On the Threshold of the Holocaust

Anti-Jewish Riots and Pogroms in Occupied Europe: Warsaw – Paris – The Hague – Amsterdam – Antwerp – Kaunas

by Tomasz Szarota (Author)
©2015 Monographs 217 Pages
Open Access


In the early months of the German occupation during WWII, many of Europe’s major cities witnessed anti-Jewish riots, anti-Semitic incidents, and even pogroms carried out by the local population. Who took part in these excesses, and what was their attitude towards the Germans? Were they guided or spontaneous? What part did the Germans play in these events and how did they manipulate them for their own benefit? Delving into the source material for Warsaw, Paris, The Hague, Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Kaunas, this study is the first to take a comparative look at these questions. Looking closely at events many would like to forget, the volume describes various characters and their stories, revealing some striking similarities and telling differences, while raising tantalising questions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Foreword
  • Chapter 1 Warsaw
  • Anti-Jewish excesses after the German invasion
  • March 1940: The Easter occurrences. The sequence of incidents
  • The Poles: organisers and participants of the riots
  • The conduct and attitudes of Varsovians
  • The role of the Germans: Instigators, or organisers and active participants of the incidents?
  • Chapter 2 Paris
  • Anti-Semitic propaganda and first anti-Jewish incidents at the threshold of the occupation
  • French anti-Semites and their German counterparts
  • The incidents on Champs-Elysées of 20th August 1940
  • Excesses continue. Competition amongst anti-Semitic organisations. Anti-Jewish legislation
  • The Parisians’ attitude
  • A Kristallnacht in the city on the Seine. Paris synagogues attacked in the night of 2nd/3rd October 1941
  • Chapter 3 The Hague and Amsterdam. Antwerp
  • The two capital cities of the Netherlands
  • Antwerp
  • Chapter 4 Kaunas/Kovno
  • From an independent state to a (forcedly established) Soviet republic.
  • The Lithuanian Activist Front in Berlin and the Underground at home
  • “Self-cleansing actions”: a task of the Einsatzgruppen and a stage in the Holocaust
  • Kaunas in Lithuanian hands, 23rd–24th June 1941: A national uprising, or a settling of accounts with the “Judeo-commies”?
  • A five-day a pogrom under German oversight (25th to 29th June, 1941)
  • A German offer to the Jews: continued pogroms or the ghetto

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What we normally associate the Holocaust with is genocide. The destruction of the Jewish nation has enshrouded the anguishes, sufferings, and humiliations the Jews experienced before being annihilated. Anti-Jewish riots tend to be neglected by authors of general studies concerning the history of the Second World War; similarly, they are not to be found in the works describing the Shoah. Likewise, not much would be found in the publications about the pogroms witnessed after 22nd June 1941 by Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, and Moldavia.1

Studies authored by historians from the countries where these occurrences took place tend to pass them over in silence for one more reason. To embark on this subject, a sore point as it really is, calls for courage as it implies that infamous and ignominious, or viciously brutal deeds could have been perpetrated not only by the Germans but also by the researcher’s compatriots. It is true that anti-Jewish disturbances – incidents, excesses, riots – sometimes turning into pogroms in which the Jews were getting beaten and in many cases killed, were not infrequently inspired by the German occupiers. It is, however, no less true that such incidents tended to occur here and there on the initiative of the local population – before the Germans entered. It should be borne in mind that the Germans might afterwards have persuaded or encouraged local people to take part in the persecutions or extermination of their Jewish neighbours, but as a rule they did not force them to do so.

Let us make a fair point: it was not the Germans who originally invented pogroms; pogroms did not first occur during the Second World War, or even in the twentieth century. The anti-Jewish disturbances and excesses of the 1930s rank among the black chapters in Polish history. According to Jolanta Żyndul’s findings, in 1935–1937 alone, about a hundred fairly remarkable anti-Jewish incidents took place in Poland, with some 2,000 victims beaten and a dozen-or-so ← 7 | 8 → killed.2 Fatalities – appallingly – occurred in Poland after the war as well, just to recall the pogrom of Kielce of 4th July 1946.3

As the title of this book clearly suggests, I will not deal with anti-Jewish occurrences in countries allied with the Third Reich, Slovakia being one of them.4 Having focused on countries occupied by the Third Reich, I have decided to take a closer look at Warsaw, Paris, The Hague and Amsterdam, Antwerp, as well as Kaunas. My choice was based on the existing literature as well as on the possibility for me to get to the sources, such as police reports, press releases or articles, and eyewitness accounts. It is for this particular reason that I have quit, having considered the gathered resources unsatisfactory, the idea of writing a separate chapter on the anti-Jewish incidents in Prague in March and May 1939.5 The same is true for Lwów/Lvov, where a bloody pogrom occurred twice in July 1941.6 Since I have ← 8 | 9 → found it impossible to complement the information given by Andrzej Żbikowski in his U genezy Jedwabnego. Żydzi na kresach północno-wschodnich II Rzeczypospolitej, wrzesień 1939 – lipiec 1941 (Warsaw 2006), the reader is kindly referred to this study, which discusses the occurrences taking place between September 1939 and July 1941 in the Eastern Borderland of what was the Second Republic of Poland (it was found that Jews were killed in thirty-one localities of the region). In spite of my endeavours, I have not managed to learn the details of the anti-Jewish incidents in Oslo in July 19417, or in Copenhagen in December 1941.8

