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Kristallnacht: Background & Overview

(November 9-10, 1938)

The Persecution Begins
The Murder of vom Rath
The Pogrom Is Ordered
Violence Begins
The Jews Must Pay
The Holocaust Has Begun
Is Kristallnacht The Appropriate Word?

The Persecution Begins

Almost immediately upon assuming the Chancellorship of Germany, Hitler began promulgating legal actions against Germany’s Jews. In 1933, he proclaimed a one-day boycott against Jewish shops, a law was passed against kosher butchering, and Jewish children began experiencing restrictions in public schools. By 1935, the Nuremberg Laws deprived Jews of German citizenship. By 1936, Jews were prohibited from participation in parliamentary elections and signs reading “Jews Not Welcome” appeared in many German cities. (These signs were taken down in the late summer in preparation for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin).

In the first half of 1938, numerous laws were passed restricting Jewish economic activity and occupational opportunities. In July 1938, a law was passed (effective January 1, 1939) requiring all Jews to carry identification cards. On October 28, 17,000 Jews of Polish citizenship, many of whom had been living in Germany for decades, were arrested and relocated across the Polish border. The Polish government refused to admit them so they were interned in “relocation camps” on the Polish frontier.

Germans pass broken window of Jewish-owned shop
(USHMM Photo)

Among the deportees was Zindel Grynszpan, who had been born in western Poland and had moved to Hanover, where he established a small store, in 1911. On the night of October 27, Grynszpan and his family were forced out of their home by German police. His store and the family’s possessions were confiscated and they were forced to move over the Polish border.

Grynszpan’s seventeen-year-old son, Herschel, was living with an uncle in Paris. Herschel received a postcard from his sister Berta describing how the family had been arrested and sent by cattle car at night without food or water to the Polish border. Once they reached the frontier, the SS guards forced the Jews to run, whipping those who were not obedient or quick enough to escape the lash. Inside Poland, the Jews were housed in horse stables still filthy with dung.

The letter infuriated Herschel. He decided to seek revenge for the treatment of his family.

The Murder of vom Rath

At 8:35 a.m. on November 6, 1938, Herschel went to a sporting and hunting goods store and bought a gun. About an hour later he calmly presented himself at the German Embassy and asked to see the ambassador, Johannes von Welczeck. The ambassador was actually heading out and overheard the request, but ignored it and continue on his way. Herschel insisted on seeing someone to whom he could deliver an important document. His persistence led him to Third Secretary Ernst vom Rath.

Ironically, vom Rath was under investigation by the Gestapo because he was suspected of lacking the proper zealotry, particularly toward the Jews. Grynszpan knew nothing about the man except he represented the government that had deported and abused his family. When vom Rath asked to see the document he was carrying, Herschel shouted, “You are a sale boche [filthy kraut] and here, in the name of 12,000 persecuted Jews, is your document!” He then fired five shots at close range, the first two penetrated the diplomat’s stomach, the rest missed. Vom Rath was wounded but still conscious. Herschel seemed surprised he wasn’t dead and stood calmly in the office as the scene grew chaotic.

Herschel did not resist as police came and escorted him from the embassy to a nearby police station. “I did it to avenge my parents, who are living in misery in Germany,” Herschel told the officers. He later told his interrogators, “It’s not a crime to be Jewish. I’m not a dog. I have the right to live and the Jewish people has the right to exist in this world. Everywhere I am persecuted like an animal.”

Vom Rath was rushed to the hospital.

The burning of the synagogue in Ober Ramstadt
(USHMM Photo)

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Chief of Propaganda, saw the killing as an opportunity to take the persecution of the Jews to a new level. He ordered all newspaper editors in the Reich to put on page one reports about the attack on vom Rath by a Jew. The Nazi party newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, set the tone with the headline: “Jewish Murder Attempt in Paris – Member of the German Embassy Critically Wounded by Shots – The Murdering Knave a 17-Year-Old Jew.”

