The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book Reviews


  • FEUERZEICHEN: DIE “REICHSKRISTALLNACHT": ANSTIFTER UND BRANDSTIFTER — OPFER UND NUTZNIESSER (Fire Signal: The Reich Crystal Night": Instigators and Arsonists — Victims and Profiteers) by Ingrid Weckert. Tübingen: Grabert-Verlag, 1981, Hb., 301 pages, $15, ISBN 3-87847-052-5.

Reviewed by Charles E. Weber

A half century ago, on the night of 9-10 November 1938, destructive riots against Jews, their stores and synagogues broke out in many German cities. The windows of many Jewish stores were broken and as a result this night is often designated ironically as “Reichskristallnacht” (National Crystal Night), referring to the glittering broken glass. The year 1938 was an eventful year in Europe. In April Austria had been incorporated into the Reich (der Anschluss) amidst great general rejoicing of the populace. On 29 September, Great Britain, France and Italy recognized the justification of the German desire to incorporate the areas in the periphery of Bohemia (Sudetenland) into the Reich. These areas were inhabited almost exclusively by ethnic Germans who resented oppression by the Slavic majority in Czechoslovakia. As a result of this recognition, the Munich Agreement, the Sudetenland was ceded by Czechoslovakia to Germany.

Miss Weckert’s book raises many questions about the tragic, portentous events of 9 November 1938, to which she does not claim to know all of the answers with absolute certainty, even if she effectively disputes a number of widely held, erroneous opinions about these events. Who were the real instigators of the riots? What were their real motives? Who was behind the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat in Paris, on the morning of 7 November 1938? What were the objectives of the people who must have supported the young Jewish assassin, Herschel Grynszpan? What happened to him after the assassination? What was the extent of property damage caused by riots and what were the results of physical attacks on Jews? How did such German leaders as Hitler, Goebbels and Göring react to the riots and to what extent, if any, were they themselves instigators of the riots? What had been the policies of the German government with regard to the small but wealthy and influential Jewish minority in Germany before the riots (i.e., during 1933-1938)? How did the riots change these policies? To what extent did the objectives of the National Socialists and of the Zionists coincide? To what extent did Zionists and National Socialist Germany collaborate in achieving these objectives on the basis of formal agreements? How did the policies of the German and Polish governments clash? What characteristics of the relation of Jews to their host populations could have contributed to causing the riots?

The book is introduced by a statement (pp. 7-14) by Wilfred von Ofen, who was on Goebbels' staff during the last two years of the war. He asserts that there is no credible evidence that Goebbels was the instigator of the riots and points out that during the Spanish Civil War, in which he served, hundreds of Christian churches were burned or desecrated by the Communists. Furthermore, von Ofen cites a conversation between Goebbels and the president of the Berlin police, Count Helldorf, which was overheard by Friedrich Christian, Prince of Schaumburg-Lippe, in which Goebbels angrily characterized the riots as “idiocy” and grist for propaganda mills hostile to Germany.

Weckert begins her text (p. 15) with the statement that her investigation has primarily resulted in a posing of questions, some of which can never be answered with absolute certainty in view of the lack of available documentary evidence.

On 15 October 1938 the Polish government, which was hostile to Jews and wanted them to emigrate from Poland, announced its intention to invalidate the passports of the many Jews from Poland residing in Germany (!) if such passports were not presented to Polish authorities. In effect, the Polish government thus wanted to prevent these Jews from returning to Poland and to make them a permanent burden on the Reich. As a result, the Jewish policies of the German and Polish governments clashed, since they both wanted Jews to emigrate. Herschel Grynszpan, whose parents were transported to the Polish border as a result of the passport crisis, went to the German embassy in Paris and shot a German official, Ernst vom Rath, on 7 November, 1938. His victim died of wounds on 9 November. Grynszpan was arrested by the Parisian police but, strangely, survived the war after postponements of trials.

