• Search

    Introduction: Kristallnacht

    This post is also available in: Français Español العربية فارسی Русский Türkçe

    Introduction: What was Kristallnacht?

    Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) was a violent state-sponsored pogrom authorized by Adolf Hitler. It took place throughout Germany and Austria on November 9 and 10, 1938. The Germans claimed that the pogrom was a spontaneous public uprising in response to the assassination of Ernst vom Rath. Indeed, a Polish Jewish teenager named Herschel Grynszpan shot vom Rath, a Nazi German diplomat, in Paris on November 7th (vom Rath died on the 9th). Grynszpan was angry over the recent deportation of his family, who had been living in Germany for some time. In October 1938, the Nazi government began rounding up Polish Jews living in Germany and deporting them to Poland. When the Polish government initially refused to admit the 12,000 deported Polish Jews (the Grynszpan family among them), the Polish Jews became stateless and were stuck along the Poland-Germany frontier regions. Conditions were poor and food was scarce.

    In reality though, Herschel Grynszpan’s assassination of Ernst vom Rath was only a pretext for the supposedly “random” violence of Kristallnacht. Behind the mask of “randomness,” Nazi officials orchestrated much of the violence or encouraged local populations to commit violence against Jews. Throughout the night of November 9th and into the dawn of November 10th, hundreds of German synagogues and Austrian synagogues were burned, thousands of Jewish businesses and homes were destroyed, and at least 91 Jews were murdered. Many more people were seriously injured and over 20,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps, where they were further beaten and terrorized.[1]

    Two views of the Kristallnacht pogroms:

    The violence of the Kristallnacht pogrom was in plain view. An American diplomat summarized Kristallnacht in a report: “Jewish buildings were smashed and contents demolished or looted . . . Jewish shop windows were systematically and wantonly smashed . . . the debacle was executed by SS men and Stormtroopers not in uniform, each group having been provided with hammers, axes, crowbars and incendiary bombs . . . No attempts were made whatsoever to quench the fires . . . There is much evidence of physical violence, including several deaths.”[2] On the other hand, the German press presented the violence as “a vivid demonstration of the degree to which the anger of the German people has reached, without Jews suffering any physical harm as a result.”[3]

    Jews being forced to walk with the star of David during the Kristallnacht in Nazi-Germany on the night of 9-10 November, 1938. See page for author [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
    Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    The aftermath and punishment of perpetrators:

    After Kristallnacht, the Jewish community was ordered to pay a collective fine of one billion Marks. Insurance payments for the damages to Jewish shops, homes, and property were paid to the Nazi government, not to the policyholders. The 20,000 Jewish men who had been arrested were slowly released in the weeks following. They were terrorized in the concentration camps, most of them under the condition that they and their families would leave Germany as soon as possible. None of the German perpetrators were arrested or tried for the crimes of murder, assault, arson, or property damage. Only two perpetrators were punished for raping Jewish women. Even these two convictions did not actually focus on the Jewish victims. They were classified as crimes of Rassenschande (racial defilement). In other words, the perpetrators committed a crime purely by having sex with Jewish women.


    [1] For four excellent accounts about the Kristallnacht pogrom see Alan E. Steinweis, Kristallnacht 1938 (Belknap Press, 2009); Rita Thalmann and Emmanuel Feinermann, Crystal Night (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1974); Anthony Read and David Fisher, Kristallnacht: The Nazi Night of Terror (Random House, 1993); and Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction (HarperCollins, 2006).

    [2] Richard J. Evans, David Irving, Hitler and Holocaust Denial, (4)(4.3)(c)(i)(8) at https://www.hdot.org. For an account of Kristallnacht and Irving’s version of it see also Richard J. Evans, Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial (Basic Books, 2001), pp. 52-65.

    [3] Richard J. Evans, David Irving, Hitler and Holocaust Denial, Section (4)(4.3)(c)(i)(10).