On the morning of Nov. 7, 1938, a troubled teenager walked into an embassy in Paris, lied his way past some rather nonchalant guards, was granted a private meeting with an attache and then shot the man dead. The boy was Jewish, the victim was a low-level Nazi diplomat, and the killing was quickly seized upon by Hitler and his agents of darkness to accelerate their campaign to drive Jews from Germany. Within hours of the attache’s death, Hitler unleashed the infamous Kristallnacht, or “night of broken glass,” a rather poetic name for a savage orgy of murder, rape, arson and vandalism in which more than 200 Jews were killed, 1,300 synagogues were burned and 7,500 Jewish-owned shops were attacked.

Author and critic Jonathan Kirsch dives into the events leading up to Kristallnacht in “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan,” bringing to life a forgotten slice of history — not Kristallnacht but Grynszpan, the teenager who inadvertently sparked it.

The history surrounding those events has been scoured for decades and subjected to wide-ranging debates over how much of Kristallnacht was planned and how much was spontaneous. Kirsch seems to split the difference. He believes that plans for a broad pogrom were in the works and that Grynszpan’s assassination of Ernst vom Rath gave the Nazis the pretext to unleash what propagandist Joseph Goebbels called “the justified and understandable outrage of the German people.”

As Kirsch points out, Grynszpan was one of the first Jews to strike a violent blow against the regime that would work with such savage efficiency to exterminate the Jewish race. Yet Jewish history and culture have not been kind to Grynszpan, in large part viewing him as a deranged, immature youth who put his lust for personal revenge ahead of the safety of his people. That’s a fair assessment in Kirsch’s eye, though he thinks it’s time to reconsider Grynszpan and the two bullets he fired in that Parisian office 75 years ago. To blame Grynszpan for the violent racism of the Nazis, he writes, “is not merely unsupported by the facts of history, but is also morally bankrupt.” Rather, Kirsch argues, Grynszpan, like others once described as “premature antifascists,” read the Nazis for what they were and “seemed to perceive the existential threat that Nazi Germany posed to the Jewish people” at a time when most of the world, including Jews, sought to appease Hitler or wait him out.

So who was Grynszpan? A child, really. He was born in 1921 in Hamburg, Germany, the son of working-class Polish Jews who managed to sneak him out of Germany and into France when he was 15. Unambitious, he spent two dissolute years with his fractious extended family, becoming increasingly agitated by the separation from his parents and siblings. Without documents, Grynszpan was one encounter with a policeman away from deportation, even though he had nowhere to go — the Poles and the Germans would not take him back even if he wanted to go.

’The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, A Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris’ by Jonathan Kirsch. (W. W. Norton)

Then in October 1938, the Nazis moved with determined swiftness to “repatriate” some 12,000 Jews to Poland, even though many had not lived there in a generation. The Jews, including Grynszpan’s parents and siblings, were herded onto cattle cars and driven to the border, then forced across at gunpoint, where they languished in refugee camps while the Poles tried to figure out what to do with these sudden and unwelcome residents. Grynszpan was enraged at the treatment of his family and his fellow Jews. So he went to a Parisian gun shop, bought a revolver and some bullets, and killed the first Nazi official he encountered inside the German Embassy (he gained admission to the spy-ridden complex by implying to the guard that he had some secrets to share with the diplomats).

He was quickly arrested, and during a high-profile French investigation he proved to be a problematic hero. As Kirsch relates, Grynszpan saw himself as a historic figure, an inflated self-image fueled by the widening swirl of debate over whether he had committed a crime. While supporters such as American journalist Dorothy Thompson rallied to his cause, many fellow Jews dismissed him as insane or self-promoting, an immature warrior who knew not the problems he caused.

And then the war began in earnest. France fell, and Grynszpan was all but forgotten — except by the conquering Nazis, who sought him out for a show trial. After a hunt across disintegrating France, they found their young man but never got their show trial, as Grynszpan prepared to testify that he shot Rahm as a spurned lover. That wasn’t the kind of narrative to feed the Fuhrer’s delusions of Aryan supremacy. Grynszpan then disappeared from history, the likely victim of a summary execution, though rumors and allegations persisted that he had somehow survived the collapsing Reich.

It’s a remarkable story Kirsch tells here, deeply researched and compellingly drawn. And as the calendar drifts further away from those horrific days, and the world careens toward more moments of insanity and violence, Kirsch’s book is a solid reminder that we still have a lot to learn about the past we think we know. And, thus, about ourselves.

Scott Martelle is the author, most recently, of “Detroit: A Biography.”


A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat,
and a Murder in Paris

By Jonathan Kirsch

Liveright. 336 pp. $27.95