The Act of Resistance the Nazis Used to Justify Kristallnacht

On the Assassination of Ernst vom Rath by 17-Year-Old Herschel Grynszpan

By  Stephen Koch

When Wilhelm Nagorka appeared at his office door, Ernst vom Rath was just settling into his desk chair and enjoying the morning sunshine. Vom Rath’s office was small, and considering that it was in the Hôtel Beauharnais, quite plain. Its great feature was windows flooded with sunlight, which vom Rath found so luscious that he pushed his desk flush with the sill so he could face it all day. For that reason he usually sat with his back turned to his office door.

Nagorka’s knock was official and correct.

The young lawyer answered and was told that there was a young man outside claiming to have some documents that must be personally delivered to an officer. And with the shrug of a man whose very routine day had just begun, vom Rath smiled and agreed to see the visitor.

Nagorka found 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan sitting in the waiting room exactly as he had been left, hushed, a little hunched, still in his raincoat. Nagorka informed Herschel that a secretary to the legation—he did not mention vom Rath’s name—could see him now, and Herschel stood up and followed Nagorka into the corridor where the more modest offices like vom Rath’s were located. After another official rap, Nagorka opened the door and ushered the visitor in. Vom Rath swiveled a quarter turn in his chair to take in the trembling little fellow with the huge, doe-like eyes, draped in his raincoat.

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Nagorka quietly closed the office door and began walking back to the receptionist’s desk.

Though vom Rath did not rise, he greeted Herschel politely, suggesting he sit in one of the comfortable leather easy chairs near his desk. Herschel duly walked over to it and sat.

Now then, Herr vom Rath understood that his visitor had come to deliver some sort of document?

As if reaching for papers, Herschel slid his hand into his left suit coat jacket, got a firm grip on the pistol, and just before pulling it out, shouted at the top of his voice: “You’re a filthy Kraut, and in the name of twelve thousand persecuted Jews, here is your document!”

On the stroke of here, he flashed the gun and fired his first shot.

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At the second shot, vom Rath leapt to his feet. Herschel also jumped up and kept pumping out slugs as fast as he could pull the trigger.

Herschel’s aim was atrocious. He fired the first two shots from a sitting position, pointing the 6.35 straight at vom Rath’s torso. Since the target was only a few feet away, he could hardly have missed, but all three of the remaining shots missed their mark totally.

Neither of the two bullets that hit him was enough to knock vom Rath down. Though he cried out—Hilfe!—nobody heard that. They heard only the shots.

The door to his office was still closed; to reach it, vom Rath had to push past his assailant who blocked his path. This he did with one solid punch to Herschel’s jaw.

Though he did not hear vom Rath’s cry for help, Nagorka heard all five shots, and after an instant frozen in disbelief, the clerk turned to run back to the office. This took only seconds. When he got there, vom Rath was standing in the open office door clutching his abdomen with both hands.

“I am wounded here,” vom Rath breathed as two more embassy employees rushed to the spot. The first to arrive was a clerk named Krueger; the second was Ernst Achenbach, the attaché who had overslept that morning and was just opening his adjacent office for work. Achenbach occupied himself with helping vom Rath, while Nagorka and Krueger, stupefied and alarmed, peered into the smoke-filled office.

Herschel stood alone in the middle of the room. The radiant sun that vom Rath so prized was still brilliant at his back, piercing the lingering clouds of gun smoke that were slowly spreading around the room.

The crime of Herschel Grynszpan—his protest—would be used as the pretext for what was to be, to date, the largest and most vicious attack on the Jews and Jewish life in modern history.

Seeing the two clerks in the door, Herschel began to tremble. Soon he was visibly shaking; then it became uncontrollable, an almost violent quaking. His empty hands flopped at his sides: the empty 6.35 lay at his feet, its price tag still tied to the trigger guard by a piece of red string.

Yet the shaking child made no other move at all. Herschel Grynszpan was waiting.

Nagorka and Krueger inched through the open office door. Watching them, Herschel stood still. Apart from the gun on the floor, there was no hint of menace about him. He did not step back or away as they came close. When they flanked him on both sides, each taking an arm, he did not recoil or resist.

His body had stopped shaking.

“I don’t intend to escape. I won’t do anything more.” These were his first words.

Outside the office Achenbach offered first aid while the embassy chargé placed calls for medical help.

Quite soon after walking out of his office, vom Rath collapsed. The nearest hospital was the excellent Clinique de l’Alma. Vom Rath was rushed to it, where it was immediately obvious to the ER doctors that he was far more seriously wounded than the first few minutes had made it seem.

