Ernst vom Rath

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Ernst vom Rath

Ernst Eduard vom Rath (3 June 1909 – 9 November 1938) was a Nazi Germany diplomat, remembered for his assassination in Paris in 1938 by a Polish Jewish teenager, Herschel Grynszpan, which provided a pretext for the Kristallnacht, "The Night of Broken Glass."

Early life and career[edit]

Vom Rath was born in Frankfurt am Main to an aristocratic family, the son of a high-ranking public official, Gustav vom Rath. He attended a school in Breslau, and then studied law at Bonn, Munich and Königsberg, until 1932, when he joined the Nazi Party and became a career diplomat. In April 1933 he became a member of the SA, the party's paramilitary.[1] In 1935, after a posting in Bucharest, he was posted to the German embassy in Paris. Regarding the "Jewish Question", Rath expressed regret that the German Jews had to suffer, but argued that the anti-Semitic laws were "necessary" to allow the Volksgemeinschaft to flourish.[2]

Assassination and motives[edit]

Herschel Grynszpan in Paris just after his arrest (7 November 1938)

On the morning of 7 November 1938, Polish-German Jew Herschel Grynszpan, 17, went to the German embassy in Paris and asked to speak with an embassy official. He shot the 29-year-old vom Rath five times, mortally wounding him with bullets to the spleen, stomach and pancreas.[3][4]

Adolf Hitler himself sent his two best doctors, personal physician Karl Brandt and surgeon Georg Magnus, to Paris to try to save vom Rath's life. Hitler promoted vom Rath, who had been a junior officer at the embassy, to the rank of Legal Consul, First Class (Gesandtschaftsrat I. Klasse) hours before vom Rath's death on 9 November at 17:30 (5:30 p.m.).[5] Kristallnacht was launched within hours.

Why Grynszpan, who had fled from Germany to France in 1936, chose vom Rath is not known with certainty, although he was upset over news that his family was being deported from Germany back to Poland. As far as it can be established, Grynszpan and Rath did not know each other. Most accounts of the shooting state that Grynszpan did not ask for vom Rath by name but only asked to speak to a member of the diplomatic staff. The records were falsified in 1942, and the Germans spread propaganda that Grynszpan's intention was to kill the ambassador, Count Johannes von Welczeck.[4][6]

Grynszpan, who was immediately arrested and confessed, insisted his motives were to avenge the Jewish people against the actions already taken by the Germans. He had a postcard on him written to his parents that read, "With God's help. My dear parents, I could not do otherwise, may God forgive me, the heart bleeds when I hear of your tragedy and that of the 12,000 Jews. I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do. Forgive me."[7]


Vom Rath was given a state funeral on 17 November in Düsseldorf, with Hitler and Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop among those in attendance. Germany used the incident to publicize that the Jews had "fired the first shot" in a war on Germany; in his funeral oration, Ribbentrop declared, "We understand the challenge, and we accept it."[8]

Ernst vom Rath's grave in Düsseldorf

American journalist Dorothy Thompson reported widely on the case, and raised funds for Grynszpan's defence in his French trial, which never took place.[9] Much to the fury of Grynszpan who wanted to use the defense that he killed Rath because he was a Jew, Grynszpan's French lawyer Vincent de Moro-Giafferi wanted to use as the defense the allegation that Rath was a homosexual who had seduced Grynszpan, and that Grynszpan had killed Rath as a part of a lover's quarrel. The allegations that Rath was gay started with Moro-Giafferi. Grynszpan initially escaped from prison when France fell in 1940, but he was captured by the Nazis and taken back to Germany.[10] He was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to face a trial there, one that Joseph Goebbels planned to turn into Nazi propaganda about an international Jewish conspiracy and to claim it as evidence that Jews had started World War II.[10][9][11]

However, allegations emerged that vom Rath was a homosexual, and Goebbels learned that Grynszpan was intending to use this claim in his defence at the trial by implying that vom Rath had seduced him. Grynszpan planned to claim that vom Rath was his pimp and he had been sent to be with various diplomats (although Grynszpan later stated this to be false in an encrypted letter sent from Sachsenhausen).[12] [13]

The homosexuality accusations threatened to humiliate the Nazis. Goebbels wrote that "Grynszpan has invented the insolent argument that he had a homosexual relationship with... vom Rath. That is, of course, a shameless lie; however it is thought out very cleverly and would, if brought out in the course of a public trial, certainly become the main argument of enemy propaganda."[14]

Whether or not vom Rath was homosexual is not known; the French writer André Gide, himself a homosexual, testified in his personal diaries that vom Rath was well known in the Parisian homosexual community. There were rumours that occasionally he was called "Madame Ambassador" and "Notre Dame de Paris." His brother, Gustav, was convicted of homosexual offences and there were allegations that vom Rath was treated for rectal gonorrhoea at the Berlin Institute of Radiology.[1][15][16]

