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The Night of the Long Knives
A phrase invented by the Nazis, the Night of the Long Knives, refers to the events of the night of June 30, 1934, in Austria and Germany. Hitler, having achieved the titles of chancellor and dictator, still needed to gain the remaining position that would give him absolute power over Germany-the presidency. Determined to remove all obstacles, he flew secretly to Munich. There, accompanied by his personal bodyguards, he arrested at gunpoint his main rival and former friend, Ernst Röhm. Röhm, the chief of the so-called Brownshirts-a terrorist paramilitary unit of the Nazi party, officially known as Sturmabteilung or Storm Troopers, SA for short-had sought to merge his four- hundred-thousand-member force with the German army and consequently (so Hitler alleged) take over Germany. Hitler, anxious not to lose the support of the army, even more anxious to rid himself of competitors, executed Röhm and several ambitious Brownshirt officers.
Not satisfied with half-measures, the Führer decided to eliminate other threats as well. While Röhm and his staff were being shot in Munich, Hitler's close associates Himmler and Göring conducted a similar purge in Berlin. Among those executed were the former chancellor of Germany, unfriendly police and state officials, and dissident executives of the Nazi party. Hitler later claimed that seventy-seven traitors had been killed in order to prevent an overthrow of the German government. Survivors of the purge insisted that the actual number was over four hundred. A postwar trial in Munich raised the total evenhigher-beyond one thousand.
The significance of the Night of the Long Knives is two-fold. As a consequence of the terror that Hitler created, he did gain the final crucial title of president and, as absolute ruler of Germany, steered his nation toward the obscenities of the Second World War. Beyond that, his use of bodyguards in executing his rivals raised that group to a stature that equaled and eventually surpassed the power of Röhm's paramilitary terrorists. In time, the guards numbered more than a million. Just as Röhm's Brownshirts, Sturmabteilung or Storm Troopers, were known as SA, so Hitler's Blackshirts, Schutzstaffel or elite guard, were known by their unit's initials. But unlike SA, initials remembered today by few, the initials of the Blackshirts remain synonymous with depravity. The hiss of a snake. The rasp of evil.
The Night of Broken Glass
Also known as Kristallnacht or Crystal Night, the Night of Broken Glass refers to events on November 9, 1938, throughout Germany. Two days earlier, Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew, assassinated Ernst von Rath, a minor diplomat at the German embassy in Paris, in retaliation for the deportation of Grynszpan's family and 23,000 other Jews from Germany to Poland. Grynszpan's intended target had been the German ambassador to Paris, but von Rath attempted to intervene and was shot instead. Ironically, von Rath had openly criticized Nazi anti-Semitic attitudes and was scheduled for disciplinary action by the Gestapo. No matter-a Jew had killed a German official, and Hitler took advantage of the incident. Publicly claiming that the assassination had prompted anti-Semitic riots throughout Germany, he privately gave orders for the as yet nonexistent riots to occur.
These "spontaneous demonstrations" were organized by Reinhard Heydrich, second in command of the SS. After Nazi mobs enthusiastically completed their work on the night of November 9, Heydrich was able to give a preliminary report to Hitler that 815 Jewish shops, 171 Jewish homes, and 119 synagogues had been set on fire or otherwise destroyed; twenty-thousand Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps; thirty-six were killed, another thirty-six critically injured. These figures turned out to be drastically underestimated. So widespread was the destruction that everywhere streets were littered with fragments from shattered windows, hence the expression "the Night of Broken Glass."
Concluding his report, Heydrich recommended that
the best course to follow would be for the insurance companies to settle the Jews' claims in full and then confiscate the money and return it to the insurers. My information is that claims for broken glass alone will amount to some five million marks. . . . As for the practical matter of cleaning up the destruction, this is being arranged by releasing Jews in gangs from the concentration camps and having them clean up their own messes under supervision. The courts will impose upon them a fine of a billion marks, and this will be paid out of the proceeds of their confiscated property. Heil Hitler!
