The tone taken by a prominent German news magazine in describing an exhibit on Kristallnacht, the days of shattered glass and terror that rained down on Jews 75 years ago starting Nov. 9, should alarm and dismay readers in America and other countries whose diplomats broke the rules to warn the world and help those persecuted by the Nazis.
Even the headline in the international edition of Der Spiegel rankles: “How the World Shrugged Off Kristallnacht” aims to discuss diplomatic accounts that reported how Jews were attacked by state-sponsored Nazi thugs, but the reporter, Klaus Wiegrefe, takes the opportunity to slam foreigners for not having had the foresight to do more to oppose the Nazi regime or to give refuge to more Jews.
The horrors of Kristallnacht did presage the Holocaust. Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels goaded Nazis gathered for the 15th anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch to attack Jews for the death of a diplomat. Countless Jews were beaten and businesses and homes vandalized and windows broken; it became known as the “night of broken glass.” Hundreds of synagogues were burned down; cemeteries desecrated; and 30,000 Jewish men and boys dragged off to concentration camps, where Nazis forced them to do things not fit for description in a family newspaper.
The exhibit itself is well-meaning. As the 75th anniversary of the “catastrophe before the catastrophe” approached, Berlin’s foreign ministry asked countries that had diplomats in Nazi Germany in 1938 for anything they had on Kristallnacht. It received copies of historical documents previously unknown to experts “revealing how the shocking events prompted little more than hollow condemnation,” Wiegrefe writes. (Emphasis mine.)
The British described what is now considered to be the worst pogrom since the Middle Ages as “Medieval barbarism,” the Brazilians were disturbed by the “disgusting spectacle,” and French diplomats said the “scope of brutality” was only “exceeded by the massacres of the Armenians” in the Turkish genocide of 1915-1916.
So why does Wiegrefe consider this “hollow condemnation?”
“Nevertheless, no country broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin or imposed sanctions,” Wiegrefe writes, “and only Washington recalled its ambassador.”
If sanctions didn’t stop militaristic Imperial Japan from attacking Pearl Harbor, it’s impossible to conceive that sanctions would have deterred Hitler from the anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws or the “final solution.”
Wiegrefe singles out a British consul-general in Frankfurt, Robert Townsend Smallbones, for his dispatches. Smallbones wasn’t just “astonished” by what happened during the days and nights of Kristallnacht, he did something about it.
Smallbones, Wiegrefe fails to mention, was among the diplomats recognized by Britain in 2008 for saving Jewish lives: He “worked 18-hour days issuing visas on his own authority in the aftermath of Kristallnacht,” a British official noted as a plaque was unveiled in his honor in 2008.
Even before the United States recalled its ambassador, Hugh Wilson, as a result of Kristallnacht, the former U.S. envoy to Berlin, William Dodd, was warning not only FDR but also his fellow Americans of the Nazi threat.
Dodd, a scholar who was in the middle of writing a history of the Old South when he took the diplomatic post no one else wanted, had studied in Leipzig and loved the Germany of his youth. But it didn’t take him too long to realize what was going on in Hitler’s Germany. Years before Kristallnacht, Hitler’s bullies — the SS, the Brownshirts, the Hitler Youth — were accosting, harassing and beating up foreigners and Jews in the streets. Dodd wrote of Nazi officials that it was “humiliating … to shake hands with known and confessed murderers.” Colleagues complained that Dodd hated the Nazis too much to be an effective envoy in Berlin, author Erik Larson noted, and by the end of 1937 Dodd was no longer ambassador.
Upon his return to the United States, Dodd gave lectures on the Nazis. Five months before Kristallnacht, he told an audience at Harvard that Hitler despised the Jews and that his true intent was “to kill them all.”