The trial was planned for 1942 but never took place, primarily because the Nazis (who also sent homosexuals to the death camps) feared it would turn into a gay scandal.[17]

Grynszpan's ultimate fate is unknown. The last documentation indicating he was alive, or thought to be alive, was a Foreign Ministry memorandum on 7 December 1942.[18] In 1960, at the request of his parents in Israel, the lower district court in Hannover officially declared Grynszpan deceased, listing his date of death as 8 May 1945.[19][20]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Armin Fuhrer: Herschel. Das Attentat des Herschel Grynszpan am 7. November 1938 und der Beginn des Holocaust (Herschel. The assassination by Herschel Grynszpan on 7 November 1938 and the beginning of the Holocaust). Berlin Story Verlag, Berlin 2013, ISBN 978-3-86368-101-2. In German.
  • Sidney Smeets: De wanhoopsdaad (An Act of Desperation). Balans, Amsterdam, 2013. ISBN 978-9-460-03718-4. In Dutch.


  1. ^ a b Gerald Schwab (1990). The Day the Holocaust Began: The Odyssey of Herschel Grynszpan. Praeger. p. 14. ISBN 978-0275935764. 
  2. ^ Schwab, Gerald The Day the Holocaust Began, New York: Praeger, 1990 page 15.
  3. ^ Alan E. Steinweis (2009). Kristallnacht 1938. Belknap Press. p. 179. ISBN 978-0674036239. 
  4. ^ a b Giles MacDonogh. 1938: Hitler's Gamble. p. 217. 
  5. ^ Hermann Weiß (2002). Biographisches Lexikon zum Dritten Reich [Biographies of the Third Reich]. Fischer-Taschenbuchverlag. p. 365. ISBN 3-596-13086-7. 
  6. ^ Herbert A. Strauss (1992). Jewish immigrants of the Nazi period in the USA (Volume 4: Jewish Emigration from Germany, 1933–1942). ASIN B007DZSB4M. Even the assertion that persists stubbornly to this day that vom Rath was only an accidental victim, that Grynszpan actually wanted to kill the highest-ranking representative of the German Reich in France, the ambassador, has been called into question since it emerged. There exists a series of Nazi forgeries in preparation of a show trial against Grynszpan following his abduction to Germany in July 1940. In this way, the theory that the Jews had instigated the Second World War was to be backed up, and the ongoing deportations publicly justified. 
  7. ^ Schwab 1990, p. 43
  8. ^ Richard Cohen (2014). Israel: Is It Good for the Jews?. Simon & Schuster. p. 62. ISBN 978-1416575689. 
  9. ^ a b Jonathan Kirsch (2013). The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris. Liveright. ISBN 978-0871407405. 
  10. ^ a b "An Act of Desperation (English summary)". Retrieved 19 January 2015. 
  11. ^ Raul Hilberg (1990). Die Vernichtung der europäischen Juden, Band 3 [The Destruction of the European Jews, Vol. 3]. Fischer Taschenbuch. p. 1089. ISBN 978-3596244171. 
  12. ^ Trude Maurer (1988). "Abschiebung und Attentat. Die Ausweisung der polnischen Juden und der Vorwand für die Kristallnacht" [Deportation and Assassination. The Expulsion of Polish Jews and the Pretext for Kristallnacht]. In Walter H. Pehle. Der Judenpogrom 1938. Von der "Reichskristallnacht zum Völkermord [The 1938 Jewish Pogrom. From Kristallnacht to Genocide]. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag. p. 70. ISBN 978-3596243860. 
  13. ^ Hans-Jürgen Döscher (2000). Reichskristallnacht: die Novemberpogrome 1938 [Kristallnacht: The Pogroms of November 1938]. pp. 165, 169. 
  14. ^ Schwab 1990, p. 142
  15. ^ Florence Tamagne (2006). A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Volume 1 & 2: Berlin/London/Paris - 1919–39. Algora Publishing. pp. 373, 531. ISBN 0-87586-357-4. 
  16. ^ Döscher 2006, pp. 165, 182
  17. ^ Ewout Klei (7 November 2013). "Hoe een 17-jarige jongen de Kristallnacht ontketende" [How a 17-year-old boy unleashed Kristallnacht]. ThePostOnline (in Dutch). Retrieved 19 January 2015. 
  18. ^ Schwab 1990, p. 200
  19. ^ "Der Tote lebt" [The Dead Live]. Der Spiegel (in German). 31 August 1960. Retrieved 19 January 2015. 
  20. ^ Raphael Gross (2013). November 1938: Die Katastrophe vor der Katastrophe [November 1938: The Disaster Before the Disaster] (in German). C. H. Beck. p. 28. ISBN 978-3406654701.