Military history


In the autumn of 1938 another turning point for Nazi Germany was reached. It took place during what was later called in party circles the “Week of the Broken Glass.”

On November 7, a seventeen-year-old German Jewish refugee by the name of Herschel Grynszpan shot and mortally wounded the third secretary of the German Embassy in Paris, Ernst vom Rath. The youth’s father had been among ten thousand Jews deported to Poland in boxcars shortly before, and it was to revenge this and the general persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany that he went to the German Embassy intending to kill the ambassador, Count Johannes von Welczeck. But the young third secretary was sent out to see what he wanted, and was shot. There was irony in Rath’s death, because he had been shadowed by the Gestapo as a result of his anti-Nazi attitude; for one thing, he had never shared the anti-Semitic aberrations of the rulers of his country.

On the night of November 9–10, shortly after the party bosses, led by Hitler and Goering, had concluded the annual celebration of the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, the worst pogrom that had yet taken place in the Third Reich occurred. According to Dr. Goebbels and the German press, which he controlled, it was a “spontaneous” demonstration of the German people in reaction to the news of the murder in Paris. But after the war, documents came to light which show how “spontaneous” it was.5 They are among the most illuminating—and gruesome—secret papers of the prewar Nazi era.

On the evening of November 9, according to a secret report made by the chief party judge, Major Walther Buch, Dr. Goebbels issued instructions that “spontaneous demonstrations” were to be “organized and executed” during the night. But the real organizer was Reinhard Heydrich, the sinister thirty-four-year-old Number Two man, after Himmler, in the S.S., who ran the Security Service (S.D.) and the Gestapo. His teletyped orders during the evening are among the captured German documents.

At 1:20 A.M. on November 10 he flashed an urgent teletype message to all headquarters and stations of the state police and the S.D. instructing them to get together with party and S.S. leaders “to discuss the organization of the demonstrations.”

   a. Only such measures should be taken which do not involve danger to German life or property. (For instance synagogues are to be burned down only when there is no danger of fire to the surroundings.)*

b. Business and private apartments of Jews may be destroyed but not looted….

d…. 2. The demonstrations which are going to take place should not be hindered by the police …

         5. As many Jews, especially rich ones, are to be arrested as can be accommodated in the existing prisons … Upon their arrest, the appropriate concentration camps should be contacted immediately, in order to confine them in these camps as soon as possible.

   It was a night of horror throughout Germany. Synagogues, Jewish homes and shops went up in flames and several Jews, men, women and children, were shot or otherwise slain while trying to escape burning to death. A preliminary confidential report was made by Heydrich to Goering on the following day, November 11.

   The extent of the destruction of Jewish shops and houses cannot yet be verified by figures … 815 shops destroyed, 171 dwelling houses set on fire or destroyed only indicate a fraction of the actual damage so far as arson is concerned … 119 synagogues were set on fire, and another 76 completely destroyed … 20,000 Jews were arrested. 36 deaths were reported and those seriously injured were also numbered at 36. Those killed and injured are Jews….

   The ultimate number of murders of Jews that night is believed to have been several times the preliminary figure. Heydrich himself a day after his preliminary report gave the number of Jewish shops looted as 7,500. There were also some cases of rape, which Major Buch’s party court, judging by its own report, considered worse than murder, since they violated the Nuremberg racial laws which forbade sexual intercourse between Gentiles and Jews. Such offenders were expelled from the party and turned over to the civil courts. Party members who simply murdered Jews “cannot be punished,” Major Buch argued, since they had merely carried out orders. On that point he was quite blunt. “The public, down to the last man,” he wrote, “realizes that political drives like those of November 9 were organized and directed by the party, whether this is admitted or not.”*

Murder and arson and pillage were not the only tribulations suffered by innocent German Jews as the result of the murder of Rath in Paris. The Jews had to pay for the destruction of their own property. Insurance monies due them were confiscated by the State. Moreover, they were subjected, collectively, to a fine of one billion marks as punishment, as Goering put it, “for their abominable crimes, etc.” These additional penalties were assessed at a grotesque meeting of a dozen German cabinet ministers and ranking officials presided over by the corpulent Field Marshal on November 12, a partial stenographic record of which survives.

