It wasn’t the night a shadow first darkened Europe’s Jews. It wasn’t the night the persecution started. And it wasn’t the night Jews were first named as the enemy. It was the night the violence began.
Until Kristallnacht, Hitler’s repressive policies towards Jews had been non-violent. Jews had been isolated and persecuted, Jewish businesses boycotted, Jews dismissed from the civil service, books by Jewish authors burned. Jews had even been banned from marrying or having extramarital relations with non-Jews and, in September 1935, told that only Ayrans could be full German citizens.
But the Night of Crystals was the night the rage was unleashed. It was the night later named for the millions of tiny glass fragments that lay as evidence of hate the following morning.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda man, led the charge, ordering that “demonstrations, insofar as they erupt spontaneously, are not to be hampered”. It was as green a light as has ever been given.
The excuse could have been anything. In the event, it was the murder of a German diplomat in Paris by an aggrieved Polish Jewish teenager whose parents had just been exiled from Germany by the Nazis. The young lad put five bullets into the official, who ironically enough disowned Nazi policies towards Jews, and all hell broke loose.
As if the slaughter and destruction weren’t bad enough, 30,000 Jews were then arrested and sent to Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, while the Nazis imposed a collective fine on the Jewish community of 10 billion Reichsmarks, the equivalent of £300million in today’s money.
Two months later, Jews were banned from schools and most public places. By that time, those who could were planning to leave, ‘woken up’ by that shattered glass.
Well-meaning people the world over will look back at events like this, on anniversaries like this, and think: ‘That could never happen again.’ Hopeful Jews have thought as much throughout history, and been repeatedly proved wrong.
As a people, we now know better than to assume the unlikely equals the impossible.
This Shabbat, as we ‘leave a light on’ to remember the events of 80 years ago, we will be mindful of that, as we remember too what led up to those events, and remind ourselves that it never starts with crystals – and never ends there.