7. Radicalization

(1938–1939)

Hitler’s self-confidence rose to a new level in the wake of the Nazi conquest of Austria. In his speeches in the aftermath of the Anschluss he said that he personally had ‘rendered the greatest service to the German Volk’ and that ‘the period of my leadership of Germany is a historic one of German greatness.’1

Hitler even claimed that his existence was part of a supernatural plan, boasting that ‘Whoever believes in God must admit: when the fate of a people is altered within three days, then this is divine judgement …’2 and that since God had now decreed that Germany and Austria should be united then, ‘What the Lord has joined together, let no man divide.’3

But for all this talk of ‘God’ there is no evidence that Hitler was a practising Christian – as we have already seen in the context of Mein Kampf.4 Indeed, he thought Christianity ‘an invention of sick brains’.5 The purpose of life, as he saw it, was for human beings to live and die for the ‘preservation of the species’.6 His personal task was to lead the German Volk towards a new world of prosperity and racial purity. In this endeavour he was helped by a mystical force he called ‘providence’. Memorably, in a speech he gave in 1936 he said that ‘neither threats nor warnings will divert me. I walk the way providence has assigned to me, with the instinctive sureness of a sleepwalker.’7

However, by spring 1938, Hitler felt that time was running out for him to fulfil the destiny that ‘providence’ had allotted to him. In a speech he gave in Vienna on 9 April, shortly before his forty-ninth birthday, he railed against the fact that he had ‘used up’8 his ‘best years’ in the struggle to gain power. All of this – his fear that time was running out for him to achieve the greatness he sought, his overconfidence in his own genius as a result of the success in Austria and his anxiety that other countries were now investing massively in their armed forces – created a combustible mix.

The Nazis now began to pursue more radical policies within Germany itself. In an operation that began on 21 April 1938 the Gestapo moved against ‘work-shy’ Germans. Those unemployed who had declined two separate offers of work were taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. The Criminal Police instigated a similar move against ‘asocials’ in June 1938. A significant feature of this operation was that any German Jew who had a previous criminal conviction was arrested as well.9 It didn’t matter if the Jews arrested were fit for work or not, it was enough simply to be a Jew with a criminal conviction and to have previously served one month or more in jail.10 This was one of the first examples of how, in the enforcement of nationwide actions, Jews were treated more harshly than others.

As a result of these raids, more than 2,000 Jews were imprisoned in conditions that were appalling even by Nazi standards. In Buchenwald many slept in the open. For some of the SS guards the arrival of the Jews offered an opportunity for them to vent both their anger and their sadism. Once admitted to the camp, the Jews were given the hardest jobs and more than ninety died during the summer. Release for these Jews was often possible only if they could convince the SS that they would emigrate immediately.

Life was also getting worse for the rest of the German Jews. A whole host of anti-Semitic regulations during 1938 further restricted their freedom. Jewish doctors could no longer treat ‘Aryan’ patients, and Jews were banned from a whole raft of jobs, including that of travelling salesman. Concerted efforts were also made by the Nazis to identify and isolate Jews by insisting in a decree of 17 August 1938 that, if they did not already have a first name that was ‘specified’ as Jewish, they had to take the additional name of ‘Israel’ for men or ‘Sara’ for women.11

At the same time as the implementation of these official measures of persecution the Nazis turned on Jews in the streets, particularly in Berlin where Goebbels was keen to ratchet up the level of anti-Semitic action. Goebbels noted in his diary in June 1938: ‘Spoke in front of three hundred police officers in Berlin. Really got them going. Against all sentimentality. Legality is not the motto, but harassment. The Jews must get out of Berlin. The police will help.’12 As a consequence, Jews were targeted on the streets of Berlin in ways that had not been seen since the early days of Nazi rule.

A few weeks before his June speech, Goebbels had asked Count Helldorff, the chief of the Berlin police, to put together proposals for harsher anti-Semitic regulations. On 11 June, the day after he gave his speech, he received Helldorf’s memorandum. Though not immediately implemented, it contained many of the ideas for increased persecution that the Nazis would later adopt during the war – such as forcing the Jews to live in separate areas of the city and labelling them with a special mark on their clothing.

In parallel with these actions against the Jews, ‘asocials’ and the ‘work-shy’, the Nazis also increasingly targeted other distinct groups. The first were the Zigeuner – or ‘Gypsies’. Today these are pejorative words (arguably the German Zigeuner more so than the English ‘Gypsy’). But at the time the predominantly dark-skinned people who had – many hundreds of years before – travelled to Europe from India and now lived an itinerant lifestyle were commonly known as Gypsies. All the legislation drawn up to persecute them, and all those in the camps in which they were later tormented, referred to them by this name. However, the generally accepted term across many countries for those who used to be called Gypsies is now ‘Sinti and Roma’, because the majority came originally from groups known by those names.13

As with the Jews, the history of the persecution of the Sinti and Roma predates the arrival of the Nazis by many years. At the end of the sixteenth century the Sinti and Roma were accused of aiding and abetting the Turks in order to destabilize the Holy Roman Empire, and during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries many German states passed legislation that attacked them. Some laws, like the edict from the ruler of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1734, denied Sinti and Roma the right to enter specific territory and others, like an order passed in Mainz in 1714, even called for Sinti and Roma to be executed.14 Sinti and Roma were denigrated because of their lifestyle – they were accused of living ‘like dogs’15 – and their physical appearance, categorized as ‘black, dirty [and] barbarous’.16

Just like the Jews, the Sinti and Roma were perceived as shiftless ‘wanderers’ with no permanent home. But it was never clear to what extent they were condemned for qualities that they could not change, like their ancestry, or social attributes that they could alter, like the decision of many Sinti and Roma to travel the countryside rather than settle in one place. Cesare Lombroso, the Italian writer, was one of those who believed that the perceived negative qualities of Sinti and Roma were inherent. In 1902 he wrote that they had a tendency to criminal behaviour because they were born ‘villains’.17 Nonetheless, most of the anti-Gypsy legislation that individual German states passed in the early twentieth century was designed to moderate behaviour rather than to mount a full racial attack. In July 1926 the Bavarian parliament passed a Law for the Combating of Gypsies, Travellers and the Work-Shy,18 which stated, among other restrictions, that no one could travel from place to place with a caravan without permission from the police.

Many of those who grew up in what the Nazis classed as Gypsy families during the 1930s felt that the problems they faced were caused not just by the new regime but also by centuries of prejudice. ‘The general public has always been contemptuous of the Sinti and the Roma,’ says Franz Rosenbach, who experienced life under Nazi rule in Austria. ‘They have always been mistreated, they were not recognized, they have always been regarded as second- or even third-class citizens. On the whole, we actually had very little contact with the majority of the population, firstly because they didn’t want to have anything to do with us, and secondly because our parents had told us not to approach them because they did not want us. The prejudice was based on the idea that the Sinti were people who stole children and did whatever else. But I have to say that this was simply not true.’19

Hermann Höllenreiner, from a Sinti family in Munich, remembers how those who were perceived as Gypsies suffered in the 1930s. ‘My mother did send me to school,’ he says, ‘but I had a teacher who disliked me – I had to stand in the corner or go out and I got beatings from him … that’s why I stopped going to school. He also mistreated other Sinti.’ The prejudice against Sinti and Roma in the school was widespread. ‘In the second grade as soon as they heard that we were Gypsies the [rest of the] children weren’t allowed to talk to us any more – maybe because of their parents, I don’t know.’ Hermann believes that most Germans took the view that ‘if a dog shits somewhere they say: “Gypsy!” [that is, a Gypsy did it] – yeah, that’s the proverb of the Germans.’20

Hitler, however, did not appear to be much concerned about the Sinti and Roma – they are not even mentioned in Mein Kampf. Only gradually did measures directed explicitly at the Sinti and Roma population come to be implemented by the Nazis. One reason for this lack of urgency was almost certainly that many Sinti and Roma were already often caught up in moves against ‘beggars’ or ‘antisocials’. Only as an afterthought were they included within the Nuremberg Laws. Wilhelm Frick, the Interior Minister, stated in a decree of 26 November 1935 that the Nuremberg Law prohibiting Jews from marrying ‘pure’ Germans also extended to a ban on Gypsies marrying them.21 Frick subsequently clarified this restriction on 3 January 1936 by saying that if an individual Gypsy had a ‘quarter or less of alien blood’ then he or she could marry an ‘Aryan’ German.