I initially intended to deal in the introductory section with the events of Kristallnacht witnessed by the Third Reich in November 1938. Having become acquainted with a considerable portion of relevant publications,9 I have discarded the idea, as it would have gone beyond the framework of this study. However, I have found my acquaintanceship with the course of the events in Germany quite useful as it has allowed me to determine the extent to which those occurrences were viewed elsewhere as a model to follow – just to mention here the ← 9 | 10 → breaking of windows in Jewish shops, the devastation and arson of synagogues, or the guidelines to protect nearby “Aryan” establishments and houses.

The comparative approach proposed in this book has proven to be successful as it enables us to discern the similarities, sometimes quite astonishing, among the occurrences taking place in the different countries. If we take a closer look at the groups or formations organising the anti-Jewish incidents, whose members were from the local population, we will easily notice that the origins of a definite majority of those formations dated back to the pre-war years, their background being the political activities of extreme rightist groups. Some of those formations were banned by their respective governments in the late thirties, their journals suspended. The new situation offered them an opportunity to resume activity and implement their programme, which was, in any case, close to the national-socialist ideology of the German occupiers. Attempts were made to obtain consent from the Germans for reactivation of a party or organisation. Even though the activists could not count on a proactive attitude, such as (for instance) financial assistance, they could at least assume that the Germans would favour their actions aimed against the Jews (and freemasons), thus ensuring a degree of impunity to the perpetrators and contributors. Some of the leaders of such local fascists were hostile to the Germans and tried to take advantage of them to fulfil their own political goals; such people, arguably, believed that they were driven by patriotic motives. Andrzej Świetlicki in Poland or Robert Hersant in France are, seemingly, examples of such an attitude.10

When one looks closely at the anti-Jewish disturbances described in this book, the role played by hit squads – consisting mostly of young people, sometimes even children – becomes apparent and striking. This is particularly true for Warsaw, where assaults on Jews were carried out by “gangs of striplings”, and for Paris – where the fascist youth organisations Gardes Françaises and Jeune Front stood out as the most active groups in the anti-Jewish excesses. Since fighting squads have been mentioned, it should be emphasised that at least some of them had emerged before the war, in addition to the fact that many of them followed the model of the German Sturm-Abteilungen. Such was definitely the case with the Dutch “Weer Afdeling” (“Defence Division”) or the Flemish “Zwarte Brigade← 10 | 11 → (“Black Brigade”); I should suppose that the same would be true for the Lithuanian “Gelezinis Vilkas” (“Iron Wolf”).

Comparative studies offer a really valuable tool as along with the similarities, they enable us to identify essential differences. The residents of Prague, Warsaw, Brussels, Paris, The Hague, Oslo, or Athens perceived the Germans encroaching on their cities as enemies, invaders and occupiers that denied the independent status of their country. On the other hand, the Germans encountered an enthusiastic welcome in places such as Kaunas or Lvov – seen there as rescuers and liberators from the alien yoke of the hated “Bolsheviks”. The hope was entertained that the Germans were bringing the freedom they so much desired, and it was expected that they would contribute to reestablishment of an independent Lithuania and, likewise, a samostiyna Ukraine. Putting it otherwise, insofar as the local collaborationist formations could hardly count on any support from public opinion from the Czechs, or in Poland or Western Europe, they expressed the opinion of a significant portion of the society in Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine on the eve of the occupation. In certain cases, the collaborationist groups’ attitude toward the Germans and the hopes associated with them were an even more complex issue – for example, the aspirations expressed by separatist movements, such as the Belgian Flemings or the French Bretons. In Poland, for that matter, the Germans were the invaders – but not the only ones; hence the concept of joining together with one of the enemies against the other, a proponent of which was the National Radical Organisation, an organisation brought into being by activists of the pre-war National Radical Camp. Those advocating this idea presented it as a revisited concept of Józef Piłsudski from the period of the First World War.

