views updated Jun 11 2018


According to a 1938 report published by the organization called Reíchsueriretung der Juden, Kristallnacht, the action launched against the Jews within the Reich (then consisting of Germany and Austria), was a historical turning point. "Crystal Night" refers to the tons of shattered window glass after Jewish-owned businesses and homes were destroyed. A document issued by Joachim von Ribbentrop's Foreign Ministry on January 25, 1939 to all German diplomatic and consular services, provided the justification for the Kristallnacht action. Under the title, "The Jewish Question, a Factor in Our Foreign Policy," it stated

It is not by chance that 1938, the year of our destiny, saw the realization of our plan for Greater Germany as well as a major step towards the solution of the Jewish problem. . . . This disease in the body of our people had to be eradicated first before the Great German Reich could assemble its forces to overcome the will of the world.

Months earlier, in November 1937, Adolf Hitler had told his followers that "the determination to secure the safety and the expansion of the racial community implied such risks" as the use of force and of war if necessary. Since Hitler's rise to power in January 1933, he had successfully crushed his opponents at home, excluded and isolated the Jews of Germany and Austria, rearmed and proceeded with the military occupation of the Rhineland despite the provisions of the Versailles Treaty of 1919.

The unwillingness of Germany's neighbors (notably France and the United Kingdom), to challenge Hitler all but guaranteed his success. Hitler also supported Franco's military putsch against the Spanish Republic, and annexed neighboring Austria. These actions created a flood of Jewish refugees seeking safety in other European nations and in the United States. In July 1938, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt convened an international summit to urge the delegates from thirty-two attending nations to open their borders to the refugees. This meeting, known as the Evian Conference, failed dismally. Instead, Polish and Hungarian observers requested that they, too, be relieved of their Jews.

When France and Britain signed the Munich Agreements in September 1938 and abandoned their Czech ally to Hitler's advance, they gave free rein to Hitler's territorial demands. With this, the situation in Europe passed what Berthold Brecht called Hitler's "resistable ascent." Hitler continued in his aggressive policies, including his treatment of the Jews. He was encouraged further when France's Premier Edouard Daladier, representing the Evian Intergovernment Committee, declared in a memorandum to the Ribbentrop ministry that "none of the States (members of the Committee) would dispute the absolute right of the German government to take with regard to certain of its citizens such measures as are within its own sovereign powers."

Such was the context in which the Jews were terrorized into emigrating. In October 1938 they were driven out of the recently annexed Sudetenland and on the nights of October 29 approximately 17,000 Jews were expelled from Germany to the Polish border. Berlin did this in anticipation of Warsaw's decision to revoke Polish passports if their bearers had lived abroad for more than five years. On November 3, 1938, Herschel Grynszpân, a young Polish Jewish refugee living in hiding at his uncle's home in Paris, received a postcard from his sister informing him that his family, settled in Hanover since 1911, had been expelled and were now confined, penniless, in the Polish border village of Zbazsyn. The next day the Yiddish newspaper, Pariser Haint, published a detailed account of the inhumane conditions of this act of massive deportation.

After forty-eight hours of feverish agitation, Grynszpân came to a decision. On Monday morning, November 7, 1938, he purchased a gun and went to the German Embassy in Paris. He gained entry by saying he had to deliver an important document, but once inside he fired five shots at the Third Secretary, Ernst vom Rath, the only diplomat then present. Badly hurt, vom Rath was taken to a neighboring clinic. The embassy porters handed Grynszpân over to the French police. He offered no resistance. Hitler heard of the attempt against vom Rath that same evening, and dispatched his personal physician to the embassy official's bedside. A few days later, on November 9, Hitler learned that vom Rath had died of his wounds. In response, he gave his chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, permission to launch a pogrom against the Jews of the Third Reich.

Grynszpân's attempt against the life of a representative of the Third Reich was by no means the first one. In February 1936, a young Jewish student named David Frankfurter had shot down the leader of Swiss Nazis, Wilhelm Gustloff, in Davos, Switzerland. At the time Hitler had vetoed reprisals against Jews, for fear of international reactions that might compromise his military plan (the reoccupation of the Rhineland) or disqualify Berlin as the host site for the Olympic games to be held in July of that year. By then, however, Hitler was far more confident. His goal now was to make Germany Judenrein ("Free of Jews").

