Biographies & Memoirs


Marks of a Genocidal Mentality


The ideological dynamic of the Nazi regime was by no means solely a matter of Hitler’s personalized Weltanschauung. In fact, Hitler’s ideological aims had so far played only a subordinate role in his expansionist policy, and would not figure prominently in the Polish crisis during the summer of 1939. The party and its numerous sub-organizations were, of course, important in sustaining the pressure for ever-new discriminatory measures against ideological target-groups. But little in the way of coherent planning could be expected from the central party office, under the charge of Rudolf Heß, Hitler’s deputy in party affairs. The key agency was not the party, but the SS.

The interest in expansion was self-evident. Buoyed by their successes in Austria and the Sudetenland, Himmler, Heydrich, and the top echelons of the SS were keen to extend – naturally, under Hitler’s aegis – their own empire. Already in August 1938, a decree by Hitler met Himmler’s wish to develop an armed wing of the SS. It provided in effect a fourth branch of the armed forces – far smaller than the others, but envisaged as a body of ideologically motivated ‘political soldiers’ standing at the Führer’s ‘exclusive disposal’. It was little wonder that Himmler had been one of the hawks during the Sudeten crisis, aligning himself with Ribbentrop, and encouraging Hitler’s aggression. The leaders of the SS were now looking to territorial gains to provide them with opportunities for ideological experimentation on the way to the fulfilment of the vision of a racially purified Greater German Reich under the heel of the chosen caste of the SS élite. In a world after Hitler, with ‘final victory’ achieved, the SS were determined to be the masters of Germany and Europe.

They saw their mission as the ruthless eradication of Germany’s ideological enemies, who, in Himmler’s strange vision, were numerous and menacing. He told top SS leaders in early November 1938: ‘We must be clear that in the next ten years we will certainly encounter unheard of critical conflicts. It is not only the struggle of the nations, which in this case are put forward by the opposing side merely as a front, but it is the ideological struggle of the entire Jewry, freemasonry, Marxism, and churches of the world. These forces – of which I presume the Jews to be the driving spirit, the origin of all the negatives – are clear that if Germany and Italy are not annihilated, they will be annihilated. That is a simple conclusion. In Germany the Jew cannot hold out. This is a question of years. We will drive them out more and more with an unprecedented ruthlessness …’

The speech was held a day before Germany exploded in an orgy of elemental violence against its Jewish minority in the notorious pogrom of 9–10 November 1938, cynically dubbed in popular parlance, on account of the millions of fragments of broken glass littering the pavements of Berlin outside wrecked Jewish shops, ‘Reich Crystal Night’ (Reichskristallnacht). This night of horror, a retreat in a modern state to the savagery associated with bygone ages, laid bare to the world the barbarism of the Nazi regime. Within Germany, it brought immediate draconian measures to exclude Jews from the economy, accompanied by a restructuring of anti-Jewish policy, placing it now directly under the control of the SS, whose leaders linked war, expansion, and eradication of Jewry.

Such a linkage was not only reinforced in the eyes of the SS in the aftermath of ‘Crystal Night’. For Hitler, too, the connection between the war he knew was coming and the destruction of Europe’s Jews was now beginning to take concrete shape. Since the 1920s he had not deviated from the view that German salvation could only come through a titanic struggle for supremacy in Europe, and for eventual world power, against mighty enemies backed by the mightiest enemy of all, perhaps more powerful even than the Third Reich itself: international Jewry. It was a colossal gamble. But for Hitler it was a gamble that could not be avoided. And for him, the fate of the Jews was inextricably bound up with that gamble.

The nationwide pogrom carried out by rampaging Nazi mobs on the night of 9–10 November was the culmination of a third wave of antisemitic violence – worse even than those of 1933 and 1935 – that had begun in the spring of 1938 and run on as the domestic accompaniment to the foreign-political crisis throughout the summer and autumn. Part of the background to the summer of violence was the open terror on the streets of Vienna in March, and the ‘success’ that Eichmann had scored in forcing the emigration of the Viennese Jews. Nazi leaders in cities of the ‘old Reich’, particularly Berlin, took note. The chance to be rid of ‘their’ Jews seemed to open up. A second strand in the background was the ‘aryanization’ drive to hound Jews out of German economic life. At the beginning of 1933 there had been some 50,000 Jewish businesses in Germany. By July 1938, there were only 9,000 left. The big push to exclude the Jews came between spring and autumn 1938. The 1,690 businesses in Jewish hands in Munich in February 1938, for instance, had fallen to only 666 (two-thirds of them owned by foreign citizens) by October. The ‘aryanization’ drive not only closed businesses, or saw them bought out for a pittance by new ‘aryan’ owners. It also brought a new flood of legislative measures imposing a variety of discriminatory restrictions and occupational bans – such as on Jewish doctors and lawyers – even to the extent of preventing Jews from trying to eke out a living as pedlars. It was a short step from legislation to pinpoint remaining Jewish businesses to identifying Jewish persons. A decree of 17 August had made it compulsory for male Jews to add the forename ‘Israel’, females the forename ‘Sara’, to their existing names and, on pain of imprisonment, to use those names in all official matters. On 5 October, they were compelled to have a ‘J’ stamped in their passports. A few days later, Göring declared that ‘the Jewish Question must now be tackled with all means available, for they [the Jews] must get out of the economy’.

