The Holocaust was officially set in motion following the Wannsee Conference, a meeting of senior officials of the Nazi German regime that was held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on January 20, 1942. The conference’s purpose was to inform those in the government that were working on policies relating to the Jews that Reinhard Heydrich had been appointed to oversee the “final solution to the Jewish question”—and what that “solution” was going to be. At the barely ninety minute long meeting, Heydrich presented the plan for the deportation of the Jewish population of Europe to the German-occupied portions of eastern Europe and their subsequent extermination in the concentration camps. Detailed minutes of the meeting were preserved. Additionally, we have the public testimony of Adolf Eichmann from his 1961 trial giving us a bit of added flavor about the meeting.
The persecution of the Jewish people did not begin at Wansee, however. It had, in fact, begun with Adolph Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933. At the time Hitler came to power, there were about five hundred thousand Jews living in Germany—less than one percent of the German population. The Nazis singled them out as being responsible for Germany’s defeat in World War 1 and blamed them for the Great Depression which was hitting Germany far harder than nearly anywhere else. During Hitler’s first year in office, the German government enacted forty-two laws restricting the rights of the Jews in Germany to earn a living or to get an education. For instance, Jews were forbidden to work in any branch of the civil service. As time passed, more laws were put in place. In 1935, the infamous Nuremburg Laws restricted the ability of Jews to marry Germans.
By 1938, more than two hundred fifty thousand Jews had fled from Germany or Austria (which Germany had annexed that year). Then on October 18, 1938, Hitler ordered the expulsion of twelve thousand Polish-born Jews from Germany. They were rousted from their homes and permitted only one quickly packed suitcase. Their homes and remaining belongings were then confiscated by the Nazi regime—or by their neighbors. Only four thousand were permitted immediate entry into Poland. The remaining eight thousand were forced to wait at the border for the Polish government to get around to letting them in.
One of the couples expelled from Germany after having lived there for twenty-seven years had a seventeen-year old son named Herschel Grynszpan who was living in Paris. His sister wrote him a postcard which he received on November 3, telling him of their sad fate and asking him if he had any money he could send them, since they were penniless. Later, the next day, he read about the deportations in a Yiddish-language newspaper. On Sunday morning, November 6, 1938, he purchased a pistol. On November 7, he went to the German embassy in Paris and shot a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, “in the name of the twelve-thousand” persecuted Jews. Ernst vom Rath died two days later, on November 9.
The Nazi regime reacted by stepping up the persecution of the Jewish people in Germany. On November 8, 1938, the German government shut down all the remaining Jewish newspapers and magazines. Jewish children were no longer to be permitted to attend German elementary schools. Then, on the night of November 9-10, following the death of vom Rath, the Nazis coordinated an attack on the Jewish people and their property in Germany and all German-controlled territories. Ninety-two Jews were murdered that night. Twenty-five thousand to thirty thousand were arrested and deported to concentration camps. More the two hundred synagogues were destroyed, along with thousands of Jewish homes and businesses. This night was called “kristallnacht”—that is “crystal night” from the shards of broken glass littering the streets of German cities from all the smashed shop windows following the riots. Kristallnacht marked the beginning of the systematic attempt by the Nazis to exterminate the Jewish people in what is now known as the Holocaust.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote that “The one thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.” Despite the horrific lessons of the past, the drumbeat of anti-Semitism goes on. Sadly, across the world, especially in many parts of Europe and the Middle East, the forces of anti-Semitism remain strong, with the worst excesses of the Nazis cherished, and their insane notions believed and practiced. Sadly, as Mark Twain is quoted as saying “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” The lies of the Nazis remain attractive to far too many people.
Oddly enough, November 9 also happens to be the day that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Although there had been a desire to make that day a national holiday as a consequence, because of Kristallnacht, the Germans instead celebrate October 3, commemorating the day in 1990 when East and West Germany officially reunified.