Reichskristallnacht: Systematisch organisiert, minutiös geplant, kein Hauch von Spontanität

Für die einen ist der 9. November der Tag, an dem sich Philipp Scheidemann beeilt hat, den Kommunisten zuvor zu kommen und die Republik auszurufen. Für die anderen ist es der Tag, an dem Egon Krenz den folgenschwersten Fehler eines Zentralkomitees einer Kommunistischen Partei begangen hat, der je begangen wurde und die Grenze zu Berlin geöffnet hat. Für wieder andere ist es ein politischer Großkampftag, an dem sie den Opfern der Reichskristallnacht gedenken wollen, aber an dem sie vor allem mahnen wollen, vor rechter Gefahr und Antisemitismus und zuweilen dem Mythos huldigen wollen, dass sich 1938 am 9. November der latente Judenhass der Bevölkerung Bahn gebrochen oder ein rechter Bevölkerungsmob sich spontan an Juden vergangen habe:


Wie die meisten (nicht lokal begrenzten) Pogrome, so war auch die Reichskristallnacht in keiner Weise spontan. Sie war keine plötzliche Eruption von Gewalt und keine Graswurzelbewegung. Wie fast alle Pogrome war auch die Reichskristallnacht systematisch geplant, minutiös organisiert und vor allem: von denen in Auftrag gegeben, die allein in der Lage sind über eine große Fläche hinweg, wie man heute wohl sagen würde: Nazi- oder Anti-Jüdische-Aktivisten zu mobilisieren: von staatlichen und von Parteiorganisationen.

Wir haben für heute den Bericht eines Zeitzeugen, der nach seiner Flucht aus Deutschland in den USA zu einem der bedeutendsten Historiker geworden ist, ausgewählt: Peter Gay. Sein Bericht macht sehr deutlich, dass Ereignisse wie die Reichskristallnacht nicht plötzlich und spontan aus der Mitte der Bevölkerung ausbrechen, sondern organisiert und geplant werden müssen, von Personen, die über die notwendigen Ressourcen verfügen. Die notwendigen Ressourcen für landesweit zeitgleich durchgeführte Gewaltaktionen waren 1938 nur bei der NSDAP und den Reichsministerien vorhanden.

„Kristallnacht followed upon the death of November 9 of Ernst von Rath, legation secretary at the German embassy in Paris. He had been shot two days before by a young Polish Jew distraught at the fate of his parents who, along with some sixteen thousand Polish Jews living in Germany, had been mercilessly deported a few days earlier. The Manchester Guardian, the most consistent voice for decency anywhere in the world, wrote with feeling and complete accuracy of a ‘brutal expulsion’. There was to be worse brutality soon.

Exploiting the event with their accustomed adroitness Nazi propagandists spread the word that von Rath’s death created such fierce indignation among the German people that they went on a rampage. This version, that Kristallnacht represented a spontaneous response of angry German people to a Jewish crime, was so fanciful that nobody believed it. The Manchester Guardian, like other newspapers abroad, put the word ‘spontaneous’ in sceptical quotation marks. They were, of course, absolutely right: a regime that had made a speciality of the big lie was now promoting one of its biggest lies ever. Local authorities across the country had compiled lists of Jewish stores months before and had the names and addresses of Jewish men on record; in Berlin, some time before the ’impulsive’ outburst of collective ‘indignation,’ Jewish store owners had been compelled to paint their names on their front windows in large white letters. If there was ever a thoroughly organized pogrom, it was Kristallnacht.

I know that the word Kristallnacht, the established name for this historic, countrywide pogrom, has been disparaged for presumably trivializing an event in which more than glass was shattered. The best estimate is that almost a hundred Jews were murdered during the riots and more than twenty -six thousand Jewish men were hauled off to concentration camps. Throughout Germany, synagogues were severely damaged or totally burnt out, sacred scrolls desecrated with the peculiar elation and ingenuity that the plunderers brought to their work. Thousands of businesses were ravaged or destroyed, and in numerous cities – Vienna of course, in the lead – even private houses and apartments were reduced to piles of rubble, with furniture, pictures, clothing, and kitchen equipment thrown around so that they were barely recognizable. There was some looting: particularly stores with portable items like clothing were emptied out. In our neighbourhood, a jewelry store was systematically pillaged. But for the majority, the thrill lay in destruction for its own sake.

This wallowing in sheer aggressiveness has made Kristallnacht something of a puzzle. As historians have observed the regime could have continued to rob German Jews of money, art, real estate – whatever they owned – by ‘legal’ means and without resorting to gratuitous public violence. In an interesting article, ‘The Kristallnacht as a Public Degradation Ritual,’ published in the Leo Braeck Institute Yearbook for 1987, my friend Peter Loewenberg, historian and psychoanalyst, has offered a persuasive explanation. The pogrom had results that obviously suited the regime’s policy: it isolated the Jewish population of Germany even more from their former fellow citizens, and it served to intimidate gentile Germans: attempts to show sympathy for the victims, let alone give them assistance was dangerous.

But there was more to it than this: Kristallnacht was, as Loewenberg has shown, a degradation ritual, a handy way of realizing the Nazi leader’s most unchecked fantasies about a ‘race’ that to their twisted minds had infiltrated, exploited, and betrayed Germans for centuries. The Nazis’ scenario called not just for depriving Jews of their livelihood and driving them from the country virtually penniless but for doing so with the maximum publicity and with actions that would make the Jews feel like the pariahs they had become. An eyewitness report from the American consul in Leipzig, David H. Buffum, which Loewenberg quotes, attests to this sick rapture: ‘Having demolished the dwellings and hurled most of the movable effects on the streets, the insatiably sadistic perpetrators threw many of the trembling inmates into a small stream that flows through the Zoological Park, commanding the horrified spectators to spit at them, defile them with mud and jeer at their plight.’ By involving bystanders, the Nazis made them into accomplices.

The story of Kristallnacht has often been told, at times in ghastly detail, but I must speak of it because I was there. And I shall continue to use the conventional term because to me, as to most of the witnesses, it conveys far more than its literal meaning. I read it – no, I feel it – as a catastrophe that deepened my rancor against Germany and Germans, already powerful enough, into an indiscriminate hatred that survived long stretches of time quite unabated” (Gay, 1998: 131-133).

Es ist für Soziologen keine Neuigkeit, dass Ereignisse wie die Reichskristallnacht keine spontanen Ereignisse sind, sondern von langer Hand geplante Ereignisse. Allein die Systematik der Vorgehensweise macht dies deutlich. Deshalb können lokale Ereignisse und spontane Mobs, seien sie von linker oder von rechter Ideologie angetrieben, keine landesweiten Pogrome zustande bringen. Pogrome benötigen Planung, Vorbereitung, Ressourcen, wie sie nur Akteure zur Verfügung haben, die entweder selbst die Regierung bilden und auf diese Weise landesweiten Zugriff auf Ressourcen haben oder Organisationen, die landesweite Verbreitung vorweisen können, Parteien, Verbände, Stiftungen, Netzwerke, Nichtregierungsorganisationen …

Somit perpetuieren gerade diejenigen, die so erpicht darauf sind, einen Zusammenhang zwischen (rechten) Demonstrationen in Chemnitz und der Reichskristallnacht herzustellen, genau die Fake News, die die Nazis 1938 inszeniert haben. 

Gay, Peter (1998). My German Question. Growing Up in Nazi Berlin. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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