Darkness Falling

Jews were targets of Nazi mobs during a night of vandalism in November 1938.
Jews were targets of Nazi mobs during a night of vandalism in November 1938. (Bettmann / Corbis)
Reviewed by Michael R. Marrus
Sunday, June 25, 2006


Prelude to Destruction

By Martin Gilbert

HarperCollins. 314 pp. $21.95

Overnight on Nov. 9-10, 1938, German and Austrian Nazis launched a coordinated, riotous assault on Jews across the expanded German Reich -- burning synagogues, destroying stores, looting houses, beating Jews and sending thousands to concentration camps. The next morning, the boots of the stormtroopers and the Hitler Youth crunched the resulting broken glass, giving the name Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") to the terrible events that prefigured the Holocaust of European Jewry. "For the perpetrators of the destruction," writes Martin Gilbert in his new history of that dreadful night, "the name reflected their sense of both triumph and contempt: triumph at what they had destroyed, laughter at the thought of the sound of breaking glass. Yet fear and distress were inflicted on every German Jew that night." More than a thousand Jewish places of worship were destroyed; 91 Jews were murdered; 30,000 Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60 were arrested; 30 Jews apparently committed suicide in Vienna; in Bayreuth, the home of Wagnerian opera, 60 Jewish men and women were locked in a cowshed; in Frankfurt, half of the town's 43 synagogues and houses of prayer were gutted; and in the small community of Bad Soden, Jewish tuberculosis patients were turned out of their "home for consumptives," which was subsequently demolished.

This is grimly familiar ground, but Gilbert has found some new material, consisting mostly of descriptions and recollections by people who lived through Kristallnacht. One of the world's most prolific historians -- he is the author of more than 80 works, including his most important achievement, his magisterial, multi-volume biography of Winston Churchill -- Gilbert brings to bear the historical method that has served so well in the past. "I'm not a theoretical historian -- seeking to guide the reader to a general conclusion," he once told the Jerusalem Report. "I'm quite content to be a narrative chronicler, a slave of the facts." But as anyone who has attempted to write history knows, the facts don't quite speak for themselves, and chronicles don't automatically provide accounts as fluent and absorbing as Gilbert at his best.

Unlike much of the Holocaust, Kristallnacht occurred under the noses of newspaper reporters and foreign diplomats, who painstakingly recorded what they saw. Gilbert assembles their accounts, together with those of the survivors, to immerse us in Kristallnacht and its aftermath, including Jews' frequently desperate efforts to escape Germany and find refuge elsewhere. We read of the terrorization of young and old, men and women, rich and poor, distinguished and obscure -- all of them simply because they were Jews. Oskar Prager, then 9, saw a Nazi stormtrooper wreck the family apartment and crush his birthday wristwatch; Ilse Morgenstern remembered the Nazis' seizing the family piano; and, in an extraordinary but in some sense typical reaction, Batya Emanuel, who was 13 at the time, recalled her father's futile reaction: "Here was Papa striding into the room, with the telephone, which was kept in our parents' bedroom at night, tucked under his arm, and he was in braces, without a waistcoat and jacket. I don't think I had ever seen him not fully dressed before. He nodded curtly in my direction, plugged in the phone and dialled: 'Is that the police? I wish to inform you that the synagogue at the back of Rutschbahn 11 has been broke into and is being vandalised at this very moment -- you are sending your men? Thank you.' "

Tellingly, Gilbert's witnesses register not only the outrage, the cruelty and the brutality but also the generous responses of some Germans and foreign diplomats who tried to help. Countess Maria von Maltzan, for example, whose brother was in the SS, turned her aristocratic bearing to good effect when she surreptitiously rescued victims: "The Countess made contact with members of the Swedish Protestant Church in Berlin, who were systematically smuggling Jews out of Germany. She forged visas, ration books and other documents, and drove vegetable lorries full of refugees out of Berlin." In W?rzburg, at a Jewish teachers' seminary, the caretaker -- apparently a stormtrooper himself, wearing a brownshirt uniform -- warned the youngsters "to dress quickly and run away, because 'they' were burning, looting and destroying synagogues and Jewish homes and shops." From Berlin, the senior British diplomat in Germany, Sir George Oglivie Forbes, telegraphed home on November 13: "I can find no words strong enough in condemnation of the disgusting treatment of so many innocent people, and the civilised world is faced with the appalling sight of 500,000 people about to rot away in starvation."

More than 330,000 German and Austrian Jews escaped one way or another by the outbreak of the war in 1939. Kristallnacht records what they suffered, how they managed to get away and what they remembered about it. Most pertinently, it also records how ordinary people, like most of those who are reading this review, responded to the catastrophe. Gilbert helps us understand them and even, if we choose, imagine ourselves in their place. ?

Michael R. Marrus is the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto and the author of "The Holocaust in History."

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