Kristallnacht Without Jews

by Rafael Medoff

Imagine if President Obama had responded to ISIS atrocities against the Yazidis by issuing a condemnation which did not mention either ISIS or the Yazidis by name. Or if President Trump responded to Syrian chemical weapons attacks with a statement vaguely expressing shock at “the situation in the Middle East.”

That’s essentially what President Franklin D. Roosevelt did, 81 years ago this week, in response to Kristallnacht, the nationwide anti-Jewish pogrom in Nazi Germany.

On the night of November 9-10, 1938, Nazi mobs torched hundreds of synagogues, smashed the windows of thousands of Jewish businesses and homes, and murdered nearly one hundred Jews. Another 30,000 were dragged off to concentration camps.

At his regularly-scheduled press conference on November 11, President Roosevelt was asked if he had anything to say about the violence. “No, I think not,” he replied. “You had better handle that through the State Department.”

In the face of widespread public revulsion against the German horrors, the president’s aides decided some sort of statement might be prudent. The State Department prepared a draft. FDR made a few revisions, and then read it aloud at his next press conference, on November 15.

The president’s statement was only four sentences long. Roosevelt did not use the words “pogrom” or “violence.” It was just “the current situation in Germany” and “the news of the past few days from Germany.” He said the news had “deeply shocked public opinion in the United States,” and “Such news from any part of the world would inevitably produce a similar profound reaction among American people in every part of the nation.”

“I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a twentieth century civilization,” FDR continued. “With a view to gaining a first-hand picture of the current situation in Germany, I asked the Secretary of State to order our Ambassador in Berlin to return at once for report and  consultation.”

That was all. Roosevelt did not make any reference to Adolf Hitler, the German government, or their Jewish victims. A reporter asked, “Would you elaborate on that, sir?” The president responded, “No, I think it speaks for itself.”

FDR emphasized that he was not recalling America’s ambassador from Berlin; diplomatic relations between the United States and Nazi Germany were not being severed or suspended. The ambassador would simply report to the White House on what was happening in Germany.

The main problem with Roosevelt’s vague statement about Kristallnacht was not that the public would fail to realize that the perpetrators were Nazis and the victims were Jews. The front-page media coverage of the pogrom had made those facts clear. The real problem was that it indicated there would be no meaningful change in FDR’s hands-off policy regarding German persecution of the Jews.

Roosevelt gave 348 press conferences between 1933 and the autumn of 1938. He never once brought up Hitler’s oppression of the Jews. Drawing attention to the Jews’ plight would have increased the pressure on the Roosevelt administration to accept more refugees—something FDR strongly opposed.

In response to a reporter’s question after Kristallnacht, Roosevelt said the possibility of admitting more Jewish refugees to the United States was “not in contemplation.” He did agree to a suggestion by Labor Secretary Frances Perkins to extend the visas of German citizens who were in the United States as tourists. FDR estimated there were “twelve to fifteen thousand” such tourists (and they “are not all Jews by any means,” he emphasized). The actual number was about 5,000, the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration later acknowledged.

President Roosevelt was so determined to maintain cordial—sometimes even friendly—relations with the Nazi regime, that his administration actually helped Hitler evade the American Jewish boycott of German goods. It did so by allowing the Nazis to print the city of origin, rather than the country of origin, on the labels of their exports to the United States—thus making it harder  for consumers to identify the products as coming from Nazi Germany.

  Not only did Roosevelt refuse to condemn Hitler by name during those years, but he personally intervened to prevent Interior Secretary Harold Ickes from doing so.

Ickes was invited to participate in a post-Kristallnacht broadcast on CBS Radio. As was customary, he submitted the draft of his speech to the White House. “The draft as submitted was approved,” Ickes wrote in his diary, “except that the President wanted us to cut out all references to Germany by name as well as references to Hitler, Goebbels, and others by name.”

Three weeks later, FDR censored Ickes again. When the Interior Secretary showed the White House a speech he planned to give to a Jewish audience in Cleveland in early December, he was ordered to delete a sentence that said, “Perhaps it is too much to hope that America in time can or will return to its former noble historic policy [of welcoming refugees].”

For President Roosevelt and his administration, a return to that noble policy was indeed too much to hope for–or even to mention out loud.

(November 2019)