The Night of Broken Glass: Eyewitness Accounts of Kristallnacht, Uta Gerhardt and Thomas Karlauf (eds), Polity Press, 279 pp, ISBN: 978-0745650845
The Shoah is a crisis of human history. These memories are an ethical, historical and spiritual … warning to us. They remind us that this happened and could happen again.
Romano Prodi at Auschwitz
First, they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then, they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then, they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then, they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me. Martin Niemöller
A junior German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, was shot by Herschel Grynszpan, a German-born Polish Jew, in Paris on November 7th, 1938; vom Rath died on November 9th. Hitler and Goebbels organised a fierce pogrom against Jewish persons and property, which took place on the night of November 10th and 11th and over the following days. The declared rationale was that the assassination of vom Rath had been organised by “world Jewry” with a view to disrupting the easing of international tensions brought about by the Munich Agreement in September. The real reason was to further the existing campaign to expel all Jews from Greater Germany and ultimately from Europe. The official government name for the pogrom was Nacht der Volksemporung, that is “Night of the People’s Indignation”. The name, Kristallnacht is a Berlin witticism. In English it is known as the Night of Broken Glass.
In the pogrom, about four hundred Jews were killed, while a very large number were arrested, publicly humiliated and physically abused, some forty thousand being sent to concentration camps, the majority to Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, where they were detained for at least a month in atrocious conditions. Synagogues all over Germany were burned and desecrated; Jewish homes, shops and businesses were attacked, their owners insulted and terrorised and their contents systematically and meticulously destroyed; Jewish schools, orphanages, cemeteries, youth clubs and cultural institutes were vandalised, damaged or desecrated. The reactions of non-Jewish Germans ranged from scorn, mockery and abuse, through indifference, real or feigned, to active sympathy and covert support for the victims.
The events of Kristallnacht fitted into a coherent package of racial theory, hate campaigns, and an increasingly severe series of anti-Jewish legal enactments. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 had, among other things, made German Jews stateless refugees in their own country. Measures taken in 1938 included higher tax rates for Jews in February; confiscation of Jewish passports in March; compulsory registration of all Jewish assets worth over five thousand reichsmarks in April; cancellation of the rights of Jewish persons to own real property or run businesses in July; special identity cards for Jews the same month; a Jewish Emigration Office under Eichmann in August; and the withdrawal of the licence to practise from Jewish doctors and lawyers in September. Poland withdrew citizenship from all Polish Jews living abroad for more than five years in October; before the end of that month, Germany expelled sixteen thousand Polish Jews at a few hours’ notice and dumped them on the Polish frontier in extremely adverse conditions.
Following Kristallnacht, a conference was held to discuss plans to complete the exclusion of Jews from German civic and economic life. All the key ministers, ministries and state agencies attended. Hermann Göring proposed a one billion reichsmarks “atonement levy” on Jewish assets which was agreed and speedily passed into law. Jewish owners would have to repair the damage caused to their property at their own expense but all insurance payments were to be handed over to the state. Ghettoes and special identity marks for Jews were discussed. Other measures came into force before the end of the year, including a ban on Jewish children attending secondary schools and the expulsion of all Jewish students from universities. As pointed out by Fritz Rodeck in this volume, on the economic side this combination of specific levies and fees, special and excessive taxes, bans on ownership of or participation in business or certain professions, together with thefts, extortions, forced “Aryanisation” of businesses and the installation of provisional managers and the nullification of all legal protections amounted to a barely concealed confiscation by the state of all Jewish assets and the reduction of German Jews to beggary.
Not surprisingly, these measures produced results. According to figures quoted by Karlauf, in January 1933 about half a million Jews lived in Germany. By early March 1938 their numbers had fallen to 360,000. The Anschluss of March added another 190,000 Austrian Jews, of whom 170,000 lived in Vienna. Around 19,000 Jews left Germany in the first half of 1938; in the second half of the same year, and in spite of the failure of the thirty-two-nation Évian Conference in July to take in substantially increased numbers of Jewish refugees, Jewish emigrants numbered 100,00 from Germany and a further 100,000 from Austria.
