Herschel Grynszpan11 February 2019.

This will tell you something: in October 1938 Germany’s Nazi government ordered the expulsion of many Jews of foreign nationality who were then residing in the Reich.  The Jews—especially the Polish Jews—didn’t want to go.  Five years after the Nazis had come to power, and two years after the “fake nice” show of the Berlin Summer Olympics, they didn’t want to go.  Jews had left Poland and Rumania and Hungary for a reason.  From September 1939 on, everywhere in German-controlled Europe would become increasingly, unimaginably worse for Jews.  But not now in October 1938.  There were still places worse than Nazi Germany.  Out they went all the same.  However, the Polish Republic refused to accept the returnees.  So those people sat in the squalid space between the German and Polish border train stations.  The international press reported the suffering of these people.

One attentive reader of the stories lived in Paris.[1]  Like the Moldavian cleaning ladies and Portuguese plasterers with whom my son was supposed to be learning French (instead of pan-handling in the Place Beaubourg the instant my back was turned), Hershel Grynszpan had gained illegal entry into the Republic.  He had come through Holland from Hanover, where he had grown up.[2]  Then he spent some time in the wind.  Grynszpan’s parents and sister were among the deported Jews freezing the in the mud just short of the Polish customs post.

On 7 November, Grynszpan bought a pistol, then went to the German Embassy and shot a young diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, who had been assigned to see him.  Rath died on 9 November 1938.  That night, the Nazi government unleashed a pogrom against the Jews in Germany.  It has come down to later generations as “Kristallnacht” (The Night of Broken Glass).[3]  The gigantic riot shocked Western peoples.  Along with the German occupation of Rump Czechoslovakia in March 1939, it played an important role in persuading French and British opinion that, much as they wanted something else, the Germans needed another beating.

The Nazis made Ernst vom Rath a race-martyr in the eyes of the Germans.  He was hardly that: Rath seems to have been merely a standard-issue late-joining, careerist, upper-class German.  French Jews made Grynszpan a pariah.  Then Grynszpan’s lawyer intimated that the murder resulted from a lovers quarrel between the killer and the killed, with allegations that Rath had suffered from anal gonorrhea.  The French courts quickly convicted Grynszpan, but spared him from the guillotine.  He was in a jail cell when the Germans conquered France in summer 1940.  The Nazis dragged him off to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  The Nazis were just as big on “show trials” as were the Stalinists.  They just weren’t as good at them.  In the end, Grynszpan disappeared into “night and fog.”  He may have been murdered in late 1942.

In spite of what he hoped and what historians may say, Herschel Grynszpan has no larger significance.  Either the Holocaust was on rails from Hitler’s early career OR the Holocaust sprang from decisions taken in the Winter of 1940-1941. But individuals act all the same.

[1] Stephen Koch, Hitler’s Pawn (2019).

[2] Unfortunately for mythology and film, Grynszpan was a jerk.  He was “a loner, immature, self-absorbed, quick to quarrel, [and] not always given to thinking things through.”

[3] Huge numbers of identifiably “Jewish” sites—stores, offices, synagogues—were destroyed or had their windows broken, the homes and businesses of individual Jews were looted, 30,000 Jews were arrested and shipped off to concentration camps until they were ransomed, and thousands of Jews caught a beating—of whom 91 died.

Making a Difference.

For a long time, Sudan had been the “bete noire” of humanitarian activists.  The government in Khartoum provided shelter to Osama bin Laden before American pressure mounted to such a level that he had to be invited to relocate to Afghanistan.  It waged a grisly war in the western province of Darfur.  This earned Sudan widespread condemnation for “genocide.”  Then it ramped-up a smoldering conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian/Animist South Sudan.  Eventually, the United States played a leading role in achieving national independence for South Sudan in July 2011.[1]

This arguably marked a considerable success for the foreign policy of President Barack Obama.  One question is whether it caused American diplomats to become too invested in that apparent success to see the possible flaws and even to correctly judge the character of the men who took power.   They owed their positions in part—but only in part—to American diplomacy.

Immediately, a problem arose: South Sudan wasn’t a “nation”; it was an agglomeration of tribes.  The two chief tribes were the Dinka and the Nuer.  Although bitter hostilities had pitted Dinka against Nuer in the past, the two groups united to fight the government of Sudan.  At independence, Salva Kiir, a Dinka leader became president, and Riek Machar, a Nuer leader, became vice-president.

