How the World Shrugged Off Kristallnacht


In November 1938, Nazis committed the worst pogrom Germany had seen since the Middle Ages—Kristallnacht. To mark the incident’s 75th anniversary, an exhibition in Berlin gathers previously unknown reports by foreign diplomats, revealing how the shocking events prompted little more than hollow condemnation. (Spiegel)

Use our resources to better understand diplomacy and the diplomatic process.

Holocaust survivors remember Kristallnacht in this series of short videos from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Discussion Ideas

  • In the exhibit discussed in the Spiegel article (From the Inside to the Outside), diplomats serving in Berlin (the capital of Nazi Germany) express horror at the atrocities committed during Kristallnacht—one calling it an “outbreak of sadistic cruelty.” Read “How Diplomacy Works,” a short overview of the diplomatic process in our encyclopedic entry on diplomacy. Besides verbal condemnation, what other options were available to nations with diplomats in Berlin in 1938?
    • Nations could have invoked diplomatic sanctions, the removal of all or some embassy staff from the targeted country. The U.S. actually did this following the events of Kristallnacht. President Franklin Roosevelt recalled the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Hugh Wilson, although he did not cut off diplomatic relations entirely.
    • Nations could have imposed economic sanctions, which restrict trade with the targeted country. Economic sanctions often take two forms.
      • The first involves limiting exports to a targeted country. By 1938, Nazi Germany had worked (not entirely successfully) to limit its trading partners to those nations in its sphere of influence—mostly central European nations such as Romania and Hungary.
      • The second involves imposing tariffs or taxes on goods imported from the targeted country. Corporations such as AEG and Krupp exported both raw materials (such as iron) and finished goods (such as auto parts) throughout Europe.
    • As pointedly noted in the Spiegel article, nations could have opened their borders to Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled areas, including Germany, Austria, and parts of Czechoslovakia and Poland (great Kristallnacht map from the USHMM). In the words of Hermann Göring, who was in a position to know: “I wouldn’t want to be a Jew in Germany.”
    • Finally, nations could have threatened to use force. There was no United Nations or other peacekeeping body in 1938, so this would have been meant actual armed conflict—war.
  • Why do you think nations did not pursue these other options? The final paragraphs of the Spiegel article may give you some hints. Keep this in mind: It is very easy for us to look back, 75 years later, and speculate what could or should have been done. (In fact, such speculation is called “counterfactual history,” and it’s fascinating.) It’s much more difficult to act with the knowledge available at the time.
    • Sanctions or the use of force probably seemed very excessive to diplomats in 1938. They did not realize the scope of Nazi anti-Semitism—almost no one on Earth realized the pogroms of Kristallnacht were only the beginning of a Holocaust. Writing in 1938, the Italian diplomat quoted in the Spiegel article said it was “‘unimaginable’ that the Jews in Germany ‘will all be lined up against the wall one day or condemned to commit suicide, or that they will be locked up in giant concentration camps.'”
    • Granting asylum to refugees was a politically fraught in 1938 as it is now. Critics of an asylum policy worried that the U.S. economy, already burdened by the Great Depression, could not economically afford to accept thousands of refugees. Other critics worried that a relaxed immigration policy would allow Nazi spies to settle in the U.S. Finally, anti-Semitism actually had supporters in the U.S. and although few encouraged the atrocities of Kristallnacht, many were able to dismiss it.

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