As Herschel was being led out of the embassy, he quietly asked to be turned over to French rather than German police. And that is what happened. The street was filling up with the morning rush as people hurried past the fluttering swastika.

The moment he was in public, Herschel began to holler.

SALES BOCHES!” (“Filthy Krauts!”) he hollered in French as loud as he could. They were almost beside Officer Autret when he hollered it again: “SALES BOCHES!

Ignoring this ruckus, the clerks explained to the cop that this boy had just shot an official of the embassy in his office.

“SALES BOCHES! SALES BOCHES! SALES BOCHES!”

They also told Officer Autret that though the official was wounded, he was not dead.

In later testimony, Herr Krueger claimed that at this point Herschel said loudly, “It’s a shame that he isn’t dead.” This may or may not be true. Krueger was a sycophant, while Nagorka’s testimony remained steady, levelheaded, and in all other matters more reliable than that of his colleague. Nagorka consistently said he had no recollection of Herschel saying anything of the sort to anyone.

In any case Herschel then hollered at the gathering crowd a final ear-splitting “SALES BOCHES!

Then it was over. He was once again quiet and calm.

As Officer Autret quickly patted him down, looking for another weapon, Herschel said to him in a normal voice, and in polite French, “Don’t worry. I’ll come with you.”

Whereupon Officer Autret put Herschel Grynszpan under arrest for a crime that, if Herr vom Rath were to die, might carry Europe into horror and the boy to the guillotine.

*

Exactly when and how Hitler learned about the assassination attempt is not known, but he clearly learned about it quickly. And it perfectly suited his plans.

The assassination in Paris was exactly what the dictator had been waiting for, and very soon after Herschel shot vom Rath, Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were planning the propaganda for the mass anti-Semitic campaign that two nights later would turn into the Kristallnacht. The crime of Herschel Grynszpan—his protest—would be used as the pretext for what was to be, to date, the largest and most vicious attack on the Jews and Jewish life in modern history, a prelude to the Holocaust. Soon enough, the boy who had dreamt of being God’s pawn would be weeping bitter tears.

Herschel shot vom Rath at 9:35. He was led out of the building around 9:40, escorted through the lobby past the ambassador’s deputy, a man named Curt Bräuer, who at that moment was the most senior official in the building. While Herschel was led out the grand entrance to the entryway, where the Swastika floated unashamed, Bräuer had called the embassy physician, a certain Dr. Claas, who came immediately: When he arrived, Herschel was still standing in a sidewalk cluster with cops and officials shouting “Sales boches! Sales boches!” And by the time Officer Autret took the tiny assassin by the arm and led him in his billowing brown raincoat toward the precinct station, Dr. Claas was in an ambulance with his patient, on the way to the nearest emergency room. As these events flashed by, Embassy Counselor Bräuer ducked into the embassy communications room, and in minutes telephoned the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, dictating a five-hundred-word report in which he described with succinct precision exactly what had happened in the preceding fifteen minutes.

Counselor Bräuer’s transcribed telephone call is a key document for a couple of reasons. It is the first eyewitness report of the crime ever made, and its Teutonic exactitude demolishes in advance virtually every conspiracy theory later spun around Herschel. The master conspiracy theory was of course the lie that Hitler and Goebbels immediately began to spin around the boy: that Herschel was a pawn of “world Jewry” seeking to foment a second world war by assassinating the German ambassador to France. But there were many other conspiracy theories. For example, that Herschel was a pawn of the Gestapo, seeking to incite a pogrom by making the German people believe that “world Jewry” was trying to instigate another world war. Or that he was a pawn of the British, seeking to subvert the Franco-German rapprochement that the Nazis claimed would avert a second world war. Or, not least, that the killing had been part of a homosexual lovers’ quarrel.

Here is what was transcribed from Bräuer’s telephone call:

Today, at 9:35 WEZ [Western European Time], Secretary of Legation vom Rath was shot in his office by a German-speaking individual. The shot has passed through the left side of the body. The investigation so far has established the following: at 9:30 WEZ, a very young man approached a clerk of the embassy and insisted upon speaking to one of the secretaries, since he had an important document to deliver. He was led to Legation Secretary vom Rath’s office. After the clerk left the room, there was an explosion. When the clerk hurried back to the spot, he saw Secretary of Legation vom Rath lying on the floor, bleeding.

The clerk alerted the policeman stationed in front of the embassy, who arrested the perpetrator and led him to the police station for questioning. He was carrying a Polish passport, and gave his name as Grynszpan.

