University of Vermont

The College of Arts and Sciences

Department of German and Russian

Historian's Research Rewrites Kristallnacht Narrative


What's happened to the public memory of Kristallnacht -- a night of violence and vandalism perpetrated against the German Jewish community in 1938? According to historian Alan Steinweis' new book, participation in the brutality was more widespread among civilians than scholarly writing and German public perception would indicate today. (Photo: Sally McCay)

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 new 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. Steinweis' findings, supported by detailed accounts of individuals on both sides of the event, significantly change the established narrative on the event that describes it as a top-down organized atrocity perpetrated exclusively by the Nazi regime.

Kristallnacht was a pogrom -- a riot against an ethnic or religious group that results in death and destruction of their homes, businesses, and religious centers -- 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. The event was sparked by the shooting of a Paris-based German diplomat named Ernst vom Rath by Hershel Grynszpan, a despondent Jewish teenager.

"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."

Defining participation

Steinweis, who grew up in New York City and came to UVM in 2009 from the University of Nebraska, goes to great lengths in the book to define participation -- an important distinction when estimating the size of the atrocity. Steinweis 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, which has received positive reviews including one by Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, 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.

The motive

Steinweis touches on a number of other fascinating themes surrounding Kristallnacht, including the reason Grynszpan shot Ernst vom Rath. Originally arrested and held by French authorities for the Paris shooting, Grynszpan was seized by the Gestapo after the German invasion of France and brought to Germany for a "show trial." It's generally accepted that Grynspan killed vom Rath in response to the arrest of his parents, along with 12,000 other Polish Jews who were stripped of their property and herded aboard trains bound for Poland.

Steinweis explores another motive given by Grynszpan, who claimed that he and vom Rath had been lovers; when vom Rath dumped him he wanted revenge. Although most historians don't subscribe to this theory, reports of both Grynszpan and vom Rath spending time in Paris' burgeoning gay scene, albeit separately, give credence to it. Some believe Grynszpan concocted the theory in hopes the Nazis would never try the case out of embarrassment that one of their diplomats was homosexual.

In an intriguing examination of why the Nazis decided to orchestrate the Kristallnacht, Steinweis explores the idea that it occurred because vom Rath died of his injuries on the anniversary of Hitler's failed attempt to take over the Bavarian Government in 1923. That same night, a group of Nazi leaders gathered in Munich to commemorate the anniversary with the Nazi Minister of Propaganda telling participants it was time to strike at the Jews. Nazi leaders sent instructions to their men not to act as if they were going to launch the pogrom, but were to participate all the same. Rioting erupted hours later.

Steinweis says something would have happened in the wake of vom Rath's death regardless of timing, but finds it interesting that a similar killing of a Nazi official by an angry Jewish youth occurred two years prior to Kristallnacht, yet there was almost no response from the Nazis.

"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."