Now (pp. 37 ff.) Weckert turns back to the Jewish “declaration of war” against Germany announced in the London Daily Express of March 1933, involving a boycott of German goods, a painful measure, since Germany had to (and still must) export or starve. Leading Jews outside of Germany, such as Samuel Untermeyer, then joined the incitement against Germany, even long before the Nuremberg laws of 1935. Many Jews in Germany itself reacted in astonishment and with discomfort at such incitement against Germany and asked that Jews outside of Germany cease the incitement. The Germans undertook a mild countermeasure, a one- day boycott of Jewish businesses on Saturday (!), 1 April 1933. Jabotinsky, a leading Zionist born in Russia, joined forces with Untermeyer to continue ruthlessly the boycott of German goods. In 1936 a Jew, David Frankfurter, murdered a prominent National Socialist in Switzerland, Wilhelm Gustloff (pp. 69-71). This crime had some rather striking similarities to the murder of Ernst vom Rath in 1938 and also seems to have been supported by an organization, the identity of which cannot be definitely established, but could very well be presumed to have been the LICA (Ligue international contre l'antisémitisme) in Paris. The influential Völkischer Beobachter of 8 November, 1938 called attention to the similarities of the crimes committed by Frankfurter and Grynszpan. In conjunction with the account of the murder of Wilhelm Gustloff, it might have been pointed out that Gustloff was such an important man that a large passenger ship was named for him in 1937, which was sunk in 1945 with a huge loss of life.

Much of this book seems almost like a fictional murder mystery, but of course far, far more is involved here. The question of the responsibility for the “Reichskristallnacht” is of great importance for the political, economic and psychological well-being, not only of the German nation, but of all Aryan nations because this question has to do with their unity and cooperation.

Weckert attempts to establish this responsibility, as far as that is presently possible, by various approaches, the most important of which are:

  1. Examination of available information as to what German leaders (Hitler, Göring, Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich, et al.) were doing and where they were on the night of 9 November 1938.
  2. Ascertaining their attitudes toward the riots after they took place.
  3. Examination of what various persons and groups (notably the Zionists) had to gain or lose by the riots and their economic effects (cui bono?).
  4. Examination of the evidence and testimony from trials and investigations conducted by the National Socialist government itself shortly after the riots.
  5. Examination of the evidence and testimony brought out by postwar trials conducted by Allied authorities and German courts.
  6. Pointing out mistakes in logic and interpretation of evidence made by various historians and propagandists hostile to Naffonal Socialism as well as the conflicting nature of their writings.
  7. Investigation of the authenticity of various key documents and the reliability of various witnesses.
  8. Relating the history of the status of Jews in Germany during 1933-1938 to the events of 9-10 November, 1938.

The ninth of November 1938 was the day on which prominent National Socialists gathered in Munich to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the march on the Feldherrnhalle in 1923, but during the course of the day mysterious strangers had appeared in towns in Hesse to urge violence against Jewish property (pp. 77 ff., 125-126). An SA Standartenfuhrer in Marburg refused to destroy the synagogue there.

Weckert pokes fun at the conflicting accounts of various historians, especially with regard to the role of Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942; head of the Sicherheitspolizei, murdered in 1942 when he was Deputy Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia). Her discussions of the inconsistencies and absurdities of various historians' accounts of Heydrich’s role, or lack of it, in the riots are written with irony and even a bit of humor (pp. 89-96). She continues in her next section (pp.96-103) with a refutation of the writings and methods of various historians, but particularly those of Hermann Graml, whose book on the “Reichskristallnacht” appeared in 1958 and is also discussed by Weckert in many parts of her book.

One of the most important questions with which the book deals is the actual extent of property damage and the number of killings resultant from the riots (pp. 127-143, 181-188, 207). The data from various (allegedly!) German sources alone is conflicting and dependent on such questions as to what constituted a synagogue and how many were later destroyed by Allied bombings. If there were 177 synagogues destroyed and there had been 1,420, that would be approximately 12% destroyed (p. 135). One report mentions 844 destroyed shops and department stores, another report mentions 7,500. Even if the latter figure were correct, it would represent 7½% of the total. One report mentions 36 killings, another 91.

