On September 12, 1931, nearly a year and a half before Germany’s democratic Weimar Republic was replaced by the Third Reich, Nazi thugs – by one account more than 1,000 of them – harassed and physically attacked people they suspected of being Jews as they walked on a central Berlin boulevard. Although no one was killed, the riot was significant for being one of the first such public displays of violent anti-Semitism in a country that still purported to be democratic, and for the forgiving manner in which both the police and the judicial system responded to the event.
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The incident occurred early in the evening on the Kurfurstendamm, a major boulevard in western Berlin that through the 1920s had been a thriving commercial center, with many Jewish-owned businesses. September 12 that year was the first day of Rosh Hashanah, so that in the evening, some of those walking on Ku’damm were Jewish Berliners emerging from the Fasanen Street Synagogue; others were on their way to the cinema or to cafes.
According to most reports, the rioters began appearing on the street after 7:30 P.M. They were in plainclothes, although later it turned out that most were affiliated with the Stormabteilung (SA) – the stormtroopers, or Brownshirts, the paramilitary group led by Ernst Roehm. They were shouting slogans such as “Germany, awaken!” and “Die Judas!” and one witness account even reported hearing someone call out the line, “Sarah, pack the suitcase! The synagogue’s on fire.”
Wolf-Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, the man who turned out to be the leader of the gang, later estimated that some 500-600 of his men turned out for the festivities, reports historian Benjamin Carter Hett, in his book “Burning the Reichstag.” The lawyer Alfred Apfel, who observed carefully from the window of his apartment on the boulevard, said that he counted more than 1,000 attackers overall, although it is hard to imagine how one individual could keep track of such a number.
It wasn’t until 9 P.M. that police arrived on the scene, and even longer for riot-control to show up. As it turned out, the commander in charge of the police was Walther Wecke, who had been called in that same day to replace the regular officer, who had been reassigned for the day. Wecke later went on to become a senior official in the Third Reich’s police hierarchy.
The police eventually arrested 63 of the marauders, 34 of whom went on trial six days later. Although a number of the defendants were convicted and initially sentence to substantial prison sentences for their violence, after appeals, the longest sentence served, by 17 of them, was six months. Von Helldorf, the organizer, had only to pay a small fine.
Hett describes the attempt made by defense attorneys to present the disturbances as Communist-led, and to explain the presence on the boulevard of so many SA members as mere coincidence. In fact, however, he notes evidence that the very idea of a New Year’s attack on Jews had come from no less than top Nazi party official Joseph Goebbels.
One of the judges at the trial noted sympathetically (from the stormtroopers’ point of view) that the Ku’Damm was “especially frequented by Jews,” and was “a slogan for unsocial pleasure-seeking, for gluttony and the sybaritic life.” The tribunal did, however, fine Goebbels 500 marks for his refusal to testify at the trial.
Although the damage to person and property from the Kurfurstendamm Pogrom was minimal, the event and its aftermath can be seen as a precursor of both February 1933’s Reichstag Fire and the devastating Kristallnacht of November 9-10, 1938.