Kristallnacht (German pronunciation: [kʁɪsˈtalnaχt]) or the Night of Broken Glass, also called the November Pogrom(s), was a pogrom against Jews carried out by SA paramilitary forces and civilians throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938. The German authorities looked on without intervening. The name Kristallnacht ("Crystal Night") comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed.
Jewish homes, hospitals and schools were ransacked as the attackers demolished buildings with sledgehammers. The rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. Over 7,000 Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed, and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. British historian Martin Gilbert wrote that no event in the history of German Jews between 1933 and 1945 was so widely reported as it was happening, and the accounts from foreign journalists working in Germany sent shockwaves around the world. The Times of London observed on 11 November 1938: "No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday."
The pretext for the attacks was the assassination of the Nazi German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old German-born Polish Jew living in Paris. Estimates of fatalities caused by the attacks have varied. Early reports estimated that 91 Jews had been murdered. Modern analysis of German scholarly sources puts the figure much higher; when deaths from post-arrest maltreatment and subsequent suicides are included, the death toll climbs into the hundreds, with Richard J. Evans estimating 638 suicide deaths. Historians view Kristallnacht as a prelude to the Final Solution and the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust.
In the 1920s, most German Jews were fully integrated into German society as German citizens.
These laws resulted in the exclusion of Jews from German social and political life. Many sought asylum abroad; hundreds of thousands emigrated, but as Chaim Weizmann wrote in 1936, "The world seemed to be divided into two parts—those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter." The international Évian Conference on 6 July 1938 addressed the issue of Jewish and Gypsy immigration to other countries. By the time the conference took place, more than 250,000 Jews had fled Germany and Austria, which had been annexed by Germany in March 1938; more than 300,000 German and Austrian Jews continued to seek refuge and asylum from oppression. As the number of Jews and Gypsies wanting to leave increased, the restrictions against them grew, with many countries tightening their rules for admission. By 1938, Germany "had entered a new radical phase in anti-Semitic activity". Some historians believe that the Nazi government had been contemplating a planned outbreak of violence against the Jews and were waiting for an appropriate provocation; there is evidence of this planning dating to 1937. In a 1997 interview, the German historian Hans Mommsen claimed that a major motive for the pogrom was the desire of the Gauleiters of the NSDAP to seize Jewish property and businesses. Mommsen stated:
The Zionist leadership in the British Mandate of Palestine wrote in February 1938 that according to "a very reliable private source—one which can be traced back to the highest echelons of the SS leadership", there was "an intention to carry out a genuine and dramatic pogrom in Germany on a large scale in the near future".
In August 1938 the German authorities announced that residence permits for foreigners were being canceled and would have to be renewed.
The deportees were taken from their homes to railway stations and were put on trains to the Polish border, where Polish border guards sent them back into Germany.
Among those expelled was the family of Sendel and Riva Grynszpan, Polish Jews who had emigrated to Germany in 1911 and settled in Hanover, Germany. At the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, Sendel Grynszpan recounted the events of their deportation from Hanover on the night of 27 October 1938: "Then they took us in police trucks, in prisoners' lorries, about 20 men in each truck, and they took us to the railway station. The streets were full of people shouting: 'Juden Raus! Auf Nach Palästina!'" ("Jews out, out to Palestine!"). Their seventeen-year-old son Herschel was living in Paris with an uncle. Herschel received a postcard from his family from the Polish border, describing the family's expulsion: "No one told us what was up, but we realized this was going to be the end... We haven't a penny. Could you send us something?" He received the postcard on 3 November 1938.
On the morning of Monday, 7 November 1938, he purchased a revolver and a box of bullets, then went to the German embassy and asked to see an embassy official.
The next day, the German government retaliated, barring Jewish children from German state elementary schools, indefinitely suspending Jewish cultural activities, and putting a halt to the publication of Jewish newspapers and magazines, including the three national German Jewish newspapers.
Ernst Vom Rath died of his wounds on 9 November.
Some leading party officials disagreed with Goebbels' actions, fearing the diplomatic crisis it would provoke.
Müller, in a message to SA and SS commanders, stated the "most extreme measures" were to be taken against Jewish people. The SA and Hitler Youth shattered the windows of about 7,500 Jewish stores and businesses, hence the appellation Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), and looted their goods. Jewish homes were ransacked all throughout Germany. Although violence against Jews had not been explicitly condoned by the authorities, there were cases of Jews being beaten or assaulted. Following the violence, police departments recorded a large number of suicides and rapes.
The rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland. Over 1400 synagogues and prayer rooms, many Jewish cemeteries, more than 7,000 Jewish shops, and 29 department stores were damaged, and in many cases destroyed. More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps; primarily Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen.
The synagogues, some centuries old, were also victims of considerable violence and vandalism, with the tactics the Stormtroops practiced on these and other sacred sites described as "approaching the ghoulish" by the United States Consul in Leipzig.
After this, the Jewish community was fined 1 billion Reichsmarks (equivalent to 4 billion 2009 €).
Many Berliners were however deeply ashamed of the pogrom, and some took great personal risks to offer help.