I have arranged for medical assistance for the Legation Secretary and his transfer to a hospital, and have logged the protocol accordingly.

After the entry had been properly logged, the investigation is quickly going forward, with consultation at an appropriate time with a representative of the embassy.

An additional message will follow. When the investigation has yielded new results, press coverage of the case should properly be handled in Berlin. Further information from the State Department on the way to handle the case is requested.

Bräuer’s call was made and recorded at ten o’clock, Paris time. The full text seems to have been promptly forwarded to the Führer and to the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.

Thus, vom Rath had barely been rolled into the ER and Herschel barely booked when Hitler grasped that it was an opportunity for rabble-rousing and some sort of anti-Semitic coup. Goebbels immediately ordered a massive anti-Semitic propaganda campaign based on the shooting, a campaign that Hitler himself must have ordered, probably in direct communication, by telephone. It was all very quick.

Hitler conceived of his anti-Semitic policies—such as the Nuremberg Laws—as a way of raising revenues by so harassing German Jews that they would leave and abandon their property to the Reich.

As it happened, Hitler was traveling on the morning of November 7. He had spent the night in Weimar—that cradle of German democracy—where the day before he had delivered a major address attacking democracy as a decadent form of government. The speech was delivered in a stadium before an audience of one hundred thousand people. November 7 was to be a light day, devoted to two or three minor appearances and a train ride to his favorite city, Munich, on his private train, a fortress on rails called the Atlas, or sometimes, oddly, the Amerika, or, more formally, the Führerzonderzug. Hitler’s denunciation of democracy the day before had been specifically aimed at British democracy. With negotiations for rapprochement secretly proceeding between Count von Welczeck and Bonnet, Hitler was careful to leave the French government out of his attack.

The speech was really an anti-British tirade, but in 1938 attacks on democracy in general were welcome because for large numbers of Germans, the democracy of the Weimar Republic was responsible for two decades of humiliation, poverty, and the spectacle of their nation—which ought to have been the greatest power in Central Europe—reduced to impotence. They believed Hitler when he insisted that only a “disciplined” government like his dictatorship could restore German power and truly defend the peace. Only a “disciplined” government could silence the critics who wanted to subvert the strong, proud, resurgent nation he had led out of the doldrums of defeat.

A hundred thousand people rose to their feet, hailing their savior. Hitler stood in the back of his magnificent open Mercedes, giving adoring crowds his salute—the salute—as his motorcade crawled through the streets of the old town, taking him from the stadium to his favorite Weimar stopping place, the Haus Elephant.

The hotel’s façade rippled with massed Nazi banners. Elite squadrons, often in goose step, patrolled its every doorway and path. Security measures that dwarfed any then in use by any other head of state locked down the entire vicinity. In front of the hotel lay a large plaza called Markt Square where Führer worshippers congregated by the thousands, rapt, gazing upward at Hitler on his hotel balcony and greeting him with upraised hands and shouts of Heil! Heil! Heil!

It was in the Elephant, over what could easily have been a late breakfast, that Hitler was handed the telegram.

The likelihood is that Hitler immediately telephoned his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, in Berlin.

Unlike Hitler, Joseph Goebbels was an early riser.

On the morning of November 7, 1938, Goebbels was in his splendid office, presiding over a dull meeting on music in the New Germany. Early on, an aide silently slid the Paris telegram onto his desk, murmuring that the identical telegram had been simultaneously delivered to the Führer. Pausing to read Bräuer’s report, Goebbels instantly grasped its import. The office was cleared of its visitors; soon Goebbels was doubtless on the line with Hitler. It is probable that as he spoke he felt blessed relief surging up from the core of his black heart. In recent weeks, a complex sexual scandal had left Goebbels’s favored position in Hitler’s circle teetering on the edge of a catastrophic fall.

This call just might be his salvation. Hitler needed him again.

Goebbels was well aware that Hitler was waiting for some pretext to embark on a wave of terror against German Jews. Hitler had never intended to honor one syllable of the Munich Pact, and within a month of signing it, he had decided to shatter its terms by invading what was left of Czechoslovakia. The invasion was going to be expensive, and Hermann Göring, who was in charge of Hitler’s five-year financial plan, had informed Hitler that the German government’s currency reserves urgently required a large new infusion of funds. Without more money—much more money—the Nazis could not continue to rearm at the rate necessary to make Germany the hegemonic European power. And just as expansion called for more money, the need for more money in turn called for expansion. Full transformation of German power required seizing the resources of Eastern Europe, notably Eastern European oil, steel, and wheat.