By this legislation the Nazis created another immense definitional problem for themselves. It was all very well to talk theoretically of percentages of ‘Gypsy blood’, but in practice there was no way of implementing such an idea – for the simple reason that it was impossible to work out how much ‘Gypsy blood’ any individual possessed. We have seen how, since they couldn’t find a racial way of distinguishing between Jews and non-Jews, the Nazis fell back on a religious-based definition of ‘Jewishness’. But such a method could not be used in the case of the Sinti and Roma, since those that practised a religion were overwhelmingly Christian.

In the wake of this extension of the Nuremberg Laws, the Nazis urgently needed to find a way of determining the percentage of ‘Gypsyness’ in an individual, just as they had previously needed to assess the percentage of ‘Jewishness’. To this end a new research organization was created early in 1936 within the Reich Health Office under the leadership of Dr Robert Ritter. He and his team now set out to create a vast card index containing information on every potential Sinti and Roma in Germany – eventually around 30,000 people would be detailed. Ritter and his colleagues decided who was and who was not a Gypsy by inspecting birth and family records, and by investigating the lifestyle of each individual.

Ritter’s conclusions about the nature of Gypsy life informed the first pronouncement from Himmler on the subject, a circular entitled Combating the Gypsy Plague, issued on 8 December 1938. The document stated that the ‘Gypsy problem’ should be treated as a question of ‘race’ and called for both ‘settled and non-settled Gypsies’ to be registered with the police. The life of Gypsies needed to be ‘regulated’, said Himmler, not least in order to prevent ‘further intermingling of blood’.22

One of the many curious aspects of Himmler’s circular was the statement that ‘experience shows that part-Gypsies play the greatest role in Gypsy criminality’. This strange assertion was based on Dr Ritter’s belief that the small minority of ‘racially pure’ Gypsies who carried on the traditional wandering life, travelling from village to village in horse-drawn caravans, were less dangerous than Gypsies who had decided to settle in one place and marry into the ‘Aryan’ German population. Though there was no reliable empirical evidence to support this proposition, Ritter maintained that the distinction was important. The theory was that some ‘pure Gypsies’ might be considered as a type of ‘Aryan’, since they had originated in the Indian sub-continent. But because large numbers of Gypsies had intermarried with non-Gypsies, they had ‘polluted their blood’ and so were especially dangerous. This convoluted logic led to the bizarre situation – implied in the circular on Combating the Gypsy Plague – that ‘pure-blood’ Gypsies were less of a problem to the Nazi state than ‘mixed-blood’ Gypsies. This state of affairs was precisely the reverse of the one in which the Jews found themselves, where the more Jewish an individual was perceived to be the more he or she was at risk. In practice, once the war began and the persecution of the Sinti and Roma escalated, the distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘non-pure’ Gypsies was to have little practical effect, but it nonetheless remains a valuable insight into the mentality of the perpetrators.

The year 1938 was significant not only for the promulgation of the circular on Combating the Gypsy Plague, but also because the regime increased the level of threat against the Sinti and Roma in other ways. Many German Sinti and Roma were picked up during an attack on the ‘work-shy’ in June 1938 and transported to concentration camps – one manpower report at Sachsenhausen camp, for example, registered the arrival of 248 Gypsies.23 Austrian Sinti and Roma were also targeted and taken to the new concentration camp at Mauthausen near Linz, where they were forced to work in terrible conditions. Adolf Gussak, an Austrian classed as a Gypsy by the Nazis, recalled that ‘In the quarry we had to carry heavy stones. With them on our backs we had to climb the 180 steps up [towards the camp]. The SS beat us. As a result there often was some pushing: everybody wanted to escape the blows. If anyone fell down he was finished off by a bullet in the back of his neck.’24

There appears to have been little concern among the general population about the persecution of the Sinti and Roma. In fact, one police report from Austria in January 1939 said that the local population wanted even more to be done to combat the ‘Gypsy plague’ because this ‘race does nothing but steal from and swindle the Germans.’25

Members of the second group the Nazis targeted with increased severity in the late 1930s were unique among all of those persecuted in the Third Reich. That is because they suffered not because of an accident of birth, like the Jews or Sinti and Roma, but because of a spiritual choice. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses – persecuted for their religious faith. While, as we have already seen, the Nazis had an ambivalent attitude to most Christian sects, they found the Jehovah’s Witnesses utterly unacceptable: Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to give the Nazi salute, to let their children join the Hitler Youth, to vote in elections and to join the German Army.

Immediately after Hitler came to power Jehovah’s Witnesses sought to clarify where they stood on a number of issues by publishing a ‘Declaration of Facts’. The Witnesses denied that they received any Jewish financial support and alleged that ‘the commercial Jews of the British-American empire’ had ‘built up and carried on Big Business as a means of exploiting and oppressing the peoples of many nations’.26

Else Abt, a Jehovah’s Witness who was arrested during the war and suffered in Auschwitz, recalls her own attitude towards Jews prior to her imprisonment. ‘I never bought anything from a Jewish shop,’ she says, ‘because they always [charged] higher prices, and then they’d give a discount and the stupid people thought that they were only paying half price. That was true, I saw it in Danzig. They would put the prices up and they know that people like to pay a lower price – they’d calculate prices in a certain way, that’s my opinion, but I don’t have anything against Jews … For me personally I can say that I never loved the Jews and I wouldn’t buy anything in a Jewish shop.’27

However, the attempt by Jehovah’s Witnesses to show that they could coexist with the Nazi regime was fruitless. As Hitler and the Nazis saw it, the Jehovah’s Witnesses simply refused to conform to the norms expected in the new Germany. In particular, their pacifism was seen as appalling. In December 1933, Heydrich said that all Jehovah’s Witnesses who attempted to spread their beliefs were ‘unbelievable fanatics’28 and should be arrested. Theodor Eicke, commandant of Dachau in 1933, summed up his view of religion in general with the words: ‘Prayer books are things for women and for those who wear panties.’29

The Witnesses were particularly vulnerable after an order issued in May 1937 declared that they could be sent to concentration camps on mere suspicion of wrongdoing. Once inside the camps, Jehovah’s Witnesses were often singled out for terrible mistreatment. At the post-war trial of guards at Sachsenhausen, one builder working at the camp testified that ‘During the autumn of 1938 I was working as a mason on construction when Blockführer Sorge and Blockführer Bugdalle came on the job site and ordered a group of prisoners to dig a hole to the depth of a man, and they put in a Witness whose name was Bachuba and buried him up to his neck. Sorge and Bugdalle laughingly made sport of him. Then, when there was nothing left but his head above ground they urinated on his head. They left him for another hour in the grave. When he was dug up and pulled out on the ground he was still alive but he couldn’t stand on his legs.’30

Rudolf Höss, who would later become commandant of Auschwitz, was posted to Sachsenhausen concentration camp as adjutant in 1938, and presided over the brutal way in which the Jehovah’s Witnesses were treated. He subsequently wrote that he had ‘met many religious fanatics in my time’ but the Witnesses in Sachsenhausen ‘surpassed anything that I had previously seen’.31 He remembered two in particular who ‘almost ran to the place of execution. They wished on no account to be bound, for they desired to be able to raise their hands to Jehovah. Transformed by ecstasy, they stood in front of the wooden wall of the rifle range, seemingly no longer of this world. Thus do I imagine that the first Christian martyrs must have appeared, as they waited in the circus for the wild beasts to tear them in pieces.’32

According to Höss, his bosses Himmler and Eicke were fascinated by the zealous commitment the Witnesses showed to their religion: ‘On many occasions Himmler, as well as Eicke, used the fanatical faith of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an example. SS men must have the same fanatical and unshakeable faith in the National Socialist ideal and in Adolf Hitler that the Witnesses had in Jehovah. Only when all SS men believed as fanatically in their own philosophy would Adolf Hitler’s State be permanently secure.’33

Other prisoners observed that the Jehovah’s Witnesses seemed able to manage the suffering they endured in the camps better than many others. Bruno Bettelheim, the art historian and later psychologist, was imprisoned first in Dachau and then in Buchenwald just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and while he felt that the Jehovah’s Witnesses would – according to psychiatric theory – ‘be considered extremely neurotic and even delirious and therefore vulnerable to psychiatric disintegration in time of crisis’, that was not what he saw in the camps. ‘Not only did they display exceptional moral behavior,’ he wrote after the war, ‘they seemed protected against the influence of the camp environment that rapidly destroyed persons that our psychiatrist friends, and even I, would have judged well integrated.’34 That was certainly the case with Else Abt in Auschwitz. ‘I wasn’t scared,’ she said, ‘because I thought my creator would help me. We believed that God would be able to help us in every difficult situation.’35

The increasingly radical way in which the Nazis sought to deal with those they perceived as enemies within the Reich also affected another group of people – homosexuals. Heinrich Himmler made clear his attitude towards homosexuals in a speech he gave to SS leaders in 1937. He claimed that a homosexual was both a ‘coward’ and a ‘liar’. ‘Unfortunately it’s not as easy for us as it was for our ancestors,’ he said, because then the homosexual ‘was drowned in a swamp … This was not a punishment, but simply the erasure of an abnormal life. It had to be eliminated, just like we root up stinging nettles, throw them on a pile and burn them. It wasn’t out of revenge, just that the person concerned simply had to go.’

