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Kristallnacht 1938, by Alan E. Steinweis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. 214 pp. $23.95.
The question often arises as to what can be considered novel and original in a newly published book—especially when numerous publications on the same subject already exist. More than two dozen monographs and documentations on the Nazi-staged pogroms in November 1938 are presently available. What new insights can a further book provide on the November pogroms that took place throughout the German Reich some seventy years ago?
On November 7, 1938, 17-year old Polish Jew Herschel Grynspan made an assassination attempt in Paris on the life of the German Embassy’s Second Secretary, 29-year old Ernst vom Rath. The German diplomat died of the inflicted bullet wounds two days later. Nazi leaders used the assassination as a pretense for triggering pogroms on Jews throughout the entire Reich, euphemistically known as the “Kristallnacht” (Crystal Night or Night of Broken Glass). During and after this spasm of violence and plunder, about 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, where hundreds would perish in the following months.
Alan E. Steinweis (Professor of History and Director of the Center for Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont) has evaluated, in addition to research literature and important court records (post-1945 trials), numerous eye-witness reports made by Kristallnacht victims. Based on these, he has gained new and well-founded insights into the events in the days that followed Grynszpan’s assassination attempt and vom Rath’s death. Kristallnacht 1938 clearly reveals the
participation of all classes of society in the November nation-wide pogroms. Based on actual statements and reports by the perpetrators, Steinweis’s book clearly reveals that the assertion voiced and heard in Germany during many post-war decades that nobody really knew what was happening to the Jews belongs in the world of myth. The violence, manipulated from above, executed from below, was visible to all, in big, medium-sized, and small cities, in towns, hamlets and rural communities. And as no clear instructions were issued by the Nazi regime as to how exactly the violence, looting, and humiliating treatment of the Jewish victims were be carried out, it was left to the individual Nazi officials to decide how to do it, and this without any delay.
The many obstacles involved in Herschel Grynspan’s planned trial are also discussed in Kristallnacht 1938. The trial was finally postponed and Grynszpan sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, where he was supposedly executed in July 1942.
The Kristallnacht in November 1938 provided a testing ground for probing antisemitic actions throughout the country and paved the way for grand scale actions. It clearly showed the Nazi regime that it could count on the wide support of the general population, both young and old, to support it in its antisemitic actions.
University of Osnabrueck, Germany
Translated by Suzan Meves