Although the pogrom that Goebbels set in motion on the night of November 9, 1938 was later hailed as a "spontaneous wave of righteous indignation," the Sturm Abteilung (SA, "storm trooper unit") and the Schutzstaffel (SS, "protective corps") were actually in charge of the violent action. Their mission was explicit: preserve Aryan property, isolate the main Jewish institutions and seize their archives before they were destroyed, and arrest approximately 30,000 Jewish men (later to be herded into concentration camps); such were the duties of the SA and the SS, according to the instructions issued by Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Obergruppenfuehrer of the SS, and the chief of the Gestapo in Berlin.

The reports of Nazi leaders, diplomats, journalists stationed in the Reich, and victims who succeeded in emigrating before October 1941 give only approximate results of the Kristallnacht pogrom: dozens of suicides—among them a young couple in Stuttgart and their two little boys (one two-year-old and another who was only a few months old). A report from the Chief Judge of the Nazi Party's Supreme Court mentioned 91 dead and 36 injured, and went on to condemn those Nazi participants who raped Jews during Kristallnacht—for "defiling the race." No less than 267 synagogues and places of worship as well as 7,500 shops not yet "Aryanized" (taken over from Jewish owners) and hundreds of dwellings were looted and smashed.

In the evening of November 10, Goebbels officially called a halt to the pogrom. Reichsmarschall Hermann Wilhelm Göring, who was in charge of making decisions for the whole Reich, now enacted new laws intended, he claimed, "to harmonize the solution of the Jewish problem to its logical outcome." He chaired a meeting November 12, 1938 at the Air Ministry for senior ministers, the chiefs of police and security, and other influential Nazis and announced his new policies. Jews were now required to pay a million mark fine; their property (already registered according to a 1938 law) was to be confiscated, and their assets exchanged for government bonds. Compensation for property losses paid to them by insurance companies was also confiscated by the State.

Beginning on January 1, 1939, Jews were barred from conducting business or visiting public places except those designated for them. A Reich Central Office for Jewish Emigration was created in Germany modeled on one that Adolf Eichmann had established in Austria. Jewish associations were ordered to disband and their property was transferred to the Central Organization of German Jews, which was now under the authority of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA; Nazi Department of Security). The issue of forcing Jews to wear special identifying insignia and herding them into ghettos was discussed, but the idea was shelved for the moment, because Göring believed that ghettoization would be achieved naturally as the Jews grew increasingly destitute.

Despite the international indignation aroused by the scope and the violence of Kristallnacht, democratic countries were not inclined to open their borders to the victims. On November 11, 1938, Switzerland signed an agreement with Germany, promising to prohibit German Jews from entering Swiss territory. The countries of Scandinavia suggested settling the Jews outside Europe. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain agreed under pressure to allow 500 Jewish refugees per week into Britain, but he also blocked their entry into Palestine.

The French Premier, Daladier, was on delicate ground, because he had reached an accommodation with Germany and was set to sign a treaty of friendship and cooperation on December 6, of 1938. Complaining that France had already admitted many Jews (at that time, approximately 30,000), he offered to take in a few more as long as doing so would not jeopardize France's rapprochement with Germany. In front of more than 200 journalists, U.S. President Roosevelt recalled his ambassador to Germany "for consultation." This, however, was a hollow gesture, for Roosevelt had no intention of taking retaliatory measures against Hitler. American Jewish organizations suggested that he authorize an increase in the immigration quotas for European Jews—even if only temporarily—but he declined to do so.

A few days later, on November 23, the New York Times published the translation of an article that had appeared in Das Schwarze Korps, an SS publication known for its extreme anti-Jewish policy: "At this stage of development we must therefore face the hard necessity of exterminating the Jewish underworld in the same manner in which in this state of order we exterminate criminals generally: by fire and by the sword."

Grynszpân, whose act of anger and grief against the German embassy in France provided the excuse for Kristallnacht, disappeared from history after being handed over by Vichy government to the Germans. The pogrom that ensued, however, was indeed a turning point in the official Nazi policy on Jews. Unfortunately, the Third Reich's threat to exterminate all Jews, openly declared by the SS on November 23, 1938, was ignored by France, England, and the United States, as was Hitler's own threat, two months later, to exterminate all the Jews of Europe.

SEE ALSO Goebbels, Joseph; Göring, Hermann; Heydrich, Reinhard; Himmler, Heinrich; Hitler, Adolf; Holocaust


Barkai, A. (1989). From Boycott to Annihilation: The Economic Struggle of German Jews 1933–1945. Hanover, N.H.: Brandeis University Press.