One practical reason to tackle homosexuality now, Himmler argued, was that ‘the sexual balance’ of Germany had been ‘deranged’ because the 2 million homosexuals in Germany – added to the 2 million German war dead – meant there was a ‘lack of four million sexually capable men’ in Germany. ‘Among homosexuals,’ said Himmler, ‘there are those who take the view: what I am doing is nobody else’s business, it is my private matter. However, all things in the sexual field are not the private matter of every individual, but signify the life and death of the nation.’36

The Nazis, as we have seen, often tried to claim a link between anything that they could not tolerate and the Jews. This was even the case with homosexuality. In 1930, before the Nazis came to power, Alfred Rosenberg wrote an article in the Völkischer Beobachter in which he promised that the Nazis would punish by ‘banishment or hanging’ the ‘malicious drive of the Jews to prevent the divine idea of Creation, through physical relations with animals, siblings and same-sex persons’.37 Thus, claimed Rosenberg absurdly, the Jews encouraged not just homosexuality, but incest and bestiality as well.

Hitler’s own attitude to homosexuality, at least in the beginning, was not so straightforward. While he talked of the importance of the traditional family and of the duty of couples to propagate, he tolerated the homosexuality of Ernst Röhm, the leader of the Stormtroopers. It was also common gossip among the leadership of the Stormtroopers that another senior figure in the organization, Obergruppenführer (Lieutenant General) Heines, was so open about his sexual preference that he was nicknamed ‘Fräulein Schmidt’.38

Hitler initially dismissed concerns about Röhm’s homosexuality when they were brought to his attention. That all changed, however, when Hitler turned on Röhm in June 1934 in a desire to suppress the power of the Stormtroopers. It was now politically expedient for him to condemn homosexuality. After Röhm had been arrested at the holiday resort of Bad Wiessee in June 1934 – and in the bedroom opposite, Obergruppenführer Heines was discovered in bed with a young Stormtrooper – Hitler railed against the moral corruption of the SA.39

Homosexual acts between men had been illegal during the Weimar period, though the authorities had often turned a blind eye to the gay clubs in Berlin. But the Nazis now rejected any form of tolerance and in 1935 introduced tougher restrictions in Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code, attacking what they called ‘lewd and lascivious acts’ between men. Previously, the courts had interpreted the law as outlawing sodomy – something which proved difficult to enforce unless two men were actually caught in the act. But the new definition of ‘lewd and lascivious acts’ allowed the courts to punish almost any form of physical contact between men. As for female homosexuality, while there was no law specifically outlawing sex between women, there was scope for the regime to target lesbians as ‘asocials’.

Those convicted under Paragraph 175 were sent either to conventional prisons or to concentration camps where they risked being tortured in order to reveal the names of other homosexuals. They could even be castrated. The law stated that homosexuals had to consent to such a drastic operation, but once in the camps they could be subjected to unrelenting pressure to make them agree.40 Altogether around 10,000 homosexuals were sent to concentration camps during the Third Reich; no one knows exactly how many of these died, but one estimate suggests that it was as many as 60 per cent.41

It’s also significant, in the context of this expansion of Nazi terror, that the late 1930s saw the opening of the first concentration camp specifically for women at Lichtenburg in Saxony, with the first prisoners entering the camp in December 1937. Up to this point women had been imprisoned within the traditional prison system, or at a much smaller camp at Moringen administered by the Prussian state. Only a minority of prisoners within the concentration camp system were women, less than 12 per cent prior to the outbreak of the war.42 But the number of women targeted by the Nazi security forces increased as they looked further afield for potential enemies, a development also illustrated by the opening of the notorious female concentration camp at Ravensbrück, north of Berlin, in the spring of 1939. This – the largest of the camps for women – absorbed all of the female prisoners from Lichtenburg and then expanded still further.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that Hitler was preoccupied during this period with the expansion of domestic terror. The increasing persecution occurred against the background of another issue that occupied his attention to a much greater extent – the drive towards war.

On 30 May 1938 Hitler signed an order declaring, ‘It is my unalterable decision to shatter Czechoslovakia by a military operation in the foreseeable future.’43 The excuse for this brazen statement was the alleged suffering of the German-speaking minority who lived in the border region of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. But in reality there was more at stake. On 8 July that year, in an address to industrialists, Hermann Göring revealed that Germany now risked war with ‘France and England, Russia [and] America’. Moreover, this was ‘the greatest hour of destiny ever since there has been a German history’.44

With tensions so high, it is not surprising that the Nazis increased their attacks on those they perceived as their enemies inside the Reich. But political considerations of tactics – and especially timing – still existed. On 21 June 1938, at a meeting attended by both police and party representatives, a decision was made not to adopt the heavily restrictive proposals on Berlin Jews put forward, after Goebbels’ initiative, by the Berlin chief of police, Count Helldorff. This was a particularly sensitive time in the relationship between the Nazis and the international community, because the Nazis wanted other countries to accept hundreds of thousands of German and Austrian Jews. And this very question was about to be debated at Evian-les-Bains, a spa town on the banks of Lake Geneva in France.

This meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for Political Refugees had first been proposed by President Roosevelt back in March 1938 in the wake of the Anschluss, but had taken four months to organize. By now the situation was even worse for the Jews than it had been at the time Roosevelt suggested the conference. For as the delegates to the Evian conference settled into their rooms at the luxurious Hôtel Royal, they knew that the attack on the Austrian Jews had resulted not in the nations of the world opening their borders, but in many cases on ever greater controls on immigration.

In the wake of the Anschluss the Dutch had refused to accept Austrian passports as legitimate documents. Luxembourg and Belgium had increased security at their frontiers, while the Foreign Office in London had expressed the view that Britain was ‘an old country’ both ‘highly industrialized’ and ‘densely populated’ and thus, by implication, an unsuitable destination for large numbers of immigrants.45 One MP in parliament warned in a debate on 22 March 1938 of the ‘difficulty’ that the British would face in the event of the arrival of large numbers of Jews, because the police would have to ensure that ‘our own people are protected against those who might quite easily slip in – drug traffickers, white slave traffickers, people with criminal records’.46 The Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, said in a cabinet committee in July that ‘there was a good deal of feeling growing up in this country … against the admission of Jews’ to British colonies.47 As for the Swiss, they had imposed draconian visa restrictions in order to prevent large numbers of Jews entering the country. They had even refused to host the intergovernmental conference on Swiss soil. The original suggestion had been to hold the conference in Geneva, but after the Swiss had refused to cooperate, the venue was moved to Evian, further along Lake Geneva. Nor did the United States agree to relax immigration rules in response to the Austrian crisis. Indeed, when the Americans called for the Evian conference they had explicitly said that no country which attended would be required to take more immigrants than it was already doing.

Roosevelt’s own attitude to the conference was ambiguous. While the gathering was his idea, he chose to send as head of the American delegation not a member of his government but a close friend, Myron C. Taylor, former head of US Steel. Nor was this even officially a conference about helping the ‘Jews’ – the proposal for the conference euphemistically mentioned ‘political refugees’ only.