A number of German insurance firms faced bankruptcy if they were to make good the policies on gutted buildings (most of which, though they harbored Jewish shops, were owned by Gentiles) and damaged goods. The destruction in broken window glass alone came to five million marks ($1,250,000) as a Herr Hilgard, who had been called in to speak for the insurance companies, reminded Goering; and most of the glass replacements would have to be imported from abroad in foreign exchange, of which Germany was very short.

“This cannot continue!” exclaimed Goering, who, among other things, was the czar of the German economy. “We won’t be able to last, with all this. Impossible!” And turning to Heydrich, he shouted, “I wish you had killed two hundred Jews instead of destroying so many valuables!”*

“Thirty-five were killed,” Heydrich answered, in self-defense.

Not all the conversation, of which the partial stenographic record runs to ten thousand words, was so deadly serious. Goering and Goebbels had a lot of fun arguing about subjecting the Jews to further indignities. The Propaganda Minister said the Jews would be made to clean up and level off the debris of the synagogues; the sites would then be turned into parking lots. He insisted that the Jews be excluded from everything: schools, theaters, movies, resorts, public beaches, parks, even from the German forests. He proposed that there be special railway coaches and compartments for the Jews, but that they be made available only after all Aryans were seated.

“Well, if the train is overcrowded,” Goering laughed, “we’ll kick the Jew out and make him sit all alone all the way in the toilet.”

When Goebbels, in all seriousness, demanded that the Jews be forbidden to enter the forests, Goering replied, “We shall give the Jews a certain part of the forest and see to it that various animals that look damned much like Jews—the elk has a crooked nose like theirs—get there also and become acclimated.”

In such talk, and much more like it, did the leaders of the Third Reich while away the time in the crucial year of 1938.

But the question of who was to pay for the 25 million marks’ worth of damage caused by a pogrom instigated and organized by the State was a fairly serious one, especially to Goering, who now had become responsible for the economic well-being of Nazi Germany. Hilgard, on behalf of the insurance companies, pointed out that if their policies were not honored to the Jews, the confidence of the people, both at home and abroad, in German insurance would be forfeited. On the other hand, he did not see how many of the smaller companies could pay up without going broke.

This problem was quickly solved by Goering. The insurance companies would pay the Jews in full, but the sums would be confiscated by the State and the insurers reimbursed for a part of their losses. This did not satisfy Herr Hilgard, who, judging by the record of the meeting, must have felt that he had fallen in with a bunch of lunatics.

   GOERING: The Jew shall get the refund from the insurance company but the refund will be confiscated. There will remain some profit for the insurance companies, since they won’t have to make good for all the damage. Herr Hilgard, you may consider yourself damned lucky.

   HILGARD: I have no reason to. The fact that we won’t have to pay for all the damage, you call a profit!

   The Field Marshal was not accustomed to such talk and he quickly squelched the bewildered businessman.

   GOERING: Just a moment! If you are legally bound to pay five millions and all of a sudden an angel in my somewhat corpulent shape appears before you and tells you that you may keep one million, for heaven’s sake isn’t that a profit? I should like to go fifty-fifty with you, or whatever you call it. I have only to look at you. Your whole body seethes with satisfaction. You are getting a big rake-off!

   The insurance executive was slow to see the point.

   HILGARD: All the insurance companies are the losers. That is so, and remains so. Nobody can tell me differently.

GOERING: Then why don’t you take care of it that a few windows less are being smashed!

   The Field Marshal had had enough of this commercial-minded man. Herr Hilgard was dismissed, disappearing into the limbo of history.