Bauer, Yehuda (1994). Jews for Sale? Nazi-Jewish Negotiations 1933–1945. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Ben Elissar, E. (1969). La Diplomatie du Illè Reich et les Juifs 1933–1939. Paris: Julliard.

Kaplan, M. A. (1998). Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany. New York: Oxford University Press.

Morse, A. D. (1968). While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy. New York: Longman.

Roizen, R. (1986). "Herschel Grynszpân: The Fate of a Forgotten Assassin." Holocaust and Genocide Studies 1(2):217–228.

Thalmann, Rita, and Emmanuel Feinermann (1974). Crystal Night, 9–10 November 1938. New York: Coward, McCann & Gheogegan.

Rita Thalmann


views updated Jun 11 2018



On the night of 9–10 November 1938 Jews in Germany and Austria suffered an unprecedented assault. The "pogrom" was dubbed "the night of broken glass" by Germans because of the shattered windows that littered city streets. It was the culmination of exclusionary policies and sporadic violence directed against the Jews since the Nazis had come to power in 1933. The tempo of persecution had varied according to the priorities of domestic and foreign policy, but from late 1937 the pace accelerated as Hitler removed conservative elements from the regime and pursued an aggressive foreign policy. The annexation of Austria in March 1938 was accompanied by frenzied violence and looting, followed by sustained pressure on Jews to emigrate. By contrast, in Germany the slow pace of "Aryanization," the transfer of businesses from Jews to non-Jews, and low emigration was causing frustration to many Nazi leaders.

The radicalization of anti-Jewish policy led to the deportation of seventeen thousand Polish Jews from Germany to Poland on 27–28 October 1938. However, Poland refused to admit them, and they remained stranded in miserable refugee camps in the border zone. A young Polish Jew in Paris, Herschel Grynszpan (1921–?), was outraged at the treatment of the deportees, who included his parents. On 7 November 1938 he entered the German embassy in Paris and shot Ernst vom Rath, a minor official. Grynszpan was quickly apprehended.

Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945), the Nazi propaganda minister, seized on the shooting as the pretext for an "action" that he could lead against the Jews, with the partial aim of impressing Hitler. On 8–9 November he instructed the German press to highlight the shooting. Anti-Jewish disturbances followed in several German cities. On 9 November the Nazi leadership gathered in Munich to commemorate Hitler's attempted putsch in 1923. At 9 p.m. news arrived that vom Rath had died of his wounds. Hitler conferred with Goebbels and left the ceremony unexpectedly. Goebbels then made a speech stating that Hitler had agreed to "spontaneous" demonstrations against the Jews. The assembled leaders of the party and the SA (Sturmabteilung), the party militia, understood the signal and telephoned their local headquarters to instigate the assault. Heinrich Himmler (1900–1945), leader of the SS (Schutzstaffel), was not consulted. However, he later ordered SS units and the police not to intervene. Subsequently, the head of the Gestapo issued instructions to arrest thirty thousand well-off Jews.

During the night of 9–10 November, more than nine hundred synagogues were vandalized and set alight and nearly eight thousand Jewish-owned businesses were wrecked. In a nationwide "degradation ritual," Jewish homes were invaded and smashed. Hundreds of Jews were beaten, and ninety-one were killed. Yet the erratic timing and intensity of the attacks revealed poor coordination and planning among different Nazi agencies. Popular participation was patchy. Many Germans were uneasy about the wanton destruction, but others welcomed the release of tension that had accumulated during the proceeding international crisis over the Sudetenland. Instructions to restore order were finally issued at midnight on 10 November. About thirty-six thousand Jewish men were taken to concentration camps, mainly Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald. Most were soon released in order to arrange for the transfer of their property and businesses or once their families had succeeded in obtaining visas to emigrate. But hundreds were killed or died before they could be extracted.

On 12 November, Hermann Goering (1893–1946), head of the economic Four Year Plan, convened a meeting of senior Nazi officials to deal with the aftermath. He was annoyed at the damage to the economy and used this to obtain from Hitler power to control anti-Jewish policy. The meeting agreed that German Jews would be fined one billion Reichmarks and cover all repair costs. Insurance payments would be confiscated. Goering used the pogrom to initiate the compulsory "Aryanization" of all remaining Jewish enterprises. Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SS security service, won approval for measures to accelerate Jewish emigration modeled on the centralized agency earlier established by Adolf Eichmann in Vienna. Other oppressive measures were discussed and later implemented. At the end of the meeting Goering said, "I would not like to be a Jew in Germany."