The Night of Broken Glass represents the start of Germany's undisguised state- directed pogrom against the Jews. Though many foreign governments-and even some executives within the Nazi party-objected to the atrocities committed on Kristallnacht, no one did anything to stop them or to ensure that they weren't repeated and in much worse degree.
The Night and Fog
The Nacht und Nebel Erlass or Night and Fog Decree, one of Hitler's personal edicts, was issued on December 7, 1941, the same day Japan attacked America's naval base at Pearl Harbor. Directed against "persons endangering German security" and specifically against members of resistance groups in German- occupied territories, it proposed that execution was not itself a sufficient deterrent against anti-German threats. Psychological as well as physical force was necessary. Thus, not all agitators would be killed upon discovery; many instead would be transported to an unknown location, their destiny never to be learned by outsiders. Friends and family members would forever be kept in suspense. As the edict stipulated, "The intimidating effect of these measures lies (a) in the disappearance without trace of the guilty person, (b) in the fact that no kind of information must be given about the person's whereabouts and his fate." Those tempted to participate in anti-German activity would fear that they, like their loved ones, would disappear within the night and the fog.
An example of how this decree was carried out occurred in 1942: the fate of the village of Lidice, in Czechoslovakia. In reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Nazi soldiers surrounded the village and shot every male within it, ten at a time. It took all day before the executions ended. The women of the village were transported to the concentration camp at Ravensbrück in Germany, where they died from weakness or were gassed. But the children of the village, ninety of them, simply vanished into the night and fog. Relatives in other villages could not find a trace of them.
The Dark Night of the Soul
On January 20, 1942, six weeks after the Night and Fog Decree, Hitler ordered his senior SS officers to attend a special conference in Berlin for the purpose of organizing the Final Solution to what the Führer called "the Jewish question." Anti-Semitic riots and laws, intended to force the Jews to leave German territory of their own accord, had been only partially successful-most Jews had been reluctant to leave their homes and businesses. Massive deportations too had been only partially successful-the process took too much time and was too expensive. But now the ultimate extension of Crystal Night was set in motion. Extermination.
Mass executions by firing squad were uneconomical due to the cost of ammunition. A cheaper method, that of cramming victims into trucks and killing them with engine exhaust, was judged unsatisfactory because not enough victims could be asphyxiated at one time. But asphyxiation itself was not at fault. The problem was how to do it efficiently. In the spring of 1942, the death camps began.
These were not the same as concentration camps, where huge numbers of people were squeezed together into squalid barracks from which they were marched each day to factories to work for the German war effort. As a consequence of brutal workloads, insufficient food, and unsanitary conditions, most occupants of the concentration camps did indeed die, but death was not the primary purpose for which prisoners had been sent to these work camps. Slavery was.
The death camps, however, had no other function than to kill with the utmost speed and efficiency. There were killing centers at some concentration camps, Auschwitz and Maidanek for example, but the exclusive death camps numbered only four. All were situated in Poland: Sobibor, Belzec, Chelmno, and Treblinka.
As Treblinka's commandant, Franz Stangl, confessed, it was Dante's Inferno. The smell was indescribable. The hundreds, no, the thousands of bodies everywhere, decomposing, putrefying. All around the perimeter of the camp, there were tents and open fires with groups of Ukrainian guards and girls-whores, I found out later, from all over the countryside-weaving drunk, dancing, singing, playing music.
In the fifteen months of its existence, from July of 1942 to September of 1943, the camp at Treblinka exterminated one million Jews-a sixth of all Jews murdered in the Holocaust. When the camp was at its most efficient, twenty thousand people were killed each day, a statistic that becomes even more horrible when one realizes that all of these executions occurred in the morning. The rest of the day was devoted to disposing of the bodies by burning them in huge open pits. At night, the flames were allowed to die out, the nauseating smoke to drift away, so the next morning's victims would not be alarmed by the unmistakable stench of incinerated corpses.