Let us resume the thread of similarities, though. Probably all the activists and instigators who embarked on political activity with the consent of the German occupational authorities had two points of their agenda in common: anticommunism and anti-Semitism, usually merged into the slogan of “combating the Judeo-commies”. The forms and methods applied by them were quite similar too: Jewish passers-by were attacked, beaten, and humiliated; their possessions were robbed; leaflets were posted and distributed calling to boycott Jewish shops, workshops, manufactories, and eating places; storefronts were smashed; threats of setting fire to dwellings or blowing them up were made. This is what happened, at least, in Western Europe, where local anti-Semites exerted pressure on the Jewish people so that, seeing the hostility surrounding them and the menacing perils, they would resolve on their own to leave their country and emigrate. Let us bear in mind that even in the Third Reich, at least by the end of 1940, plans to resettle the Jews to Madagascar – or to send them off to Siberia in cooperation with the Soviets – were still quite seriously considered. ← 11 | 12 →

Although the Lithuanian anti-Semites received instructions from their agency in Berlin (where the Lithuanian Activists’ Front was formed on 17th November 1940) to create an atmosphere in their home country which would force the Jews to leave Lithuania, no such exodus occurred until the outbreak of the German-Soviet war. After the outbreak, events followed so fast that most of the local Jews remained where they were. In this situation, no-one could any longer count on the Jews escaping on their own, or their being efficiently expelled. In Kaunas, the Lithuanians drew their own conclusion, or were perhaps prompted to this end by the Germans: the Lithuanian fascists simply decided to kill the local Jews. The Ukrainian fascists in Lvov, as well as in a number of towns and villages in western Ukraine, took a similar decision. In Western Europe efforts were made to fuel anti-Semitic sentiments, the Jewry there being accused of the war disaster suffered; in Kaunas, not only were the Jews identified by the Lithuanian “patriots” with Soviet rule and the NKVD tormenters, but gossip and rumours were spread about Jews poisoning the drinking water in the wells, or Jewish villains shooting out of hiding. In Lvov, where the Soviets had murdered a vast number of detained prisoners before withdrawing from the town, the call to take revenge for the victims soon gained popular support in the local community, which focused on the Jews as the scapegoat.11

When one embarks on analysing the course of anti-Jewish incidents, riots, and pogroms in occupied Europe, it turns out that the part played by the German authorities in each of these cases is hard to define. There were various institutions, outposts or “stations”, crews, and formations operating within the occupied territories, all of which represented the Third Reich’s interests but were engaged in competence contests against one another. Alongside the military authorities, civil occupational administration bodies functioned, and beside these, police structures or representatives of departments, such as the Propaganda Ministry led by Goebbels or the Foreign Ministry run by Ribbentrop, which formally (and formally only) reported to those bodies. It is a rare opportunity that, based on the surviving documents, such as official reports, we are able to reveal the behind-the-scenes mechanisms of the specific occurrences and show the role ← 12 | 13 → played by the Germans – or, even more specifically, which German authority ordered specifically whom to act in a specified way. One such occurrence was the attack on the Paris synagogues in the night of 2nd/3rd October 1941; another, and an even more peculiar example is the Kaunas pogrom, to which the German term “self-cleansing action” was attached.

It has proven impossible to determine the connections and contacts of local fascist and anti-Semitic formations with the persons acting on behalf of occupational authorities (of whatever sort) in Warsaw, between autumn 1939 and spring 1940; in Paris, in the summer of 1940; in The Hague and Amsterdam, in February 1941; and in Antwerp, in April 1941. Either the relevant documents have been destroyed, or the connections and contacts have left no trace in writing. Hence, a historian willing to delve into this problem has no choice other than to resort to conjecture and look for circumstantial evidence. There also are, however, arguments confirming the contributions of the “German factor” in the preparation of anti-Jewish incidents. It is an ascertained fact, for that matter, that anti-Semitic formations were allocated locales for organisational purposes by the German authorities, these often being apartments owned by Jews or the premises of Jewish institutions. It is also known that the Germans financially subsidised anti-Semitic journals such as the Paris weekly Au Pilori. It was solely from the Germans that the Flemish fascists could have obtained a copy of the anti-Semitic film Der ewige Jude, after the projection of which anti-Jewish riots erupted in Antwerp. The Paris police were forced to release the organisers and participants of excesses directed against the local Jewry as a result of intervention from the Germans. What is more, the extant reports of the police in this case tell us that those taking part in the incidents asserted, when interrogated, that their leaders had been promised exemption from punishment. Who exactly had guaranteed their immunity – we are, regrettably, not told. Certainly, none of the military command, as this circle was completely surprised by the street incidents in Paris. General Alexander von Falkenhausen, the military occupational governor in Belgium, was astonished by the anti-Jewish disturbances in Antwerp.

There are many indications that the anti-Jewish actions in occupied Europe were initiated or supported primarily by one institution – local branches of the Security Police (Sipo) and Security Service (SD), subordinated to their Berlin headquarters, the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA). Paris was the only place where the situation was different during the first months of the occupation, and this was due to the thoroughly unique position enjoyed there by Ambassador Otto Abetz. Apart from Sipo and SD, crews of the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda played a critical role everywhere, among whose tasks was photographing and filming the anti-Jewish incidents. ← 13 | 14 →


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2015 (September)
Antisemitismus Einsatzgruppen Ghetto
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 217 pp., 20 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Tomasz Szarota (Author)

Tomasz Szarota is Professor at the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences and serves on the Advisory Board of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk. His special interest comprises WWII, Nazi-occupied Poland, the resistance movement, and life in Warsaw and other European cities under the German occupation.


Title: On the Threshold of the Holocaust
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220 pages