The core of the book under review comprises volunteered accounts of Kristallnacht, and the weeks and months which followed, by twenty-one victims and eyewitnesses. The accounts are organised in three sections of seven chapters each, under the headings “The Terror”, “In the Camps” and “Before Emigration”. They were all written within eighteen months of the events described by persons who had managed to leave Germany. They make for vivid but grim, painful, even harrowing, reading. The contributors are varied: men and women (eight of the writers are women), from different parts of Germany and Austria, including Berlin, Vienna and provincial capitals, mostly Jewish and middle class (one rabbi), mostly middle-aged or elderly, with a bias towards the professions (doctors, lawyers and teachers) and businessmen. Inevitably, there is repetition and some blurring of the stories and their impact, but the skill of the editors and the varied approaches, styles and content of the writers keep such negative effects to a minimum. The two-page foreword by Saul Friedlander (author of The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945), and the lengthier introduction by Karlauf and afterword by Gerhardt, are valuable and add interesting commentary and context. The footnotes are helpful, though perhaps too brief. An index would have been useful. Translation from the German by Robert Simmons and Nick Somers is fluent.
In all three sections, some views and arguments are repeated and make a particularly forcible impression.
There was nothing spontaneous about this “boiling over of the people’s wrath”. The National Socialist Party organised everything but took pains not to appear as the instigator. The principal activists were young SA and SS men, often drunk. The police were involved only to the extent of ensuring that the pogrom was conducted and controlled in an orderly fashion; the fire services were instructed to take care that fires did not spread to non-Jewish property. Property was destroyed but generally not plundered; thefts and looting were small-scale and probably locally inspired. Publicity in newspapers and on radio was orchestrated in detail; a building up of tension but no hard information in advance, followed by a stress on popular anger and damage to property but little coverage of the public humiliations, assaults and murders. Then the publicity tap was turned off to minimise negative impact abroad.
What is most sickening in these stories is not the brutal savagery inflicted on defenceless people but the different perverse refinements of cruelty, some planned in detail in advance, others perhaps dreamed up at the last moment. As reported by Alice Barwold, one old lady whose apartment had been invaded, had a hammer put into her hand and was forced, herself, to destroy all her delicate and valuable belongings, her porcelain, mirrors and clothes. Elderly men, arrested in Vienna or sent to Buchenwald, were not only subjected to wanton humiliation and brutality, but were forced to alternate physical exercises beyond their capacity with standing upright for between twenty-four and thirty-six hours, without food or drink, prevented from sitting or lying down (reported by Siegfried Merecki, Karl Schwabe and Rabbi Rosenthal). This may not have been extreme torture but the physical and psychological effects, then and later, can easily be imagined.
Similarly, in the camps, inmates were sometimes denied spoons or forks and forced to eat like animals; and of course the sanitary conditions for those under detention were frequently indescribable, with widespread dysentery adding to the organised horrors. For many of the middle-aged and elderly prisoners, it was clearly an additional burden and source of despair that many of their worst tormentors were young men whose minds had been captured and corrupted by a perverted and senseless set of beliefs. In the generational war, even schoolchildren were enrolled, to sing hate-filled songs outside Jewish homes, or, in Vienna, to loot Jewish shops.
The different accounts and analyses by women collected here are particularly compelling because the authors were prepared to express their emotions directly and cogently. Margarete Neff reports on the emotional impact of seeing her husband’s coat, among others, at the police station: “The old, worn-out coat was not an ordinary piece of clothing; it was something that had belonged to a person and had been taken away, just as arbitrarily as he himself had been, defenceless and mistreated.” She also reports on her feelings when she saw her husband, a lawyer, for the first time after his arrest: “I hardly recognised him – a helpless-looking creature in a dirty suit, with shirt collar unbuttoned, looking as if he could not move – uncomprehending, dismal, helpless.” Her description of the terror felt by women whose husbands or sons had been taken away, without prior notice or subsequent news, is riveting: “they ran from one acquaintance, one official, one possible source of help to another, fear running with them and before them, torment and agony, blood freezing in the veins, wearing down reason, making mouths dry and breasts pound to the point of bursting”.
What is striking is the extreme thoroughness with which everything, literally everything, in Jewish homes and properties was broken, vandalised and left smashed beyond repair. Sofoni Herz, who ran a Jewish orphanage in Dinslaken, reports that when they returned to the orphanage they found every last article of their possessions destroyed; windows, mirrors, chairs, tables, cupboards, dishes, cutlery, stairs, banisters, suitcases and the piano; she was however assured by party officials that the orphanage cow would continue to be fed. Her prompt action in evacuating the premises meant that at least her young charges were not, unlike those reported on in Kaliningrad by Alice Barwald, turned out into the night on their own in their pyjamas. This universal and perverse meticulousness in destruction is surely another proof, if one were needed, of the planned, organised nature of the pogrom.