Alongside the legislation, inevitably, went the violence. Scores of localized attacks on Jewish property and on individual Jews, usually carried out by members of party formations, punctuated the summer months. Far more than had been the case in the earlier antisemitic waves, attention of party activists increasingly focused on synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, which were repeatedly vandalized. As an indicator of their mood, and an ‘ordered’ foretaste of what would follow across the land during ‘Crystal Night’, the main synagogue in Munich was demolished on 9 June, the first in Germany to be destroyed by the Nazis. During a visit to the city a few days earlier, Hitler had taken objection to its proximity to the Deutsches Künstlerhaus (‘House of German Artists’). The official reason given was that the building was a hindrance to traffic.

Hitler saw it as important that he should not be publicly associated with the anti-Jewish campaign as it gathered momentum during 1938. No discussion by the press of the ‘Jewish Question’ was, for example, permitted in connection with his visits to different parts of Germany in that year. Preserving his image, both at home and – especially in the light of the developing Czech crisis – abroad, through avoiding personal association with distasteful actions towards the Jews appears to have been the motive. Hence, he insisted in September 1938, at the height of the Sudeten crisis, that his signing of the fifth implementation ordinance under the Reich Citizenship Law, to oust Jewish lawyers, should not be publicized at that stage in order to prevent any possible deterioration of Germany’s image – clearly meaning his own image – at such a tense moment.

In fact, he had to do little or nothing to stir the escalating campaign against the Jews. Others made the running, took the initiative, pressed for action – always, of course, on the assumption that this was in line with Nazism’s great mission. It was a classic case of ‘working towards the Führer’ – taking for granted (usually on grounds of self-interest) that he approved of measures aimed at the ‘removal’ of the Jews, measures seen as plainly furthering his long-term goals. Party activists in the Movement’s various formations needed no encouragement to unleash further attacks on Jews and their property. ‘Aryans’ in business, from the smallest to the largest, looked to every opportunity to profit at the expense of their Jewish counterparts. Hundreds of Jewish businesses – including long-established private banks such as Warburg and Bleichröder – were now forced, often through gangster-like extortion, to sell out for a fraction of their value to ‘aryan’ buyers. Big business gained most. Giant concerns like Mannesmann, Krupp, Thyssen, Flick, and IG-Farben, and leading banks such as the Deutsche Bank and the Dresdner Bank, were the major beneficiaries, while a variety of business consortia, corrupt party functionaries, and untold numbers of small commercial enterprises grabbed what they could. ‘Aryan’ pillars of the establishment like doctors and lawyers were equally welcoming of the economic advantages that could come their way with the expulsion of Jews from the medical and legal professions. University professors turned their skills, without prompting, to defining alleged negative characteristics of the Jewish character and pyschology. And all the time, civil servants worked like beavers to hone the legislation that turned Jews into outcasts and pariahs, their lives into torment and misery. The police, particularly the Gestapo – helped as always by eager citizens anxious to denounce Jews or those seen as ‘friends of Jews’ – served as a proactive enforcement agency, deploying their ‘rational’ methods of arrest and internment in concentration camps rather than the crude violence of the party hotheads, though with the same objective. Not least, the SD – beginning life as the party’s own intelligence organization, but developing into the crucial surveillance and ideological planning agency within the rapidly expanding SS – was advancing on its way to adopting the pivotal role in the shaping of anti-Jewish policy.

Each group, agency, or individual involved in pushing forward the radicalization of anti-Jewish discrimination had vested interests and a specific agenda. Uniting them all and giving justification to them was the vision of racial purification and, in particular, of a ‘Jew-free’ Germany embodied in the person of the Führer. Hitler’s role was, therefore, crucial, even if at times indirect. His broad sanction was needed. But for the most part little more was required.

There is no doubt that Hitler fully approved of and backed the new drive against the Jews, even if he took care to remain out of the limelight. One of the main agitators for radical action against the Jews, Joseph Goebbels, had no difficulty in April 1938 – in the immediate wake of the savage persecution of the Jews in Vienna – in persuading Hitler to support his plans to ‘clean up’ Berlin, the seat of his own Gau. Hitler’s only stipulation was that nothing should be undertaken before his meetings with Mussolini in early May. A successful outcome of his talks with the Duce was of great importance to him, particularly in the context of his unfolding plans regarding Czechoslovakia. Possible diplomatic repercussions provoked by intensified persecution of Jews in Germany’s capital were to be avoided. Goebbels had already discussed his own aims on the ‘Jewish Question’ with Berlin’s Police Chief Wolf Heinrich Graf von Helldorf before he broached the matter with Hitler. ‘Then we put it to the Führer. He agrees, but only after his trip to Italy. Jewish establishments will be combed out. Jews will then get a swimming-pool, a few cinemas, and restaurants allocated to them. Otherwise entry forbidden. We’ll remove the character of a Jew-paradise from Berlin. Jewish businesses will be marked as such. At any rate, we’re now proceeding more radically. The Führer wants gradually to push them all out. Negotiate with Poland and Romania. Madagascar would be the most suitable for them.’

The ‘Madagascar solution’ had been touted among radical antisemites for decades. Reference to it at this juncture seems to signify that Hitler was moving away from any assumption that emigration would remove the ‘Jewish problem’ in favour of a solution based upon territorial resettlement. He was conceivably influenced in this by Heydrich, reporting the views of the ‘experts’ on Jewish policy in the SD. The relative lack of success in ‘persuading’ Jews to emigrate – little short of three-quarters of the Jewish population recorded in 1933 still lived in Germany, despite the persecution, as late as October 1938 – together with the mounting obstacles to Jewish immigration created by other countries had compelled the SD to revise its views on future anti-Jewish policy. By the end of 1937 the idea of favouring a Jewish state in Palestine, which Eichmann had developed, partly through secret dealings with Zionist contacts, had cooled markedly. Eichmann’s own visit to Palestine, arranged with his Zionist go-between, had been an unmitigated failure. And, more importantly, the German Foreign Office was resolutely hostile to the notion of a Jewish state in Palestine. However, emigration remained the objective.

