Top Menu

Israel’s Kristallnacht (Author of Postcards to Hitler in ‘Counterpunch’)

By Bruce Neuburger, author of the forthcoming book, Postcards to Hitler, for Counterpunch

Germany, November 1938

On November 7, 1938, a 17-year-old German Jewish student walked into the German consulate in Paris and asked to speak to the German consular. When he was told he was unavailable the young man, Herschel Grynspan agreed to speak to a lower-level official, Ernst Vom Rath. When the official appeared Grynspan pulled a pistol and shot him in the abdomen. Vom Rath died of his injury two days later.

Word of Vom Rath’s death reached Germany at a moment when the Nazi Party leadership was in Munich celebrating the anniversary of the 1923 Beerhall Putsch. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, rose to make an impromptu speech to a dinner crowd of Nazi officials. He condemned the murder as an unjustified assault and laid the blame for the murder on the Jewish community as a whole. The speech was not recorded but Goebbels noted in his diary that his remarks were greeted with stormy applause.

Nazi officials at the dinner immediately got on the phones to inform their Nazi colleagues in the SS and other armed units across the country to prepare for violent action against the Jewish community. Within days hundreds of synagogues were destroyed, thousands of Jewish stores were wrecked, and Jewish homes were invaded. Scores of Jews were murdered, and 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to Germany’s three main concentration camps. Some Jews, including members of my family, were expelled from their homes. Meanwhile, the Nazi government and press unleashed a drumbeat of condemnation of the entire German Jewish community for the murder of the German consular official. And they claimed the violent pogrom was a “spontaneous reaction” of an outraged German public and a just reward for criminal Jewish behavior. This was a lie. The burning, looting, and murdering were planned and executed by Nazi party leaders and Nazi militants out of uniform.

Neither the Nazi government nor its controlled press made an issue of the more than 400 anti-Jewish laws and decrees enacted between 1933 and 1938, which made life for German Jews almost unbearably hellish. This included the passage of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 that stripped Jews of their German citizenship and outlawed sexual contact between Jews and non-Jews. The Nuremberg “blood law” led to hundreds of Jewish men being put on trial, with many sentenced to penitentiaries,1 for allegedly having such relations. It also intensified an outpouring of unrelenting racial slanders against German Jews.

The German public was left largely uninformed of the particular horror that had provoked Grynspan’s murder of Vom Rath. In late October of 1938 12,000 Polish Jewish immigrants living in Germany were ousted from their homes and deported to Poland with little more than the clothes on their backs. Of the 12,000 deportees, 8,000 were refused entry into Poland and left stranded at the Polish border in frigid weather without money, food, or adequate shelter. Among them were Herschel Grynspan’s parents Zindel and Rivka and his sister Berta, who wrote to her brother in Paris pleading for help; “Herschel, we haven’t got a penny.” These were the immediate circumstances that drove young Herschel to despair. He bought a gun and went to the German consulate with murder on his mind.

The German fascist media repeated the Nazi message that justified the Kristallnacht pogrom: The Jews had it coming.

Israel/Palestine October 2023

On October 7 Hamas militants carried out a cruel spasm of killings of Israeli military personnel and civilians. The Israeli government and media, and the U.S. government and media—almost without exception— were quick to condemn these truly terrible Hamas acts without any effort to explain what might have motivated them. They consciously ignored and suppressed any mention of the seven decades of history of land dispossession, death, destruction, murder, and insult, the hellish conditions Palestinians have been forced to endure due to actions by the Israeli government and settlers against the Palestinians. The actions may not have justified the October 7 killings, but they do explain them. By covering up this history the Israeli and U.S. governments seek to portray the Palestinian people as murderers to justify further murderous acts against them. The Netanyahu government and U.S. backers have withheld the fact that 2023 has been the deadliest year for Palestinians in decades. Furthermore, the Netanyahu government and its U.S. backers condemn Hamas but have nothing to say about Israel’s and the U.S.’s role in helping Hamas come to power as a counterweight to the secular leadership of Fatah several decades ago.2 As Netanyahu told his rightwing Likud party in 2019 “Those who want to thwart the possibility of a Palestinian state should support the strengthening of Hamas and the transfer of money to Hamas. This is part of our strategy.”3

It is an inescapable fact that the Palestinian people have been demonized and punished every time they have acted to oppose the abuses committed against them by the Israelis over the past 75 years. Today the Palestinian people are demonized by the Netanyahu government the way Goebbels, Hitler, and other Nazi brass dehumanized Jews. They have used explicitly racially explosive language, Nazi-like language, when describing Palestinians.

