Does the 1938 Pogrom still matter?
“Most of us have heard of the November Pogrom of 1938, although I suspect that nearly all of us have a rather vague and unfocussed understanding of what it really was, why it actually happened and what its wider significance was. Even its name confuses rather than clarifies. We know it variously as Crystal Night, Night of Broken Glass, Kristallnacht and November Pogrom.
There is little consensus among scholars about what the point of it was. Was it the start of the Holocaust? Well, no, because no decision about the ‘Final Solution’ was taken this early. But did it mark a radicalisation of anti-Jewish policy with a much greater focus on violence? Not really, because much of the aftermath was about economic persecution, ‘Aryanisation’, ie property theft, and exclusion. So was it a policy wrong turn, one of many along a ‘twisted road to Auschwitz’? Or was it part of a turf war between agencies and political leaders? It is stubbornly and maddeningly unclear. Among the reasons for this is that little new archival research has been done on the Pogrom for many years. The basic facts and figures have never been revised: 7,500 shops and business destroyed and looted, 267 synagogues burned down, 30,000 Jewish men arrested and put into concentration camps. There is a likelihood that if someone combed through city and local archives around Germany and Austria, much would come to light. But scholars aren’t doing the work. Even a major scholar like Peter Longerich in his recent giant-sized biography of Goebbels (who was the driving force behind the Pogrom), made no effort to shed new light on things.
The outbreak of anti-Jewish violence organised by the Nazis across Germany in November 1938 remains poorly understood in terms of its significance for later developments. Was it the beginning of the Holocaust? Or did it have nothing to so with it? Was it the end of ‘wild’ assaults on Jews and the beginning of a ‘solution’ rooted in bureaucracy? Scholars have widely divergent views.
Are we even confident of the basic facts and figures? Or might a systematic investigation of city and regional archives change our understanding?
At the time, only one man thought to collect first-hand statements by those who were assaulted – Dr Alfred Wiener, the founder of The Wiener Library. The 350 testimonies he gathered have until now been inaccessible to all but German-speakers. Now they have been translated in to English and published – giving unprecedented access to these remarkable voices. Among the revelations is how frequently it was not the machinery of Nazism that attacked the victims but rather their immediate neighbours.
The publication of these unique witness and survivor statements marks a significant step towards gaining a fuller understanding of these complex, shocking and dreadful events.”
Pogrom – November 1938: Testimonies from ‘Kristallnacht’, published in association with The Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide is available in hardback (ISBN: 978-0285643079), £30.