Why is everybody talking about Kristallnacht?
A right-wing pundit, a congressman with white nationalist sympathies and an action star-turned-governor of California have all made public analogies to Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, in the last 24 hours.
Are any of them right?
In a Jan. 10 video, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol “the Day of Broken Glass right here in the United States,” drawing on his personal history as the son of a World War II veteran on the Austrian side of the war.
Both the Capitol attack and Kristallnacht, he argued, were the actions of violent groups motivated by lies from their leader: The mob that approached the Capitol, urged on by President Donald Trump earlier that day, parroted his lie that the election was stolen from him, while Kristallnacht was the work of a group Schwarzenegger called “the Nazi equivalent of the Proud Boys” who responded to the antisemitic libels put forward by Adolf Hitler and his ministers.
More dubiously, Former Rep. Steve King and Fox News host Jeanine Pirro both likened the deplatforming of alt-right voices from social media to the infamous pogrom, which left dozens of Jews dead and led to the first mass arrests and deportations of Jews to Nazi concentration camps.
To understand where both comparisons are coming from — and how they’re flawed — it’s important to start with the real history of Kristallnacht.
Between the evening of Nov. 9, 1938 and the following day, a group of Nazi party officials, members of the Nazi paramilitary wing known as the Sturmabteilung or SA and the Hitler Youth launched a pogrom against the Jews of Germany and Austria. The riot followed years of persecution of Jews by the Nazi regime and the issuance of its 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jews of citizenship. The violent riot was incited after a 17-year-old Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, assassinated the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris on Nov. 7, 1938. Vom Rath died from his wounds two days later, coincidentally on the 15th anniversary of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, a Nazi attempt to seize control of the Weimar government.
Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, used Grynszpan’s actions, undertaken after Grynszpan learned the Nazis had exiled his parents to Poland, as a pretext for violence, informing Nazi leadership that while the party would not organize any anti-Jewish demonstrations, “insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.”
Beginning in the late hours of Nov. 9, rioters began the wholesale destruction of Jewish property across Germany and Austria. They shattered the windows of thousands of businesses, hence the name the Night of Broken Glass. Synagogues stood burning — hundreds were destroyed — while firefighters and policemen, under orders not to act, stood by, only dousing the flames if they spread to “Aryan” buildings. The mob desecrated Jewish cemeteries, schools, hospitals and homes and the SA assaulted Jews on the streets of Berlin and Vienna.
German estimates claimed a loss of 91 Jewish lives, and subsequent scholarship suggested a death toll in the hundreds. The rioters raped women, and an unknown number of Jews — estimates range from the dozens to the hundreds — died by suicide during and immediately after Kristallnacht.
By Nov. 10, many Jewish communities in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland found their houses of worship reduced to rubble and their other buildings ransacked. The Nazi government left the bill to the Jews, holding them responsible for $400 million worth of damages and blaming them for the violence.
During the pogrom, Nazi officials initiated their first mass arrests of Jews. Some 30,000 men were arrested and later deported to the Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen concentration camps, among others. Their crime was being Jewish. Most were soon released, with the condition that they begin the process of emigrating from Germany. Countless other Jews in the region took the events of that long November night as their cue to leave. Soon after, laws transferred Jewish property and businesses to “Aryan” citizens and shut Jews out of public life.
The recent spate of invocations of Kristallnacht isn’t unprecedented. In 2016, some lamented, controversially, that Trump’s recent election was reminiscent of the pogrom. And in November 2020, journalist Christiane Amanpour compared Trump’s attacks on the truth to the event. She later apologized.
Pirro and King, like Amanpour, appeared to be conflating Nazi book-burnings, a regular feature of the early Reich’s censorship, with the pervasive burning and destruction of Jewish property and livelihood of Kristallnacht. Pirro, in an attempt to clarify her comments, cited the destruction of liturgical books involved in the pogrom. There is, of course, arguably a difference between companies choosing not to platform people they believe might incite violence and the wanton erasure of a culture with the encouragement of the state.
Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, invoked the infamous event to make a larger point about the destructiveness of an angry mob groomed to believe lies. He used the metaphor of the shattered windows of the Capitol to speak about the attempted destruction of American values, linking it to the broken glass of 1938 Austria. He used the pogrom as a device to bridge his own experience with the fallout of fascism to an attempted coup in his adopted country.
In the end, the Capitol siege itself is not analogous to Kristallnacht. But the falsehoods that motivated it, and the mob mentality that fueled it, have already been likened by some scholars to one of Hitler’s calling cards: “The Big Lie,” a distortion of fact so audacious, many find themselves believing it.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [[email protected]]