Tucson News TV channel briefly reported on a 2008 remembrance meeting at a local Jewish congregation. According to eyewitness Esther Harris: "They ripped up the belongings, the books, knocked over furniture, shouted obscenities". Historian Gerhard Weinberg is quoted as saying:
Göring, who was in favor of expropriating the Jews rather than destroying Jewish property as had happened in the pogrom, complained directly to Sicherheitspolizei Chief Heydrich immediately after the events: "I'd rather you had done in two-hundred Jews than destroy so many valuable assets!" ("Mir wäre lieber gewesen, ihr hättet 200 Juden erschlagen und hättet nicht solche Werte vernichtet!"). Göring met with other members of the Nazi leadership on 12 November to plan the next steps after the riot, setting the stage for formal government action. In the transcript of the meeting, Göring said,
The persecution and economic damage inflicted upon German Jews continued after the pogrom, even as their places of business were ransacked.
The number of emigrating Jews surged, as those who were able left the country.
Responses to Kristallnacht
The reaction of non-Jewish Germans to Kristallnacht was varied. Many spectators gathered on the scenes, most of them in silence. The local fire departments confined themselves to prevent the flames from spreading to neighboring buildings. In Berlin, police Lieutenant Otto Bellgardt barred SA troopers from setting the New Synagogue on fire, earning his superior officer a verbal reprimand from the commissioner.
The British historian Martin Gilbert believes that "many non-Jews resented the round-up", his opinion being supported by German witness Dr. Arthur Flehinger who recalls seeing "people crying while watching from behind their curtains". Paul Ehrlich]] that had been "slashed to ribbons" by the . "He wanted it to be known that not all Germans supported Kristallnacht." The extent of the damage done on Kristallnacht was so great that many Germans are said to have expressed their disapproval of it, and to have described it as senseless.
In an article released for publication on the evening of 11 November, Goebbels ascribed the events of Kristallnacht to the "healthy instincts" of the German people. He went on to explain: "The German people are anti-Semitic. It has no desire to have its rights restricted or to be provoked in the future by parasites of the Jewish race." Less than 24 hours after the Kristallnacht Adolf Hitler made a one-hour long speech in front of a group of journalists where he managed to completely ignore the recent events on everyone's mind. According to Eugene Davidson the reason for this was that Hitler wished to avoid being directly connected to an event that he was aware that many of those present condemned, regardless of Goebbels's unconvincing explanation that Kristallnacht was caused by popular wrath. Goebbels met the foreign press in the afternoon of 11 November and said that the burning of synagogues and damage to Jewish owned property had been "spontaneous manifestations of indignation against the murder of Herr Vom Rath by the young Jew Grynsban [sic]"
In 1938, just after Kristallnacht, the psychologist Michael Müller-Claudius interviewed 41 randomly selected Nazi Party members on their attitudes towards racial persecution.
As it was aware that the German public did not support the Kristallnacht, the propaganda ministry directed the German press to portray opponents of racial persecution as disloyal. The press was also under orders to downplay the Kristallnacht, describing general events at the local level only, with the prohibition against depictions of individual events. In 1939 this was extended to a prohibition on reporting any anti-Jewish measures.
The U.S. ambassador to Germany reported:
To the consternation of the Nazis, the Kristallnacht affected public opinion counter to their desires, the peak of opposition against the Nazi racial policies was reached just then, when according to almost all accounts the vast majority of Germans rejected the violence perpetrated against the Jews. Verbal complaints grew rapidly in numbers, and for example, the Duesseldorf branch of the Gestapo reported a sharp decline in anti-Semitic attitudes among the population.
There are many indications of Protestant and Catholic disapproval of racial persecution; for example, anti-Nazi Protestants adopted the Barmen Declaration in 1934, and the Catholic church had already distributed Pastoral letters critical of Nazi racial ideology, and the Nazi regime expected to encounter organised resistance from it following Kristallnacht. The Catholic leadership however, just as the various Protestant churches, refrained from responding with organised action. While individual Catholics and Protestants took action, the churches as a whole chose silence publicly. Nevertheless, individuals continued to show courage, for example, a Parson paid the medical bills of a Jewish cancer patient and was sentenced to a large fine and several months in prison in 1941, Reformed Church pastor Paul Schneider placed a Nazi sympathizer under church discipline and he was subsequently sent to Buchenwald where he was murdered. A Catholic nun was sentenced to death in 1945 for helping Jews. A Protestant parson spoke out in 1943 and was sent to Dachau concentration camp where he died after a few days.
Martin Sasse, Nazi Party member and bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Thuringia, leading member of the Nazi German Christians, one of the schismatic factions of German Protestantism, published a compendium of Martin Luther's writings shortly after the Kristallnacht; Sasse "applauded the burning of the synagogues" and the coincidence of the day, writing in the introduction, "On 10 November 1938, on Luther's birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany." The German people, he urged, ought to heed these words "of the greatest anti-Semite of his time, the warner of his people against the Jews." Diarmaid MacCulloch argued that Luther's 1543 pamphlet, On the Jews and Their Lies was a "blueprint" for the Kristallnacht.