The most likely, albeit uncharitable, explanation of all this is that although Roosevelt was concerned about the fate of the Jews in the Reich he did not necessarily expect the Evian conference to result in much practical assistance to them. This interpretation is confirmed by the content of a confidential memo written before the conference by George Strausser Messersmith, Assistant Secretary of State. He said that not many countries were ‘approaching the problem with enthusiasm’, and he feared that delegates would merely ‘render lip service’ to the idea of helping the ‘refugees’.48

This is particularly relevant because Messersmith, more than most in the Roosevelt administration, knew the true nature of the Nazi regime. In a letter he wrote in June 1933 from the US embassy in Berlin to William Phillips in the State Department, he said that he believed the German government wanted ‘to make Germany the most capable instrument of war that there has ever existed’ and that ‘a psychology is being developed that the whole world is against Germany.’ Furthermore, ‘with few exceptions, the men who are running this government are of a mentality that you and I cannot understand. Some of them are psychopathic cases and would ordinarily be receiving treatment somewhere.’49

While Roosevelt was thus well aware of the nature of the Nazi regime, he was always careful never to move too far ahead of American public opinion. He once confided to his speechwriter Samuel Rosenman: ‘It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead and find no one there.’50 Roosevelt knew from opinion polls that a majority of Americans were against admitting large numbers of refugees into the country51 and he was not about to go directly against the wishes of American voters – especially when he faced re-election as President in 1940.

However, even if Roosevelt had called the Evian conference only to publicize the fate of the Jews, he was still more sympathetic to the problem than a number of other statesmen in the free world. Take the views of Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada, for example. On 29 March 1938 he wrote in his diary: ‘A very difficult question has presented itself in Roosevelt’s appeal to different countries to unite with the United States in admitting refugees from Austria, Germany etc. That means, in a word, admitting numbers of Jews. My own feeling is that nothing is to be gained by creating an internal problem in an effort to meet an international one.’ King recognized that Canada might be seen as a refuge for Jews because of ‘our great open spaces and small population’, but still, ‘We must nevertheless seek to keep this part of the Continent free from unrest and from too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood … I fear we would have riots if we agreed to a policy that admitted numbers of Jews.’52

King knew Germany well – he had been a student in Berlin at the turn of the century. When he met Hitler on 29 June 1937, he told him that he had personally witnessed ‘the constructive work of his regime’. Furthermore, he ‘hoped that that work might continue. That nothing would be permitted to destroy that work. That it was bound to be followed in other countries to the great advantage of mankind.’ King formed the opinion that Hitler ‘is really one who truly loves his fellow men, and his country, and would make any sacrifice for their good. That he feels himself to be a deliverer of his people from tyranny.’ In particular, King was ‘impressed’ by Hitler’s eyes: ‘There was a liquid quality about them which indicate keen perception and profound sympathy.’53 What King did not raise in his meeting with Hitler, according to his diary, was the persecution of the Jews. Nor did he mention the concentration camps, nor the suppression of human rights, nor the elimination of democracy.

The following day King met with Neurath, the German Foreign Minister. Neurath told King that he ‘would have loathed living in Berlin with the Jews’. Neurath went on to claim that the Jews had been gaining control of German business and finance and so it had been necessary to curb their power.54 King does not appear to have made any protest about these anti-Semitic remarks. Instead, he and Neurath moved on to attend a luncheon party together which ‘was one of the pleasantest I have ever enjoyed’.

Despite this background, the Evian conference still remained ‘the only hope’, as far as the World Jewish Congress was concerned, for ‘hundreds of thousands of Jews who are today barbarously persecuted and evicted from positions which they had held for centuries’. A memorandum addressed to the delegates of the conference by Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress, not only called for the international community to offer refuge for ‘at least’ 200,000 to 300,000 German and Austrian Jews over the coming years, but also touched on two further issues that were even more contentious. The first was the request that the conference should ‘do everything in its power’ to convince the German government to allow Jews to leave the Reich with some of their wealth intact. The second was that the conference should accept that ‘The Jewish refugee problem cannot be discussed without taking into account the immense possibilities of Palestine as an outlet for Jewish immigration. The majority of the Jewish people has recognized a long time ago that nothing short of creating a Jewish State can restore the normal structure of the dispersed Jewish community.’55

There was never any possibility of the delegates at Evian supporting the demands of the World Jewish Congress. The British, in particular, were not about to announce a radical change to the status quo in Palestine where Arabs currently outnumbered Jews. Indeed, the British were not prepared to discuss anything about Palestine at Evian. There were even concerns within the Foreign Office that any attempt to make it easier for ‘refugees’ to leave Germany might result in other eastern European countries trying to use the same mechanism to expel their ‘refugees’ as well (everyone knew, of course, that ‘refugee’ was code for ‘Jew’). It was therefore possible, by this logic, for officials at the Foreign Office to argue that any attempt to help the German and Austrian Jews could ‘make the refugee problem even worse than it is at present’.56

 Such fears were not entirely groundless. Poland, Hungary and Romania all enacted anti-Semitic legislation during the 1930s. In Poland there were around 3 million Jews – five times as many as in Germany and Austria combined – and by the start of the Evian conference they lived under a variety of restrictive measures. In August 1936, for example, all Polish shops were required to display the name of the owner on their signs. As a consequence it was obvious which shops belonged to Jews. The following year Jews were forbidden from entering the medical profession, and restrictions were placed on their ability to practise law. In March 1938 a new citizenship law was announced, which would take effect on 30 October that year, revoking the citizenship of Poles who had lived abroad for five years and had not kept ‘contact’ with Poland. This would have a devastating effect on Polish Jews living elsewhere.57

The Polish government was also contemplating removing Jews from Poland altogether. In early 1937 the Poles opened discussions with the French about the possibility of sending large numbers of Polish Jews to the island of Madagascar off the south-east coast of Africa. The idea that Madagascar, then a French colony, could become a Jewish settlement had previously been proposed by the anti-Semitic writer Paul de Lagarde in the nineteenth century. Now the Polish government were taking the notion seriously. In May 1937 a joint Polish–French task force under the direction of the Polish official Mieczysław Lepecki travelled to Madagascar in order to evaluate the idea. But after several months on the island, Lepecki and his team concluded that at most 60,000 Jews could be accommodated there – a small fraction of the 3 million Polish Jews.58 So this fantastical idea was scrapped – only, as we shall see, for it to be resurrected by the Nazis three years later.

The Polish Madagascar initiative acted as a powerful reminder to the delegates at Evian that anti-Semitic initiatives were not just the preserve of the government of the Third Reich. The desire of other European countries in the 1930s to persecute and even remove their Jews has largely been forgotten in the public consciousness today – dwarfed by the scale and ferocity of the subsequent Nazi Holocaust.

The Evian conference began on 6 July 1938. The tone was set by the opening speech of Myron Taylor, head of the American delegation, who acknowledged the extent of the problem but refused, on behalf of America, to increase the number of refugees allowed into the USA from the existing 27,000 a year. Then, one after another, the remaining delegates followed the same script; they all deplored the current situation but couldn’t promise to do much to help. The reasons given were many and various – high existing unemployment, the risk of creating racial unrest, the need for agricultural workers not ‘clerical’ types and so on.

Only the Dominican Republic offered to take large numbers of German and Austrian ‘refugees’, but that proposal was most likely a publicity stunt by the dictator Rafael Trujillo. His international reputation was in tatters because he had presided over the massacre of up to 20,000 Haitians the year before. Ultimately only a handful of Jews were admitted to the Dominican Republic and Trujillo’s grand promises came to nothing.

Golda Meir, later Prime Minister of Israel, witnessed personally the combination of hot air and hypocrisy that characterized the Evian conference. She wrote that she felt a ‘mixture of sorrow, rage, frustration and horror’ and wanted to ‘scream’ at the delegates that these ‘numbers’ were ‘human beings, people who may spend the rest of their lives in concentration camps, or wandering around the world like lepers, if you don’t let them in’.59

At the final session of the Evian conference on 15 July 1938, Myron Taylor announced that the many speeches and discussions had achieved something concrete – the creation of a new committee: the Intergovernmental Committee for Political Refugees from Germany. It was a pitiful response to one of the most terrible human crises of modern times.

However, it must also be acknowledged that the delegates at Evian faced a tough dilemma. Even if their governments had allowed genuine discussion about the possibility of increasing the number of refugees that each country would accept, there remained, as we have seen, the concern that some countries in eastern Europe might then demand that their Jews be offered exit visas via the same process. And since the rest of the world was not prepared to accept several hundred thousand German and Austrian Jews, what hope was there of accommodating several million more? Equally, if the delegates at the conference had suggested that only the refugees from Germany and Austria should be offered safe haven, because of the intensity of the persecution they suffered, might that not have encouraged other eastern European nations to increase their own anti-Semitic actions, on the basis that the world community accepted Jews only after they had been appallingly mistreated?

