America’s Response to Kristallnacht

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Sixty-six years ago this week, Nazi storm troopers carried out the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom against the Jews of Germany.  On November 9 and 10, 1938, about one hundred Jews were murdered and 30,000 more were sent to concentration camps.  Nearly 200 synagogues were burned down.  More than 7,000 Jewish-owned business were destroyed.  The vast amount of shattered glass from the windows of Jewish homes and shops gave the rampage its name, Crystal Night, or Night of the Broken Glass.

During the previous five years, Germany’s Jews had been stripped of their legal rights and subjected to occasional outbursts of violence, but nothing comparable to the systematic, nationwide devastation of Kristallnacht.  Hitler’s persecution of the Jews assumed a new and terrifying character in the autumn of 1938.  Now the Fuhrer awaited the world’s response, to see whether there would be any serious international opposition to his anti-Jewish policies.

President Franklin Roosevelt condemned the pogrom, recalled the U.S. ambassador from Germany for “consultations,” and extended the visitors’ visas of the approximately 12,000 German Jewish refugees who were then in the United States.  But at the same time, FDR announced that liberalization of America’s tight immigration quotas was “not in contemplation.”  The Christian Science Monitor echoed Roosevelt’s position, telling its readers that prayer, not more immigration, was the best response to the persecution of German Jewry.

In the wake of Kristallnacht, humanitarian-minded Members of Congress introduced legislation to aid German Jewry.  A bill sponsored by Senator Robert F. Wagner (D-NY) and Rep. Edith Rogers (R-Mass) proposed the admission of 20,000 German refugee children outside the quotas.  Nativist and isolationist groups vociferously opposed the Wagner-Rogers bill. Typical of their perspective was a remark by FDR’s cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, who was the wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration: she warned that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”  An appeal to FDR by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for his support of the bill fell on deaf ears, and an inquiry by a Congresswoman as to the president’s position was returned to his secretary marked “File No action FDR.”  Mindful of polls showing most Americans opposed to more immigration, Roosevelt preferred to follow public opinion rather than lead it.  Without his support, the Wagner-Rogers bill was buried in committee.

Ironically, when Pets Magazine the following year launched a campaign to have Americans take in pure-bred British puppies so they would not be harmed by German bombing raids, the magazine was flooded with several thousand offers of haven for the dogs.

American Jewish organizations were reluctant to challenge either the administration’s policy or the prevailing public mood.  Three days after Kristallnacht, representatives of the General Jewish Council, the umbrella group for the four largest Jewish defense organizations, decided “there should be no parades, public demonstrations or protests by Jews” and no calls for more immigration. They feared that would provoke antisemitism. They were likewise reluctant to urge more immigration.  When FDR asked his closest Jewish adviser, Samuel Rosenman –a prominent member of the American Jewish Committee– if more Jewish refugees should be allowed to enter the U.S. in the wake of Kristallnacht, Rosenman opposed such a move because “it would create a Jewish problem in the U.S.”

Four months before Kristallnacht, the Roosevelt administration had organized a conference in Evian, France, and invited delegates from 32 countries to discuss the Jewish refugee problem.  But the delegates reaffirmed their unwillingness to liberalize their immigration quotas, and the British refused to even discuss Palestine as a possible haven. Some critics later pointed out that “Evian” was “Naive” spelled backwards. The real problem was not naiveté, but calculated indifference; the U.S. administration convened the gathering in order to create the impression that the Free World was taking action, when it was doing nothing of the sort.

One German newspaper’s comment on Evian stands out:  “We can see that one likes to pity the Jews…but no state is prepared to … accept a few thousand Jews.  Thus the conference serves to justify Germany’s policy against Jewry.”

Kristallnacht did not fundamentally alter the international community’s response to Hitler.  There were many verbal condemnations, but no economic sanctions against Nazi Germany, no severing of diplomatic relations, no easing of immigration quotas, not even a complete opening of the gates to the Jews’ own ancient homeland.  The Free World’s muted reaction to the Kristallnacht pogrom foreshadowed the terrible silence with which it would greet the Nazis’ Final Solution.

November 2004