Consequently, Jewish flight from Germany increased massively. As many Jews left in 1938–1939 as had departed during 1933–1938. This flood of largely impoverished refugees led many European countries to tighten immigration restrictions. Others, notably Britain, actually relaxed controls somewhat to allow entry to certain categories of refugee. World opinion was generally shocked by the November pogrom. The U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt withdrew the U.S. ambassador from Berlin as a gesture of disapproval, but few other countries registered such serious concern.

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Holocaust; Nuremberg Laws; Pogroms .


Friedänder, Saul. Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933–39. London, 1997.

Graml, Hermann. Antisemitism in the Third Reich. Oxford, U.K., 1992.

Kley, Stefan. "Hitler and the Pogrom of November 9–10, 1938." Yad Vashem Studies 28 (2000): 87–112.

Pehle, Walter H., ed. November 1938: From Reichskristallnacht to Genocide. Translated from the German by William Templer. New York, 1991.

Wildt, Michael. "Violence against Jews in Germany, 1933–1939." In Probing the Depths of German Antisemitism, edited by David Bankier, 181–209. Jerusalem, 2000.

David Cesarani


views updated Jun 08 2018


KRISTALLNACHT (Ger. "Night of the Broken Glass"), known in Germany and elsewhere as the November pogroms. Nazi anti-Jewish pogroms throughout the country committed on November 9–10, 1938. The events of the November pogroms were ostensibly provoked by the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, third secretary of the German embassy in Paris, by Herschel *Grynszpan, the son of Polish-Jewish parents living in Germany until their deportation to the Polish-German frontier in Zbaszyn in October 1938. Grynszpan received a postcard from his distraught sister and wanted revenge. On November 7 he went to German embassy in Paris, where he shot vom Rath, who died in the afternoon of November 9. In the meantime, attempts were made to persuade the British government to use its influence with the German government to suspend apparently imminent measures of retaliation against German Jewry. Thus, amid the Germans' deliberately engineered atmosphere of tension, widespread attacks on Jews, Jewish-owned property, and synagogues were made throughout Germany and Austria, which had been part of the Reich since March 1938, on the night of November 9–10.

Just before midnight on November 9, Gestapo Chief Heinrich Mueller sent a telegram to all police units telling them that "in shortest order, actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all Germany. These are not to be interfered with." Rather, the police were to arrest the victims. Fire companies stood by synagogues in flames with explicit instructions to let the buildings burn. They were to intervene only if a fire threatened adjacent Aryan properties. Thus, synagogues that were part of larger structures were spared in order not to damage those structures.

Within 48 hours, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned, along with their Torah scrolls, Bibles, and prayer books. Around 7,500 Jewish business establishments were trashed and looted, 91 Jews were killed, and Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes were destroyed. Often, the attackers were not strangers but neighbors. Around 30,000 Jewish men age 16–60 were arrested. To accommodate so many new prisoners, the concentration camps of *Dachau, *Buchenwald, and *Sachsenhausen were expanded and now contained a majority of Jews, often for the first time.

When the fury subsided, the pogrom was given a fancy name: Kristallnacht – crystal night, or night of broken glass. It came to stand for the final shattering of Jewish existence in Germany. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, the regime made sure that Jews could no longer survive in the country.

The cost of the broken glass alone came to 5 million marks, the equivalent of well over $2 million. Any compensation claims paid to Jews by insurance companies were confiscated by the Reich. The rubble of ruined synagogues had to be cleared by the Jewish community. Jews of German nationality, unlike Jewish-owned corporations from abroad, could not file for damages. A fine of one billion Reichmarks ($400 million) was imposed collectively on the Jewish community. After assessing the fine, Goering, who had assumed control in the aftermath from Goebbels, said: "I would not like to be a Jew in Germany." Harsher decrees followed immediately thereafter.

On November 15, Jews were barred from schools. Two weeks later, local authorities were given the right to impose a curfew, and by December Jews were denied access to most public places. All remaining Jewish businesses were "Aryanized."

The November pogrom shattered all Jewish illusions. Life in the Reich was no longer possible. There was another wave of suicides. Most tried desperately to leave. It shattered some German illusions as well. Violence thereafter in Germany would be planned and executed with precision and aforethought.

The events had occurred in public and thus the world could see what had happened. The U.S. recalled its ambassador in protest, but diplomatic ties were not broken.