Against that background, it is hard to see how anything of substance could have been accomplished at Evian without allowing discussion of the status of Palestine. Not only did the World Jewish Congress believe that ‘a Jewish State’ could solve the problem, but the Polish government also supported the idea of allowing large numbers of Jews into Palestine.60 In that respect the British authorities must take responsibility for not allowing ‘the immense possibilities of Palestine as an outlet for Jewish immigration’ to be discussed. But by the time of the Evian conference the British must have believed they had enough problems controlling Palestine without adding more potential conflict to the existing mix. An Arab revolt had broken out in 1937, triggered by the report of a British Royal Commission that had recommended partitioning the country between Jews and Arabs. In May 1939, after the revolt had finally been suppressed, the British rejected the idea of partitioning Palestine and announced that there would be no Jewish state in Palestine after all. Strict limits were placed on Jewish immigration to Palestine in order, many suspected, to ensure that Arabs remained in a majority. It was devastating news for the thousands of Jews who desperately wanted to find a way out of the Third Reich. To supporters of Zionism, who remembered the fine words of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, it was nothing less than a betrayal. Winston Churchill, a supporter of Zionism, called the decision a ‘lamentable act of default’.61 Moreover, it was obvious that the British government had acted in this way in an attempt to mollify the Arabs. Strategic British interests – like the Suez Canal – lay in Arab territory, and geopolitically the Jews had little to bargain with by comparison. As the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, stated at a meeting of a cabinet committee on Palestine on 20 April 1939, it was of ‘immense importance’ that Britain should ‘have the Muslim world with us’. Consequently, ‘If we must offend one side, let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs.’62 Once again political pragmatism triumphed over compassionate humanitarianism.

There were even some officials who, in rejecting Jewish requests, revealed their own anti-Semitic beliefs. Charles Frederick Blair, director of Canada’s Immigration Branch, stated in a memo in October 1938 that even though the Jews faced potential ‘extinction’63 in Europe, they should still not be allowed in large numbers into Canada. In an earlier letter, written after the Evian conference, he said that it ‘might be a very good thing’ for Jews to ask themselves the question ‘why they are so unpopular almost everywhere’.64

The delegates at the Evian conference could not even come together to condemn the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Arguably, some feared making the situation in the Reich worse for the Jews if they spoke out. William Shirer wrote that the British, French and Americans seemed ‘anxious not to do anything to offend Hitler’. It was an ‘absurd situation’, thought Shirer, because they ‘want to appease the man who is responsible for their problem’.65

The Nazi regime’s view of the outcome of the Evian conference could not have been more blunt: the headline of the Völkischer Beobachter on 13 July was ‘No One Wants to Have Them’, with the strapline ‘Fruitless debates at the Jew-conference in Evian’.66 Hitler, in a speech at Nuremberg in September 1938, ridiculed the ‘hypocritical’ actions of the ‘democratic empires’. Germany, he said, was criticized for acting with ‘unimaginable cruelty’ against the Jews, but then the same democratic countries who voiced this attack refused to accommodate the Jews, saying ‘there is regretfully no space’ for them.

Hitler couched his argument against continuing to accept the presence of the Jews – ‘these parasites’ as he called them – in terms of population density. He claimed that Germany had more than 140 people per square kilometre whereas the ‘democratic world empires’ had only a ‘few people’ per square kilometre.67

Hitler spoke these words at the same time as he planned on taking military action to gain Germany more space: first in Czechoslovakia and subsequently, as he had outlined thirteen years before in Mein Kampf, in the western regions of the Soviet Union. The two obsessions of his political life – his racial hatred of the Jews and his desire for Germany to gain more land – were, as we have seen, intertwined. There would be no point, as far as Hitler was concerned, in gaining the extra space that Germany needed if that space contained large numbers of Jews, which, in the case of Poland and the western parts of the Soviet Union, it most certainly did. The potential for a catastrophic fate to befall millions of Jews thus lay once again in the subtext of this September 1938 speech, a year before the war began.

That same month, September 1938, Hitler met with Józef Lipski, the Polish ambassador to Berlin. In a revealing conversation – on both sides – they talked about the ‘Jewish question’ in the aftermath of the Evian conference and the failure of the Polish attempt to pursue a Madagascar ‘solution’. Lipski recorded in his notes that Hitler ‘has in mind an idea of settling the Jewish problem by way of emigration to the colonies in accordance with an understanding with Poland, Hungary, and possibly Romania’. After hearing these words, Lipski said to Hitler that ‘if he finds such a solution we will erect to him a beautiful monument in Warsaw.’68

Around the same time Hitler was talking with the Polish ambassador about sending the Jews to the ‘colonies’, the British were trying to reach a diplomatic agreement with him about the fate of Czechoslovakia. Part of the problem was that the British government appeared to believe Hitler’s claim that he did not want war and that his chief concern was genuinely with the German-speaking minority in Czechoslovakia. In an attempt to solve the dispute, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, agreed at a conference in Munich at the end of September 1938 that German troops could occupy the Sudetenland, the predominantly German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia. The Czechs, infamously, had no say in the matter. By thus appeasing Hitler, the British hoped to prevent war.

The trouble was that Chamberlain failed to understand that Hitler was not at heart a conventional statesman who, like all sensible political leaders, would be loath to risk military conflict. Ernst von Weizsäcker, a German diplomat, tried to explain the reality of the situation to the British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson: ‘I have said to Henderson once again that this is not a game of chess but a rising sea. One cannot make the same kind of assumptions as in normal times and with normal people.’69 Weizsäcker’s metaphor of the ‘rising sea’ is not just striking but accurate – at least as far as the German Jews were concerned, for they were about to be engulfed.

Any wide-ranging war in the near future threatened to upset existing Nazi plans for the Jews, since it would begin before the majority of the Jews had been pushed out of the Reich. This was, for Hitler and the staunch anti-Semites in the Nazi party, a dangerous problem, since they believed that the Jews had acted as traitors behind the lines in the First World War and that they would be liable to act in the same way in the event of another conflict. One practical method of dealing with the situation was proposed by the head of the Jewish Department of the SD, Herbert Hagen. In September 1938 he wrote a memo entitled ‘Activity of the Department in the Event of Mobilization’ which proposed arresting all foreign Jews once the German Army had been mobilized for war, as well as imprisoning all other Jews in ‘special camps’ where they would be forced to work on armaments production. Hagen also suggested that some Jews might be subjected to ‘special treatment’. It is unclear in the context of his memo exactly what he meant by this. He could have intended the phrase simply to mean that the circumstances of some Jews would need to be looked at more closely, but it is also possible that he imagined that the Security Services might perhaps find it necessary to kill some of the group, since ‘special treatment’ would subsequently become one of the accepted euphemisms for extermination.70

As for Hitler, his belief in a world Jewish conspiracy had not been damaged by the failure of the international community to offer help to the Jews at the Evian conference. In a speech in Saarbrücken on 9 October 1938 he said, ‘we know that the international Jewish fiend looms threateningly behind the scenes … and it does so today just as it did yesterday.’71 He now decided that if foreign countries would not voluntarily take Jews living in the Reich, the Nazis would dump some of them on their doorstep. On 28 October, the Nazis gathered together around 17,000 Polish Jews who lived in Germany, took them to the border with Poland and tried to push them on to Polish land.