Hitler, too, favoured Palestine as a targeted territory. In early 1938, he reaffirmed the policy, arrived at almost a year earlier, aimed at promoting with all means available the emigration of Jews to any country willing to take them, though looking to Palestine in the first instance. But he was alert to the perceived dangers of creating a Jewish state to threaten Germany at some future date. In any case, other notions were being mooted. Already in 1937 there had been suggestions in the SD of deporting Jews to barren, unwelcoming parts of the world, scarcely capable of sustaining human life and certainly, in the SD’s view, incompatible with a renewed flourishing of Jewry and revitalized potential of ‘world conspiracy’. In addition to Palestine, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela had been mentioned as possibilities. Nothing came of such ideas at the time. But the suggestions were little different in essence from the old notion, later to be revamped, of Madagascar as an inhospitable territory fit to accommodate Jews until, it was implied, they eventually died out. The notion of Jewish resettlement, already aired in the SD, was itself latently genocidal.

Whatever line of policy was favoured, the ‘final goal’ (as Hitler’s comments to Goebbels indicated) remained indistinct, and as such compatible with all attempts to further the ‘removal’ of the Jews. This eventual ‘removal’ was conceived as taking a good number of years to complete. Even following ‘Crystal Night’, Heydrich was still envisaging an ‘emigration action’ lasting from eight to ten years. Hitler himself had already inferred to Goebbels towards the end of July 1938 that ‘the Jews must be removed from Germany in ten years’. In the meantime, he added, they were to be retained as ‘surety’.

Goebbels, meanwhile, was impatient to make headway with the ‘racial cleansing’ of Berlin. ‘A start has to be made somewhere,’ he remarked. He thought the removal of Jews from the economy and cultural life of the city could be accomplished within a few months. The programme devised by mid-May for him by Helldorf, and given his approval, put forward a variety of discriminatory measures – including special identity cards for Jews, branding of Jewish shops, bans on Jews using public parks, and special train compartments for Jews – most of which, following the November Pogrom, came to be generally implemented. Helldorf also envisaged the construction of a ghetto in Berlin to be financed by the richer Jews.

Even if this last aim remained unfulfilled, the poisonous atmosphere stirred by Goebbels’s agitation – with Hitler’s tacit approval – had rapid results. Already on 27 May, a 1,000-strong mob roamed parts of Berlin, smashing windows of shops belonging to Jews, and prompting the police, anxious not to lose the initiative in anti-Jewish policy, to take the owners into ‘protective custody’. When in mid-June Jewish stores on the Kurfürstendamm, the prime shopping street in the west of the city, were smeared with antisemitic slogans by party activists, and plundering of some shops took place, concern for Germany’s image abroad dictated a halt to the public violence. Hitler intervened directly from Berchtesgaden, following which Goebbels ruefully banned all illegal actions. However, Berlin had set the tone. Similar ‘actions’, initiated by the local party organizations, were carried out in Frankfurt, Magdeburg, and other towns and cities. The lack of any explicit general ban from above on ‘individual actions’, as had been imposed in 1935, was taken by party activists in countless localities as a green light to step up their own campaigns. The touchpaper had been lit to the summer and autumn of violence. As the tension in the Czech crisis mounted, local antisemitic initiatives in various regions saw to it that the ‘Jewish Question’ became a powder-keg, waiting for the spark. The radical tide surged forward. The atmosphere had become menacing in the extreme for the Jews.

Even so, from the perspective of the regime’s leadership, how to get the Jews out of the economy and force them to leave Germany still appeared to be questions without obvious answers. As early as January 1937, Eichmann had suggested, in a lengthy internal memorandum, that pogroms were the most effective way of accelerating the sluggish emigration. Like an answer to a prayer, the shooting of the German Third Legation Secretary Ernst vom Rath in Paris by a seventeen-year-old Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, on the morning of 7 November 1938 opened up an opportunity not to be missed. It was an opportunity eagerly seized upon by Goebbels. He had no difficulty in winning Hitler’s full backing.


Grynszpan had meant to kill the Ambassador. Vom Rath just happened to be the first official he saw. The shooting was an act of despair and revenge for his own miserable existence and for the deportation of his family at the end of October from Hanover – simply deposited, along with a further 18,000 Polish Jews, over the borders with Poland. Two and a half years earlier, when the Jewish medical student David Frankfurter had killed the Nazi leader in Switzerland Wilhelm Gustloff, in Davos, circumstances had demanded that the lid be kept firmly on any wild response by party fanatics in Germany. In the threatening climate of autumn 1938, the situation could scarcely have been more different. Now, the Nazi hordes were to be positively encouraged to turn their wrath on the Jews. The death of vom Rath – he succumbed to his wounds on the afternoon of 9 November – happened, moreover, to coincide with the fifteenth anniversary of Hitler’s attempted putsch of 1923. All over Germany, party members were meeting to celebrate one of the legendary events of the ‘time of struggle’. The annual commemoration marked a high point in the Nazi calendar. In Munich, as usual, the party bigwigs were gathering.

On the morning following the fateful shooting, the Nazi press, under Goebbels’s orchestration, had been awash with vicious attacks on the Jews, guaranteed to incite violence. Sure enough, that evening, 8 November, pogroms – involving the burning of synagogues, destruction of Jewish property, plundering of goods, and maltreatment of individual Jews – were instigated in a number of parts of the country through the agitation of local party leaders without any directives from on high. Usually, the local leaders involved were radical antisemites in areas, such as Hessen, with lengthy traditions of antisemitism. Goebbels noted the disturbances with satisfaction in his diary: ‘In Hessen big antisemitic demonstrations. The synagogues are burnt down. If only the anger of the people could now be let loose!’ The following day, he referred to the ‘demonstrations’, burning of synagogues, and demolition of shops in Kassel and Dessau. During the afternoon, news of vom Rath’s death came through. ‘Now that’s done it,’ remarked Goebbels.

