The anniversary of the concerted campaign of violence and arson against the Jews of Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938 is November 9 – the date German diplomat Ernst vom Rath, who had been shot two days earlier by Jewish teenager Herschel Grynszpan, died of his wounds. Rioting against Jews had already begun in some places, and though the worst of the violence would be on the following day, before Joseph Goebbels ordered it stopped, it would continue for days throughout the Reich.
In a calendar packed with days of commemoration, marking Kristallnacht on November 9 allows time to get ready for the much bigger European date of November 11: the Armistice that ended the Great War in 1918.
But while they are kept separate, it must never be forgotten that we are marking 100 years since the beginning of a short-lived peace in Europe alongside 80 years since the event that finally brought home how determined the Nazis were to extirpate Jewish life from Europe.
Nearly 100,000 German Jews had fought in the Kaiser’s Army. About 12,000 gave their lives for the Fatherland, while an estimated 18,000 were awarded the Iron Cross for their service. A Jewish officer also recommended the Iron Cross that was awarded to Cpl. Adolf Hitler.
Their wartime service for Germany was one of the reasons why, even after Hitler came to power in 1933 and even after the Nuremberg race laws discriminating against Jews – among other things, forbidding them from working in many of the prestigious professions in which they had distinguished themselves – the majority of German Jews simply could not realize that they had to leave before it was too late.
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Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance authority, launched an online Kristallnacht project last week. One of its most poignant documents is Josephina Bähr’s suicide letter. Josephina’s husband, Leopold, had served in the war and won the Iron Cross. He was 65 on Kristallnacht, but neither his medal nor his age saved him from arrest and incarceration in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Josephina was forcefully paraded and humiliated, along with another Jewish woman, on the streets of their hometown of Bassum.
Back at her vandalized home, alone, a despairing Josephina killed herself on November 11. One of hundreds of German Jews who could not live with the despair of having their homeland turn against them, and who committed suicide on or after Kristallnacht. She wrote her two grown children, who as Zionists had emigrated to British Mandatory Palestine two years earlier: “It hurts me terribly to cause you pain, we are all suffering. God will forgive me. Stay together, and if our beloved Father comes back, give him all the love that you saved for me.”
Leopold did return, but he would never see his children again. He was again arrested after the outbreak of World War II and in 1941 was deported to Minsk, where he was murdered.
The 20 years between the day the guns fell silent and church bells rang out with the end of the war to end all wars, and the day Josephina Bähr committed suicide, have been described by some as the decades in which Europe failed to learn the lesson of World War I and stumbled into the second war.
That is, of course, an erroneous description. If anything, the free nations of Europe were too slow to understand that they would have no choice but to go to war against Hitler’s Germany. Only six weeks before Kristallnacht, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain promised “peace in our time” after returning from Munich, where he had tried to appease Hitler by giving him control of Czechoslovakia.
But there was another realization that dawned much too late: That of the German Jews (and the rest of the world), who believed that everything they had given Germany would somehow count in their favor. That hope was being rendered false long before Kristallnacht, long before the Nuremberg Laws, long before the burning of the Reichstag and before even Hitler came to power.
The victory of the Nazi Party in the 1933 elections, and all the death and destruction that followed, might never have happened if, 15 years earlier, Germany – signing the Armistice agreement while on its knees both militarily and economically – had admitted the truth to itself: That it had lost a war it should have never embarked upon.
Instead, many of its generals and politicians were already perpetuating the “stab-in-the-back” myth. This belief that Germany could have continued to fight in WWI, and it was only due to a defeatist government in Berlin that it had conceded, was inextricably linked to the Jewish issue. The German Army’s high command had suppressed the fact that Jews were at the frontline, fighting for Germany in numbers exceeding their proportion in the general population. Instead, agitators and pamphleteers with military ties would be allowed to portray the Jews in the coming years as black marketeers and saboteurs who had sapped the nation’s will to fight.
Falsifying the Jewish record during WWI was an integral part of the stab-in-the-back conspiracy theory. The myth was being created years before Hitler entered politics and propagated at every level – including by field marshals Ludendorff, who would march with Hitler in the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923; and Hindenburg, who as president in 1933 would appoint Hitler as chancellor.
It was a classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theory of the international Jew, forever disloyal to his homeland – redolent of that Czarist forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And it was similar to the online screeds of today against the “globalists.” Even before Hitler had joined the party, Alfred Rosenberg – who would become one of the leading Nazi thinkers – had made speeches against the “Marxist Jews” and written about “Zionism, the enemy of the state,” thus casting the two opposing wings of Jewish ideology as being equally to blame for Germany’s downfall.
Long before Kristallnacht, German Jews never had a chance of being fairly recognized for their sacrifice.
On November 11, 1918, as the world celebrated peace, the ground was already being prepared for the next war. Josephina Bähr, along with millions of other European Jews, would be both the culprits and its victims. The stab-in-the-back myth was but a new version of the old anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.
That conspiracy theory still exists 100 years later, and is growing once more on both the racist-nationalist right and the anti-Zionist left.