On November 8, 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a young Polish-German Jewish man, shot German diplomat Ernst Vom Rath, the third secretary of the German embassy in Paris. The Nazi propaganda that followed blamed all Jews for Grynszpan’s attack. German news outlets, already under the spell of Nazi propaganda, willingly spread emotional and incendiary accounts with the intended effect of stoking anti-Jewish sentiment. In the years leading up to the Rath shooting, Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s misfortune. Today, we forget that the Nazis cast themselves as victims forced to resort to violence to correct perceived historical wrongs.
“The misery of our people is horrible to behold,” Hitler said in 1933. “Millions of the industrial proletariat are unemployed and starving; the whole of the middle class and the small artisans have been impoverished. When this collapse finally reaches the German peasants, we will be faced with an immeasurable disaster. For then not only shall a nation collapse, but a two-thousand-year-old inheritance, some of the loftiest products of human culture and civilization.”
Hitler implored his followers to join a movement of resistance to achieve social justice for a long-suffering people.
In his groundbreaking account, 48 Hours of Kristallnacht, Mitchell G. Bard describes how the Nazis moved quickly to exploit the propaganda opportunity of Rath’s death. “It is clear what conclusions the German people will draw from this latest event. We shall no longer tolerate a situation where hundreds of thousands of Jews within our territory control entire streets of shops…and pocket the wealth of German[s].”
German media obeyed official instructions to make the Rath shooting dominate the frontpages of newspapers. The coverage inspired protests against Jews. Then Hitler ordered his propaganda minister put into motion the next phase: ordering municipal law enforcement to refrain from protecting Jews. Goebbels recounted the order this way: “The police should be withdrawn. For once the Jews should get the feel of popular anger.” The official order to the police provided that, “Actions against Jews, especially against their synagogues, will take place through the Reich shortly. They are not to be interfered with.”
Within 24 hours, mobs formed to begin rampaging through German cities to smash windows, loot stores, and beat suspected Jews. What the looters didn’t carry off, they burned and destroyed. Thugs destroyed priceless paintings and sculptures in their frenzy. The mobs looted one of the largest clothing stores in Berlin before setting it ablaze. Mobs rampaged through Wiesbaden smashing windows, destroying goods and equipment.
Police stood by without interfering. Propaganda convinced the police of the righteousness behind the mob’s anger. So they let the destruction unfold without interference. Germans described the violence against Jews as a sort of “self-defense mechanism” justified by vague historical collective grievances against the Jewish community.
The London Daily Telegraph published this account:
Mob law ruled in Berlin through the afternoon and evening and hordes of hooligans indulged in an orgy of destruction . . . hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete hold of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable, middle-class mothers held up their babies to see the fun.
Afterward, the Nazis wrote approvingly of the mob action, noting:
All over the west side of Berlin…not a single storefront window of a Jewish business has remained intact. The anger and fury of the citizens of Berlin, who maintained the greatest discipline despite everything, was kept within definite limits . . .
German newspapers followed official instructions on how to report on the violence: “If editorial commentary is deemed necessary, it should be brief and state, for example, that the great and understandable popular anger provided a spontaneous answer to the murder of [Ernst Vom Rath].”
German propaganda described the Jews as omnipotent oppressors of the people and that the mobs of Kristallnacht were a spontaneous response to that oppression. But many saw it for what it was—organized political violence.
“If it happened in one place,” one observer wrote, “it was a drunken brawl. But since it happened all over, you knew it was orchestrated.”
That suspicion was later confirmed by a publisher of a pro-Nazi newspaper the following year, “The anti-Jewish action of November 1938 did not arise spontaneously from the people.” Forty years later, then West German chancellor Helmut Schmitt said this of the night of November 9, 1938, “a signal from those in power set off a train of destruction and robbery.” American and British newspapers did not initially call the event “Kristallnacht,” a name later given to the chaos because of the broken glass left behind after the destruction of windows.
Few Americans know the real story of Kristallnacht—a moment in time when propaganda channeled class resentment into a great spasm of violence that was deliberately painted as righteous and justified at the time. The Germans were made to believe that the Jews had it coming because of years of privilege and oppression. From the safety of the 21st century in the United States, we rightly condemn the violence of Kristallnacht. But the question remains, would we have the courage to condemn political violence now if it were to arise in our midst?