The party’s ‘old guard’ were meeting that evening in the Old Town Hall in Munich. Hitler, too, was present. On the way there, with Goebbels, he had been told of disturbances against Jews in Munich, but favoured the police taking a lenient line. He could scarcely have avoided being well aware of the anti-Jewish actions in Hessen and elsewhere, as well as the incitements of the press. It was impossible to ignore the fact that, among party radicals, antisemitic tension was running high. But Hitler had given no indication, despite vom Rath’s perilous condition at the time and the menacing antisemitic climate, of any intended action when he had spoken to the ‘old guard’ of the party in his traditional speech at the Bürgerbräukeller the previous evening. By the time the party leaders gathered for the reception on the 9th, Hitler was aware of vom Rath’s death. With his own doctor, Karl Brandt, dispatched to the bedside, Hitler had doubtless been kept well informed of the Legation Secretary’s deteriorating condition and had heard of his demise at the latest by seven o’clock that evening – in all probability by telephone some hours earlier. According to his Luftwaffe adjutant, Nicolaus von Below, he had already been given the news – which he had received without overt reaction – that afternoon while he was engaged in discussions on military matters in his Munich apartment.

Goebbels and Hitler were seen to confer in agitated fashion during the reception, though their conversation could not be overheard. Hitler left shortly afterwards, earlier than usual and without his customary exchanges with those present, to return to his Munich apartment. Around 10 p.m. Goebbels delivered a brief but highly inflammatory speech, reporting the death of vom Rath, pointing out that there had already been ‘retaliatory’ action against the Jews in Kurhessen and Magdeburg-Anhalt. He made it abundantly plain without explicitly saying so that the party should organize and carry out ‘demonstrations’ against the Jews throughout the country, though make it appear that they were expressions of spontaneous popular anger.

Goebbels’s diary entry leaves no doubt of the content of his discussion with Hitler. ‘I go to the party reception in the Old Town Hall. Huge amount going on. I explain the matter to the Führer. He decides: let the demonstrations continue. Pull back the police. The Jews should for once get to feel the anger of the people. That’s right. I immediately give corresponding directives to police and party. Then I speak for a short time in that vein to the party leadership. Storms of applause. All tear straight off to the telephone. Now the people will act.’

Goebbels certainly did his best to make sure ‘the people’ acted. He put out detailed instructions of what had and had not to be done. He fired up the mood where there was hesitancy. Immediately after he had spoken, the Stoßtrupp Hitler, an ‘assault squad’ whose traditions reached back to the heady days of pre-putsch beerhouse brawls and bore the Führer’s name, was launched to wreak havoc on the streets of Munich. Almost immediately they demolished the old synagogue in Herzog-Rudolf-Straße, left standing after the main synagogue had been destroyed in the summer. AdolfWagner, Gauleiter of Munich and Upper Bavaria (who as Bavarian Minister of Interior was supposedly responsible for order in the province), himself no moderate in ‘the Jewish Question’, got cold feet. But Goebbels pushed him into line. The ‘capital city of the Movement’ of all places was not going to be spared what was happening already all over Germany. Goebbels then gave direct telephone instructions to Berlin to demolish the synagogue in Fasanenstraße, off the Kurfürstendamm.

The top leadership of the police and SS, also gathered in Munich but not present when Goebbels had given his speech, learnt of the ‘action’ only once it had started. Heydrich, at the time in the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, was informed by the Munich Gestapo Office around 11.20 p.m., after the first orders had already gone out to the party and SA. He immediately sought Himmler’s directives on how the police should respond. The Reichsführer-SS was contacted in Hitler’s Munich apartment. He asked what orders Hitler had for him. Hitler replied – most likely at Himmler’s prompting – that he wanted the SS to keep out of the ‘action’. Disorder and uncontrolled violence and destruction were not the SS’s style. Himmler and Heydrich preferred the ‘rational’, systematic approach to the ‘Jewish Question’. Soon after midnight orders went out that any SS men participating in the ‘demonstrations’ were to do so only in civilian clothing. At 1.20 a.m. Heydrich telexed all police chiefs instructing the police not to obstruct the destruction of the synagogues and to arrest as many male Jews, especially wealthy ones, as available prison accommodation could take. The figure of 20–30,000 Jews had already been mentioned in a Gestapo directive sent out before midnight.

Meanwhile, across the Reich, party activists – especially SA men – were suddenly summoned by their local leaders and told to burn down synagogues or were turned loose on other Jewish property. Many of those involved had been celebrating at their own commemoration of the Beerhall Putsch, and some were the worse for wear from drink. The ‘action’ was usually improvised on the spot.