Kristallnacht sparked international outrage. According to Volker Ullrich, "...a line had been crossed: Germany had left the community of civilised nations." It discredited pro-Nazi movements in Europe and North America, leading to an eventual decline in their support. Many newspapers condemned Kristallnacht, with some of them comparing it to the murderous pogroms incited by Imperial Russia during the 1880s. The United States recalled its ambassador (but it did not break off diplomatic relations) while other governments severed diplomatic relations with Germany in protest. The British government approved the Kindertransport program for refugee children. As such, Kristallnacht also marked a turning point in relations between Nazi Germany and the rest of the world. The brutality of the pogrom, and the Nazi government's deliberate policy of encouraging the violence once it had begun, laid bare the repressive nature and widespread anti-Semitism entrenched in Germany. World opinion thus turned sharply against the Nazi regime, with some politicians calling for war. The private protest against the Germans following Kristallnacht was held on 6 December 1938. William Cooper, an Aboriginal Australian, led a delegation of the Australian Aboriginal League on a march through Melbourne to the German Consulate to deliver a petition which condemned the "cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany". German officials refused to accept the tendered document.
After the Kristallnacht, Salvador Allende, Gabriel González Videla, Marmaduke Grove, Florencio Durán and other members of the Congress of Chile sent a telegram to Adolf Hitler denouncing the persecution of Jews. A more personal response, in 1939, was the oratorio A Child of Our Time by the English composer Michael Tippett.
Kristallnacht as a turning point
Kristallnacht changed the nature of the Nazi persecution of Jews from economic, political, and social to physical with beatings, incarceration, and murder; the event is often referred to as the beginning of the Holocaust. In this view, it is described not only as a pogrom but also a critical stage within a process where each step becomes the seed of the next. An account cited that Hitler's green light for Kristallnacht was made with the belief that it would help him realize his ambition of getting rid of the Jews in Germany. Prior to this large-scale and organized violence against the Jews, the Nazi's primary objective was to eject them from Germany, leaving their wealth behind. In the words of historian Max Rein in 1988, "Kristallnacht came...and everything was changed."
While November 1938 predated the overt articulation of "the Final Solution", it foreshadowed the genocide to come. Around the time of Kristallnacht, the SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps called for a "destruction by swords and flames." At a conference on the day after the pogrom, Hermann Göring said: "The Jewish problem will reach its solution if, in anytime soon, we will be drawn into war beyond our border—then it is obvious that we will have to manage a final account with the Jews." Kristallnacht was also instrumental in changing global opinion. In the United States, for instance, it was this specific incident that came to symbolize Nazism and was the reason the Nazis became associated with evil.
Many decades later, association with the Kristallnacht anniversary was cited as the main reason against choosing 9 November (Schicksalstag), the day the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, as the new German national holiday; a different day was chosen (3 October 1990, German reunification).
The avant-garde guitarist Gary Lucas's 1988 composition "Verklärte Kristallnacht", which juxtaposes what would become the Israeli national anthem ten years after Kristallnacht, "Hatikvah", with phrases from the German national anthem "Deutschland Über Alles" amid wild electronic shrieks and noise, is intended to be a sonic representation of the horrors of Kristallnacht. It was premiered at the 1988 Berlin Jazz Festival and received rave reviews. (The title is a reference to Arnold Schoenberg's 1899 work "Verklärte Nacht" that presaged his pioneering work on atonal music; Schoenberg was an Austrian Jew who would move to the United States to escape the Nazis).
In 1989, 30 years ago, Al Gore, then a senator from Tennessee and later Vice President of the United States, wrote of an "ecological Kristallnacht" in the New York Times. He opined that events then taking place, such as deforestation and ozone depletion, prefigured a greater environmental catastrophe in the way Kristallnacht prefigured the Holocaust.
Kristallnacht was the inspiration for the 1993 album Kristallnacht by the composer John Zorn. The German power metal band Masterplan's debut album, Masterplan (2003), features an anti-Nazi song entitled "Crystal Night" as the fourth track. The German band BAP published a song titled "Kristallnaach" in their Cologne dialect, dealing with the emotions engendered by the Kristallnacht.
Kristallnacht was the inspiration for the 1988 composition Mayn Yngele by the composer Frederic Rzewski, of which he says: "I began writing this piece in November 1988, on the 50th anniversary of the Kristallnacht... My piece is a reflection on that vanished part of Jewish tradition which so strongly colors, by its absence, the culture of our time".
Kristallnacht was invoked as a reference point on 16 July 2018 by a former Watergate Prosecutor, Jill Wine-Banks, during an MSNBC segment. Her argument was that President Trump's joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin was a performance that would live in infamy much like the attack on Pearl Harbor and Kristallnacht.
Kristallnacht has been referenced both explicitly and implicitly in countless cases of vandalism of Jewish property including the toppling of gravestones in a Jewish cemetery in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, and the two 2017 vandalisms of the New England Holocaust Memorial, as the memorial's founder Steve Ross discusses in his book, From Broken Glass: My Story of Finding Hope in Hitler's Death Camps to Inspire a New Generation. The Sri Lankan Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera also used the term to describe the violence in 2019 against Muslims by Sinhalese nationalists.