Kristallnacht came…and everything was changed.
November 9, 1938: Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) takes place.
The event that set off this violent series of pogroms, which flared up across Germany and Austria through November 9 and 10, was the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by a young Jewish refugee. When the news of vom Rath’s death reached Nazi higher-ups, Joseph Goebbels made a speech in which he stated that “the Führer has decided that… demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.” In effect, the government declared that it would not officially organize any “demonstrations”, but it would do nothing to prevent them, either; to many, Goebbels’ message was a clear call to Gauleitersacross the country to organize pogroms. To what extent this was Goebbels’ own plot or a joint and widely-agreed upon plan by Nazi officials is unclear, since some prominent officials disagreed with or at least criticized Goebbels’ actions.
Nevertheless, the attacks that would be collectively be known as Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) and the Night of Broken Glass began during the late hours of November 9. Orders from Reinhard Heydrich explicitly stated that German life and property were not to be harmed, but with no direct statement condoning or encouraging violence against Jews and Jewish property, they were more or less fair game. The attacks gained their name from the over 7,000 Jewish businesses that were destroyed, the glass windows of their storefronts shattered. Also given special attention were synagogues, which Goebbels referred to as “Jewish fortresses”; in all, over 200 were damaged or destroyed, and, in general, little effort was made by local fire departments to stop their destruction. Jewish civilians were attacked by mobs of civilians and SA men. In all, over 90 people were killed (hundreds more were injured), and some 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
The Nazi regime’s apparent encouragement for the violent actions that took place strained the country’s relations with much of the Western world, including the United States. It was, in that way, a sort of turning point, but it also marked a turning point within Germany with regards to the treatment of German Jews. While anti-semitism had certainly been endorsed by the government through boycotting measures and miscegenation laws, persecution now took a definite and irreversible turn toward violence and physical destruction. Because of this, Kristallnacht is sometimes used to mark the beginning of the Holocaust.
June 14, 1940: Auschwitz Opens
On this day in 1940, the Nazis opened the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.
Nazi records show that tens of thousands of Jews from German-occupied territories were sent to Auschwitz to be executed each month.
Two Auschwitz prisoners, Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, were determined to expose the horrors of the Nazi genocide and stop the killing factories forever. To do that, they became the first to escape from the heavily-guarded camp. Read about their escape path and watch Secrets of the Dead’s “Escape from Auschwitz.”
Above Image: This map, drawn from Rudolf Vrba’s own account of his escape, traces the two friends’ journey, from Auschwitz to the safety of Slovakia, where they finally revealed the secret purpose of Auschwitz.
Adolf Eichmann is sentenced to death - December 1961.
May 23, 1945: Heinrich Himmler commits suicide.
As Reichsführer-SS, HeinrichHimmler was, for a time, one of Hitler’s most powerful, most trusted officials, but as the war neared its end, even he began to see the futility of Germany’s faltering war effort. In April of 1945, Himmler approached the Allies and proposed to surrender all of Germany’s troops in the West, perhaps in the hope that he might be spared (or at least, shown mercy) when the inevitable war crimes trials came along. By now, however, many of the major concentration camps had been uncovered and liberated by Allied forces, and Himmler, as head of the SS, was now irrevocably associated with these newly-discovered atrocities.
Hitler, upon receiving the news of his treue Heinrich’s betrayal, was enraged. In his last will and testament, he stripped Himmler of all his titles and expelled him from the party, claiming that he and Hermann Göring, by negotiating with the enemy, had “done immeasurable harm to the country and the whole nation”.
Rejected by both the Allied leaders and by his own colleagues, Himmler attempted one last time to avoid prosecution by contacting General Eisenhower (also apparently thinking that he might somehow secure a position in Germany’s postwar government). Naturally, this offer was also rejected - Himmler, to the Allies, was now nothing more than a desperate war criminal. He wandered for several weeks in disguise near the Danish border before being apprehended by Allied soldiers, who recognized him, though his papers gave his name as “Heinrich Hitzinger”. Himmler would have stood trial at the Nuremberg, which would have undoubtedly ended in his hanging, but he committed suicide with a cyanide capsule just a day after his capture. Supposedly, his last words were “Ich bin Heinrich Himmler!”
Nazi book-burnings (Berlin) - May 10, 1933.
German men and women! The age of arrogant Jewish intellectualism is now at an end! … You are doing the right thing at this midnight hour—to consign to the flames the unclean spirit of the past. This is a great, powerful, and symbolic act… . Out of these ashes the phoenix of a new age will arise… .
Oh Century! Oh Science! It is a joy to be alive!
- Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.
May 10, 1933: Mass book-burnings take place across Germany.
The policy of Gleischaltung, or “coordination”, served the ultimate purpose of aligning all aspects of German culture and society with Nazi ideology, under the control of the Nazi government. In accordance with this policy, Nazi officials declared the beginning of a movement called “Action against the Un-German Spirit” in April of 1933, a nationwide effort to “purify” German literature and art. The movement would climax in a massive book-burning on May 10 of the same year.