A representative of the Foreign Office dared to suggest that American public opinion be considered in taking further measures against the Jews.* This inspired an outburst from Goering: “That country of scoundrels! … That gangster state!”

After further lengthy discussion it was agreed to solve the Jewish question in the following manner: eliminate the Jews from the German economy; transfer all Jewish business enterprises and property, including jewelry and works of art, to Aryan hands with some compensation in bonds from which the Jews could use the interest but not the capital. The matter of excluding Jews from schools, resorts, parks, forests, etc., and of either expelling them after they had been deprived of all their property or confining them to German ghettos where they would be impressed as forced labor, was left for further consideration by a committee.

As Heydrich put it toward the close of the meeting: “In spite of the elimination of the Jews from economic life, the main problem remains, namely, to kick the Jew out of Germany.” Count Schwerin von Krosigk, the Minister of Finance, the former Rhodes scholar who prided himself on representing the “traditional and decent Germany” in the Nazi government, agreed “that we will have to do everything to shove the Jews into foreign countries.” As for the ghettos, this German nobleman said meekly, “I don’t imagine the prospect of the ghetto is very nice. The idea of the ghetto is not a very agreeable one.”

At 2:30 P.M.—after nearly four hours—Goering brought the meeting to a close.

   I shall close the meeting with these words: German Jewry shall, as punishment for their abominable crimes, et cetera, have to make a contribution for one billion marks. That will work. The swine won’t commit another murder. Incidentally, I would like to say that I would not like to be a Jew in Germany.

   Much worse was to be inflicted on the Jews by this man and this State and its Fuehrer in the course of time, and a brief time it turned out to be. On the flaming, riotous night of November 9, 1938, the Third Reich had deliberately turned down a dark and savage road from which there was to be no return. A good many Jews had been murdered and tortured and robbed before, but these crimes, except for those which took place in the concentration camps, had been committed mostly by brown-shirted rowdies acting out of their own sadism and greed while the State authorities looked on, or looked the other way. Now the German government itself had organized and carried out a vast pogrom. The killings, the looting, the burning of synagogues and houses and shops on the night of November 9 were its doing. So were the official decrees, duly published in the official gazette, the Reichsgesetzblatt—three of them on the day of Goering’s meeting—which fined the Jewish community a billion marks, eliminated them from the economy, robbed them of what was left of their property and drove them toward the ghetto—and worse.

World opinion was shocked and revolted by such barbarity in a nation which boasted a centuries-old Christian and humanist culture. Hitler, in turn, was enraged by the world reaction and convinced himself that it merely proved the power and scope of “the Jewish world conspiracy.”

In retrospect, it is easy to see that the horrors inflicted upon the Jews of Germany on November 9 and the harsh and brutal measures taken against them immediately afterward were portents of a fatal weakening which in the end would bring the dictator, his regime and his nation down in utter ruin. The evidences of Hitler’s megalomania we have seen permeating hundreds of pages of this narrative. But until now he had usually been able to hold it in check at critical stages in his rise and in that of his country. At such moments his genius for acting not only boldly, but usually only after a careful calculation of the consequences, had won him one crashing success after another. But now, as November 9 and its aftermath clearly showed, Hitler was losing his self-control. His megalomania was getting the upper hand. The stenographic record of the Goering meeting on November 12 reveals that it was Hitler who, in the final analysis, was responsible for the holocaust of that November evening; it was he who gave the necessary approval to launch it; he who pressed Goering to go ahead with the elimination of the Jews from German life. From now on the absolute master of the Third Reich would show little of that restraint which had saved him so often before. And though his genius and that of his country would lead to further startling conquests, the poisonous seeds of eventual self-destruction for the dictator and his land had now been sown.

Hitler’s sickness was contagious; the nation was catching it, as if it were a virus. Individually, as this writer can testify from personal experience, many Germans were as horrified by the November 9 inferno as were Americans and Englishmen and other foreigners. But neither the leaders of the Christian churches nor the generals nor any other representatives of the “good” Germany spoke out at once in open protest. They bowed to what General von Fritsch called “the inevitable,” or “Germany’s destiny.”