The timing of this brutal action was influenced by the law the Poles had passed earlier that year, which from 30 October threatened to deny citizenship to Poles living abroad. By trying to shove the Polish Jews back across the border to Poland two days before the deadline, the Nazis sought to circumvent the new rule. The plight of these Jews – wanted neither by the Germans nor by the Poles – was horrific. As Josef Broniatowski, who had been taken from Plauen, west of Dresden, to the Polish border, recalled, ‘Thousands of Jews ended up on the meadow and marched soaked up to their waists across the fields [after crossing a water-filled ditch]. As we were getting close to a Polish village, some Polish soldiers came and chased us back to the German border, all the while hitting people and shooting,’ and during the night ‘many old people and little children died.’ Eventually they were driven to another border crossing where they were finally admitted into Poland. ‘The suffering was terrible, in the village to which they chased us the miners, who are Catholics, started crying when they saw all this suffering and misery.’72

Sendel and Riva Grynszpan were two more Jews among the thousands who were taken to the Polish border. Sendel had owned a small tailor’s shop in Hanover and had suffered much economic hardship as a result of Nazi anti-Semitic legislation. He recalled that at the end of October 1938 the Gestapo arrived and ‘took us in police trucks, [and] in prisoners’ lorries, about 20 men in each truck, and they took us to the railway station. The streets were black with people shouting: “Juden raus! Aus nach Palästina!” (“Out with the Jews! Off to Palestine!”).’73

Their son, Herschel, had moved to France in 1936 at the age of fifteen in order to escape Nazi persecution, but he remained devoted to his mother and father. In Paris he struggled to survive as he was at constant risk of deportation. When he heard what had happened to his parents he decided take revenge on the Nazis, and on Monday 7 November 1938 he shot Ernst vom Rath, a diplomat at the German embassy in Paris. Vom Rath died two days later on 9 November, coincidentally one of the most sacred dates in the Nazi calendar – the anniversary of the failed Beer-Hall Putsch in Munich.

Goebbels, like all the leading Nazis, was in Munich for the commemoration. He relished the pretext that the assassination of vom Rath gave for a new attack on the German Jews. ‘In the afternoon [of 9 November] the death of the German diplomat vom Rath is reported,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘Well, now it’s done.’ Goebbels met Hitler a few hours later at the party reception in the old Town Hall in Munich. ‘I present the matter to the Führer. He decides: let the demonstrations [against the Jews] continue. Withdraw the police. The Jews are to experience the rage of the people. That’s right. I immediately issue appropriate instructions to police and party. Then I briefly speak to the party leadership to that effect. Rapturous applause. Everyone dashed to the telephones. Now the people will act.’74

Goebbels’ diary entry was disingenuous. It wasn’t so much that the Jews would ‘experience the rage of the people’ as that they would experience the rage of Nazi Stormtroopers. Throughout the night of 9 November, and the early hours of 10 November, Jewish shops and homes were smashed, synagogues were burnt, and Jews beaten up, arrested or even murdered. There are no accurate figures for how many Jews died that night – it was certainly more than ninety. Around 30,000 Jews were arrested and taken to concentration camps.

Eighteen-year-old Rudi Bamber in Nuremberg learnt of the attacks only when the front door of his house was smashed open. It was the first of two visits from Stormtroopers that night. The first group confined themselves to wrecking the house, the second attacked the residents. One of the elderly women who lived with them in the house was dragged out and beaten up. The Stormtroopers then turned their attentions on Rudi and started hitting him. Eventually he was taken outside and put under guard. Then – for reasons he never understood – the Stormtroopers left him and moved on. He went back into the house and found that ‘it was all so chaotic … the second lot [of Stormtroopers] had smashed pipes and the water was running through the floors and I was concerned in trying to find the main stop valve to stop the water from running further, and fighting one’s way through – it was a bit like sort of after an air raid I suppose in a way, you know, stuff lying everywhere and furniture broken, glass, china, everywhere.’75

Upstairs he found his father – dying. The Stormtroopers had murdered him. ‘I was absolutely in shock. I couldn’t understand how this situation had arisen, from what we had before, the sort of usual average, normal life – “normal” in inverted commas. For this to happen seemed to be absolutely unacceptable and unbelievable … I really couldn’t envisage that such a thing should have or could have happened. I’d heard of concentration camps before, of course; they were going already in Dachau and Buchenwald, but that was something different. [This was] violence of a totally unnecessary and uncalled for [kind]. I didn’t know the people, they didn’t know me. They had no grudge against me [personally] – they were just people who had come to do whatever they thought they should do … The whole thing is senseless and pointless.’

What particularly struck Rudi Bamber, as he tried to come to terms with the murder of his father, were the contradictions that lay within the Germany he now inhabited. The assault in the early hours of 10 November had been arbitrary and unpredictable – yet it had been carried out by Stormtroopers under the protection of the state. The next morning the police sealed off the building as if it was an official crime scene. They also wanted to prevent looting, which was still held to be against the law. After a few days Rudi went to the office of the Gestapo and asked if his family could now remove the seals and move back into the house. ‘It seems strange to me,’ he says. ‘I had no fear in going to the Gestapo. Somehow there seemed to be some legitimacy somewhere in this system … it was a period which is incomprehensible to me now.’

One of the reasons Rudi Bamber found it hard to deal with what had happened was that ‘I couldn’t give expression to my anger,’ because ‘if one could really give vent to one’s feelings it might be worse for us … I had no way of coping with this in a sort of sensible or rational way. The background of the Nazi propaganda, Nazi domination, had I think subdued me and other Jews as well, to accept many things, and I think this came out when people were deported and taken to the camps. Looking back at it now I find it almost unbelievable how I dealt – or rather didn’t deal – with anything which had happened and had no particular reaction to it, which obviously any right-thinking person would have had. But I think it was the power of the system which held me down in a way and stopped me from dealing with it in an appropriate way.’

Across Germany the attacks on synagogues and the desecration of Jewish Holy Scriptures marked a new low even for the Nazis. In Berlin, Günther Ruschin witnessed the aftermath of the destruction of the synagogue in which his father was cantor: ‘I went there and I saw the holiest things we have. They were dirty with excrement and it was awful. It was the first time I saw my father cry.’76

For Rudi Bamber, the lack of support from other Germans compounded the suffering. He remembers that his family received no comfort from the non-Jewish population. Most just walked past their wrecked family home, but ‘one or two’ even threw stones at the building. Similarly, Heinz Nassau reported from Essen that as the Jewish youth centre was burning in the city, a nurse asked a fireman whether the Jewish administrator and his family were still inside. She was told: ‘They can perish quietly! After all they did away with vom Rath. Make sure you leave this area or we’ll smash you up too.’77

The reaction across the rest of Germany was more varied. One police report recorded that ‘the populace has divided views’ with the majority of people believing that ‘all this destruction was uncalled for.’78 Another Jewish eyewitness report from Bavaria said that ‘The mood amongst the Christian population of Munich is thoroughly against the operation. I was shown the liveliest sympathy and compassion from all sides … A completely unknown Aryan lady from the best social class came to my wife with the comment, “Madam, I am ashamed to be a German.” Another unknown lady sent a bottle of wine.’79

This differing response to the atrocity that became known as ‘Kristallnacht’ – Night of Broken Glass – was also illustrated by the contrasting reactions of Uwe Storjohann’s parents in Hamburg. Even though Uwe’s father was an ‘anti-Semite’ he was ‘really angry’ about Kristallnacht because the ‘holy temples’ of the Jews had been ‘desecrated’. But his mother was not so concerned. She was pleased when, in the aftermath of the attack, their Jewish neighbours left and two days later ‘a transport van came and one of Hamburg’s high-up SA leaders’ moved into their flat. Uwe remembers that his mother ‘thought it was great that the SA leader, who was very jovial and pretended to be close to the people, was now there’.80

For the thousands of Jews sent to concentration camps after Kristallnacht the experience was predictably traumatic. One Jewish man recorded how he witnessed the commandant of Sachsenhausen take off his gloves and repeatedly punch a prisoner, calling him a ‘dirty Jewish pig’. He was also forced to watch as a prisoner who had tried to escape was punished: ‘The man in question was strapped to a Bock [whipping block] and beaten with a heavy bull whip by two SA men, who had volunteered specially for this … The victim had to loudly count every blow up to 25 himself until he fell silent because he lost consciousness, but even then the animals did not stop their mistreatment. The Stubenälteste [room elder] reported that if the victim recovered even slightly, the second twenty five would be administered.’81

The newspaper of the SS, Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps), had been agitating in increasingly radical terms against the Jews for months prior to Kristallnacht. But in the wake of the attacks even more hatred burst through. ‘Because it is necessary,’ declared an article that appeared on 24 November, ‘because we no longer hear the world’s clamour, and because no power on earth can stop us, we will bring the Jewish question to its total solution. The programme is clear. It is: Total expulsion, complete separation!’82

Another article, published on 17 November, stated: ‘Woe betide the Jews, if even one of them or one of their accomplices, hired and filled with hatred by them, ever lifts up their murderous hand against one German! Not one will be held responsible for a dead or wounded German, but they all will. This is what those should know, who haven’t known after our first moderate warning … There is only one right, our right, our self-defence, and we alone are to decide the time and mode of its application.’83 A subsequent edition of Das Schwarze Korps made the threat explicit: ‘The day a murder weapon that is Jewish or bought by Jews rises against one of the leading men of Germany, there will be no more Jews in Germany! We hope we have made ourselves clear!’84

