Kristallnacht: The Night That Changed Germany Forever and Signalled the Start of the Holocaust

Peter Curry

5 mins

02 Nov 2018

Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass, was a pogrom against Jewish people in Nazi Germany, on 9-10 November 1938. The German authorities took no action to stop the pogrom.

A mixture of SA troopers and German citizens destroyed Jewish houses and businesses as well as attacking synagogues. The name Kristallnacht refers to the scattered broken glass that was left in the streets after the incident.

The historian Martin Gilbert argues that Kristallnacht was the most widely-reported event in the history of Jewish persecution.

Accounts from foreign journalists who were working in Germany at the time shocked the world.

Destroyed Jewish shops on Kristallnacht, Nov. 1938. Credit: Bundesarchiv / Commons.

Background

While Kristallnacht was not rigidly planned, it is believed blueprints for its execution had existed for at least a year prior.

Jews had been harassed by the Nazi government since the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Enabling Act of 1933.

German Jews had fought in the German army in World War One and were well established within society. The Nazis subsequently blamed them for defeat in the War and enacted a series of anti-Jewish laws restricting their rights.

The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 stripped German Jews of their citizenship and forbade racial mixing – the intermarriage of Jews and non-Jews.

Anti-semitic activity grew consistently throughout the 1930s, but historian Eric Johnson suggests that Kristallnacht marked an important turning point in the nature of anti-semitic activity.

Nominally, Kristallnacht was triggered by the killing of a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath by 17 year old Polish Jew Herschel Grynszpan.

But it is not even clear that Grynszpan shot vom Rath for political reasons, as there is considerable evidence of a homosexual affair between the two.

The German synagogue at Siegen, burning during Kristallnacht. Credit: Commons.

Nonetheless, the Nazi High Command pounced on this opportunity. While they did not directly order the destruction and murder of Kristallnacht, they sanctioned the events and the destruction that occurred.

On learning of the death of vom Rath, Hitler left a commemoration of the Beer Hall Putsch early. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels delivered a speech instead, exclaiming that:

“the Führer has decided that… demonstrations should not be prepared or organised by the party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.”

Goebbels had essentially ordered a pogrom.

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German historian Hans Mommsen believed that the Nazi party’s treasurer, Franz Schwarz, kept local and regional organisations of the party short of money. This meant there was already a great desire from local officials to raise funds by expropriating Jewish businesses.

The order from Goebbels gave these men a chance to exploit that desire.

The destruction of Jewish property

There was widespread looting and pillaging, and over 7,500 Jewish businesses had their storefronts caved in, and their valuables seized. Over 1,400 synagogues and many Jewish cemeteries were also damaged or destroyed.

These synagogues were sometimes centuries old, and objects of historical significance. In Cologne, the Jewish community had been a crucial part of the social fabric of the city for hundreds of years.

Violence took many forms. Tombstones were destroyed and uprooted, with graves violated. Talmudic texts were destroyed and burnt, and other Jewish books and paintings from synagogue libraries were also destroyed. The Nazi press wrote vociferously in support of the attacks.

Eric Lucas, who lived through Kristallnacht, remembered the destruction of one synagogue as such:

“It did not take long before the first heavy grey stones came tumbling down, and the children of the village amused themselves as they flung stones into the many coloured windows. When the first rays of a cold and pale November sun penetrated the heavy dark clouds, the little synagogue was but a heap of stone, broken glass and smashed-up woodwork.”

Many Germans were ashamed of the actions of the Nazis. Supposedly, the son of one US consular official heard someone cry: “They must have emptied the insane asylums and penitentiaries to find people who would do things like that.”

But the reaction varied across the country. Spectators gathered on the scene just to watch the burning, many of them remaining silent. Fire departments restricted themselves to containing the spread of fire, as opposed to actually dousing the flames of Jewish businesses.

One policeman in Berlin, Otto Bellgardt, prevented SA stormtroopers from igniting the New synagogue, receiving a verbal reprimand from the commissioner for his actions.

Life? Or Theatre? This is a gouache by Charlotte Salomon, depicting Kristallnacht.
It depicts an edition of Der Angriff (a Nazi newspaper) dealing with the pretext for the attacks, the murder of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan. The text at the top left reads “Death to Jews! Grab what you can!” Credit: Charlotte Salomon Foundation / Commons.

The aftermath

Kristallnacht was undeniably a critical step on the road to the “Final Solution” and the Holocaust, which saw the systematic genocide of millions of European Jews.

Göring wrote after Kristallnacht that he had:

“received a letter written on the Führer’s orders requesting that the Jewish question be now, once and for all, coordinated and solved one way or another… 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.”

Kristallnacht was the moment when the Nazi High Command realised that they could not simply intimidate every Jew into leaving the country.

Jewish people did try to escape persecution and flee, but the more Jewish people that fled, the tighter immigration restrictions became abroad. In 1936, Chaim Weizmann, a leader among British Zionists, had written that:

“the world seemed to be divided into two parts—those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.”

It could be considered as the actual beginning of the Holocaust.

Aerial footage of Auschwitz.

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Much of the destroyed Jewish property expropriated during Kristallnacht was dumped near Brandenburg. Yaron Svoray, an investigative journalist, discovered this site in 2008, which contains Jewish personal and ceremonial items looted during the night spread across four football fields.

These items included mezuzot, glass bottles engraved with the Star of David, and the armrests of chairs found in synagogues, among others.

There is debate over the word ‘Kristallnacht’ itself. Some scholars believe that since the word was actually coined by the Nazis to minimise the suffering of the Jews, we should instead use a different word.

Froma Zeitlin writes 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.”

Header image credit: Destroyed Fasanenstrasse synagogue. Commons.