The text of the article made clear all Jews were to blame for the attack in Paris and much more. “It is clear that the German people will draw their own conclusion from this new deed. It is an impossible situation that within our frontiers hundreds of thousands of Jews should control our shopping streets, places of entertainment, and as ‘foreign’ landlords pocket the money of German tenants, while their racial comrades outside call for war against Germany and shoot down German officials.”

The following day, the Nazi paper’s headline shouted, “The Shots In Paris Will Not Go Unpunished!” and Goebbels’ paper Der Angriff proclaimed, “From this vile deed arises the imperative demand for immediate action against the Jews, with the most severe consequences.”

There was no response from the Jewish press because all the newspapers were closed by the Nazis. On November 8, an edict also banned Jews from attending Aryan elementary schools.

On November 9, Hitler sat down for a gala feast at Munich’s old town hall to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the “Beer Hall Putsch.” Just before 9:00 p.m., he was informed that vom Rath had died. Hitler said nothing about vom Rath’s death and left the hall without making a speech. Goebbels then seized the opportunity to rouse the party faithful by standing and telling the crowd that a Jew had killed a “loyal servant of the Reich.” He said the attack by international Jewry could not go unchallenged. “Our people must be told, and their answer must be ruthless, forthright, salutary! I ask you to listen to me, and together we must plan what is to be our answer to Jewish murder and the threat of international Jewry to our glorious German Reich!”

The Pogrom Is Ordered

At 11:55 p.m. on November 9, Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller sent an order to all police offices advising them that “Actions against Jews, especially against their synagogues, will take place throughout the Reich shortly. They are not to be interfered with…. Preparations are to be made for the arrest of about 20,000 to 30,000 Jews in the Reich. Above all well-to-do Jews are to be selected.” His telegram instructed his minions to collect any archival material from the synagogues and said that “the sharpest measures” should be taken if any Jews were found in possession of weapons (another directive said they should be held in custody for 20 years). Müller added that the Gestapo should prevent looting and other illegal activities.

Yet another indication of the premeditation of the attacks were the preparations made in concentration camps. On November 10, a memo was issued that said, “I advise you that Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen concentration camps are each in a position to accommodate ten thousand detainees.” Ultimately, 30,000 Jews would be imprisoned over the next few days, mostly in Dachau, which at the time was the most feared camp in Germany. At least 4,600 Viennese Jews were sent to Dachau. Approximately 2,500 Jews were arrested in Hamburg and transported to Sachsenhausen. Most were released with the Nazis’ hoping they would emigrate.

After meeting with Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich issued an order between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. on November 10, to arrest healthy Jewish adult males of “not too advanced age” and transport them to concentration camps, to destroy Jewish businesses and homes, but not loot them, to ensure that no German lives or property were endangered, to seize documents of historical importance from synagogues and Jewish institutions, and to refrain from harming foreigners even if they were Jews.

Shortly thereafter, an order was sent from the office of Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, instructing that Jewish businesses and houses should not be burned. As Read and Fisher note, the police and the SD were given specific instructions about what they could and could not do, but the SA was left without any official guidance. Three months later, the Supreme Tribunal of the Nazi party would note: “It was normal practice to give hazy, unspecific instructions for any action which the party did not wish to appear to instigate” so many party members “acquired the habit of overstepping the bounds of their instructions…particularly in arranging illegal demonstrations.”

Individual branches of the SA also got their own instructions. In Cologne, for example, orders first arrived at 12:45 a.m. on November 10. They instructed members to set fire to all synagogues at 4:00 a.m. At 6:00, Jewish shops and homes in the city center were to be attacked. By 8:00, the suburbs were to be targeted. The entire operation was to end at 1:00 p.m. The police were also instructed to supply the SA with weapons along with the addresses of Jewish property to be destroyed.

Violence Begins

The violence actually began even before any formal orders were issued, and before vom Rath had died. In response no doubt to the hysteria whipped up by the German press, Jews were attacked, businesses looted and synagogues destroyed in Hesse and Magdeburg-Anhalt on November 8. The police had also begun to disarm Jews and had confiscated more than 1,700 firearms and 20,000 rounds of ammunition in Berlin alone.