The SS newspaper made two more statements around this time that are important to our understanding of the mentality of these hard-line believers. The first was that though the SS accepted that anti-Semitism was not new – indeed, it had ‘been vital within all healthy peoples and races for many thousand years’ – they believed the Nazis were the only ones to have drawn from it the necessary ‘effective and practical, albeit unsentimental conclusions’.85 Second, the SS asserted that the Nazis had been forced to take action against the Jews because of the failure of the international community to help out, and so they saw their critics in the democratic nations as hypocrites: ‘Neither Mr. Roosevelt nor an English archbishop, nor any other prominent Democrat would put his daughter into the bed of a sleazy east European Jew; but when it comes to Germany, they know at once no Jewish question, but only the “persecution of the innocent for the sake of their faith”, as if we had ever been interested in what a Jew believes or does not believe.’86 Thus, even before the war began, the SS claimed they could take violent action against the Jews for two reasons: first, all ‘healthy’ people in the world accepted that it was right to be anti-Semitic, but only the Nazis were tough enough to take the necessary action against the Jews, and, second, it wasn’t the SS’s fault if they had to attack the Jews, because other countries had decided not to offer the Jews safe refuge.

At the same time as these views were being voiced in Das Schwarze Korps, the SS in concentration camps were beating, whipping and otherwise tormenting thousands of Jews in the wake of Kristallnacht. What all this tells us, of course, is that the SS were prepared for radical action against the Jews nearly a year before the Second World War started.

The overall international response to Kristallnacht was, understandably, one of condemnation. But in most countries, just as at Evian, compassionate words did not lead to compassionate action. Roosevelt did allow 12,000 Austrian and German Jews already in the United States on short-term visas to extend their stay, but a proposal in Congress to allow 20,000 additional Jewish children into America was rejected. Roosevelt did not speak up in support of the bill and the proposal died.

Only in Britain was there a substantial increase in the number of refugees admitted. In a gradual process that had begun in the wake of the Anschluss and continued after Kristallnacht, restrictions were eased so that 50,000 Jews from Germany and German-controlled territory could enter Britain before the outbreak of war.87 Around 9,000 children travelled to the country on what became known as ‘Kindertransports’. Rudi Bamber and his younger sister were two of those who managed to get visas to come to Britain just before the war began. Rudi remembers that there had to be ‘a lot of planning’ put into his emigration. ‘Every bit of clothing – everything which I took – had to be listed and approved by the authorities.’ Before his exit was finally authorized, Rudi also had to appear before a tribunal: ‘There were Nazi officials and army officers, Gestapo and police sitting round … It was absurd because the general who was in charge of this sort of said “Oh yes, you’re in agriculture. You’re going to go to the colonies presumably to farm there.” I said “Oh yes.” I would have said yes to anything … Nobody mentioned the word “Jew” at the time.’88

After Kristallnacht there was no pretending that Hitler was a normal politician in charge of a country that wanted peaceful relations with the rest of the world. Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary, told a meeting of the Foreign Policy Committee that ‘crazy persons’ had managed to ‘secure control’ of Germany. He believed that ‘the immediate objective [of the British government] should be the correction of the false impression that we were decadent, spineless and could with impunity be kicked about’.89

As for Hitler, there is no record of him saying anything in public or in private about Kristallnacht after the event, although at the time Goebbels in his diary had made it clear that the German leader approved of the action against the Jews. Almost certainly Hitler did not want to be associated with the violence. He prized his prestige as head of state, and did not want foreign leaders to hold him personally responsible. His silence also left him the option of blaming extremists within the party for the violence if there was discontent within Germany about the attacks. Manfred von Schröder, then a young German diplomat, remembers that many believed that Kristallnacht was the work of ‘radical Nazis and SA people’ and that the crime had not been ‘agreed by Hitler’.90 Given how Hitler acted over Kristallnacht, it should not come as a surprise to learn that he would subsequently adopt the same tactic during the war and never speak explicitly in public about how the security forces of the Third Reich were murdering Jews.

On 12 November 1938, Hermann Göring chaired a conference at the Aviation Ministry in Berlin to discuss the aftermath of Kristallnacht. It is one of the only high-level Nazi gatherings on Jewish policy for which a stenographic record of much of the meeting survives, and the contents are revealing.91 In the first place the meeting laid bare the extent to which the Nazi hierarchy had not thought through the consequences of their own actions. The problem they had created for themselves with Kristallnacht was straightforward – not only were the Jews able to claim for the damage they had suffered to their property from German insurance companies, many of which were owned by non-Jews, but a considerable quantity of the glass that had been destroyed could be replaced only by buying it from abroad and thus wasting large amounts of money on the foreign exchange market. Göring said that it was ‘insane, to clean out and burn a Jewish warehouse then have a German insurance company make good the loss’. He would much rather that ‘200 Jews’ had been killed rather than property of such value destroyed.

The participants at the conference also discussed further restrictive measures against the Jews. Reinhard Heydrich suggested that Jews should be forced to wear ‘a certain insignia’ on their clothes. One consequence of this, he said, would be that it would stop foreign Jews ‘who don’t look different from ours’ from ‘being molested’. This, in turn, would prevent other governments from complaining about the mistreatment of their own citizens in Germany. Göring pointed out that this action, combined with the further seizure of Jewish businesses and greater restrictions on the ability of Jews to move about freely, would lead to ‘the creation of ghettos on a very large scale, in all the cities’. But Heydrich was against this: ‘We could not control a ghetto where the Jews congregate amidst the whole Jewish people. It would remain the permanent hideout for criminals and also for epidemics and the like. We don’t want to let the Jew live in the same house with the German population; but today the German population, [in] their blocks or houses, force the Jew to behave himself. The control of the Jew through the watchful eye of the whole population is better than having him by the thousands in a district where I cannot properly establish a control over his daily life through uniformed agents.’ This exchange is significant in the light of what was to come, since both measures – the marking of Jews with an ‘insignia’ and the creation of ghettos – would be implemented in parts of the occupied east little more than a year later.

The transcript of the meeting also demonstrates the outlandish nature of the debate between these leading Nazi figures. What emerges is a world in which any idea, no matter how radical or eccentric, could be floated and discussed. Goebbels suggested that ‘this is our chance to dissolve the synagogues’ and to replace them with other buildings or ‘parking lots’. They also discussed forcing Jews to travel in special compartments on trains, but Goebbels said that wouldn’t work because ‘suppose there would be two Jews in the train and the other compartments would be overcrowded. These two Jews would then have a compartment all to themselves.’ Göring countered by saying, ‘I’d give the Jews one coach or one compartment. And should a case like you mention arise and the train be overcrowded, believe me, we won’t need a law. We’ll kick him out and he’ll have to sit all alone in the toilet all the way!’

Goebbels proposed that they should consider forbidding Jews to enter the German forests, because the ‘behaviour of the Jews is so inciting and provocative’ with ‘whole herds of them’ running about the Grunewald, a forest outside Berlin. Göring latched on to Goebbels’ idea and gave it a bizarre twist of his own, suggesting that while the Jews should be banned from most of the forest, an area could be reserved just for them. This section could be stocked with animals that ‘look’ like Jews – Göring suggested the elk, because it ‘has such a crooked nose’.

Göring’s remark about the elk captures the attitude of those attending the 12 November meeting. No ethical restriction held them back. A plan to send the Jews to the moon could have been proposed were it not for the practical difficulties of making it happen. These Nazi leaders knew that Hitler liked to hear radical ideas, and as a consequence they felt exhilarated, and able to dream as fantastically as they liked.