Of 28 Sturmabteilung (SA) Gruppen, only three are reported to have participated in destructive actions (p.174). If 7,000 demonstrators were involved, that would be only 1/100 of 1% of the German population of that time.

The author, who studied Hebrew and later lived in Israel for quite some time, devotes a section (pp. 209-216) to the relation of Jews to their host populations. She points out the ancient religious factors causing hostility toward Jews and Jews' distancing themselves from their host populations with the resultant rise of Zionism, which, in turn, was in agreement with National Socialist efforts to help Jews to emigrate. Even today laws pertaining to citizenship in Israel have a strong similarity to the much maligned Nuremberg Laws of 1935. It seems to me that Weckert should also have mentioned two powerful sources of hostility toward Jews after 1917, the role attributed to Jews in the brutality of the Communist revolution and the earlier years of Soviet government and the perception that Jews enriched themselves by the hyperinflations in many European countries in the early 1920s.

The author’s conclusions are summarized on pp. 251-273:

Actually, there is no absolute certainty as to the responsibility for the “Reichskristallnacht.” She argues effectively that there can be little doubt about the complicity of the LICA in the murder of vom Rath and points out the enigmatic survival of the young Jew who murdered him. The question of who paid the great costs of Grynszpan’s poor parents' emigration to Palestine also suggests the complicity of a financially powerful organization. There was apparently a need felt by some Zionists, such as Jabotinsky, for a murder of a prominent German official by a Jew and vom Rath just happened to be the victim. If the objective of the murder had been to precipitate a pogrom in Germany, there were a number of historical antecedents, such as the murder of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. (The reaction of the Russian government to this crime, we might note in passing, stimulated a huge migration of Jews to the United States.)

If the riots against Jews in Germany had been instigated by the National Socialist government itself, such an action would have been met with so little approval on the part of the German population as a whole that it would have caused a decline in popular support of the National Socialist Party, as its leading figures knew very well. Not only Zionists, but also other groups inside and outside of Germany looked on any trouble for National Socialism as being to their advantage. Hitler himself ordered a cessation of the violence against Jews, as is clearly shown by the teletyped message from Hitler’s office reproduced on page 117. Himmler ordered the SS and German police to be responsible for protecting Jews.

One result of the riots was an intensified effort to assist Jews to emigrate by economic aid and affording them the oportunity of transferring their assets abroad. A major factor frustrating this effort was the lack of willingness of other countries to accept Jewish immigrants, as the Evian Conference had shown in the summer of 1938 (p. 227). In the summer of 1940 Heydrich, who had been made head of the Reichszentrale für die judische Auswanderung in 1939, wrote to Ribbentrop and acknowledged that an emigration of Jews (the real meaning of the term Endlösung, the “final solution") had been brought largely to a standstill and that a territorial resettlement would have to serve as a substitute measure to clear the Reich of Jews. Even the record of the Wannsee Conference of 20 January, 1942 confirms this. Many Germans witnessed the glass on the sidewalks on the morning of 10 November, 1938 and the exaggeration of the events of the previous night have been a powerful tool for instilling a feeling of guilt in the German population after the war, even though there is no proof that leading figures of the National Socialist government were the instigators.

Pages 283-301 contain notes and an extensive bibliography. There are a number of minor errors in the book which might have been eliminated by a more thorough proofreading. On page 77, line 6, the word Vortag would make sense after am. Evian is in France, not Switzerland (p. 227).

Ingrid Weckert’s Feuerzeichen is a lucid work obviously based on years of energetic research. It is of primary significance for understanding correctly and in a proper perspective not only the details of the events of 9 November 1938, as far as that is presently possible; it also contains a wealth of incisively presented background material and analysis of the results of those events, which contributed to touching off an avalanche of suffering, far more on the part of Aryans than of Jews themselves. Feuerzeichen effectively refutes much careless, malicious or mendacious nonsense that has been written and spoken about the “Reichskristallnacht.” It deserves to be translated into English.

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 483-488.