These spasms of violence were limited. The nationwide attacks on the Jews began just before midnight on November 9 when demonstrators set fire to a display window of a textile business in Munich. Three minutes later, the fire department received a call that the first synagogue was on fire. It would not be long before alarms would be sounding throughout the Reich.

When the pogrom, which came to be known as Kristallnacht – “the Night of Broken Glass” – was over, at least 96 Jews were killed and hundreds more injured, more than 1,300 synagogues were burned (and possibly as many as 2,000), almost 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed, cemeteries and schools were vandalized, and 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. More than 1,000 perished in these camps.

No estimates were available, but untold amounts of precious artworks were lost as hooligans destroyed whatever they saw without regard for its value. The violence officially ended on November 10, but it continued for several days in some places.

Few Jews had any doubt that Kristallnacht had been a well-organized attack on their community with the objective of scaring and humiliating them, and provoking them to leave Germany and Austria. “If it happened in one place,” survivor Frederick Firnbacher observed, “it was a drunken brawl, since it was all over, you knew it was orchestrated.”

The Jews’ suspicions were correct; the attacks on them were premeditated as Julius Streicher acknowledged in a memo written on April 14, 1939: “The anti-Jewish action of November 1938 did not arise spontaneously from the people.... Part of the Party formation have been charged with the execution of the anti-Jewish action.”

The official German position on these events, which were clearly orchestrated by Goebbels, was that they were spontaneous outbursts. The Fuehrer, Goebbels reported to party officials in Munich, “has decided that such demonstrations are not to be prepared or organized by the party, but so far as they originate spontaneously, they are not to be discouraged either.”

The Jews Must Pay

Three days later, on November 12, Hermann Goering called a meeting of the top Nazi leadership to assess the damage done during the night and place responsibility for it. Present at the meeting were Goering, Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Walter Funk, and other ranking Nazi officials. The intent of this meeting was two-fold: to make the Jews responsible for Kristallnacht and to use the events of the preceding days as a rationale for promulgating a series of anti-Semitic laws which would, in effect, remove Jews from the German economy.

“Gentlemen! Today’s meeting is of a decisive nature,” Goering announced. “I have received a letter written on the Fuehrer’s orders requesting that the Jewish question be now, once and for all, coordinated and solved one way or another.”

Goering continued, “Since the problem is mainly an economic one, it is from the economic angle it shall have to be tackled. Because, gentlemen, I have had enough of these demonstrations! They don’t harm the Jew but me, who is the final authority for coordinating the German economy. If today a Jewish shop is destroyed, if goods are thrown into the street, the insurance companies will pay for the damages; and, furthermore, consumer goods belonging to the people are destroyed. If in the future, demonstrations which are necessary occur, then, I pray, that they be directed so as not to hurt us.”

“Because it’s insane to clean out and burn a Jewish warehouse, then have a German insurance company make good the loss,” Goering added. “And the goods which I need desperately, whole bales of clothing and whatnot, are being burned. And I miss them everywhere. I may as well burn the raw materials before they arrive.”

“I should not want to leave any doubt, gentlemen, as to the aim of today’s meeting,” Goering concluded. “We have not come together merely to talk again, but to make decisions, and I implore competent agencies to take all measures for the elimination of the Jew from the German economy, and to submit them to me.”

It was decided at the meeting that, since Jews were to blame for these events, they be held legally and financially responsible for the damages incurred by the pogrom. Accordingly, a fine of 1 billion marks was levied for the slaying of vom Rath, and 6 million marks paid by insurance companies for broken windows were to be given to the state coffers.

The Holocaust Has Begun

A series of new draconian laws and orders were subsequently issued to complete the process of Aryanization, eliminate all Jewish institutions, encourage Jewish emigration, and isolate remaining Jews from the general population. As Robert Kempner observed, “They were deprived of their occupations, robbed of their property, forbidden to inherit or bequeath, forbidden to sit on park benches or keep canaries, forbidden to use public transportation, forbidden to frequent restaurants, concerts, theaters, and movie houses. They were subject to specific racial laws, stripped of all their civil rights, denied freedom of movement. Their human rights and human dignity were trampled in the dust until they were deported to concentration camps and consigned to the gas chambers.”