Not only Jews but those who dared to show kindness or support to Jewish friends suffered. Marie Kahle relates what happened to herself, her husband and sons in the days following Kristallnacht. Her husband was a professor at Bonn University, her son Wilhelm, aged nineteen, was also studying music there. The family activities were publicised as a “betrayal of the people” in the Westdeutscher Beobachter of November 17th; their house was painted red to mark them as “Jew-lovers”; while she was sheltered by Catholic nuns and supported by the Catholic professor of theology at the university, only three other colleagues showed any signs of sympathy or support. Wilhelm was dismissed from college and denied credit for his semester’s work. A three-man university court in December, upon which sat the rector, Professor Dr Schmidt, charged that Wilhelm had found it “justifiable” to enter a Jewish shop after the given incidents and “help the Jewess put her merchandise back on the shelves”; this action was judged “thoroughly reprehensible” and the court found it had seriously “endangered the reputation and dignity of the University”. It is difficult to rid oneself of the notion that universities would hold themselves to higher standards of behaviour.
The section “In the Camps” covers much that is familiar from other sources but offers in addition details and personal perspectives. By reputation, Sachsenhausen was a “better” camp than Buchenwald. The testimony of the physician Kurt Lederer regarding the dirt and disease, casual brutality and death in Buchenwald is particularly compelling. He blames canned whale meat goulash for the widespread dysentery, which added to the indescribable stench and excrement-encrusted filthiness of his washhouse “hospital for the insane”. He started with a few dozen patients, some of whom had to be restrained with wire, and ended with one hundred and thirty-five at the peak, including some volunteer assistants who could not cope with the conditions. There were no medicines, except a little Luminal; the physically sick got no treatment and died; a guard who was irritated by an old Jew’s sobbing and praying gave the doctor a few minutes to calm him down, and when his efforts were not immediately successful, the old man was beaten and kicked in the head and died within a few hours. Estimates in this book of the death rate in the different concentration camps vary but could have been around 10 per cent in the two months following November 1938. Rabbi Rosenthal says that he only realised later that the extreme, gratuitous and incessant brutality was all part of a planned, thought-out, wearing-down process.
There were, if course, other moments when friendship triumphed over imposed “duty”; or when complete strangers went out of their way to show sympathy and help as much as they could; or when camp elders, often political prisoners, sometimes Jehovah’s Witnesses, spoke words of encouragement, to reassure prisoners that the worst was now over and to appeal for steadfastness and solidarity. After a very bleak day in Sachenhausen, as reported by Rabbi Rosenthal, an elder produced an old harmonica and this wretched attempt at music and song was treasured afterwards as a sign that all was not hell and brutality in the camp and that the voice of humanity still existed. Notwithstanding this, there were some fresh bodies (suicides) on the electric fence the following morning.
The differing accounts show how the reactions of those abused varied. The sustaining power of religious faith and belief in the values of compassion and decency (in spite of all the evidence to the contrary) helped some. But others reacted differently. On the day after Kristallnacht, Hertha Nathorff, until then head physician in Charlottenberg Hospital in Berlin, reported that “Today, in me, a sacred fire has been put out ‑ the belief that people are fundamentally good.”
The rationale for the final section, “Before Emigration” is unclear since it includes much material similar to that in the earlier sections. What is new are the descriptions of the bureaucracy involved for Jews leaving Germany and the efficiency with which they were stripped of their final assets by an exhaustive and coherent legal process before they were allowed to do so. Karl Schwabe, a shopkeeper, reports that he had to visit the passport office, police, customs investigation office, currency exchange bureau, his city treasury, the emigrant centre and the registry office before departure. A number of these agencies, especially the currency exchange and the tax office, had a particularly nasty reputations for harassment and delays. Everything was charged, often surcharged (Schwabe had already paid seven thousand reichsmarks for cleaning up his own shop after the day of wrath). The final legal necessity was for an export permit for all assets which were being taken abroad; according to Rodeck, currency exchange officials were allowed to tax all such assets in excess of two thousand reichsmarks at punitive rates of between 50 per cent and 100 per cent, at their discretion. One extreme case of an “extra payment” was the man charged for the price of the petrol used in burning his local synagogue, home and father’s business. Siegfried Wolff, another physician witness, concludes that if civilisation begins when strangers are guaranteed hospitality and safety, as the nineteenth century Prussian doctor, prehistorian and anti-racist RudolphVirchow had argued, then Germany had sunk below the starting point of civilisation, and he no longer had a fatherland.