The atmosphere of Munich soon was dissipated. At Saarbruecken, at Weimar, at Munich, Hitler delivered petulant speeches that fall warning the outside world and particularly the British to mind their own business and to quit concerning themselves “with the fate of Germans within the frontiers of the Reich.” That fate, he thundered, was exclusively Germany’s affair. It could not be long before even Neville Chamberlain would be awakened to the nature of the German government which he had gone so far to appease. Gradually, as the eventful year of 1938 gave way to ominous 1939, the Prime Minister got wind of what the Fuehrer whom he had tried so hard to personally accommodate in the interest of European peace was up to behind the scenes.*

Not long after Munich Ribbentrop journeyed to Rome. His mind was “fixed” on war, Ciano noted in his diary of October 28.9

The Fuehrer [the German Foreign Minister told Mussolini and Ciano] is convinced that we must inevitably count on a war with the Western democracies in the course of a few years, perhaps three or four … The Czech crisis has shown our power! We have the advantage of the initiative and are masters of the situation. We cannot be attacked. The military situation is excellent: as from September [1939] we could face a war with the great democracies.*

To the young Italian Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop was “vain, frivolous, and loquacious,” and in so describing him in his diary he added, “The Duce says you only have to look at his head to see that he has a small brain.” The German Foreign Minister had come to Rome to persuade Mussolini to sign a military alliance between Germany, Japan and Italy, a draft of which had been given the Italians at Munich; but Mussolini stalled for time. He was not yet ready, Ciano noted, to shut the door on Britain and France.

Hitler himself toyed that autumn with the idea of trying to detach France from her ally over the Channel. When on October 18 he received the French ambassador, François-Poncet, for a farewell visit in the eerie fastness of Eagle’s Nest, high above Berchtesgaden on a mountaintop. he broke out into a bitter attack on Great Britain. The ambassador found the Fuehrer pale, his face drawn with fatigue, but not too tired to inveigh against Albion. Britain re-echoed “with threats and calls to arms.” She was selfish and took on “superior” airs. It was the British who were destroying the spirit of Munich. And so on. France was different. Hitler said he wanted more friendly and close relations with her. To prove it, he was willing to sign at once a pact of friendship, guaranteeing their present frontiers (and thus again renouncing any German claims to Alsace-Lorraine) and proposing to settle any future differences by consultation.

The pact was duly signed in Paris on December 6, 1938, by the German and French foreign ministers. France, by that time, had somewhat recovered from the defeatist panic of the Munich days. The writer happened to be in Paris on the day the paper was signed and noted the frosty atmosphere. When Ribbentrop drove through the streets they were completely deserted, and several cabinet ministers and other leading figures in the French political and literary worlds, including the eminent presidents of the Senate and the Chamber, MM. Jeanneney and Herriotrespectively, refused to attend the social functions accorded the Nazi visitor.

From this meeting of Bonnet and Ribbentrop stemmed a misunderstanding which was to play a certain part in future events. The German Foreign Minister claimed that Bonnet had assured him that after Munich France was no longer interested in Eastern Europe and he subsequently interpreted this as meaning that the French would give Germany a free hand in this region, especially in regard to rump Czechoslovakia and Poland. Bonnet denied this. According to Schmidt’s minutes of the meeting, Bonnet declared, in answer to Ribbentrop’s demand that Germany’s sphere of influence in the East be recognized, that “conditions had changed fundamentally since Munich.”11 This ambiguous remark was soon stretched by the slippery German Foreign Minister into the flat statement, which he passed along to Hitler, that “at Paris Bonnet had declared he was no longer interested in questions concerning the East.” France’s swift surrender at Munich had already convinced the Fuehrer of this. It was not quite true.

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