L. Kochan, Pogrom, November 10, 1938 (1957); Tenenbaum, in: Yad Vashem Studies, 2 (1958) 49–78; K.Y. Ball-Kaduri, ibid., 3 (1959), 261–82; H. Graml, Der 9 November 1938 "Reichskristallnacht" (19586); Rosenkranz, in: Yad Vashem Bulletin, no. 14 (March, 1964); F.K. Kaul, Der Fall des Herschel Grynszpan (1965). add. bibliography: A. Read and D. Fisher, Kristallnacht: The Unleashing of the Holocaust (1990).

[Lionel Kochan /

Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]


views updated May 18 2018


Kristallnacht was the first massive, governmentendorsed, violent action against Jews in Nazi Germany's Third Reich. It occurred on the night of November 9/10, 1938, and its name, German for "crystal night," stems from the enormous amount of broken glass that covered the streets the following morning.

The violence was precipitated by the government's decision to round up fifteen thousand Polish Jews in Germany late in October 1938, even though it knew that the Polish government was not willing to grant them entrance visas. The family of Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish youth living in Paris, was among those left in a precarious situation on the border between Germany and Poland. In retaliation, Grynszpan assassinated Ernst vom Rath, the Third Secretary at Germany's embassy in Paris. Vom Rath died in the afternoon of November 9, and the news reached Adolf Hitler that evening, which was the anniversary of his attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic in 1923. Hitler met with his propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, and soon thereafter orders to wreak havoc on Jews were given to the Nazi paramilitary force, the Sturmabteilung, or SA.

This night resulted in widespread destruction of Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues. The SA also took action against spiritual objects as they forced rabbis and other Jews to desecrate the Torah and to stand inside of synagogues and read from Mein Kampf. The SA smashed windows and set buildings ablaze. Over one hundred Jews were killed in this night of violence. The SA, assisted by Schutzstaffel (SS) troops, also engaged in the first major round-up of German Jews. They seized approximately 25,000 Jewish men and placed them in the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. The attacks on the Jewish communities of Germany resulted in the destruction of over two hundred synagogues and more than seven thousand Jewish-owned businesses. The Third Reich declared that the Jewish communities had to pay a fine in the amount of one billion reichsmarks as punishment.

While many Jews had earlier believed that Hitler would eventually be taken out of power, Kristallnacht signaled a different kind of Germany, one that threatened their lives directly. The push to emigrate intensified, but would-be emigrants faced many barriers. The Third Reich blocked their bank accounts, and countries would not accept immigrants who could not provide for themselves. In 1939, 185,000 Jews emigrated, but often they could only obtain entrance visas for another European country. Once the German occupation of Western Europe began in 1940, they were back under the control of the Third Reich, and many of these refugees were shipped to killing centers in the east during the Holocaust.

In response to the pogrom, on November 15 President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that he had taken the unusual step of recalling the American ambassador to Germany for consultation. Roosevelt stated that the recent events in Germany had shocked him, but reiterated that additional visas would not be made available for Jewish refugees. Within the week, however, Roosevelt did agree to extend the visas of approximately 14,000 Jews who had entered on tourist visas until they had fulfilled citizenship requirements. One of the Jews who benefited from this decision was Albert Einstein.



Abzug, Robert H. America Views the Holocaust, 1933-1945: A Brief Documentary Reader. 1999.

Kaplan, Marion. Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany. 1996.

Pehle, Walter, ed. November 1938: From "Reichskristallnacht" to Genocide, translated by William Templer. 1991.

Thalmann, Rita, and Emmanuel Feinermann. Crystal Night: 9-10 November 1938, translated by Gilles Cremonesi. 1974.

Yahil, Leni. The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932-1945, translated by Ina Friedman and Haya Galai. 1991.

Laura J. Hilton


views updated May 21 2018

Kristallnacht (Germ., ‘night of glass’). The night, 9 Nov. 1938, on which Nazi anti-Semitism in Germany moved onto a new level of ferocity: synagogues were burned down and Jewish-owned shops were looted and destroyed (hence the name, because the streets were covered in glass). From this point on, the mass deportations to concentration camps began. See also HOLOCAUST.


views updated May 29 2018

Kristallnacht the occasion of concerted violence by Nazis throughout Germany and Austria against Jews and their property on the night of 9–10 November 1938. The (German) word means literally ‘night of crystal’, referring to the broken glass produced by the smashing of shop windows.