At midnight, at the Feldherrnhalle in Munich where the attempted putsch in 1923 had met its end, Goebbels had witnessed the swearing-in of the SS to Hitler. The Propaganda Minister was ready to return to his hotel when he saw the sky red from the fire of the burning synagogue in Herzog-Rudolf-Straße. Back he went to Gau headquarters. Instructions were given out that the fire-brigade should extinguish only what was necessary to protect nearby buildings. Otherwise they were to let the synagogue burn down. ‘The Stoßtrupp is doing dreadful damage,’ he commented. Reports came in to him of seventy-five synagogues on fire throughout the Reich, fifteen of them in Berlin. He had evidently by this time heard of the Gestapo directive. ‘The Führer has ordered,’ he noted, ‘that 20–30,000 Jews are immediately to be arrested.’ In fact, it had been a Gestapo order with no reference in it to a directive of the Führer. Clearly, however, though he had instigated the pogrom, Goebbels took it that the key decisions came from Hitler. Goebbels went with Julius Schaub, Hitler’s general factotum, into the Artists’ Club to wait for further news. Schaub was in fine form. ‘His old Stoßtrupp past has been revived,’ commented Goebbels. He went back to his hotel. He could hear the noise of shattering glass from smashed shop windows. ‘Bravo, bravo,’ he wrote. After a few hours’ snatched sleep, he added: ‘The dear Jews will think about it in future before they shoot down German diplomats like that. And that was the meaning of the exercise.’

All morning new reports of the destruction poured in. Goebbels assessed the situation with Hitler. In the light of the mounting criticism of the ‘action’, also – though naturally not for humanitarian reasons – from within the top ranks of the Nazi leadership, the decision was taken to halt it. Goebbels prepared a decree to end the destruction, cynically commenting that if it were allowed to continue there was the danger ‘that the mob would start to appear’. He reported to Hitler, who was, Goebbels claimed, ‘in agreement with everything. His opinions are very radical and aggressive.’ ‘With minor alterations, the Führer approves my edict on the end of the actions … The Führer wants to move to very severe measures against the Jews. They must get their businesses in order themselves. Insurance will pay them nothing. Then the Führer wants gradually to expropriate the Jewish businesses.’

By that time, the night of horror for Germany’s Jews had brought the demolition of around 100 synagogues, the burning of several hundred others, the destruction of at least 8,000 Jews’ shops and vandalizing of countless apartments. The pavements of the big cities were strewn with shards of glass from the display windows of Jewish-owned stores; merchandise, if not looted, had been hurled on to the streets. Private apartments were wrecked, furniture demolished, mirrors and pictures smashed, clothing shredded, treasured possessions wantonly trashed. The material damage was estimated soon afterwards by Heydrich at several hundred million Marks.

The human misery of the victims was incalculable. Beatings and bestial maltreatment, even of women, children, and the elderly, were commonplace. A hundred or so Jews were murdered. It was little wonder that suicide was commonplace that terrible night. Many more succumbed to brutalities in the weeks following the pogrom in the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen, where the 30,000 male Jews rounded up by the police had been sent as a means of forcing their emigration.

The scale and nature of the savagery, and the apparent aim of maximizing degradation and humiliation, reflected the success of propaganda in demonizing the figure of the Jew – certainly within the organizations of the party itself – and massively enhanced the process, under way since Hitler’s takeover of power, of dehumanizing Jews and excluding them from German society, a vital step on the way to genocide.

The propaganda line of a spontaneous expression of anger by the people was, however, believed by no one. ‘The public knows to the last man,’ the party’s own court later admitted, ‘that political actions like that of 9 November are organized and carried out by the party, whether this is admitted or not. If all the synagogues burn down in a single night, that has somehow to be organized, and can only be organized by the party.’

Ordinary citizens, affected by the climate of hatred and propaganda appealing to base instincts, motivated too by sheer material envy and greed, nevertheless followed the party’s lead in many places and joined in the destruction and looting of Jewish property. Sometimes individuals regarded as the pillars of their communities were involved. At the same time, there is no doubt that many ordinary people were appalled at what met them when they emerged on the morning of 10 November. A mixture of motives operated. Some, certainly, felt human revulsion at the behaviour of the Nazi hordes and sympathy for the Jews, even to the extent of offering them material help and comfort. Not all motives for the condemnation were as noble. Often, it was the shame inflicted by ‘hooligans’ on Germany’s standing as a ‘nation of culture’ which rankled. Most commonly of all, there was enormous resentment at the unrestrained destruction of material goods at a time when people were told that every little that was saved contributed to the efforts of the Four-Year Plan.


By the morning of 10 November, anger was also rising among leading Nazis responsible for the economy about the material damage which had taken place. Walther Funk, who had replaced Schacht as Economics Minister early in the year, complained directly to Goebbels, but was told, to placate him, that Hitler would soon give Göring an order to exclude the Jews from the economy. Göring himself, who had been in a sleeping-compartment of a train heading from Munich to Berlin as the night of violence had unfolded, was furious when he found out what had happened. His own credibility as economics supremo was at stake. He had exhorted the people, so he told Hitler, to collect discarded toothpaste tubes, rusty nails, and every bit of cast-out material. And now, valuable property had been recklessly destroyed.

When they met at lunchtime on 10 November in his favourite Munich restaurant, the Osteria Bavaria, Hitler made plain to Goebbels his intention to introduce draconian economic measures against the Jews. They were dictated by the perverted notion that the Jews themselves would have to foot the bill for the destruction of their own property by the Nazis. The victims, in other words, were guilty of their own persecution. They would have to repair the damage without any contributions from German insurance firms and would be expropriated. Whether, as Göring later claimed, Goebbels was the initiator of the suggestion to impose a fine of 1,000 million Marks on the Jews is uncertain. More probably Göring, with his direct interest as head of the Four-Year Plan in maximizing the economic exploitation of the Jews, had himself come up with the idea in telephone conversations with Hitler, and perhaps also with Goebbels, that afternoon. Possibly, the idea was Hitler’s own, though Goebbels does not refer to it when speaking of his wish for ‘very tough measures’ at their lunchtime meeting. At any rate, the suggestion was bound to meet with Hitler’s favour. He had, after all, in his ‘Memorandum on the Four-Year Plan’ in 1936, already stated, in connection with accelerating the economic preparations for war, his intention to make the Jews responsible for any damage to the German economy. With the measures decided upon, Hitler decreed ‘that now the economic solution should also be carried out’, and ‘ordered by and large what had to happen’.

