New Perspectives on Kristallnacht (Summary)

Fri, 12/14/2018 - 5:16pm

New Perspectives on Kristallnacht: After 80 Years, the Nazi Pogrom in Global Comparison

November 5-7, 2018

The Center’s 2018 international conference “New Perspectives on Kristallnacht: After 80 Years, the Nazi Pogrom in Global Comparison” was held November 5-7, 2018 at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades. 

Surprisingly, it appears to have been the only international academic conference to mark the 80th anniversary of this fateful event of November 1938, during which Nazis and ordinary Germans murdered more than a hundred Jews, destroyed thousands of synagogues, Jewish institutions, stores and homes across Germany. 30,000 Jewish men were incarcerated in concentration camps. 

The conference convened 22 scholars from five countries (the United States, Germany, Israel, Canada, and the United Kingdom). The scholars represented various academic disciplines, including history, literature, philosophy and religion, film and cultural studies, French, political science, and Jewish studies. 

With as much time dedicated to discussion as to the presentations themselves, the conference presenters and audience (a mix of faculty, undergraduate students, graduate students, and community members) engaged in lively discussions over the three days of the conference. Seven distinguished scholars from USC, nearby universities, and universities in the UK and Germany moderated these discussions. Between 60 and 100 people attended the conference daily, and the conference livestream attracted over 400 viewers.

The conference was co-organized by the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research and the USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, and presented in cooperation with the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C. and the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University Berlin, Germany. 

In their presentations, many of the conference presenters challenged traditional perceptions of Kristallnacht – complicating and reshaping the knowledge and understanding we have about an event that many scholars think is thoroughly known and understood. This began with the very first presentation by Francois Guesnet, who presented a paper he co-wrote with Ulrich Baumann, tracing the history of shifts in the terminology used to refer to Kristallnacht and challenging the use of the term “pogrom” for the event, advocating for more terminological precision and proposing “state terror” as a term that better captures the centrally organized dimensions of Kristallnacht. In her presentation, Mary Fulbrook complicated the scholarship on bystanders, emphasizing the importance of examining social relations and behavior, not only attitudes. In her remarks, she deftly explored and complicated the relationship between passivity, indifference, and complicity.

Many of the conference presenters illuminated aspects of the event and its aftermath that have not gotten significant scholarly attention in the past. Maximilian Strnad presented his research on the highly gendered experiences of violence in mixed marriages during Kristallnacht. This violence, most powerfully affecting Jewish men, resulted in higher rates of family separations and divorces in mixed marriages after Kristallnacht. Wolf Gruner explored two mostly overlooked aspects of Kristallnacht – the mass intrusion and destruction of private homes and Jewish responses during and after the event. Offering many different cases of cities throughout Germany, he demonstrated the scale and intensity of the destruction and violence in Jewish homes and argued that the destruction and violence seem to have been systematic and widespread. In addition, Gruner highlighted many cases of Jewish reactions of defiance to the violent event, including Jews who documented the destruction on Kristallnacht, and some who protested via public critique, anonymous letters, leaflets, and physical self-defense. In his presentation, Michael Geheran examined how Jewish veterans experienced Kristallnacht, beginning his talk with a case of a Jewish business owner who was freed from Buchenwald after his employees petitioned for his release based on the fact that he had been a German army officer during World War I. His release, the release of other Jewish World War I veterans, and the fact that other Jewish veterans evaded arrest on Kristallnacht illustrate how veterans were perceived slightly differently compared to the rest of German Jewry, and also shows how collective protest did sometimes succeed.

Through deep and careful analysis of a wide range of sources, many presenters focused on press coverage and reporting of Kristallnacht, deepening our understanding of what was shared and known about Kristallnacht at that time. Presentations about press coverage included Anne-Christine Klotz’s analysis of Yiddish-language newspapers in Warsaw and Jeffrey Koerber’s examination of the Soviet press. Norman Domeier examined media coverage of Kristallnacht by American journalists based in Berlin. Drawing from a wide variety of sources, Domeier detailed the experiences, reports, and reflections of four journalists who wrote for the New York Times and New York Herald Tribune, illustrating how thoroughly the event was covered in the American press. Domeier argued that until December 1941, the American public was the best-informed public in the world about Nazi Germany. 

Other presentations deepened our understanding about the range of reactions to Kristallnacht in a variety of Jewish communities around the world. Hasia Diner described how Kristallnacht – more than any other event beforehand - motivated American Jews to act, organize, and speak out. She detailed the range of reactions and responses in their communal behavior, including the raising of funds for refugees, marshaling of resources, public and political advocacy, formation of Jewish community councils, and reorganization of Jewish committees to respond more quickly to the escalating dangers and needs abroad and in America. Steve Ross explored how Nazis and resistors responded in Los Angeles, revealing the Nazis’ plans and activities for training and preparing Nazis in Los Angeles and the resistance, infiltration, and surveillance that foiled their ultimate plans.  

There were many other topics explored at the conference that, like the ones above, challenged our traditional conceptions of Kristallnacht, broadened our understanding by exploring little-studied dimensions and dynamics of the event and its aftermath, and deepened our knowledge through close and careful research and analysis drawing from a variety of sources. Each presentation at the conference, and the ensuing lively and long discussions, contributed to a collective reexamination of this pivotal event, which is perceived by many as a turning point leading to the Holocaust. “Many people in the field believe that we already know everything there is to know about Kristallnacht,” one of the panel chairs reflected. “This conference reveals how much more there is to know and how the topic needs to be reopened and reexamined the ways that scholars here are doing.” 

“The only problem with this conference is that every paper is better than the last,” one presenter noted midway through the conference. “Just when you think ‘That was great,’ the next one surpasses it.” 

A few of the many other topics explored were the visual record of Kristallnacht; the representation of Kristallnacht in film; real and imagined parallels to Kristallnacht in recent global history, such as the Gujarat pogrom against Muslims in India and anti-African violence in Tel Aviv; and the way that Kristallnacht serves as a transnational trope in literature about the Rwandan genocide and the migrant crisis. 

Transnationalism was one of the most significant emerging themes across the papers throughout the conference, as a wide variety of presenters discussed transnational flows of people, information, reporting, images, sources, and perceptions related to Kristallnacht. Another prevailing theme was the necessity to contextualize Kristallnacht within its wider history. Instead of viewing it as an isolated incident, situating Kristallnacht within its history and the events that preceded it in Europe is essential to fully appreciating the experiences, social dynamics, consequences of Kristallnacht and reactions to it. 

“This conference allowed scholars from all over the world to revisit this crucial moment in history and its lasting effects,” said Professor Wolf Gruner, Founding Director of the Center for Advanced Genocide Research. “By convening experts from a wide range of disciplines and fostering discussion about new research, we illuminated dimensions, dynamics, and reverberations of Kristallnacht and its aftermath that have been neglected in scholarship thus far. We are ensuring that critical events such as the November pogrom of 1938 are still being explored and better understood.” 

In addition to videos of all the conference presentations and discussions being posted permanently on the conference website and promoted through the Center’s scholarly channels, selected papers from the conference will be published in the 2019 volume of the Casden Institute Annual Review book series, published by Purdue University Press and co-edited by Steve Ross and Wolf Gruner.


To view videos of the conference proceedings, click here.


Summary by Martha Stroud