Brick-throwing mobs. Mass arrests. Torched synagogues. Broken glass. Between November 9 and 10, 1938, the pogrom now known as Kristallnacht resulted in the destruction of over 7,500 Jewish businesses, 1,000 synagogues, and any sense of security Jewish people in Germany and its territories felt in the face of Nazi rule and a growing tide of anti-Semitism.
Today, Kristallnacht is seen as the first act of what would eventually become the Holocaust. But did the world see the writing on the wall in 1938?
If you’d read an American newspaper in the days and weeks after the pogrom, you might have thought so. As news of the pogroms made its way to the United States, newspapers filled, first with descriptions of the violence, then with reactions that ranged from terrified to furious. “MOBS WRECK JEWISH STORES IN BERLIN,” shouted a typical headline from the Chicago Daily Tribune. “Nazi Mobs Riot in Wild Orgy,” reported the Los Angeles Times.
Immediately, commentators and national leaders began to speak out against the violence—often with a call to common humanity. “The people outside Germany who still value tolerance, understanding and humanity can no more keep silent in the face of what has just taken place then they could in the face of any other barbarity,” wrote the Hartford Courant. “Not to express themselves would be a denial of their deepest instincts as civilized human beings.”
The New York Times agreed. The pogroms produced “scenes which no man can look upon without shame for the degradation of his species,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial. Meanwhile, religious leaders around the country spoke out against intolerance. They called attention to the anti-Semitism that had driven the attacks and called on their congregations to pray and support Jews in both Germany and the U.S.
But not everyone condemned the violence—or blamed it on anti-Semitism. The New York Daily News had a theory for why Germans were so eager to participate in the pillage: economic insecurity. “We think...Hitler can no longer control his people,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial, “he is losing his grip to the born-thief element in once super-orderly and super-policed Germany.” Germans were hungry and suffering under the reparations they’d been forced to pay for World War I, the paper concluded, so “Let’s not fly off the handle."
Others took the economic insecurity theory one step further, insisting that Germany’s government had instigated the violence because it needed to line its coffers using both the possessions of German Jews and the fine it levied on them afterwards. “Under a pretense of hot-headed vengeance,” wrote the New York Times, “…the Government makes a cold-blooded effort to increase its funds.”
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Father Charles Coughlin, an influential Catholic priest whose weekly radio broadcast reached tens of millions of listeners, blamed the violence on Jewish people themselves. Because Jews had not done enough to rid Germany of Communism, he told listeners, they had forced Germans to retaliate against them.
Citizens of the United States reacted swiftly to Kristallnacht. However, their government was much slower to respond. An ocean away from Hitler and free from the real threat of a German invasion, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt waffled on condemning the pogroms. During a November 11 press conference, he was asked if he had anything to say about the violence. “No, I think not,” he answered. “You had better handle that through the State Department.”
It took four days—and mounting criticism—for the president to act. On November 15, he announced that he had withdrawn the United States’ ambassador to Germany. “I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a twentieth-century civilization,” he said. But the president indicated that there were no plans to support Jews who wanted to leave Germany, or to directly condemn Hitler for the pogroms.
FDR’s response to Kristallnacht was an omen of things to come. Though it may have seemed like a wake-up call to the world, Kristallnacht ended up rousing a public sentiment that quickly faded. Ultimately, writes historian Rafael Medoff, “the words of condemnation were not always accompanied by calls for action.” And, historians argue, even Jewish groups did little to rouse public support for their European counterparts.
When the General Jewish Council, a group that represented the nation’s largest Jewish organizations, addressed Kristallnacht publicly four days after the pogroms, they advised “there should be no parades, public demonstrations or protests by Jews.” And though some Jewish groups put pressure on the Roosevelt administration to change American immigration policy to admit more Jews, their efforts fizzled.
The United States had responded to Kristallnacht—but without deeds to back up words. Within a few years, Nazis had wiped out six million European Jews, and America’s chance to act on the first shocking step toward the Holocaust had long since passed.