By the time the meeting ended Göring and his colleagues had discussed a whole range of new measures against the Jews, including plans to seize – or ‘Aryanize’ – Jewish businesses, establish a similar emigration operation in Germany to the one Eichmann had created in Austria, and – in an act of pure double-speak – make the Jews pay a massive fine as a penalty for causing Kristallnacht, because vom Rath had been murdered by a Jew. Finally, Göring summed up the situation for the Jews who still lived under German rule: ‘If, in the near future, the German Reich should come into conflict with foreign powers, it goes without saying that we in Germany should first of all let it come to a showdown with the Jews.’92

As for Hitler, his rhetoric was now almost apocalyptic. In his speech before the Reichstag on 30 January 1939, the sixth anniversary of the seizure of power, he made explicit threats against the Jews. In an address that lasted more than two and a half hours, he asserted that Germany wanted only to live in peace with other countries, but ‘international Jewry’ sought to ‘gratify its thirst for vengeance’. Furthermore, ‘At this moment, the Jews are still propagating their campaign of hatred in certain states under the cover of press, film, radio, theater, and literature, which are all in their hands.’ Infamously, Hitler also said that if ‘international’ Jewish financiers within Europe and abroad should succeed ‘in plunging mankind into yet another world war, then the result will not be a Bolshevization of the earth and the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe’.93

What exactly did Hitler mean by this? A serious threat against the Jews, certainly. But did he explicitly mean that he intended to kill the Jews in the event of a world war? That is debatable, especially since there is no evidence that he had a detailed plan of destruction in mind for the Jews as he uttered these words. An alternative, more persuasive interpretation is that by ‘annihilation’ Hitler meant ‘elimination’, and thus one possible ‘solution’ to the Nazis’ Jewish ‘problem’ remained the destruction of the Jews in Europe by forcibly removing them from the continent. Support for this view is offered by Hitler’s statements earlier in his speech, when he denounced ‘the entire democratic world’ for their ‘non-intervention’ and failure to accept Jewish emigrants. These countries were ‘filled with tears of pity at the plight of the poor, tortured Jewish people, while remaining hardhearted’. It was in this context that Hitler promised that Germany would ‘banish this people’ – that is, the Jews.

A further insight into Hitler’s intentions is offered by his comments at a meeting with István Csáky, the Hungarian Foreign Minister, on 16 January 1938 – two weeks before his ‘prophecy’ speech. Csáky was no friend of the Jews and served in a government that had already implemented anti-Semitic legislation. Hitler told Csáky that he was ‘certain’ that ‘the Jews would have to disappear from Germany to the last one’.94 He also said that the ‘Jewish problem’ existed ‘not just in Germany’ and that he would support any other state that sought to confront it. The context of his use of the word ‘disappear’ in this meeting suggests that Hitler meant ‘expulsion’ rather than ‘extermination’.

Additional backing for this reading of events is offered by Hitler’s remarks on 21 January 1938. During a discussion with the Czechoslovakian Foreign Minister, František Chvalkovský, Hitler said that the Jews would be ‘destroyed in Germany’ in vengeance for ‘9 November 1918’ and that one ‘possibility’ was for the countries that were ‘interested’ to select ‘any location in the world’ and ‘put the Jews there’. The other ‘Anglo-Saxon countries that are dripping with humanity’ could then be told, ‘Here they are; they either starve to death or you can put into practice your many speeches [and, by implication, look after them].’95

However, while on balance it is unlikely that Hitler’s prophecy demonstrated that he already had a definite plan to murder the Jews in the light of any forthcoming ‘world war’, the importance of the linkage in his mind between the fate of the Jews and any future conflict should not be underestimated. If Germany was involved in a war, the Jews would suffer appallingly – that was the assurance he gave on 30 January 1939. What form that suffering would take – forced expulsion or something even worse – was yet to be decided.

At the same time, Hitler was ratcheting up the pressure on his European neighbours still further. The Slovaks, who had gained greater autonomy within Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Munich agreement, were pressured into declaring full independence from the Czech state. Göring, at a meeting with Slovak representatives, expressed himself with typical bluntness. ‘Do you want to make yourselves independent?’ he said. ‘[Or should] I let the Hungarians have you?’96 In March 1939 the Slovaks did as they were asked and split from the Czechs. Under the Presidency of Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest, the new regime in Slovakia implemented a series of anti-Semitic measures. The following month, for instance, they passed Decree 63/39 banning Jews from many professions in an attempt to ensure that Jews were ‘excluded’ from ‘national life’.97 ‘Our lives turned upside down,’ says Linda Breder, an orthodox Slovak Jew then fourteen years old. Linda was ‘kicked out of school’ and her father lost his job. She was particularly shocked because previously ‘Jews and Christians had lived side by side.’98 Otto Pressburger, a Slovak Jew who was seventeen in 1939, confirms that ‘There used to be no difference between us, between Jewish and Christian youth.’ But after the Slovak state had been established, ‘I was sent back home from school and told I cannot go to school any more. We could not go anywhere and had to stay at home … Before we used to go dancing with girls – not only Jewish girls – something like a disco today. Then the signs were put up: “No Jews and Dogs Allowed”.’99

Once Slovakia, the eastern part of the former Czechoslovakia, had split from the rest of the country, Hitler ordered German troops to march into the remaining Czech lands. The occupation was completed in a matter of hours, and on 16 March 1939, Hitler travelled to Prague and announced the creation of the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Over 110,000 more Jews now came under German control, and they too were soon subjected to a whole series of anti-Semitic measures, including the ‘Aryanization’ of Jewish businesses.

Hitler’s aggressive intentions were now obvious to the world. The occupation of the Czech lands could not be defended as part of a Nazi plan merely to regain German-speaking territory lost at the end of the First World War. As the permanent under-secretary to the Foreign Office, Sir Alexander Cadogan, wrote in his diary on 20 March 1939: ‘I’m afraid we have reached the crossroads. I always said that, as long as Hitler could pretend he was incorporating Germans in the Reich, we could pretend that he had a case. If he proceeded to gobble up other nationalities, that would be the time to call “Halt!” ’100

The British now offered guarantees against any future Nazi aggression to Poland, Greece and Romania. Roosevelt, recognizing the seriousness of what had just happened to Czechoslovakia, decided to write Hitler a letter. On 15 April 1939 he held a press conference at the White House and announced that he had asked Hitler to commit to solving problems by peaceful means. He had sought ‘assurance’ from him that German armed forces would not ‘attack or invade the territory or possessions’ of more than thirty different countries, from Finland to Yugoslavia, from the Netherlands to Portugal and from Sweden to Iran.101

Roosevelt’s letter was a propaganda gift for Hitler. After all, what right did the President of the United States have to ask the leader of Germany for a public assurance that he did not intend to use German forces to invade Spain or Switzerland? Hitler replied to Roosevelt’s letter in a tour de force of bitter sarcasm during a speech to the Reichstag on 28 April. He pointed out that America had played a part in imposing the hated ‘Diktat of Versailles’ on the German people after the First World War and so was ill qualified now to talk of raising a ‘voice of strength and friendship for mankind’ – especially since the Americans had refused to support the League of Nations. But most embarrassingly for Roosevelt, Hitler pointed out that a number of the countries named on his list, such as Syria, were ‘presently not in the possession of their liberty since their territories are occupied by the military forces of the democratic states which have robbed them of all their rights’. Moreover, Hitler said, Ireland did not see Germany as a threat but ‘England’; and it appeared ‘to have slipped Mr. Roosevelt’s mind that Palestine is not being occupied by German troops but by English ones’.102

This marks the moment when Hitler burnt any diplomatic bridges that had been left standing between Germany and America. He mentioned a number of times in the speech how America had intervened on the Allied side in the First World War, and his concern, though unspoken, was obvious – the Americans might do just the same thing in any future conflict in Europe. Since Hitler believed that the Jews held profound influence in America, it is not surprising that December 1941, the month that America did finally enter the war, is a key moment – as we shall see – in the evolution of the Holocaust.

Not that the knowledge that America might become an adversary in a future war deterred Hitler from pursuing the conflict. He knew that if the war in Europe began without delay then the German Army would have an opportunity to gain sufficient territory and win the war before America decided to take part. It was all a matter of timing. As he said to his generals in August 1939, ‘all these favourable circumstances will no longer prevail in two or three years’ time … A long period of peace would not do us any good.’103 It was now necessary to ‘close your hearts to pity’ and to ‘act brutally’. These were the sentiments of the authentic Hitler.

Hitler was about to take Germany to war, but it was not the war he had once planned. Years ago he had wanted Britain as an ally, not an adversary. More recently he had hoped Poland would cooperate with Nazi aggression and join the Germans in a war against the Soviet Union. Yet the Poles now opposed him as well. So in order to restrict the number of nations that Germany would have to confront in the short term, he dispatched Ribbentrop to Moscow to agree a non-aggression pact with Stalin, his greatest ideological enemy. But while one of Hitler’s desires – war against the Soviet Union – would have to wait, the other – a radical reckoning with the Jews – could begin at once.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!