Kristallnacht turns out to be a crucial turning point in German policy regarding the Jews and may be considered as the actual beginning of what is now called the Holocaust.

  1. By now it is clear to Hitler and his top advisors that forced immigration of Jews out of the Reich is not a feasible option.
  2. Hitler is already considering the invasion of Poland.
  3. Numerous concentration camps and forced labor camps are already in operation.
  4. The Nuremberg Laws are in place.
  5. The doctrine of lebensraum has emerged as a guiding principle of Hitler’s ideology.
  6. The passivity of the German people in the face of the events of Kristallnacht made it clear that the Nazis would encounter little opposition—even from the German churches.

Following the meeting, a wide-ranging set of anti-Semitic laws were passed which had the clear intent, in Goering’s words, of “Aryanizing” the German economy. Over the next two or three months, the following measures were put into effect:

  1. Jews were required to turn over all precious metals to the government.
  2. Pensions for Jews dismissed from civil service jobs were arbitrarily reduced.
  3. Jewish-owned bonds, stocks, jewelry and art works can be alienated only to the German state.
  4. Jews were physically segregated within German towns.
  5. A ban on the Jewish ownership of carrier pigeons.
  6. The suspension of Jewish driver’s licenses.
  7. The confiscation of Jewish-owned radios.
  8. A curfew to keep Jews of the streets between 9:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. in the summer and 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. in the winter.
  9. Laws protecting tenants were made non-applicable to Jewish tenants.
  10. Perhaps to help ensure the Jews could not fight back in the future, the Minister of the Interior issued regulations against Jews’ possession of weapons on November 11. This prohibited Jews from “acquiring, possessing, and carrying firearms and ammunition, as well as truncheons or stabbing weapons. Those now possessing weapons and ammunition are at once to turn them over to the local police authority.”

One final note on the November 12 meeting is of critical importance. In the meeting, Goering announced, “I have received a letter written on the Fuehrer’s orders requesting that the Jewish question be now, once and for all, coordinated and solved one way or another.”

The path to the “Final Solution” was now been chosen and all the bureaucratic mechanisms for its implementation were in place.

After the war, often during war crimes trials, former Nazis claimed they did not have any knowledge of what was going on or that they had taken measures to stop the violence. SA Obergruppenfuehrer Max Juttner claimed during the Nuremberg trial that whenever SA men were guilty of excesses, they were punished.

In fact, 14 SA men were found guilty by the Nazi Party Court of killing Jews on Kristallnacht. They were released because their actions fell “within the line of Party comrades who, motivated by the decent National Socialist attitude and initiative, had overshot the mark.” Only three people were punished – for committing rape and theft.

Is Kristallnacht The Appropriate Word?

Some Holocaust scholars question the origin, intent, and appropriateness of the word “Kristallnacht.” The term was coined by Walter Funk at the Nazi meeting on November 12 following the night of violence. There is evidence the term was a derisive Nazi euphemism for an all-out pogrom against German Jews.

Ernest Heppner, a survivor of Kristallnacht, observed:

As an eyewitness, I was very emotionally involved in this event and its consequences. Like everyone else here in the United States, for some 50 years I called those horrible days and nights Kristallnacht. I changed my mind reluctantly when, during my research, I discovered Goering’s intent to use this designation to ridicule this event.

German historian Walter Pehle argued:

It is clear that the term Crystal Night serves to foster a vicious minimalizing of its memory, a discounting of grave reality: such cynical appellations function to reinterpret manslaughter and murder, arson, robbery, plunder, and massive property damage, transforming these into a glistening event marked by sparkle and gleam. Of course, such terms reveal one thing in stark clarity - the lack of any sense of involvement or feeling of sympathy on the part of those who had stuck their heads in the sand before that violent night.

With good reason, knowledgeable commentators urge people to renounce the continued use of “Kristallnacht” and “Reichskristall- nacht” to refer to these events, even if the expressions have become slick and established usage in our language.