That meant war. And war called for a lot of new cash, quickly. It was a vicious circle.

But since the key to much more money meant confiscation of Jewish resources, the vicious circle meant the great pogrom. The financial motive of the Kristallnacht was to terrorize the Jews of Germany into flight, the better to confiscate the property their exodus forced them to abandon.

Hitler conceived of his anti-Semitic policies—such as the Nuremberg Laws—as a way of raising revenues by so harassing German Jews that they would leave and abandon their property to the Reich. But by 1937, it had become clear that this method of raising money was not working well. First, nothing like the anticipated revenues were being realized, and nowhere near enough Jews were leaving Germany. Second, those who did flee were not rich enough to leave behind as much money and property as Hitler in his paranoid fantasy had imagined they had. For obvious reasons, the larger the net worth of a given Jew, the more reluctant he or she would be to abandon it.

As the planned invasion of Czechoslovakia approached, something had to be done. The order went out for proposals on ways to speed up the flight of Germany’s Jews, especially the more affluent ones.

In January 1937, an ambitious young bureaucrat named Adolf Eichmann had produced a memo on this subject that was received with high favor at the top. Eichmann pointed out that legal measures such as the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 had thus far failed to do what they were designed to do. The Jews were not leaving Germany en masse merely because of legal persecution.

Eichmann argued that the missing element was terror.

To produce this terror, Eichmann suggested a vast nationwide pogrom, a state-sponsored crime wave that would sweep aside even the pretense of legality. What was needed was unrestrained mayhem: a vast, nationwide criminal riot, a brief but brutal reign of lawless violence directed against every Jew in the Reich. During some clearly defined period of two or three days, the entire Jewish population should confront unrestrained and ubiquitous murder, arson, larceny, kidnapping, extortion, and assault. Every school and social institution should be broken into, trashed, and if possible destroyed. Every home should be forcefully entered and every person in it should be terrorized. Every synagogue should be burned to the ground.

The entire rabbinate should be rounded up and publicly humiliated, beaten, and if the occasion arose, murdered, while Jewish sacred objects should be desecrated in as obscene and blasphemous a fashion as could be conceived. Jewish businesses, from the most modest to the most successful, should be looted and demolished. Finally, every Jewish man who looked as if he might have a little money in the bank should be summarily arrested, sent to a concentration camp, and subjected to a few months of systematic penal brutality that would make him understand that any hope of getting out of the concentration camp at Dachau meant getting out of Germany. Not later. Now.

Hitler was impressed.

Referring to Eichmann’s memorandum suggesting a nationwide pogrom, Hitler’s biographer Ian Kershaw writes, “From the perspective of the regime’s leadership, how to get the Jews out of the economy and force them to leave Germany still appeared to be questions without answers . . . Like an answer to a prayer, the shooting of the German Third Legation Secretary Ernst vom Rath in Paris by a seventeen-year-old Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, on the morning of November 7, 1938, was an opportunity not to be missed.” Kershaw adds, “It was an opportunity eagerly seized upon by Goebbels. He had no difficulty in winning Hitler’s full backing.”

On the morning of November 7, Hitler and Goebbels seem to have agreed on a general propaganda line: This Jew assassin, though a child, was a pawn that world Jewry was using to sabotage the growing friendliness between France and the Reich. And what was world Jewry’s ultimate aim? To provoke a second world war. The German people must be made to understand the sinister intentions of this conspiracy and cry out for revenge.

Especially if Herr vom Rath were to die.

With no written record, the content of Hitler’s conversation with Goebbels that morning can only be inferred from Goebbels’s actions after hanging up. Goebbels immediately formulated the concept of the campaign by inventing a kind of propaganda syllogism:

The Jew Grynszpan represents world Jewry.

The German vom Rath represents the German people.

That means that the shooting in Paris was world Jewry’s attempt to shoot down the German people.

Goebbels’s remaining time in Berlin was very short. He was scheduled to board his private train to Munich to be present for the elaborate pageantry of Movement Day, a yearly mass gathering of the Nazi party faithful.

Movement Day was the most solemn of the secular holidays the Nazi party had invented to honor itself, and it was held every November 9. At first, November 9 was emblazoned in the minds of most Germans as a day of shame. Germany effectively surrendered in the First World War on November 9, 1918, when Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and a republic was proclaimed. Hitler had used the fifth anniversary of this day to stage his first attempt to seize political power, the so-called Beer Hall Putsch of November 9, 1923. This effort to seize control of the municipal government of Munich was an ignominious failure and would be remembered primarily for its clownish incompetence except for its sinister consequence.