Neither peace nor unity lasted very long.  First, Riek Machar lost his position as vice-president.  Then, in December 2013 civil war broke out between the Dinka and the Nuer.  Many people perished in the fighting.  The United Nations brokered a series of peace agreements that were honored only in the breach by the warring parties.  Deaths have mounted into the tens of thousands.  Generally, the Western press and humanitarian groups, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, presented ample evidence of the mass killings to the Western public.  Generally, that public showed no interest in these events.

That left it to governments to decide what course to follow, then to make the case for their policies to the voting public.  Here the wheels came off American diplomacy.  Although the Obama administration had played an important role in creating the South Sudan, it failed to engage with the subsequent crisis.  By Summer 2014, humanitarian groups were urging the United States to use an arms embargo and targeted economic sanctions (of the sort rapidly applied to Russia after it re-took the Crimea from Ukraine) to try to restrain the killing.  However, division ruled in the American government.

In Summer 2016, the United States urged the U.N. to authorize the sending of 4,000 additional peace-keeping troops to the capital city of Juba.  In September 2016, the American ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, got the government of South Sudan to agree to admit additional peace-keeping troops.  It appears that President Kiir only agreed to this to get Power to go back to Washington.  So, far none have actually been allowed into the country.

By November 2016, with the Obama administration headed for the exits, Power finally won support within the government for an American proposal to the U.N. to impose both economic sanctions and an arms embargo.  In late December 2016, the U.N. Security Council rejected this proposal.

Why?  Perhaps because the Russians opposed sanctions, and African countries didn’t want to impose sanctions.  Perhaps because it is safe to defy an outgoing administration.[2]

[1] Somini Sengupta, “Failures on South Sudan Highlight the Limits of U.S. Diplomacy,” NYT, 19 January 2017.

[2] And not just for foreign countries.  This is the second recent article implicitly critical of Samantha Power as more theatrical than effective.  See: Helene Cooper, “From a Fateful Motorcade,..,” NYT, 6 January 2017.

“Conspiracy” (2001, dir. Frank Pierson).

There are a bunch of movies about the Holocaust, but not a lot of good movies about the Holocaust.  Here’s one.

In the House of Lies. Ernst Marlier (1875-?) made a lot of money running a shipping company, then went into making and selling worthless patent medicines. The money rolled in. In 1914 he had a luxurious house built in the ritzy Wannsee area of Berlin. However, he was a fraud and he had a violent temper. By 1921 various forms of the law caught up with him as lawsuits, criminal charges, and a divorce ruined him. He sold the house to Friedrich Minoux. Minoux (1877-1945) had made a fortune in coal, oil, and electric power. After the First World War Minoux wanted to overthrow the Weimar Republic and had some contact with the Nazis. His money and contacts made Minoux and his wife stars in Nazi high-society after 1933. In 1941 he was convicted of having defrauded his own companies of an immense amount of money. Ruined and in prison, he sold the house at the Wannsee to the SS for use as a conference center.

On 22 June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. On 31 July 1941, Hermann Goering, second highest figure in the Nazi government, ordered Reinhard Heydrich to prepare a “final solution to the Jewish Problem in Europe.” Heydrich’s initial plan called for deporting Europe’s Jews to Eastern Europe, where they would slowly die of over-work, starvation, and disease. Moving all these people would involve massive organizational problems. On 29 November 1941 Heydrich invited the representatives of the key government departments to a meeting to sort out these issues. The meeting was scheduled for 9 December 1941. On 5 December 1941 the Red Army counter-attacked before Moscow; on 7 December 1941 Japan attacked the United States; on 8 December 1941 Heydrich postponed the meeting. Eventually, Heydrich re-scheduled the meeting for 20 January 1942.

Fifteen men attended the conference: Heydrich, three of his most terrifying myrmidons (“Gestapo” Muller, Rudolf Lange, Karl Schongarth), his trusty assistant Adolf Eichmann (who recorded the minutes), and representatives of the Interior Ministry (police), the Justice Ministry (the lawyers), the Ministry for Occupied Eastern Territories (Russia), the General Government (Poland), the Foreign Ministry (all the Jews not yet under SS control), the Four Year Plan for the economy (Goering’s stand-in + slave labor), the Nazi Party (stand-in for the rising figure of Martin Borman), the SS Race and Resettlement Office, and the Reich Chancellery (the office that coordinated the bureaucracy).