So, it appears, the word “Kristallnacht” was invented by Nazis to mock Jews on that black November night in 1938. It is, therefore, another example of Nazi perversion. There are numerous other examples of this same tendency in the language of the Nazi perpetrators: Sonderbehandlung (“special treatment”) for gassing victims, Euthanasie for a policy of mass murder of mentally and physically disabled patients, Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes you Free) over the entrance to Auschwitz. When the Nazis launched their plan to annihilate the remaining Jews in Poland in the fall of 1943, they called it “Erntefest,” or Harvest Festival. While this may have been a code word, as Froma Zeitlin has observed, it had the same grim and terrible irony that is reflected in Kristallnacht as in so many other instances of the perverted uses of language in the Third Reich. Perhaps most cynical of all is the use of the term, “Endloesung der Judenfrage” (Final Solution of the Jewish Question), for what is now known as the Holocaust. Goebbels frequently used such terminology to amuse his audiences (usually other Nazi officials) and to further demoralize his victims.

On the other side of this controversy are those who argue that the word should be retained if for no other reason than it has been used for decades and connotes significant meaning to those who study the Holocaust. As Froma Zeitlin observed:

I would like to point out that whether or not the name came into existence as a Nazi euphemism or not, the event itself and what it has come to signify has transformed an “innocent” name into one of unforgettable and dramatic meaning. The term is permanently out of circulation for any other use whatsoever. Can you imagine us now using “Kristallnacht” to refer to some street riot or another, no matter how extensively the streets were littered with broken glass? Certainly not. Moreover, what disturbed the German populace was less the sight of synagogues burning (fires take place all the time, after all – it depends on the scale) than of the savage and wasteful vandalism that confronted bystanders everywhere, disrupting the clean and orderly streets (to say nothing of consumer convenience). What was indeed memorable was the sheer quantity of broken glass. A third point was the economic outcome of this massive breakage. Germany didn’t produce enough plate glass to repair the damages (synagogues did not have to be replaced -- quite the contrary). The result was twofold: the need to import glass from Belgium (for sorely needed cash) and the outrage of indemnifying the Jewish community to pay for the damages. So the broken glass came to assume yet another outrageous dimension in the wake of the event.

Historian Paul Lawrence Rose opposed replacing “Kristallnacht” with “pogrom” or some other word:

Of course, Kristallnacht was a pogrom of sorts, but it was a German event and more specifically still, a Nazi event. Replacing it with pogrom certainly sets it in the larger context of anti-Semitic massacres in European history, but it loses the German and Nazi contexts.

And, as Zeitlin observes, the origins of terms do not equal the historical meanings that they accumulate. To have criticized Goering’s use of language in 1938 would have been appropriate; however, today the word “Kristallnacht” carries the significance and power it has acquired over the years.

On the 40th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Helmut Schmidt, the former West German Chancellor spoke in the synagogue in Cologne:

The German night, whose observance after the passage of forty years has brought us together today, remains a cause of bitterness and shame. In those places where the houses of God stood in flames, where a signal from those in power set off a train of destruction and robbery, of humiliation, abduction, and incarceration - there was an end to peace, to justice, to humanity. The night of 9 November 1938 marked one of the stages along the path leading down to hell...

Sources: The Holocaust\Shoah Page
Mitchell Bard, 48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/ Dawn of the Holocaust, (The Lyons Press: 2010).
Mitchell Bard, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World War II, (NY: MacMillan, 1998), pp. 59-60.
Robert E. Conot, Justice At Nuremberg, (NY: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 164-172.
Read and David Fisher, Kristallnacht: The Unleashing of the Holocaust, (NY: Peter Bedrick Books, 1989).
Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Volume 21: Two Hundred and Fourth Day - Thursday; August 15, 1946.
Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, (New York: Paragon House, 1989), p. 201.
Ingeborg Hecht, Invisible Walls, (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), p. 57.
Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, The Racial State: Germany, 1933-1945, (NY: Cambridge, 1991), pp. 92-96.
W. H. Pehle, (ed.), “Editor’s Preface,” November 1938, From Reichskristall nacht to Genocide, (NY: Berg Publishers Inc., 1991), pp. vii-viii (English edition).