Aug 2006 Journal

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A watershed moment in history (review)

KRISTALLNACHT: PRELUDE TO DESTRUCTION
by Martin Gilbert
HarperCollins, 2006, 320 pp., £14.99

Kristallnacht is the third in a new series of short books from HarperCollins, each concentrating on a particular event which was to prove a 'watershed moment' in history. Kristallnacht fits neatly into this category, as the key moment when, as the series' editors put it, Germany 'turn[ed] away from acceptable European moral standards of behaviour', which resulted in 'a challenge to the rest of the world with regard to the provision of safe havens for the hundreds of thousands of Jews seeking to escape the Nazi fury'.

The first half of the volume builds up the detail of what actually occurred in Germany and Austria in the days around 10 November 1938. The second half provides a frame, describing events prior to and following these days, setting them in a wider context and tracing the efforts of the international community to deal with the masses of refugees created at a stroke, almost, by the Nazis' now overt aim of rapidly removing as many Jews as possible from their territories.

The broad-based evidence assembled here demonstrates how thorough the destruction was. The SS, SA and Gestapo clearly played the central role, rather than ordinary police. Even schoolboys were used to lead attacks on some occasions. Against the picture of brutality that unfolds must be placed innumerable examples of great courage, quiet resourcefulness and dignity on the part of the victims.

What also emerges are the individual acts of decency, from the most unexpected sources - from the SS concierge at the Jewish Teachers' Seminary in Würzburg, for instance, who warned the students to leave, to the well-known act of defiance of Police Lieut. Krützfeld, who personally prevented the Gestapo from setting fire to the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in Berlin; from the Gentile neighbour in Mainz who pasted a notice 'Aryan Business' on the windows of his Jewish neighbour's shop, which thus escaped destruction, to the German fireman who for 60 years hid the Star of David from the top of the Semper Synagogue in Dresden, until he could return it to its rightful owners. Several diplomats used their privileged status - on occasion against their superiors' orders - to help Jews obtain visas; the hero here is Frank Foley, British Passport Control Officer (and undercover agent) in Berlin.

Various ultimately fruitless attempts to resettle the refugees in different parts of the world are duly recorded. The changing attitudes of the British and US governments are chronicled, though the efforts of the former are perhaps viewed more positively than recent studies would suggest. The number of refugees in Britain by late August 1939 is given as 'about 65,000', whereas Louise London's 2000 estimate of 80,000, which has taken into account factors such as the authorities' deliberate understatement of numbers at the time for political reasons, is closer to the truth. A caveat concerning the reliability of contemporary statistics should have been included.

The variety of sources used in this narrative is a particular strength of the volume. Nothing is as vivid, perhaps, as eyewitness accounts of an event and the book is largely constructed upon a wide range of these. Contemporary newspapers, mostly from Britain and US, are quoted extensively. Many unpublished written and oral accounts have been gathered from ex-refugees for this volume and used alongside published material. Contemporary diplomatic dispatches make up a particularly useful part of the picture, and there is other archival material too.

It is timely for a volume such as this to appear, in which the breadth and depth of testimonies can be provided, enabling a nuanced picture to emerge. The editors' wish to 'stimulate the reader to think about Europe's and America's relationship to their past and the key figures and incidents which moulded ... it' can only be applauded.
Marian Malet

previous article:The Other Schindler's List
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