The meeting wasn’t about “what” to do. That had already been decided. The meeting was about “who is in charge.” Heydrich wanted to make it clear to everyone that he was in command and would brook no opposition. There are three things to look for in the proceedings of the conference. First, there is the veiled or Aesopian language. Nobody comes right out and says they plan to gas millions of people. No one who attended had any trouble figuring out what Heydrich meant. Second, the meeting got bogged down in petty details. That’s what committee meetings are like. Try not to be on committees. Third, focus on the push-back from Wilhelm Stuckart of the Interior Ministry, and Friedrich Kritzinger of the Reich Chancellery.

What them befell? The Czechs killed Heydrich in 1942; the Americans killed Roland Friesler, the Russians killed Lange and Muller, Alfred Meyer killed himself, and the Nazis killed Martin Luther, all in 1945. The Poles hanged Schongarth in 1946 and Josef Buhler in 1948. Friedrich Kritzinger testified at Nuremberg, then died in 1947. Wilhelm Stuckart died in 1951. The Israelis hanged Adolf Eichmann in 1962. The other four–Erich Neumann, Otto Hofman, Georg Leibrandt, and Gerhard Klopfer—did a little time in prison, then died in the 1980s.

Only the imprisoned Martin Luther didn’t have time to destroy his copy of the minutes.  It’s how we know what happened at the meeting.

Garrison States.

Governments have always oppressed and killed elements of their populations. However, the technological and organizational breakthroughs of the 19th century gave states unprecedented capacities. Telegraph, radio, telephone, railroads, automobiles, and air planes vastly improved communications and transportation, while centralized bureaucracies extended the reach of central government in other ways. Chemistry and machine-tools combined to provide killers with new means to deal out mass death. These trends converged to make the 20th century one of unmatched destructiveness.

The best estimate is that between 1900 and 1987 governments killed about 170 million people outside of combat operations between military forces. In comparison, battlefield deaths numbered “only” 34.4 million for the same period. This trend continued to the end of the 20th Century. In the 1980s about 650,000 people were killed in inter-state conflicts; in the 1990s that death toll fell to 220,000 people killed in international conflicts. On the other hand, about 3.5 million people were killed in civil wars during the 1990s.

Unsurprisingly, the phenomenon of state-sponsored mass murder has attracted the interest of thoughtful people. A political scientist named R. J. Rummel was one of the scholars who became interested in this phenomenon. His curiosity yielded one new word and two books. The word is “democide” (meaning the intentional killing of citizens by their government); the books are Death by Government (1994) and Statistics of Democide (1997).

In 1998 the CIA commissioned Professor Barbara Harff (Political Science, USNA)[1] to explore the possibility of predicting future “democides.” Harff found that statistical modeling of social, economic, and political factors produced a list of countries “at risk” of genocide. Some of these countries were places with long-running and already savage wars underway (Algeria, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan). The others clustered in northeastern (Ethiopia, Somalia) and central (Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda) Africa. Last, but not least, there was Iraq, where Saddam Hussein had already slaughtered about one and a quarter percent of the country’s people. (The total population was 24 million.)

Another factor should not be neglected, however.   Twentieth-century “democide” has generally been the child of attempts to create totalitarian social utopias. Democratic governments have virtually never engaged in “democide” in the Twentieth Century. (Admittedly, this isn’t going to make the Indians of the Americas feel any better.) Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung killed millions of people attempting to eliminate racial or class enemies. Their fore-runners (the Young Turks, Lenin) and imitators (Pol Pot) killed millions more.

How can we explain the proliferation of destructive utopia in modern times? Did the organizational and technological means available to madmen become much better developed than in earlier times? Did some accident of political, social, and economic conditions bring madmen to power in a single historical period? Is it possible to forestall catastrophe in the future?


“Human Development Report 2002,” Atlantic, October 2002, pp. 42, 44.

Bruce Falconer, “The World in Numbers: Murder by the State,” Atlantic, November 2003, pp. 56-57.


[1] Curiously, both Rummel and Harff were graduates in Political Science of Northwestern University.