Kristallnacht was a series of pogroms against Jewish people in Germany, Austria, and Sudetenland in November 1938. Kristallnacht means “Night of Broken Glass.” During Kristallnacht, mobs destroyed Jewish businesses, homes, and synagogues, spreading glass from windows into the street. In the aftermath of the destruction, tens of thousands of Jewish people were arrested and deported to concentration camps. Kristallnacht was an important moment in the history of the Holocaust. It marked a major increase in antisemitism. It also foreshadowed the systematic mass murder that the Nazis would undertake only a few years later.
Antisemitism and the Nazis
Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Party, became German chancellor in 1933. Soon after this, the party began implementing antisemitic laws and practices in Germany. Jews were not allowed to hold powerful positions in their communities and forced to identify their religion to others. As antisemitism became normalized, some German Jews tried to file the paperwork to get their passports and move outside the country. Nevertheless, most Jews remained in their homeland. They believed that these changes would be temporary. In May 1933, Hitler burned books by Jewish and other “un-German” authors. This was a sign of increasing antisemitism and German nationalism. In 1935 a series of laws called the Nuremberg Laws made it illegal for Jewish people to marry or have relationships with non-Jewish Germans. Furthermore, German citizenship extended only to white, non-Jewish Germans. Despite the discrimination faced by the Jews, many Jewish Germans remained in their homes. They hoped that their fellow Germans would moderate and change.
An Assassination and Planned Violence
By the fall of 1938, Jews had faced years of harsh treatment by Nazis in Germany. This frustrated many Jews living in Germany and surrounding countries. Then, in the fall of 1938, the Nazis expelled thousands of Jews with Polish citizenship from their homes. They forced them to live in a refugee camp as their native Poland refused to let them enter. Among the Jews who were forced from their homes were the parents of seventeen-year-old student Herschel Grynszpan. Grynszpan, who was living in Paris at the time, wanted to retaliate against the Nazis for the unfair treatment of his family. Grynszpan purchased a gun and planned to kill a German government official in retaliation for the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews. He also thought of this as a way of informing the rest of the world about the plight of Jews living in Germany. On November 7, 1938, Grynszpan entered the German embassy and asked to speak with Ernst Vom Rath, Third Secretary of the German Embassy. Grynszpan shot Vom Rath, and two days later, the German diplomat died.
When Nazi government officials heard about Vom Rath’s assassination, many of the high-level Nazi leaders were in meetings together. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels saw an opportunity in the assassination. He believed that the Nazis could pin the blame for the assassination on German Jews as an entire population. The Nazis began suggesting that “World Jewry” had conspired to commit the assassination. At the same time, Nazi leaders planned to have troops, known as Storm Troopers, ignite mob violence all around Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland. The Nazis wanted to create the impression that any violence or demonstrations were spontaneous and led by everyday Germans. They sent out communications to police and military troops that the violence that occurred should not be stopped. However, they said that mobs should not be allowed to destroy non-Jewish Germans’ property, and foreigners should not be attacked during the violence. When the planned riots, which were designed to look like spontaneous demonstrations, broke out, Jews became the focus of mob violence. This was because of inflammatory language used by Nazi Party officials and the instigation of the Storm Troopers.
The Night of Broken Glass
Members of the Sturmabteilung (SA), commonly known as Storm Troopers, and members of Hitler Youth started riots throughout Germany and Austria. They encouraged rioters to destroy Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues. The violence and destruction were especially prominent in Berlin and Vienna, which were the homes of two of the largest Jewish populations in the region. The violent mobs threw rocks, bricks, and other implements through windows and forced their way into homes and businesses. They forced some Jewish people out of their homes, cutting the beards of pious Jewish men and performing other acts meant to humiliate Jewish citizens. Synagogues were destroyed and their contents were looted or destroyed. Jewish businesses were also looted, and some were destroyed to the point that they could not reopen.
Although Nazi Party members did not officially encourage physical violence against Jews, violence was common during the November pogroms. Official records indicate that ninety-one Jews were killed during the violence. However, some historians believe that the number of people who died, including those who died of injuries days after the violence erupted, was much higher. Furthermore, historians point out that incidents of rape were high between November 9 and 10—the days of Kristallnacht. Some Jewish people also died by suicide because of the threats and intimidation they faced from members of the communities and the humiliation experienced.
Nazi leaders told police and Storm Troopers to arrest as many Jews as possible during the violence—especially young, healthy, male Jews. Law enforcement used the violence as a guise to arrest approximately thirty thousand Jewish people, even though the Jews were victims of the violence. Law enforcement did not take any actions against the mobs of non-Jews who were taking part in violence and property destruction. Many of the men who were arrested during Kristallnacht were forced to go to concentration camps. Many never returned home even though the Nazis had not yet implemented the Final Solution in the camps.
Aftermath of Kristallnacht
Although the Kristallnacht pogroms lasted mainly between November 9 and 10, the effects of the night would remain. The violence and looting targeted toward Jews during Kristallnacht indicated a dramatic increase in antisemitism and Nazi programs targeted toward persecuting Jewish citizens. The Nazis used the assassination as a pretext to implement even harsher treatment toward Jewish citizens. The Nazi government announced days after the violence that Jewish businesses would not be permitted to reopen unless they were managed by non-Jewish people. It said that Jewish children were no longer permitted to attend school. Furthermore, the Nazis released a decree called the “Decree on Eliminating the Jews from German Economic Life.” Jews were not permitted to sell goods or services of any kind. They were also prohibited from holding positions of power in businesses.
Jewish communities in Germany and Austria realized after Kristallnacht that the Nazi Party was a real threat to their survival. More than one hundred thousand Jews left Germany after Kristallnacht. The Nazis blamed the Jews for the damage that was done during the riots. They said that the Jews should have their property taken away to help pay for the damage. The international community also reacted to the violence against Jewish communities. Some countries broke off diplomatic ties with Germany. However, Germany faced few real-world consequences for the events of November 9 and 10. Some historians believe that the lack of international force against the Nazis helped to embolden them to intensify their campaign against the Jews of Europe. This eventually led to their Final Solution and the murder of millions of Jews.