Alan E. Steinweis
Professor of history, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies
- By Megan Morley Thomas
Poring over court records and first-hand accounts from those who witnessed Kristallnacht, the single largest instance of public violence against the Jewish people inside Germany before the Second World War, Alan E. Steinweis, professor of history and director of the Center for Holocaust Studies, revealed a disturbing truth: the Nazis weren't the only ones who assaulted Jews and burned their synagogues and businesses during what was considered a major escalation in the Nazi program of Jewish persecution leading to the Holocaust.
In his 2009 book, Kristallnacht 1938 (Harvard University Press), Steinweis ascertains that thousands of German citizens, neighbors to the Jewish residents who were persecuted on the "Night of Broken Glass," participated in the rioting across hundreds of German communities and encouraged Nazi Storm Troopers as they carried out the orders of Adolf Hitler that resulted in the deaths of more than 90 Jewish residents and the rounding up of 30,000 Jewish men who were sent to concentration camps.
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Steinweis' findings significantly change the established narrative on the event that describes it as a top-down organized atrocity perpetrated exclusively by the Nazi regime.
"The original contribution is that the picture of the violence of that night in 1938 that comes out of the trial materials is substantially different than how Germans today perceive the event and scholars have written about it," says Steinweis, who spent almost two years in Germany studying court transcripts and other descriptions of the event that were recently made available. "Popular participation in the event by regular Germans was suppressed so the commonly told version of the event has been exculpatory for ordinary Germans. These personal accounts presented an unpleasant reality that Germans wanted to forget."
Steinweis went to great lengths to define participation — an important distinction when estimating the size of the atrocity. He considers a number of potential participants including German residents who looted businesses after the violence subsided; residents who stood by and watched the burning of synagogues and their contents on the street; and those who expressed support of the anti-semitic pogrom and egged on the Storm Troopers. "I would argue that if you were to include all of these individuals, the total participants would be in the tens of thousands."
Although Stenweis' primary focus in the book is on the expanded number of Germans who partook in Kristallnacht, he makes a point to write about the many German residents who went out of their way to help Jewish neighbors whose lives were destroyed by the event.
"This book is different from my last two because it was written with a crossover readership in mind," says Steinweis, who credits his editor who specializes in helping academics write to a broader audience. "I've gotten emails from people who bought the book at a Barnes and Noble and said they appreciated how readable it was. The question is how do you write history that is both rigorous in a scholarly respect and accessible to more than a few hundred people in your profession."