Turning their backs, and allowing a free hand

These are not the only similarities between the Kristallnacht of November 1938 and the murderous attack on Gaza in 2023. In July 1938 an international conference was held in the French resort town of Evian-les-Bains to discuss the crisis faced by German Jews. Delegates from 32 countries came to the gathering including the United States, England, France, and other European nations. U.S. President Roosevelt sent a personal friend but no official U.S. representative to that conference. Despite public hand-wringing over the terrible treatment being meted out to German Jews at the time, only one country agreed to take any substantial number of Jewish refugees— the Dominican Republic. Hitler gloated after the conference in Evian declaring that “no one wants the Jews.” Hitler could be confident that there would be no action taken against Germany should it continue and intensify its assault on Jews. The path was clear for Kristallnacht a few months later.

In Israel, the aggressive and violent attacks on Palestinians, the building of Israeli settlements, the Israeli settlers’ (assisted in some places by members of Christian fascist sects from the United States) emboldened and murderous attacks on Palestinians, even the violation of the Muslim sacred space of the al-Aqsa mosque, have elicited little beyond tepid words, if that, from the U.S. and European governments. Clearly the Netanyahu government concluded from this that Israel has a free hand to do what it wishes to Palestinians! And what other purpose than provocation could explain the Israeli government’s repeated public insults to one of Islam’s holiest shrines?

They had been waiting for this

On November 10, 1938, 30,000 Jewish men were picked up by the German police and Gestapo agents and placed in concentration camps. My grandfather was among them. One of those picked up and sent to Dachau on November 10, and who survived the Holocaust, said in an interview years later that he was told by prisoners held in Dachau before Kristallnacht that the camp had been expanded in anticipation of a large influx of detainees—evidence that a Kristallnacht-like event had been anticipated by the Nazi government.4 On the night of November 9 when word of Vom Rath’s death reached Munich, it took little time for Hitler and Goebbels to decide to call for the pogrom. The Nazis could not have anticipated the act of a German Jewish student in Paris, obviously, but they could well have anticipated a reaction to their relentless persecution that might be a useful pretext for mass, violent repression. And they were apparently ready to act to make that violence happen.

Likewise, while the Netanyahu government might not have known of the particular plans Hamas was developing, Israeli government officials could not have missed the growing sense of outrage and desperation among the Palestinians whose villages in the West Bank are being decimated, whose people are being murdered by settlers in growing numbers, whose religious center was and is being violated. How could today’s Israeli government not have anticipated a reaction when Netanyahu and other Israeli government representatives publicly and repeatedly proclaimed their intention to continue building Israeli settlements in an increasing tempo of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their lands? And, when according to Ilan Pappe in his recent talk at Berkeley law school, Hamas publicly declared that it would not sit by while thousands upon thousands of Palestinian political prisoners languished in Israeli jails? 5

Drive them out

Reynard Heydrich, head of one of the Nazi security agencies, and who, after 1941, would become the chief architect of the Holocaust, admitted that in 1938 it was Nazi policy to force Jews to leave Germany, and to do so by making life so unbearable that they would agree to leave. Up until November 1938 despite the immense pressure put on them, many Jews opted to remain in Germany. This was, after all, their home and the home of their parents and grandparents, a country they had identified with, a land they had contributed to in many ways. They were, after all Germans, and they had a right to stay. This was the attitude of many in my own family.

For many Palestinians staying in Palestine has been an act of resistance. Therefore, while the Nazis found it necessary to dramatically increase the level of oppression on German Jews, so too have the Likud fascists who now govern Israel ratcheted up the pressure on the Palestinian community. The Hitler government believed that Kristallnacht gave them the leverage to dispossess Jews and drive them out of Germany. Jewish men held in concentration camps were pressured to sign over their properties to the Nazi Reich in order to be released from the camps. Now the Israeli government believes it has the license to unleash genocidal violence against Palestinians, destroying their homes, seizing their property, killing their children in a clear act to drive Palestinians out of Palestinian lands. This was stated by a rightwing member of the Knesset Amir Weitmann in a paper proposing a total ethnic cleansing of Gaza given that there is “currently a unique and rare opportunity” in the wake of the Hamas’ October 7 attacks.