In Berlin, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels delivered a fiery speech to tens of thousands of people, declaring:
German men and women! The age of arrogant Jewish intellectualism is now at an end! … You are doing the right thing at this midnight hour—to consign to the flames the unclean spirit of the past. This is a great, powerful, and symbolic act… . Out of these ashes the phoenix of a new age will arise…
Oh Century! Oh Science! It is a joy to be alive!
A large number of those who participated in or organized book-burnings were university students and professors, and the main sites of the events were university towns. In all, around 25,000 volumes were burned - among the books burned were the writings of Karl Marx, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, even Jack London, Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells, Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, and Erich Maria Remarque (author of All Quiet on the Western Front). Also targeted were the works of Heinrich Heine, the celebrated 19th century poet, who once wrote prophetically, back in 1821:
Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.
Poster produced by the United States Office of War Information (OWI) for distribution to libraries and book stores, 1942.
March 16, 1911: Josef Mengele is born in Günzburg, Bavaria.
This most notorious of Nazi doctors was, to his colleagues, intelligent, gentle, and collected - a somewhat unimpressive-looking man whose most recognizable feature was the rather endearing gap between his front teeth. The inmates at Auschwitz, however, nicknamed him “the White Angel”, and later, “the Angel of Death”.
Mengele joined the SS in 1938 and was promoted to a high-ranking medical position at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943. There, he performed various experiments - most famously on twins, who fascinated Mengele, but also on those afflicted with dwarfism, on pregnant women, on children of all ages. His experiments were ‘experiments’ in the loosest sense, for, unlike many of those conducted at Ravensbrück, few of his strange, gruesome surgeries, amputations, and dissections had practical value. Once, Mengele reportedly attempted to create artificial conjoined twins by sewing two children together, simply in the name of ‘science’. He, along with other camp physicians, helped determine who was healthy enough to work, and who would be sent to the gas chambers.
After the war ended, Mengele was not present at the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial, despite being one of the most infamous of them all, for he had seemingly disappeared. It was later discovered that, like his fellow Nazi Adolf Eichmann, Mengele had fled to Argentina. Mengele was luckier than Eichmann, who was captured and later executed in Israel, and, despite international efforts to hunt him down, the “Angel of Death” lived out the rest of his life (thirty-four years) under a false name.
March 13, 1943: The Jewish ghetto at Kraków is “liquidated”.
How exactly does oneliquidate a community of over 20,000 people (housed in a space that should have held only 1/6th that number)? This task was delegated to Amon Göth, the second lieutenant of Schindler’s List fame. Although thousands of Jews had been continuously deported from the ghetto for nearly a year, it was between March 13th and 14th that nearly 4,000 deemed fit for work were shipped to the nearby Kraków-Płaszów labor camp. The remainder, numbering around 4,000, were mostly the elderly, the sick, and children - all of whom were either shot on spot, or sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau for extermination.
It was here, at the Kraków ghetto, that Oskar Schindler came seeking cheap labor, and it was here that Schindler saved over a thousand lives. Another non-Jew, Tadeusz Pankiewicz,ran the only pharmacy in the ghetto district after all the others had relocated to the ‘Aryan’ side. But, despite a local branch of the ŻOB’s attempts to engineer an organized uprising, the liquidation itself ultimately went unresisted. A plaque placed on what had been a ghetto wall now reads:
“Here they lived, suffered and perished at the hands of Hitler’s executioners. From here they began their final journey to the death camps.”
March 7, 1904: Reinhard Heydrich is born in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt.
Called “the Hangman” (among other equally unpleasant names) for his ruthlessness, Heydrich seemed to be the embodiment of Aryanism itself: he was blonde, tall, intelligent, cunning, a talented fencer, a cellist and, most importantly, a dedicated Nazi official who carried out his duties with deadly efficiency.
Heydrich’s Nazi career began when he was dismissed from the Navy for “impropriety” in 1931, whereupon he was compelled by his new wife, a National Socialist, to look into the growing Schutzstaffel organization for employment opportunities. Heydrich apparently greatly impressed Heinrich Himmler, who gave him the task of setting up the intelligence service of the SS (later named the Sicherheitsdienst or SD). Heydrich, henceforth, was known as Himmler’s right-hand man, and together, they began to consolidate the power of the SS. He eventually was promoted to Obergruppenführer, at the time the highest rank in the SS apart from Reichsführer-SS. At the time of his assassination by Czech rebels, Heydrich was head of the Reich Main Security Office, an organization that included the SD, the Gestapo, and the criminal police. And even in death, his was a deadly name - perhaps thousands of Czech men were slaughtered in retribution for his assassination.
Aside from being one of the most powerful men in the Third Reich, Heydrich is notorious for his role as one of the main orchestrators of the Holocaust. He helped organize Kristallnacht, for one, and throughout the war, he planned the deportation and/or extermination of local Jews. It was at the 1942 Wannsee Conference that Heydrich presented his plans for the Final Solution to “the Jewish question”, although he died before seeing his plans come to fruition. Operation Reinhard was also likely named for him, ultimately resulting in the mass deportation of millions of Polish Jews to extermination camps like Treblinka and Belzec. Even among the Nazi elite, “the Butcher of Prague” was considered a dangerous man to know.