The first point made in Saul Friedlander’s foreword is that much of the testimony assembled here is based on the presumption that November 1938 and its sequel marked the height of Nazi barbarism and the biggest imaginable breach with modern western civilisation. In fact it was but the faintest of preludes to what was about to happen. But some could read the signs of the times. Writing in January 1939, a full two years before the Wannsee conference, Fritz Rodeck ended his account with the prophetic insight that the Nazis were not simply pursuing a policy of expulsion; their basic aim was Juda verrecke, (Death to Jews), not just Juda verreise (Jews must leave); and he also foretold that when there were no more Jews left in Germany and Austria, the Nazis would turn against the Jews of Czechoslovakia, Poland and Russia.
These accounts were first written in response to an essay competition organised by three Harvard academics in August 1939 on the theme “My life in Germany, before and after 30 January 1933”.The essays were to be authentic eye-witness accounts of life in Germany and guidance was given on length, style and presentation. Relevant quotation from contemporary documentation, personal and official, was welcomed. The organisers were Sidney Fay, professor of history, Gordon Allport, professor of psychology and Edward Yardell Hartshorne, lecturer in sociology; the moving spirit behind the enterprise was probably Hartshorne. The deadline for submission was fixed for April 1940. More than two hundred and fifty submissions were received, from which Hartshorne eventually picked thirty-four, focused on Kristallnacht, for a book to be called Nazi Madness – November 1938. The book was never published. From Hartshorne’s original selection of thirty-four essays, the editors of the present volume have chosen twenty-one. Curiously, although Hartshorne included the essay originally awarded the second prize in the competition, that by Gertrud Wickerhauser Lederer, neither he nor the present editors included the winner of the first prize of $1,000, Carl Paeschke, a journalist from Upper Silesia. Hartshorne’s manuscript for “Nazi Madness” eventually ended up in Berkeley, California; here it was seen in 2008 by the editors of the present volume and prepared for publication.
Hartshorne, born in 1912, was an activist anti-fascist academic from 1936-1937 and was particularly influenced by his previous mentor at Harvard, Tallcott Parsons. He studied also at the University of Chicago, which pioneered the “life-history” approach to political and sociological problems, and this influenced the form of the essay competition. While he shared the approach, he disagreed strongly with the conclusions of Theodore Abel’s study, Why Hitler came into Power of 1935. He spent six months in Berlin in 1935-6, partly in the home of the historian Friedrich Meinecke. A book based on his doctoral thesis, The German Universities and National Socialism, was published in 1937. He wrote on the fascination of Nazi master race theories for German young people, Hitler’s strategy of terror and the Führer complex. He also criticised the “psychic inertia” of German Jews in refusing to take Hitler’s threats seriously and believed this pushed Hitler into organising the November 1938 pogrom. One of the reasons why his planned book, Nazi Madness, was never published was that he joined the US security services in September 1941, working successively for the Co-ordinator of Information, the Office of Strategic Services, the Office of War Information and the Psychological Warfare Division. His final posts were with the postwar American zone in Germany, where he had responsibilities for denazification programmes in German universities and in Bavaria.
In August 1946, for reasons which remain obscure, Hartshorne was assassinated in Bavaria. Uta Gerhardt speculates that his murder may have been connected to the murky internal politics of the Counter Intelligence Corps of the US Military Government in Germany, which was responsible both for the denazification programme and, from earlier in 1946, for a highly secret “hotline” used to smuggle high-ranking national socialists to Latin America, including some coming out of the Soviet zone. From what we know of Hartshorne’s convictions, it is probable that he would have been vehemently opposed to this.
The remoteness of 1938 Ireland from events in continental Europe, even in a year of crisis and with the threat of a renewed general war looming ever larger, should not be minimised. But Ireland also received the British media; it had a small but significant Jewish community, of about four thousand people; it played its part in the international community, not least as a member of the League of Nations since 1923; and it participated in the Évian Conference of July 1938. Since 1933, it had been represented in Berlin by Minister Plenipotentiary Charles Bewley.