Let’s talk about the source of criminality

After Kristallnacht of November 1938; after the mass killings and synagogue burnings, the mass arrests, beatings, and incarceration of Jewish men in concentration camps, one might expect that the big, “democracies,” the wealthy colonizing nations such as Britain, France, the United States, would now rush to open their doors to Jews. This did not happen. On the contrary. In 1938 there were 139,163 German Jews on waiting lists for U.S. visas while only 19,552 visas were granted. 7,818 U.S. visas even went unissued. And the situation continued to worsen. When World War II began in September 1939 (and while the U.S. and Germany were not yet at war) the dangers for Jews escalated. Directly in the face of this even more desperate situation, the U.S. State Department leaders threw up new barriers to Jewish immigration. In 1940 Breckinridge Long, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State issued a memo to U.S. consulate officials in Germany advising them that, “We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.” In May 1939 the ship St. Louis with 900 passengers seeking to escape fascism in Europe were prevented from landing in Cuba and the United States and were forced to return to Europe, where many of its passengers were eventually taken by the Nazis and killed. Due to the U.S. State Department’s delaying tactics, 90 percent of the quota places reserved for refugees from Europe’s fascist regimes were never filled. 190,000 Jews and others who could have been saved, were left to die. In addition, very credible reports of mass murders in Polish death camps were dismissed as unimportant by the European chief of U.S. intelligence, and later CIA director Allen Dulles. The United States and Britain steadfastly refused to bomb the railroad tracks leading to the Auschwitz even while they had solid evidence in their possession of the mass murders being carried out there. 6

After the war, after 6 million or so Jews had been butchered, U.S. and British policy towards Jews began to change. Within a few years support for a Jewish state echoed in the halls of power. Revolutions and anti-colonial uprisings were emerging all over the world. The revolution in China was well under way, liberation struggles in Asia, including Southeast Asia, and the rise of anti-colonial, nationalist governments in the Middle East, in Iran and Iraq, and in Egypt and Syria, all threatened the colonial empires of Britain and the United States. At this point the imperialists threw their backing for a Zionist state in Palestine. This had nothing to do with saving Jewish lives but rather a strategy to use the desperation of Jewish masses and the willingness of Jewish Zionist leaders to set up a state as a bastion of imperialist power in that strategically important region.

As inter-imperialist rivalry now intensifies, especially between the U.S. and Russian and China, with each scrambling to secure allies and advantages against one another, the U.S. will cling to Israel and drag Jews, Palestinians and the other people of the region through a new hellish round of suffering for the sake of defending the American imperium. While millions are justly enraged and in anguish over the cold– blooded barbarism of the Zionists in power, no one should lose sight of who is the dog here and who is the tail. Without U.S. arms, and political and economic backing, the Israeli government could not carrying out its apartheid and genocidal policies. From the beginning of the Zionist project the imperialists have made a condition of their support of Israel the willingness of the Zionist collaborators to carry out suppression of the Arab peoples. And the Zionists have been willing to carry out other actions in support of their U.S. backers, including in Central America.7 Years before, Theodore Herzl one of the founders of Zionism was quite open to his support of colonialism in his appeal to British imperialists for their backing by writing: “And so I must believe that here in England the idea of Zionism, which is a colonial idea, should be easily and quickly understood in its true and most modern form.”

Kristallnachts and Genocide

In proposing this comparison between the Kristallnacht of 1938 and the Israeli assault on Palestinians today, some have said to me that in the past 75 years Palestinians have endured many Kristallnacht like actions. And this is true. But what makes this moment different is what makes the 1938 Kristallnacht so historically significant and concerning: Kristallnacht was a major step towards the eventual Holocaust. By brutalizing and dispossessing German Jews; by inuring the German people to this horrific brutality; by intensifying the racist propaganda against Jews, the Nazis paved the road to the death camps which would open several years later. Today’s Israeli assault on Palestinians has been accompanied by a vicious political attack on Palestinians which potentially opens the road to genocide. That is why the most determined action to oppose the intensified assaults on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are immediately and urgently needed.

We should never forget

We should never forget the shameful role the U.S. and other current European allies of Israel played during the 1930s and 1940s when the fate of the Jewish people hung in the balance and when all the imperialist powers pushed aside any consideration for the fate of Jews to pursue their own national and imperial interests. This history tells us a great deal about the nature of this colonial/imperialist system, and its chief godfather, the United States. It should inform us that their true motives lie neither in democracy nor in human rights. This capitalist-imperialist system is the enemy of all of humanity—the enemy of Jews and Palestinians, and the people more broadly across the world. All humanity has an interest in uniting against it and for bringing into being a different world without the murderous scourge of imperialism.

Read the rest at Counterpunch


Postcards to Hitler

Comments are closed.