Review

Feuerzeichen: Die 'Reichskristallnacht,' Anstifter und Brandstifter -- Opfer und Nutzniesser

(Fire Sign: "Reich Crystal Night", Inciters and Incendiaries, Victims and Beneficiaries), by Ingrid Weckert, Grabert Verlag, Tübingen, 1981, 281pp with appendix, annotated bibliography, index, clothbound, ISBN 3-87847-052-5.

Reviewed by Mark Weber

No single event so drastically changed relations between Germans and Jews in modern times than the so-called "Night of Broken Glass" or Reichskristallnacht. On the night of 9-10 November 1938, Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues across Germany were attacked by inflamed mobs. Fire consumed many buildings. Several dozen Jews (the exact number is still unclear) lost their lives in the tumult. Ever since, countless films, books, articles and so forth have sought to impress the horror of the "Crystal Night" into the minds of millions. It is cited ad nauseum as a major milestone in the German program to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

In Feuerzeichen (Fire Sign), Ingrid Weckert tackles this crucial chapter of contemporary history with sobriety, critical objectivity, and careful attention to detail. Her analysis is a welcome relief from the usually maudlin and highly tendentious treatments all too common in books dealing with modern Jewish history. Furthermore, this fascinating book never fails to keep the reader's attention. It is easy to understand why the first printing sold out within a few months.

A few days before the Crystal Night, a young Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan visited the German embassy in Paris, pulled out a pistol, and shot a Legation Secretary named Ernst vom Rath. Doctors were unable to save the mortally wounded young official. His death on the afternoon of 9 November 1938 could not have come on a more fateful day. All Germany was observing the "Memorial Day for the Fallen of the Movement," probably the most auspicious National Socialist anniversary. (On that day in 1923, 14 followers of the fledging movement fell before the fire of government soldiers during an ill-fated attempt to overthrow the Weimar regime by force.)

What happened next is unclear. And despite all the words in recent decades, the most important question about the Crystal Night remains unanswered: Who was responsible?

The standard story is that Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Propaganda Minister, incited or ordered the assembled party leaders in Munich to organize a pogrom-like campaign of violence and destruction against the Jews in revenge for Grynszpan's murder of vom Rath. Anyway, that's the story.

Some facts about the Crystal Night are beyond dispute. It is clear, for example, that some party leaders and stormtroopers did take part in the mob action. It is likewise a fact that when Hitler learned about the outbreak of violence, he immediately ordered an end to the lawlessness. An urgent telex message to an party district leaders was followed by a letter repeating the directive.

Frau Weckert shows that, contrary to the standard version, Dr. Goebbels could not have initiated or incited the Crystal Night. He in any case lacked the authority to secretly "order" a pogrom. When he learned the next morning about the extent of the lawlessness, Dr. Gobbels was outraged. He quickly issued a strongly worded official statement which called upon the population to immediately refrain from further actions or demonstrations of any kind against the Jews.

Who benefited from the Crystal Night? Certainly not the National Socialist government or the German nation. Hitler complained bitterly in private: "It is terrible. They have destroyed everything for me like elephants in a china shop-and much worse. I had the great hope that I was about to come to an understanding with France. And now that!" The exclusive beneficiaries were those powerful Jewish organizations headquartered in New York, Paris and London which had proclaimed a state of war between Germany and international Jewry shortly after Hitler assumed power in early 1933. The Crystal Night brought a worldwide wave of intense anti-German atrocity propaganda, much of it completely untrue or wildly exaggerated. At one stroke, German prestige was dealt a crippling blow. The damage to relations with America was especially severe. President Roosevelt recalled the U.S. Ambassador from Berlin and left only a Charge d'Affaires at the post.

At a time when Jewish leaders were loudly calling for a "holy war" of destruction against Germany, Hitler's government was working for the peaceful emigration of the Jews from the Reich. Consistent with the Zionist view that the Jews of the world constitute a distinct nation all their own, the National Socialist government actively aided the Zionist movement. In fact, the Jewish Agency for Palestine (the "shadow government" of the future Zionist state) had a treaty with Germany known as the Haavara Agreement to expedite the settlement of Jews to Palestine. This little-known treaty remained in force from 1933 until the outbreak of war in 1939.

Frau Weckert's greatest achievement is probably her careful but devastating analysis of what passes today for "history writing." She exposes the superficiality, sloppiness and plain dishonesty of various prominent contemporary writers who have made names for themselves as specialists in modern Jewish history. She demonstrates that several key Crystal Night "documents" presented at the Nuremberg trial by the Allies to incriminate the German leaders are undoubtedly forgeries. This charge, with its staggering implications, dare not be made lightly. Frau Weckert has opened the door on a subject that deserves much more detailed attention. My own research at the National Archives confirms her observation that the originals of many widely cited Nuremberg trial "documents" are now "unavailable" and seem to have disappeared completely-if they ever existed at all.

This book is not and cannot yet be the final word about the Crystal Night. Many questions unavoidably remain unanswered. Frau Weckert herself never fully answers the most important question of all: Who organized the Crystal Night? But the evidence she presents points to the shadowy but important role played by the Paris-based "International League Against Anti-Semitism" (SICA) in the events leading up to the fateful night.

A word about the author: Ingrid Weckert was a teenager in war-ravished Berlin when the Second World War came to an end. She left the occupied German capital to study Catholic theology in Switzerland. Living and working in Israel for a time enabled her to deepen her understanding of the character and nature of the Jewish people. She speaks Hebrew and English fluently. A librarian by profession, she now lives in Munich.

This book is a valuable contribution to contemporary historiography. I hope that an English-language version will become available soon and that Frau Weckert will be producing other works as good as this one. Feuerzeichen is essential reading for anyone interested in this particular subject. But more than that, it deserves careful consideration by anyone who wants to understand the true origins of the world we have inherited.


From The Journal of Historical Review, Spring 1983 (Vol. 4, No. 1), pages 125-127.