The background to the Évian Conference, held from July 1st to 13th, 1938, was not propitious. The United Kingdom did not wish to increase the numbers of Jews arriving in Britain or in Palestine. (In 1939 immigration to Palestine was capped at 75,000 over five years). The United States was embarrassed because it was not at that time filling its immigration quotas, especially the British-Irish quota, but it did not want to take in more Jews either. (Incidentally, the contrast between pre-war US and European states as regards their attitude to Jews is sometimes overstated. It is not mentioned in this book, but a US poll measuring public views on immigration and refugees, taken in December 1938, one month after the “Nazi madness”, showed that opposition to higher immigration quotas had increased, not decreased, in the meantime).At Évian, France claimed “saturation” as regards refugees and Australia said it did not wish to import racial tensions. South Africa and Canada were equally reticent and only the Dominican Republic made a relatively generous offer. According to Christopher Sykes, even the Zionist organisations were slow to press other countries for increased quotas for fear of slowing up emigration to Palestine. Chaim Weizmann had observed two years earlier: “The world seems divided into two parts – places where Jews cannot live and places where Jews cannot enter.”
In the circumstances, while the conference was rich in expressions of sympathy and willingness in principle to help, it was substantially a failure in not increasing significantly the existing numbers of entry visas. Ireland formed part of this minimalist consensus. Apart from expressing sympathy and the hope that other countries could help, Ireland’s representative, Francis T Cremins, in a brief intervention, limited himself to pointing out that Ireland was primarily an agricultural country and did not have enough land for its own people; that emigration from Ireland continued to be significant and therefore it could not help with refugee settlement; and that we were oversupplied already in the medical and other professions. All of this was of course true but it was hardly generous. The most positive interpretation is probably that a country which had long exported its population and which had become (partially) independent only in 1921, found it difficult to conceive of significant immigration in the 1930s.
In the fraught economic and political circumstances of the late 1930s, the Irish administration shared a common view of European states that immigrants, and especially refugees, constituted additional and burdensome problems which should be avoided if possible. But against this European trend, de Valera gave significant recognition and protection to Jewish beliefs before World War II, in Article 44 of the 1937 Constitution. By asserting human and civil rights for Jews in a Constitution adopted by popular vote, the Irish prime minister made it more difficult for any successor government to abolish them, as the Nazis, and some central and eastern European governments, had done. Enshrining the rights of a small minority in this way was an important symbolic gesture.
In 1943, during the war, de Valera responded positively to a request from his friend Rabbi Isaac Herzog by agreeing to grant Irish visas to a group of Jews stranded in Vichy France, who hoped to escape to South America; this and other attempts to help Jews of Italian, Dutch, Hungarian and Slovakian background were all unsuccessful as the German authorities were unwilling to let such groups go to Ireland or leave occupied Europe under Irish auspices. In 1948, after the war, he also intervened to overrule the opposition of the Irish Department of Justice to having one hundred and fifty Jewish children brought to Ireland. In face of the scale and intensity of Jewish suffering in the 1930s and 1940s, these might be seen in retrospect as pitifully small gestures, and essentially sporadic and reactive; but they were an attempt to help by a small neutral country in circumstances where consistent, larger-scale practical assistance was not possible.
In response to a specific request, Minister Bewley sent a closely typed report of twenty-seven paragraphs to the Department of External Affairs on December 9th,1938, one month after Kristallnacht. On the reasons why the governments of Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland had adopted policies of discrimination against Jews, he said that discrimination was enforced because Jews were not loyal and refused to assimilate to their country of residence; they were not patriotic and did not fight; the chief supporters of Communism in Russia and Central Europe were “almost inevitably” Jews; Jews had acquired such a dominating position in the financial world, the learned professions and the universities that they could almost control public opinion and public policy; they were never labourers or farmers but often financiers, frequently fraudulent; they demoralised society by indulging in and promoting moral degradation – the white slave traffic, pornographic papers, abortion etc; they were criminals and assassins, and international Jewry always defended criminal actions by Jews.