It was the Beer Hall Putsch that lifted Hitler out of the lunatic fringe and put him near the top of the Weimar Republic’s most important adversaries, second only to the German communists, and therefore a major player in German politics. And in a shrewd effort to exploit that transformation of his stature, Hitler had used the nine-month prison term imposed on him for causing the riot to compose Mein Kampf, the book that put his program for a resurgent Germany on the main table of the national debate.

Once he achieved power, Hitler turned the date of Germany’s defeat and his own emergence into a huge national holiday, celebrated with a swirling mix of high ceremonial solemnity and gut-busting vulgarity. The throng about to assemble in Munich would be immense; the one hundred thousand people Hitler had addressed the day before in Weimar had been little more than the overflow of the celebrating crowds. Every major Nazi would be in Munich, as would every district leader, every capo from every Nazi club, every bullyboy left over from the Sturmabteilung—the soon-to-be bypassed private army of street thugs that had been key to Hitler’s rise—would be streaming into Munich for two days of celebrating themselves and knocking back maximum amounts of beer and bratwurst.

So November 9 was an important Nazi day. Since 1938, the world has remembered it only as something quite different: the anniversary of the Kristallnacht.

Goebbels was scheduled to leave for the eight-hour train trip to Munich soon. Hitler would leave Weimar on his private train around noon. They would meet together in Munich shortly after eight o’clock that night. The first edicts coming explicitly from the highest level were released at 8:20 on the evening of November 7.

With only a short time left before leaving the city, Goebbels still had major decisions to make. He knew that the story of the Paris shooting would break worldwide within an hour or two at most, and that every reporter in Paris, including the anti-Nazi democratic press, would be all over it. Goebbels would be effectively out of touch with propaganda headquarters until evening and he needed to give preliminary orders for handling the breaking story. The first was very likely to appoint some official of the propaganda office to be the executive officer in charge of the new campaign. He probably summoned from his office somewhere in the building a specialist in anti-Semitic propaganda named Wolfgang Diewerge.

Diewerge was the perfect man: a promising propaganda tactician who had already provided first-rate service over a similar, though much less important scandal, the assassination of a higher-up in the Swiss branch of the Nazi party by a young Jew named David Frankfurter. Diewerge would be in charge of the immediate response to the Paris shooting and the regime’s handling of Herschel Grynszpan and instrumental in the Grynszpan affair in all the tumultuous years to come.

Goebbels rapidly outlined Diewerge’s assignment, and before he left the building for his train, he dictated to Diewerge the kind of headlines he expected to see in every German newspaper, beginning with whichever afternoon editions could still clear their front pages. The banner headlines should speak about “Jewish Murder Bandits,” he instructed. Herr vom Rath was to be depicted as a shining devote of the Nazi Party. Herschel Grynszpan was to be portrayed as a sociopath, a pawn the puppeteers of the world Jewish conspiracy were using in their frantic effort to sabotage not only the Munich peace, but also just as important (and Goebbels emphasized the point) the movement of the French Foreign Ministry toward friendly accommodation and understanding with the Reich.

Finally, and most important of all, by that evening, Diewerge was to see to it that coverage in every German newspaper and radio broadcast would emphasize that if vom Rath were to die, it was thought that this crime would stir up among the German people “the most serious consequences” for the Jews of Germany. The latter phrase served as a signal to the party faithful that if vom Rath were to die, riots would—or more precisely should—follow. And so a redeemed Joseph Goebbels began his trip to Munich, stumping along with the limp that the little man managed to make look almost commanding. He went to the Mercedes that would sweep him to his train. On Hitler’s orders, in less than an hour he had organized, initiated, and made the appointment necessary to create the largest and most violent anti-Semitic campaign in modern memory.

________________________________________

Excerpted from Hitler’s Pawn: The Boy Assassin and the Holocaust. Copyright © 2019 by Stephen Koch. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.

Stephen Koch
Stephen Koch
Stephen Koch is the author of two novels and many books of nonfiction on subjects ranging from Andy Warhol to the Second World War. After being chairman of the Creative Writing Division in the School of the Arts at Columbia, he wrote a classic text on writing, The Modern Library Writers’ Workshop. The director of The Peter Hujar Archive, LLC., he lives with his wife in New York, and has one daughter. His book Hitler’s Pawn: The Jewish Boy Who Triggered the Holocaust is out now.





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