This was effectively achieved in the meeting, attended by over 100 persons, which Göring called for 12 November in the Air Ministry. Göring began by stating that the meeting was of fundamental importance. He had received a letter from Bormann, on behalf of the Führer, desiring a coordinated solution to the ‘Jewish Question’. The Führer had informed him, in addition, by telephone the previous day that the decisive steps were now to be centrally synchronized. In essence, he went on, the problem was an economic one. It was there that the issue had to be resolved. He castigated the method of ‘demonstrations’, which damaged the German economy. Then he concentrated on ways of confiscating Jewish businesses and maximizing the possible gain to the Reich from the Jewish misery. Goebbels raised the need for numerous measures of social discrimination against the Jews, which he had been pressing for in Berlin for months: exclusion from cinemas, theatres, parks, beaches and bathing resorts, ‘German’ schools, and railway compartments used by ‘aryans’. Heydrich suggested a distinctive badge to be worn by Jews, which led on to discussion of whether ghettos would be appropriate. In the event, the idea of establishing ghettos was not taken up (though Jews would be forced to leave ‘aryan’ tenement blocks and be banned from certain parts of the cities, so compelling them in effect to congregate together); and the suggestion of badges was rejected by Hitler himself soon afterwards (presumably to avoid possible recurrence of the pogrom-style violence which had provoked criticism even among the regime’s leaders). They would not be introduced in the Reich itself until September 1941.

But ‘Crystal Night’ had nevertheless spawned completely new openings for radical measures. This was most evident in the economic sphere, to which the meeting returned. Insurance companies were told that they would have to cover the losses, if their foreign business was not to suffer. But the payments would be made to the Reich, not, of course, to the Jews. Towards the end of the lengthy meeting, Göring announced, to the approval of the assembled company, the ‘atonement fine’ that was to be imposed on the Jews. Later that day, he issued decrees, imposing the billion-Mark fine, excluding Jews from the economy by 1 January 1939, and stipulating that Jews were responsible for paying for the damage to their own property. ‘At any rate now a tabula rasa is being made,’ commented Goebbels with satisfaction. ‘The radical view has triumphed.’

Indeed, the November Pogrom had in the most barbaric way imaginable cleared a pathway through the impasse into which Nazi anti-Jewish policy had manoeuvred itself by 1938. Emigration had been reduced to little more than a trickle, especially since the Evian Conference, where, on the initiative of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, delegates from thirty-two countries had assembled in the French resort, deliberated from 6 to 14 July, then confirmed the unwillingness of the international community to increase immigration quotas for Jews. Moves to remove the Jews from the economy were still proceeding far too slowly to satisfy party fanatics. And anti-Jewish policy had suffered from complete lack of coordination. Hitler himself had been little involved. Goebbels, a driving-force in pressing for tougher measures against the Jews since the spring, had recognized the opportunity that vom Rath’s assassination gave him. He sniffed the climate, and knew conditions were ripe. In a personal sense, too, the shooting of vom Rath was timely. Goebbels’s marital difficulties and relationship with the Czech film actress Lida Baarova had threatened to lower his standing with Hitler. Now was a chance, by ‘working towards the Führer’ in such a key area, to win back favour.

One consequence of the night of violence was that the Jews were now desperate to leave Germany. Some 80,000 fled, in the most traumatic circumstances, between the end of 1938 and the beginning of the war. By whatever desperate means, tens of thousands of Jews were able to escape the clutches of the Nazis and flee across neighbouring borders, to Britain, the USA, Latin America, Palestine (despite British prohibitions), and to the distant refuge with the most lenient policy of all: Japanese-occupied Shanghai.

The Nazis’ aim of forcing the Jews out had been massively boosted. Beyond that, the problem of their slow-moving elimination from the economy had been tackled. Whatever his criticism of Goebbels, Göring had wasted no time in ensuring that the chance was now taken fully to ‘aryanize’ the economy, and to profit from ‘Reichskristallnacht’. When he spoke, a week later, of the ‘very critical state of the Reich finances’, he was able to add: ‘Aid first of all through the billion imposed on the Jews and through the profits to the Reich from the aryanization of Jewish concerns’. Others, too, in the Nazi leadership seized the chance to push through a flood of new discriminatory measures, intensifying the hopelessness of Jewish existence in Germany. Radicalization fed on radicalization.

The radicalization encountered no opposition of any weight. Ordinary people who expressed their anger, sorrow, distaste, or shame at what had happened were powerless. Those who might have articulated such feelings, such as the leaders of the Christian Churches, among whose precepts was ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, kept quiet. Neither major denomination, Protestant or Catholic, raised an official protest or even backing for those courageous individual pastors and priests who did speak out. Within the regime’s leadership, those, like Schacht, who had used economic or otherwise tactical objections to try to combat what they saw as counter-productive, wild ‘excesses’ of the radical antisemites in the party, were now politically impotent. In any case, such economic arguments lost all force with ‘Crystal Night’. The leaders of the armed forces, scandalized though some of them were at the ‘cultural disgrace’ of what had happened, made no public protest. Beyond that, the deep antisemitism running through the armed forces meant that no opposition worth mentioning to Nazi radicalism could be expected from that quarter. Characteristic of the mentality was a letter which the revered Colonel-General von Fritsch wrote, almost a year after his dismissal and only a month after the November Pogrom. Fritsch was reportedly outraged by ‘Crystal Night’. But, as with so many, it was the method not the aim that appalled him. He mentioned in his letter that after the previous war he had concluded that Germany had to succeed in three battles in order to become great again. Hitler had won the battle against the working class. The other two battles, against Catholic Ultramontanism, and against the Jews, still continued. ‘And the struggle against the Jews is the hardest,’ he noted. ‘It is to be hoped that the difficulty of this struggle is apparent everywhere.’

