of World War I, decorated with the Iron Cross for his four years of service on the Western Front, was one of those rounded up after Kristallnacht and sent to Dachau. Fortunately for him, after his wife had paid his fine, they were lucky enough to escape, first to France and then to the United States. Others imprisoned alongside him were not so fortunate.)

One of the most original and fascinating sections of “Kristallnacht 1938” deals with postwar German treatment of those November days, which it finds generally too intent on blaming Nazi leadership and insufficiently focused on the shame of individual Germans. He also notes that trials conducted after the war of the most egregious offenders had a poor conviction rate on account of the due process accorded defendants under a restored legal code so different from that of the Nazi years.

But a return to legal decency and the continuing acknowledgment by postwar Germany of national culpability are a positive sign of the nation’s return to its roots. Mr. Steinweis has a more critical view and it is worth heeding, particularly backed up as it is by so much original scholarship. Perhaps the most important function of his book might be summed up in those timeless words of Kipling: “Lest we forget; lest we forget.”

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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