Kristallnacht and the Legacy of Jew Hatred
The ninth of November was the anniversary of the Kristallnacht attack on the Jews of Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland in 1938. The Nazis unleashed a hugely popular pogrom that murdered a minimum of nearly 100 Jews and injured thousands. For many, the effects would last long after. The attackers destroyed 267 synagogues, and thousands of businesses and homes. Some 30,000 Jews were arrested, many of whom were never heard of again.
The official excuse was that a young Jewish student in Paris, Herschel Grynszpan, had heard that his parents had been expelled from Germany to Poland. But they were stuck in no man’s land. In desperation, Grynszpan shot a Nazi diplomat in Paris. The news came as the Nazi leaders were convened in Munich. Goebbels immediately called on all Germans to purge Germany of the Jews and initiated a horrific medieval pogrom to purge Germany of what he called the Jewish swine. Although the attacks shocked a large number of people around the world, no one lifted a finger. There were no reprisals or condemnations. The world did nothing.
This barbarism was simply the natural result of 2,000 years in Europe of hatred, dehumanization, and a church that long encouraged violence against Jews. Of course, there were exceptions, religious and secular. But most of Christendom was infected with this disease of Jew-hatred.
A little historical background:
Before Christianity, conflicts between Jews and non-Jews were entirely social and commercial. Jews had held important positions and functions throughout the Roman and Persian Empires, where they were free and equal citizens so long as they accepted the political authority of their overlords. This all changed when, in 325 CE, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire and deprived Jews of their equality and rights. It opened them up to religious attacks and hatred. To be fair, Constantine killed far more dissenting Christians than Jews.
As Christianity grew and saw itself as the One True Faith, the narrative changed to one of a Holy War. It was directed at those who refused to join this new religion. This was now an ideological hatred, not just social or commercial. The Jews were declared the enemies of good Christians and God. They were declared guilty of deicide, killing god, which remained a dogma in the Catholic Church until Pope John in 1965.
Throughout the Christian world, Jews were accused of being in league with the Devil. They were forced to appear differently and live separately from everyone else. They became the scapegoats for every and any disaster. They were not just outsiders, aliens, strangers. The Church saw the refusal of the Jews to accept Christianity as an existential threat. The unwillingness to convert only added insult to injury. They tried persuasion. Disputations were held. Jews had to listen to evangelical sermons. When that failed, they tried to delegitimize Judaism and humiliate “the stubborn Jew.”
Some rulers were more tolerant than others. Many took advantage of Jewish skills when it suited them. But most of the time they simply milked them when they could and expelled them after they had all their assets confiscated.
During the Crusades, armies heading towards the Holy Land set upon Jews as the nearest non-Christians at hand, giving them the choice of conversion or death. Many Jews even committed suicide to avoid torture and being burned to death. Whole communities were destroyed. There were massacres throughout what is now called France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland. Whole communities were destroyed in Bern, Coblenz, Cologne, Mayence, Neuss, Nuremberg, Pforzheim, Rottenburg, Sinzig, Speyer, Treves, Weissenberg, Worms, and York.
The hatred was encouraged by barons, bishops, lords, and cardinals. Names, now largely forgotten except by historians, led mobs against the Jews: Godfrey of Bouillon, Count Emicho, Peter the Hermit, St. Bernard, Radulphe the Monk, Rindfleisch, the Holy Shepherd of Verdun, and Capistrano, to name only the most notorious. Even after the Crusades, in the 14th century Jews were blamed for the Black Death and accused of poisoning Christian wells. Thousands of Jews were massacred across Europe.
One might have hoped that the Reformation initiated by Martin Luther in the 16th century would bring relief. But he too whipped up hatred against the Jews. In the Thirty Years’ War between the Catholics and Protestants, Jews were expelled from Linz, Brunswick, Cologne Florence, Geneva, Halle, Lucca, Magdeburg, Milan, Moravia, Parma, Pomerania, Rome, Saxony, Thuringia, and Vicenza.
Throughout all this, the Jews had no rights and were in effect the property of the princes and rulers of the areas where they lived. They could not own land or join guilds. The only options were trading, lending, and being middlemen. The vast majority of bankers and moneylenders throughout Europe were Christians. But Jews traveled, they interacted with locals far from the big cities. They had relatives in other countries they could call on and trust. As kings needed money, they often found local Jewish sources cheaper and easier to default on. They could cancel debts and confiscate property from the small Jewish lender. Jews were caught in a vice and suffered both from those above them and those below. Like agents and tax collectors, they were unpopular.
Of course, I must not generalize. There were good men, both monastic and papal, who at various times championed the cause of the Jews. But the overwhelming majority favored persecution. They spread lies. The worst example that never went away was the Blood Libel. The first recorded case was in Norwich in 1144. Jews were accused of killing a Christian child to drink his blood for wine on Passover and to use his flesh for matzah.
The blood libel was the excuse for killing Jews in Norwich, Gloucester, Bury St. Edmunds, Blois, Erfurt, Fulda. Frankfurt, Lincoln, and Trent. The supposed victims of the evil Jews were turned into saints and folk heroes. This libel has continued right into modern times — even in the US and Canada. Such dangerous lies, like Holocaust denial, perpetuate hatred of Jews.
There have been other cultural causes of hatred. Perhaps the most notorious in Germany has been the Judensau, the Jew sow — a belief going back to Medieval times that Jews eat the excrement of pigs and drink sow’s milk. It was designed to dehumanize and put Jews on the same level as animals, to vilify their rabbis and their religion.
The lingering Jew-hatred can be seen in the passion plays that were and are still performed on Palm Sundays across Europe and the Catholic world. These dramas about the death of Jesus have always portrayed the Jews as evil devils (in obvious Jewish clothes) who plotted to kill Jesus. Just think of how Hieronymus Bosch painted them as ugly, evil, hook-nosed deformed beings dripping blood and saliva.
All this is deeply embedded in the European psyche. Thousands of years of such conditioning is bound to desensitize people to Jewish suffering and almost justify violence against us by those too primitive or too blinded to see the truth. Is it any wonder that so many people, even in the US today, hate Jews?
No one will deny that we Jews are imperfect and often our own worst enemies. But hating a whole people is a pathology. There is no inoculation. Even education has only had limited efficacy. All of this leads me to the conclusion that although the world has advanced, and not everyone is infected with the disease of Jew-hatred, the poison still exists. Kristallnacht reminds us of what rabid hatred can lead to. The battle against it must continue.
Jeremy Rosen is a rabbi and writer currently living in New York.