‘Crystal Night’ marked the final fling within Germany of ‘pogrom antisemitism’. Willing though he was to make use of the method, Hitler had emphasized as early as 1919 that it could provide no solution to the ‘Jewish Question’. The massive material damage caused, the public relations disaster reflected in the almost universal condemnation in the international press, and to a lesser extent the criticism levelled at the ‘excesses’ (though not at the draconian anti-Jewish legislation that followed them) by broad sections of the German population ensured that the ploy of open violence had had its day. Its place was taken by something which turned out to be even more sinister: the handing-over of practical responsibility for a coordinated anti-Jewish policy to the ‘rational’ antisemites in the SS. On 24 January 1939, Göring established – based on the model which had functioned effectively in Vienna – a Central Office for Jewish Emigration under the aegis of the Chief of the Security Police, Reinhard Heydrich. The policy was still forced emigration, now transformed into an all-out, accelerated drive to expel the Jews from Germany. But the transfer of overall responsibility to the SS nevertheless began a new phase of anti-Jewish policy. For the victims, it marked a decisive step on the way that was to end in the gas-chambers of the extermination camps.


The open brutality of the November Pogrom, the round-up and incarceration of some 30,000 Jews that followed it, and the draconian measures to force Jews out of the economy had, Goebbels’s diary entries make plain, all been explicitly approved by Hitler even if the initiatives had come from others, above all from the Propaganda Minister himself.

To those who saw him late on the evening of 9 November, Hitler had appeared to be shocked and angry at the reports reaching him of what was happening. Himmler, highly critical of Goebbels, was given the impression that Hitler was surprised by what he was hearing when Himmler’s chief adjutant Karl Wolff informed them of the burning of the Munich synagogue just before 11.30 that evening. Nicolaus von Below, Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant, who saw him immediately on his return to his apartment from the ‘Old Town Hall’, was convinced that there was no dissembling in his apparent anger and condemnation of the destruction. Speer was told by a seemingly regretful and somewhat embarrassed Hitler that he had not wanted the ‘excesses’. Speer thought Goebbels had probably pushed him into it. Rosenberg, a few weeks after the events, was convinced that Goebbels, whom he utterly detested, had ‘on the basis of a general decree of the Führer ordered the action as it were in his name’. Military leaders, equally ready to pin the blame on ‘that swine Goebbels’, heard from Hitler that the ‘action’ had taken place without his knowledge and that one of his Gauleiter had run out of control.

Was Hitler genuinely taken aback by the scale of the ‘action’, for which he had himself given the green light that very evening? The agitated discussion with Goebbels in the Old Town Hall, like many other instances of blanket verbal authorization given in the unstructured and non-formalized style of reaching decisions in the Third Reich, probably left precise intentions open to interpretation. And certainly, in the course of the night, the welter of criticism from Göring, Himmler, and other leading Nazis made it evident that the ‘action’ had got out of hand, become counter-productive, and had to be stopped – mainly on account of the material damage it had caused.

But when he consented to Goebbels’s suggestion to ‘let the demonstrations continue’, Hitler knew full well from the accounts from Hessen what the ‘demonstrations’ amounted to. It took no imagination at all to foresee what would happen if active encouragement were given for a free-for-all against the Jews throughout the Reich. If Hitler had not intended the ‘demonstrations’ he had approved to take such a course, what, exactly, had he intended? Even on the way to the Old Town Hall, it seems, he had rejected tough police action against anti-Jewish vandals in Munich. The traditional Stoßtrupp Hitler, bearing his own name, had been unleashed on Jewish property in Munich as soon as Goebbels had finished speaking. One of his closest underlings, Julius Schaub, had been in the thick of things with Goebbels, behaving like the Stoßtrupp fighter of old. During the days that followed, Hitler took care to remain equivocal. He did not praise Goebbels, or what had happened. But nor did he openly, even to his close circle, let alone in public, condemn him outright or categorically dissociate himself from the unpopular Propaganda Minister. Goebbels had the feeling that his own policy against the Jews met with Hitler’s full approval.

None of this has the ring of actions being taken against Hitler’s will, or in opposition to his intentions. Rather, it seems to point, as Speer presumed, to Hitler’s embarrassment when it became clear to him that the action he had approved was meeting with little but condemnation even in the highest circles of the regime. If Goebbels himself could feign anger at the burning of synagogues whose destruction he had himself directly incited, and even ordered, Hitler was certainly capable of such cynicism. What anger Hitler harboured was purely at an ‘action’ that threatened to engulf him in the unpopularity he had failed to predict. Disbelieving that the Führer could have been responsible, his subordinate leaders were all happy to be deceived. They preferred the easier target of Goebbels, who had played the more visible role. From that night on, it was as if Hitler wanted to draw a veil over the whole business. At his speech in Munich to press representatives on the following evening, 10 November, he made not the slightest mention of the onslaught against the Jews. Even in his ‘inner circle’, he never referred to ‘Reichskristallnacht’ during the rest of his days. But although he had publicly distanced himself from what had taken place, Hitler had in fact favoured the most extreme steps at every juncture.

