Culture of Remembrance
“Protection under the rule of law completely disintegrated”
80 years on, Germany is looking back on 1938, a year marked by National Socialist persecution and violence against the Jews and the failed Evian Conference on refugees. Historian and head of the Center for Antisemitism Research at the Technical University of Berlin Stefanie Schüler-Springorum explains the current significance of these events.
Ms Schüler-Springorum, in 2018 our thoughts are turning back 80 years to 1938. Why was this such a decisive year for Germany and Europe?
The National Socialist regime had reached the first high point of its power. Hitler was achieving his political goals not through war, but through the threat of war. He used it to force France and Great Britain in particular to make concessions.
In the Munich Agreement of 1938, those two nations allowed the German Reich to divide Czechoslovakia. It seems like Western democracies caved to dictatorship. Is this still the dominant interpretation today?
Yes, although some researchers have started to take the contemporary perspective more seriously. The French and British governments were not stupid or cowardly. The trauma of the First World War was still very present in their minds, and they wanted to prevent millions more dying in another war. In 1938 it was impossible to foresee that Hitler would start a war no matter what.
Violence against Jews had already dramatically increased; there were murders and abductions and many German Jews were trying to get out of the country. On the night of November 9th, 1938, the National Socialists, led by the armed attack division known as the Sturmabteilungor SA, ordered Jewish shops, synagogues, and cemeteries destroyed in what was then the German Reich. Tens of thousands of men of Jewish faith were imprisoned in concentration camps. Why is this night of violence so pivotal in the events of 1938?
It represents a turning point in how the German Reich treated its Jewish citizens. In many places, SA soldiers perpetrated brutal violence, throwing old women down the stairs and beating men to death in front of their children. The protection of the rule of law completely disintegrated and that in a time of peace. This came as an absolute shock for the victims, despite the discrimination they had experienced up to that point. These events triggered a mass exodus of the Jewish population.
For decades this event was commonly called “Kristallnacht” (Night of Crystal) – a euphemistic word alluding to the shards of glass from all the broken windows. Now the term “Pogromnacht” or night of the pogrom has established itself in public parlance in Germany.
Two of my fellow historians have taken issue with this as well. They argue that pogroms happen spontaneously at the grassroots level. In 1938 though, the National Socialists planned and orchestrated the violence against the Jewish population. I agree with them, even though there were also spontaneous outbreaks of extreme violence and we haven’t come up with a better term yet.
A few months before this night of terrible violence, in the summer of 1938, representatives of 32 countries met at Geneva Lake at the behest of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Evian Conference. There they debated about taking in Jewish refugees from Germany. Is it true that very few countries agreed to accept a large number of additional emigrants?
Yes, that’s right. We dedicated an exhibit to this in the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand (The German Resistance Memorial Centre) in Berlin. The dictator of the Dominican Republic was the only leader willing to take in 100,000 Jews, though only 600 to 700 ever made it there. The US government at least agreed to take in the full number, and grant 27,000 people leave to enter the USA every year. But it was very hard for Jews in Germany to get their hands on the required paperwork, the affidavits of support they needed. Great Britain opened their border to children after the November pogrom, and saved the lives of 10,000 girls and boys.
So many more people wanted to flee Germany than were able to get legal permission to enter other countries?
In 1933, more than 500,000 Jews lived in the German Reich. Almost a third had left the country by 1938. Most of those who remained wanted to leave, too, but most did not make it out. The Nazis murdered about half of the Jewish population who had lived in the country in 1933, sometimes by catching up with them in the countries where they had sought refuge.
That happened in Holland and France, and the mass murder of around six million people took place throughout Europe. The Evian Conference is currently being discussed in Germany because most European countries today are refusing to accept many refugees from Arab and African countries. Can we compare 2018 with 1938 in this sense?
On the one hand, no. In 1938, the German government attacked a segment of its own citizens. People flee for various reasons today, such as poverty, exploitation, war, oppression and environmental disasters. Back then it was a relatively small group of perhaps 300,000 people. Worldwide there are some 70 million people on the run right now. Roughly ten million of them want to go to Europe. One point of comparison I see is the reasons given by the governments back then, who were much more interested in the political repercussions in their countries than in the plight of the refugees. But at the time they had no way of knowing what would transpire just a few years down the road - the mass murder of the European Jews. Similarly, today we don’t know where the wave of refugees will ultimately lead. We have to be aware that dramatic things can happen that we cannot even begin to imagine.