On measures taken by Germany and other countries against Jews, Bewley outlines the measures taken before and after Kristallnacht, up to and including Göring’s “atonement levy”. On the November events, he acknowledges only “an organised movement to smash the windows and in some cases, the fittings of Jewish shops”. He points out that Catholic clerical regimes – those of Msgr Tizo in Slovakia and Msgr Woloschin in Carpatho-Russia ‑ also had such exclusionary regimes and indeed that the Vatican had previously operated a raft of similar measures. He ends this section by stating that judgements on whether the measures adopted were necessary would not apply in cases of deliberate cruelty but “I am not aware of any such towards Jews on the part of the German government”. He adds: “There has been no episode in connection with Jews in Germany which could even remotely be compared with the atrocities of the Communists in Spain or Russia, or of the British in Palestine.” On press reports and public opinion, he stresses that the international news agencies are in the hands of Jews (Reuters, Exchange Telegraph, etc); that these “Anglo-Jewish” agencies are partial in highlighting stories favourable to Jewish interests and suppressing the contrary. Newspapers in Ireland, “like the rest of the English press”, take these stories at face value, so public opinion in Ireland is naturally corrupted by forces bitterly opposed both to “Irish Nationalism and to the Catholic Church”.
Bewley may have had impeccable German but he was a hopeless diplomatic representative. He failed in a primary duty of ambassadors, to keep his authorities informed regarding what was happening in his country of accreditation. Getting information about what was happening in Nazi Germany was not always easy, but it was possible. Talking to some German Jews would have been a good, if obvious, starting point. On the main point, “deliberate cruelty to Jews” he was either lying, or being disingenuous (“I am not aware”), or he did not know what he did not know. In general, he echoed the senseless and poisonous tissue of ideological prejudices broadcast daily by the German Ministry of Propaganda and did not even begin to analyse it in terms of probability or innate contradictions (Jews as both Communists and financial leeches?).
As regards what happened on Kristallnacht, he was just plain wrong, as Gerhardt and Karlauf’s book makes abundantly clear, and the Anglo-Jewish agencies were essentially right. His enthusiasm for National Socialism, his anti-Semitism and his suspicion of all British views and policies combined to blind him to the truth. During his six years in charge of the Berlin Embassy, fewer than one hundred resident visas for Ireland were granted to German Jews. He should have been dismissed from his post long before 1939.
Irish public opinion and Irish politicians in the 1930s were certainly not anti-Semitic in the Nazi “scientific racism” sense. Most Irish people then did not share Bewley’s active dislike of and prejudice against Jews. But, as elsewhere in Europe, there existed in Ireland a degree of passive anti-Semitism which contributed to the lack of concern with which reports of the persecution of Jews in Germany and elsewhere were received. As regards the components of this prejudice, I believe three separate elements can be distinguished.
First, there was the cluster of images inherited from the nineteenth century and perhaps from much earlier which saw Jews as treacherous and grasping. As portrayed by Father Creagh in Limerick in 1904, the Jews were a stubborn and impious people who had rejected and betrayed Christ; they were usurers sucking the blood of the poor; they were Freemasons, in league with enemies of the Church; they were taking over the local economy and sold inferior goods at inflated prices; they were middlemen who took and took, and contributed nothing. At a different social level, these attitudes could be reinforced by the casual disdain of certain literary figures or the exclusivity of golf and rugby clubs.
Second, less than twenty years after independence, there was still a very narrow line in Ireland between the generous inclusive nationalism which, on the whole, typified the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence and a corrosive, narrow-minded chauvinism which by definition rejected all foreigners as “others” and sought to maximise ethnic, political and cultural “purity”. Joyce disliked and mistrusted this strident combination of nationalism and prejudice; in Ulysses, the Citizen denied Jews the right to call themselves Irish; it is evident that he would also have had grave suspicions of Wolfe Tone, Parnell, Synge, Douglas Hyde, Erskine Childers, Lady Gregory and Samuel Beckett. I understand that the Catholic Bulletin dismissed Yeats’s Nobel Prize of 1924 as an award to “a member of the English colony in Ireland”.
One key strand in this cultural mix was an unhappy combination of national chauvinism with religious fundamentalism. Views expressed by Arthur Griffith and DP Moran, at least at certain times, opinions expressed in the Catholic Bulletin, the activities of Fathers John Creagh and Denis Fahey and their supporters attest to this. From the Catholic side, the influence of French right-wing anti-Dreyfusards seems to have been particularly strong and long-lived, in defiance of the facts.
