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The Night of Broken Glass: Eyewitness Accounts of Kristallnacht.

The Night of Broken Glass: Eyewitness Accounts of Kristallnacht. Edited by Uta Gerhardt and Thomas Karlauf. Translated by Robert Simmons and Nick Somers. (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012. Pp. xi, 279. $25.00.)

There are numerous historical interpretations of the events of November 8-10, 1938, the so-called Reichskristallnacht pogrom that is generally regarded as the turning point in Nazi anti-Jewish policy and the beginning of the violent persecution culminating in the decision to exterminate European Jewry. Historians have differed widely in their interpretations of the origins of the pogrom and the perverse twists of internal Nazi politics that produced it; of the responses, degree of spontaneity, and participation by the German populace; and of the degree to which the violence was planned or directed by Hitler himself. Recently Alan E. Steinweis, in Kristallnacht, 1938 [2009], argued forcefully that many previous works on the subject have underestimated the degree of popular support and even enthusiastic participation by non-Nazi townspeople, as well as the extent to which the violence was planned and orchestrated by Hitler and Goebbels in Berlin.

"Eyewitness accounts"--either anthologies of the testimony of Jewish victims, or more rarely of German perpetrators or bystanders, or both--are quite numerous, but what sets this anthology, edited by German sociologist Uta Gerhardt and literary agent Thomas Karlauf, apart from other firsthand accounts is the immediacy of the testimonies. The twenty-one autobiographical accounts of men and women in this volume--comprising sections entitled "The Terror," "In the Camps," and "Before Emigration"--were all recorded within two years of the event, before the invasion of the Soviet Union and the effective beginning of the "Final Solution." As Saul Friedlander says in his foreword, "The testimonies ... assembled in this volume, describe what the authors believed to be the height of Nazi barbarism" (x). The accounts reproduced in this book were among the 263 memoirs submitted in response to a contest sponsored by Harvard University in 1939-1940 and deposited in Harvard's Houghton library. Thirty-four were selected and edited for publication by Edward Hartshorne, one of the project editors, but the manuscript was lost after his death in 1947. Uta Gerhardt discovered it while doing research for a biography of Hartshorne and has brought the stories to light.

Reading these harrowing testimonies in conjunction with the oral testimony in Steinweis's recent monograph--much of which was taken from the postwar trials of Kristallnacht perpetrators--is both poignant and instructive. While Steinweis's narrative emphasizes the degree to which many "ordinary Germans" joined in the violence, whether spontaneously or not, the accounts in this anthology emphasize the kindness and support of many of the victims' neighbors and even total strangers--a vivid example of the issues surrounding the intersection of memory and history. Their stories also manifest the bizarre inconsistencies and vagaries of Nazi persecution and the degree to which simple chance played a role in one's survival and eventual escape from Germany. Nevertheless, all of the accounts reveal the degree to which their authors were traumatized by their experiences, as they realized that the pogrom was not a spontaneous outburst but rather part of a cynical Nazi plan to force the expulsion of German Jews, and how they decided, without exception, to leave their homeland forever.

S. Ross Doughty

Ursinus College
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Author:Doughty, S. Ross
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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