The signs are that ‘Crystal Night’ had a profound impact upon Hitler. For at least two decades, probably longer, he had harboured feelings which fused fear and loathing into a pathological view of Jews as the incarnation of evil threatening German survival. Alongside the pragmatic reasons why Hitler agreed with Goebbels that the time was opportune to unleash the fury of the Nazi Movement against Jews ran the deeply embedded ideological urge to destroy what he saw as Germany’s most implacable enemy, responsible in his mind for the war and its most tragic and damaging consequence for the Reich, the November Revolution. This demonization of the Jew and fear of the ‘Jewish world conspiracy’ was part of a world-view that saw the random and despairing act of Herschel Grynszpan as part of a plot to destroy the mighty German Reich. Hitler had by that time spent months at the epicentre of an international crisis that had brought Europe to the very brink of a new war. In the context of continuing crisis in foreign policy, with the prospect of international conflict never far away, ‘Crystal Night’ seems to have reinvoked – certainly to have re-emphasized – the presumed links, present in his warped outlook since 1918–19 and fully expounded in Mein Kampf, between the power of the Jews and war.

He had commented in the last chapter of Mein Kampf that ‘the sacrifice of millions at the front’ would not have been necessary if ‘twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas’. Such rhetoric, appalling though the sentiments were, was not an indication that Hitler already had the ‘Final Solution’ in mind. But the implicit genocidal link between war and the killing of Jews was there. Göring’s remarks at the end of the meeting on 12 November had been an ominous pointer in the same direction: ‘If the German Reich comes into foreign-political conflict in the foreseeable future, it can be taken for granted that we in Germany will think in the first instance of bringing about a great showdown with the Jews.’

With war approaching again, the question of the threat of the Jews in a future conflict was evidently present in Hitler’s mind. The idea of using the Jews as hostages, part of Hitler’s mentality, but also advanced in the SS’s organ Das Schwarze Korps in October and November 1938, is testimony to the linkage between war and idea of a ‘world conspiracy’. ‘The Jews living in Germany and Italy are the hostages which fate has placed in our hand so that we can defend ourselves effectively against the attacks of world Jewry,’ commented Das Schwarze Korps on 27 October 1938, under the headline ‘Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth’. ‘Those Jews in Germany are a part of world Jewry,’ the same newspaper threatened on 3 November, still days before the nationwide pogrom was unleashed. ‘They are also responsible for whatever world Jewry undertakes against Germany, and – they are liable for the damages which world Jewry inflicts and will inflict on us.’ The Jews were to be treated as members of a warring power and interned to prevent their engagement for the interests of world Jewry. Hitler had up to this date never attempted to deploy the ‘hostage’ tactic as a weapon of his foreign policy. Perhaps promptings from the SS leadership now reawakened ‘hostage’ notions in his mind. Whether or not this was the case, the potential deployment of German Jews as pawns to blackmail the western powers into accepting further German expansion was possibly the reason why, when stating that it was his ‘unshakeable will’ to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ in the near future, and at a time when official policy was to press for emigration with all means possible, he showed no interest in the plans advanced by South African Defence and Economics Minister Oswald Pirow, whom he met at the Berghof on 24 November, for international cooperation in the emigration of German Jews. The same motive was probably also behind the horrific threat he made to the Czechoslovakian Foreign Minister Franzišek Chvalkovský on 21 January 1939. ‘The Jews here will be annihilated,’ he declared. ‘The Jews had not brought about 9 November 1918 for nothing. This day will be avenged.’

Again, rhetoric should not be mistaken for a plan or programme. Hitler was scarcely likely to have revealed plans to exterminate the Jews which, when they did eventually emerge in 1941, were accorded top secrecy, in a comment to a foreign diplomat. Moreover, ‘annihilation’ (Vernichtung) was one of Hitler’s favourite words. He tended to reach for it when trying to impress his threats upon his audience, large or small. He would speak more than once the following summer, for instance, of his intention to ‘annihilate’ the Poles. Horrific though their treatment was after 1939, no genocidal programme followed.

But the language, even so, was not meaningless. The germ of a possible genocidal outcome, however vaguely conceived, was taking shape. Destruction and annihilation, not just emigration, of the Jews was in the air. Already on 24 November Das Schwarze Korps, portraying the Jews as sinking ever more to the status of pauperized parasites and criminals, had concluded: ‘In the stage of such a development we would therefore be faced with the hard necessity of eradicating the Jewish underworld just as we are accustomed in our ordered state to eradicate criminals: with fire and sword! The result would be the actual and final end of Jewry in Germany, its complete annihilation.’ This was not a preview of Auschwitz and Treblinka. But without such a mentality, Auschwitz and Treblinka would not have been possible.

In his speech to the Reichstag on 30 January 1939, the sixth anniversary of his takeover of power, Hitler revealed publicly his implicitly genocidal association of the destruction of the Jews with the advent of another war. As always, he had an eye on the propaganda impact. But his words were more than propaganda. They gave an insight into the pathology of his mind, into the genocidal intent that was beginning to take hold. He had no idea how the war would bring about the destruction of the Jews. But, somehow, he was certain that this would indeed be the outcome of a new conflagration. ‘I have very often in my lifetime been a prophet,’ he declared, ‘and was mostly derided. In the time of my struggle for power it was in the first instance the Jewish people who received only with laughter my prophecies that I would some time take over the leadership of the state and of the entire people in Germany and then, among other things, also bring the Jewish problem to its solution. I believe that this once hollow laughter of Jewry in Germany has meanwhile already stuck in the throat. I want today to be a prophet again: if international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will be not the bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!’ It was a ‘prophecy’ that Hitler would return to on numerous occasions in the years 1941 and 1942, when the annihilation of the Jews was no longer terrible rhetoric, but terrible reality.

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