Third, there was the Catholic Church, at home and abroad. In pre-Vatican II, pre-ecumenical days, relations between Catholicism and Judaism were characterised, at best, by coldness and distance. When Frank Duff founded the Pillar of Fire Society in Dublin in 1942 as a forum for dialogue, Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin saw the society as a place for explaining Catholic doctrine to Jews. He feared that Jews would see it mainly as a channel which could be used “to stave off persecution or expulsion”. He wrote: “Their purpose, however it be marked by an appearance of suavity or accommodation is and will remain material”. The coldness and lack of human sympathy in this comment, more than three years after Kristallnacht and in a year when the first rumours were already circulating in diplomatic circles of “deportees being sent to death by various methods in places specifically prepared for this purpose” is striking. Archbishop McQuaid may not have been typical of the Irish ecclesiastical hierarchy but his views on ecumenical dialogue, especially when conducted by lay people, were widely shared.
Such coldness may have been an echo of attitudes at the highest levels of the Church. Much modern writing on the record of the Church and the Vatican in the 1930s and 1940s is sensationalist and of tabloid quality. But the fact that many big questions on that record are still open, three-quarters of a century later, puts the attitudes of the Irish Church and the Irish people in the 1930s into a different, and larger, perspective; it suggests at least that a balance between self-questioning and condemnation is desirable.
The Nazi policy of terrorising certain groups in Germany – the Jews, first and foremost, but also left-wingers, gypsies, homosexuals, the handicapped, Jehovah’s Witnesses et. ‑ may be analysed in different ways. It was, of course flagrantly cynical and unjust but also irrational and self-contradictory in the arguments used to justify it; blaming “World Jewry” for the assassination of a middle-ranking German embassy official, the declared cause of Kristallnacht, makes as much sense as blaming all Poles, or all Grynszpans, or all seventeen-year-olds. But scapegoating the Jews had already been planned, and in Nazi terms it was successful in the short term. It strengthened internal policy (reinforcing unity through accelerating Jewish emigration, increasing support from convinced racialists and frightening waverers into acquiescence), as well as confirming the identity of external hostile forces and states. Seventy-five years later, it also poses some uncomfortable questions for us.
Those born in Europe in the late nineteenth or twentieth centuries who did not personally experience total war or brutal totalitarian dictatorship have much to be thankful for. Sensitivity to that good fortune should involve both the suspension of facile judgements on those who did, and a willingness to face the hard questions. In an earlier age, the question was often put: “Where were the good Germans?” In other terms did the quiescence displayed by the great mass of non-Jewish Germans show indifference and “passive complicity” or is it evidence of a self-protecting distance from a regime under which all public opinion was staged, controlled and manipulated by the State under threat of the most absolute of sanctions? For those of us who are not German, that is for others to answer. But the hardest questions are for us: How would I have behaved in Nazi Germany? Would I have kept my head down or would I have had a tipping point to declare myself in word or deed against the regime? If so, where would my tipping point have been? Would it have been sufficient to be another Sophie Scholl (the young anti-Nazi resister executed in Munich in 1943) and lose oneself apparently for a simple declaration of other values, or would I have felt compelled to fight? How would I have conducted myself especially in those grey areas of part opposition, part compromise referred to by Primo Levi and recalled in the foreword to this volume by Saul Friedlander?
Reading and reflecting on these gripping accounts of Kristallnacht has made me think differently of two incidents in my own life.
In 1979, my twelve-year-old daughter was treated very roughly by a Greek doctor in Rhodes. Because she was fair, and wore her hair long in plaits, he thought she was German. His manner changed the following day when he learned she was Irish. His error was not in mistaking her nationality but in imposing a kind of collective punishment, in punishing one member of a supposed group for the perceived misdeeds of others of the same collectivity, a practice which lay at the heart of Nazi treatment of the Jews on Kristallnacht. He had not yet discovered the wisdom of Martin Freudenheim, the grace to pray repeatedly, “no hatred, no hatred; hatred strikes inward”.
In the late 1980s, I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau but I said no. I was afraid that such a place of horror would overwhelm me, that I would not be able to cope with my emotions and the emotions of other people there. After reading this book, I now think of Auschwitz, and Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen and the other concentration camp sites not just as places of gross inhumanity and evidence of the worst potentialities inherent in human nature but as witnesses to human endurance, courage and wisdom, and the triumph of the human spirit.
John Swift retired from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. His last posts were as Ambassador to Cyprus, Ambassador to the Netherlands and Permanent Representative to the UN (Geneva).