A blink-of-the-eye episode in the history of the Third Reich sets the events of Kristallnacht in motion, anticipating the years of terror that followed.
In 1938, a 17-year-old Jewish boy living in Paris, angry at the maltreatment of his family in Germany, bought a gun and, “never before having fired a weapon in his entire life, shot down the first German diplomat he saw.” It is a matter of some irony that the diplomat in question had “denounced Hitler as the antichrist,” writes Koch (The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of José Robles, 2005, etc.), but no matter; propelled to instant fame, Herschel Grynszpan provided an excuse for the Nazis to launch sweeping anti-Semitic campaigns in their homeland. When France capitulated, he disappeared into the judicial machine of the Third Reich with the idea that he would be brought up on a show trial to prove that the Jews had really started the war in Europe. Though young and seemingly without much guile, Grynszpan threatened an ingenious defense. Rather than allowing it to air, the Nazis effectively erased him from history—a history in which, by Koch’s account, he was a pawn, though one who may have understood exactly how he was being played and resisted accordingly. Koch is fond of arty flourishes (“While these demonic plans were being laid, this very young man, so recently a child, confronted history—monster history—alone and entirely defenseless”) but careful on matters of causation, noting that something like Kristallnacht would have happened anyway. Throughout, he places seemingly minor events against a much larger backdrop that takes in the murderous intent of the Hitler regime, the devotion of servants such as Joseph Goebbels to Nazism’s “Big Lie” (his service of which, Goebbels believed, would further “the transformation of humanity into a new order”), and the ultimate fate of the Jews of Europe.
A footnote but one that will appeal to careful readers of modern European history.