Beginning soon after the Nazis took power, Jews had been legally barred from schools, from most professions, from marrying non-Jews, from employing non-Jews, even from park benches and playgrounds - and had been libeled as vermin and parasites for so long that when the Nazis launched the violence against its Jewish population, the majority of Germans either participated or ignored it.
But what happened in Germany on November 9, 1938, is only part of the story.
What happened in the rest of the world as the news of the violence spread?
There were expressions of outrage by various faith leaders around the world. There were demonstrations of support. The leaders of France and England expressed sympathy for the victims but were restrained in their condemnation. After four days, FDR did strongly condemn the Nazi attacks on the Jewish population and withdrew the American ambassador to Germany.
On November 23, 1938, the Los Angeles Examiner published a headline proclaiming, "Nazis warn World Jews will be Wiped out unless Evacuated by Democracies."
There were of course the other voices - who blamed the Jewish victims for the violence, Father Charles Coughlin, who voiced anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi views the most prominent among them.
And beyond that?
In 1935, there were 523,000 Jewish people living in Germany, and another 200,000 Jewish people came under Nazi rule when Austria was annexed in early 1938. After Kristallnacht, they were desperate to leave, although by then, Germany would allow Jewish refugees to take only eight percent of whatever they owned with them.
They would have left anyway, but there were few places for them to go.
The United States in 1938, limited the immigrants from Germany and Austria to 27,370 people, regardless of whether they simply wanted a better economic life or they were fleeing persecution, and the quota did not change, even as the violence grew. After Kristallnacht, 127,000 Jewish people applied for the 27,000 spots. By June 1939, 300,000 people applied for visas. Beyond the limited spots for immigrants, Nazi confiscation of Jewish property made it more difficult - because the United States had financial requirements for anyone seeking to immigrate.
A bill proposed in a Congressional committee to take 20,000 German Jewish children into the United States was strongly opposed and never even made it to the floor, with public comments like "20,000 charming children will all too soon grow into ugly adults." (From the wife of the US commissioner of immigration.) As a side note, after 1940, when Britain was being bombed, the Congress voted to accept thousands of mostly non-Jewish British children.
The UK did not lift immigration restrictions on German or Austrian Jewish adults in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, but the government did agree to accept Jewish children under the age of 17 in a program known as Kindertransport. Some ten thousand children were accepted between 1938 and 1940. The vast majority never saw their parents again, who were trapped and murdered.
There were a few other places that Jewish people could flee in the aftermath of Kristallnacht: Bolivia accepted 30,000 people. Shanghai took 17,000. Beginning with Hitler's rule, some 60,000 German Jewish people immigrated to Palestine until 1939 when in response to the 1936-39 Arab revolt, Jewish immigration was limited. Jewish people also immigrated from Germany to other countries in Europe (where most were eventually killed).
Would the Germans have embarked on mass murder if Kristallnacht had provoked a stronger world reaction - something more than the few tsks of disapproval that actually occurred? Possibly. But possibly not. What is certain - is that if in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, countries around the world, like the United States and Great Britain, had opened their doors to accept more Jewish refugees, many lives would have been saved.
What happened AFTER Kristallnacht?
Kristallnacht was prelude to the horrors that were to come. There has been so much written about what happened - there is so much testimony from survivors and eyewitnesses - that I cannot possibly do it justice here. Still, a brief summary:
Mass killings of the Jewish population of Europe began after the start of the war. By 1941, Germany began deporting Jewish people from Germany itself - to ghettos in Poland and then to killing centers. In early days, the Germans hoped starvation and disease would kill the majority - but then because Jews were not dying in sufficient numbers, the Nazis built the gas chambers. In the conquered Soviet territories, 1.3 million Jewish men, women, and children were shot and dumped in mass graves. The estimates are that between 160,000 and 180,000 German-Jews were murdered. In Poland, out of 3.3 million Jewish people, somewhere between 2.7 and 3 million were killed. A total of six million dead from all of the countries that the Germans occupied. Two out of three Jews who had lived in Europe were killed.
With the passage of eighty years since the start of the war, (and eighty-three years since Kristallnacht) Holocaust survivors have almost disappeared, as have the World War II veterans who liberated the concentration camps. With those disappearances, disturbing trends are being seen.
Holocaust denial: a survey in 2020 found that sixty three percent of adults under forty did not know that six million Jews were murdered - over half believed that two million Jews were killed. One in ten had never heard the term Holocaust. While ninety percent believed the Holocaust happened, seven percent weren't sure, and only three percent did not, a disturbing eleven percent believed that the Jews caused the Holocaust.
Increasing incidents of anti-Semitism: There are increasing attacks on Jewish people in the United States, along with anti-Semitic rhetoric across social platforms, with statements like "Hitler was right." In 2019, the FBI found that although Jews are only around 2.4 percent of the population, they are the victims of approximately 60 percent of religious hate crimes. 2021 has been a banner year for anti-Semitism. To name a few incidents just from October: A synagogue was set on fire in Austin Texas; a Torah was vandalized at George Washington University in Maryland; in Texas, members of the "Goyim Defense league" put up banners reading - Honk if you know the Holocaust is Fake and Vax the Jews; in Bucks County, PA, school board officials received threats: "Death to the Jew."
Trivialization of the Holocaust: It has become more and more common for people who don't like something that the government wants them to do - to compare their experience to that of the Jewish people under the Nazis. Before anyone makes a comparison of anything short of genocide to the events of the Holocaust, a visit to the Holocaust memorial in Washington D.C. might be in order. Maybe spend a few hours sitting in a replica of one of the boxcars that transported millions of people to their deaths in the gas chambers.
Remember that the violence began with Kristallnacht.