Leadership Blog

Ronald S. Lauder: 77 years after Kristallnacht

Seventy-seven years ago tonight, the entire world faced one of history’s great moral tests. It failed miserably.

On 9 November 1938, Adolf Hitler set loose the darkest impulses of mankind in a brutal attack that raged across Germany and Austria. It was called Kristallnacht, or Night of the Broken Glass, referring to all the broken glass shimmering in the streets. 

Over 1,000 synagogues were burned, the windows of Jewish businesses were smashed and shops looted, individual Jews were rounded up and put into concentration camps. Some 400 were murdered.

Firemen stood idly by just to make sure the fires didn’t spread past the synagogues. The police helped the rioters.

For the past seven decades, people have made the mistake of regarding this event merely as an inner-German affair. But Kristallnacht was much more than just a nation-wide pogrom against the Jews of Germany and Austria.

It was really Hitler’s test to see how the West would respond. And that lack of response would set into motion everything that followed.

In the five years following his rise to power in 1933, Adolf Hitler laid the groundwork for his plan to destroy Jews. He started with public intimidation, and in 1935 implemented racial laws that marginalized Jews within German society. They could not hold jobs in government or in universities. Jewish doctors who cared for Christian patients were no longer allowed to treat them. These changes were outrageous, but they were done gradually.

Hitler was always gauging the world’s response. When he saw no backlash, the master politician understood he could move to the next level. Yet, in a strange inversion, as the laws became more draconian, the world’s responses became more tepid.

On the night of 9 November 1938, it became open. The destruction of European Jewry had begun.

And this was the West’s response: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, commented: “No doubt Jews are not a loveable people; I don’t care about them myself; - but this is not sufficient to explain the pogrom.” Countries like Holland and France barred their doors to Jewish refugees begging for entry.

President Roosevelt recalled the American ambassador from Berlin for “consultations,” but he would not move against Congress to ease its harsh immigration quotas for Jewish refugees. This was the country where a young Jewish poet, Emma Lazarus, penned the words most connected to the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … Send these, the homeless tempest tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

For European Jews in 1938, that comforting lamp went out.

Today, Germany and Europe are a much better place than they were in 1938. And yet, we see worrying signs again. While its neighbors slaughter hundreds of thousands of their own, we see the growing, visceral hatred of the Jewish state of Israel throughout Europe.

Let’s hope the world does not wait again until it is too late tostop the calamity.

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