What Was Kristallnacht?
The Historical Background
Kristallnacht was a nationwide, state-sponsored pogrom (a spree of violence directed against Jews) conducted throughout Germany and Austria (which had been annexed by Germany in March 1938) from the evening and night of November 9 through the following afternoon. It was presented by the Nazi regime as a spontaneous public outburst provoked by the assassination of a minor German diplomat in Paris, Ernst vom Rath, by a seventeen-year-old Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan. The pogrom's name comes from the German word for beveled plate glass (Kristallglas) and refers to the broken shop windows of the Jewish stores, hence Kristallnacht, or Night of the Broken Glass.
The pogrom took place after five years of increasing assaults on Jewish property, citizenship rights, and their physical persons by the Nazis in order to segregate German Jews from the general public and encourage their emigration.
Grynszpan shot vom Rath, who was the only person available at the time of his impromptu visit to the German embassy in Paris where he went to protest that his parents (who were Polish and had been living in Germany but who were unable to become citizens of Germany because it was not allowed) had been rounded up by the Germans, brutally deported, and cruelly stranded in a no-man's land between Poland and Germany. Neither country would take responsibility for them.
Grynszpan's timing for the shooting could hardly have been worse. November 8 and 9 were two of the holiest days in the Nazi calendar. They were the twentieth anniversary of what Hitler called the infamous "stab in the back" by the "November criminals" (i.e. Jews) who had forced the Kaiser to abdicate, declare Germany a republic, and signed the debilitating armistice that ended World War I-an event that Hitler used to great advantage in his rise to power. It was also the fifteenth anniversary of the "Beer Hall Putsch" in Munich in 1923, which-although it had failed to bring Hitler to power-had catapulted him to national prominence. Hitler created a glorious myth around the failed event (it was essentially a poorly planned and badly executed street brawl) which by 1938 had coalesced into an annual two-day event extolling the myth of fallen Nazi heroes dying for a noble cause.
On November 8 of each year Hitler gave a speech at the Bürgerbräukeller, where the putsch had begun in 1923 and then led a parade through the streets - complete with bloodstained flags and singing - to the site of the graves of the dead where he laid memorial wreaths to the heroic fallen.
It was against this background on November 8 that the news arrived in Munich about the shooting of vom Rath by a Jew. Joseph Goebbels saw it as a heaven-sent opportunity to inflame anti-Jewish feeling and ordered all German newspapers to cover it prominently on their front pages. The first promising results came that evening with reports that some synagogues had been set afire, Jewish businesses were being attacked, and Jews were being assaulted in the provinces of Magdeburg-Anhalt and Hesse.
Vom Rath did not die until November 9. News of his death was brought to Hitler and Goebbels shortly before 9:00 P.M. while they were at dinner in Munich. According to Goebbels himself in his diary, he and Hitler spoke quietly together and they agreed to do nothing to stop any future activity along the same lines. Hitler was reported to have said “The SA should be allowed to have a fling.” 1 Hitler then left the dinner without giving his usual speech to the Gauleiters (district leaders), probably so as to be unaccountable for any of what was to come. Goebbels took his place and made the most of the opportunity. He allegedly spoke inspirationally to the “old fighters” (those who had been loyal to Hitler and the NSDAP since the inception of the party) and informed them that this was the time for action against the Jews. Although there is no official record of his remarks other than the personal post-war (and self-exculpatory) recollections of those present, it is undeniable that after Goebbels’ speech initial instructions were telephoned all over the country by the Gauleiters to begin the action. The SA (Stormtroopers) was to participate and incite the outrage of the crowds and regular policemen and firemen were ordered to stand down unless German property or life was at issue.
Mass destruction broke out across Germany: synagogues were destroyed and burned, shop windows were broken and stores looted, Jewish homes were invaded and household furnishing stolen or destroyed, and Jewish people were physically assaulted, sometimes even raped and murdered, and arrested en masse. Testifying against the “spontaneous” nature of the action, the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen had already been prepared weeks before for the influx of thousands of German Jews, especially those were influential or wealthy, who were to be arrested from previously prepared lists. 2
What Hitler Knew and When He Knew It
The timeline of events that night supports the centrality of the Nazi regime’s and Hitler’s active role in the pogrom. Hitler’s actual role in the events is shrouded in shadows, lack of primary documentation, and the contradictory self-serving statements made later by those who had been around him. However, some things can be safely asserted. After slipping out of the dinner meeting and foregoing his usual speech, Hitler returned to his hotel room, where he was most likely kept informed of the events as they progressed. Reinhard Heydrich 3 received first reports about 11:15 P.M. and his close associate SS-Gruppenführer Karl Wolff 4 found out about 11:20 P.M. Friedrich Karl von Oberstein, the chief of police in Munich and an SS-Obergruppenführer, appears to have found out about the burning of synagogues in Munich about 11:45 P.M..5
It appears that Julius Schaub, an “old fighter” and apologist for Hitler after the war, informed Hitler by phone or in person before midnight about the events of the evening. Karl Wolff probably also visited Hitler’s apartment at or around 11:30 P.M. 6 At this time Heinrich Himmler 7 was also present in Hitler’s apartment. Hitler and Himmler then officiated at the swearing-in of new SS-troops on the Odeonsplatz at midnight, after which both returned to their respective apartments. There Himmler was briefed by Heydrich on the progress of the pogrom. After this conference, Heydrich sent a telex to police forces in the rest of Germany at 1:20 A.M.
Hitler’s adjutant (aide), von Below, reports that Hitler received a phone call from Goebbels after midnight which he took in private, the details of which no one, including von Below, actually overheard. Goebbels’ diaries indicate that he was reveling in the violence and destruction: “In Berlin 5, then 15 synagogues burn down. Now the people’s anger rages. Nothing more can be done against it for the night. And I don’t want to do anything either. Should be given free rein … As I drive to the hotel, windows shatter. Bravo! The synagogues burn in all the big cities. German property is not endangered.”8
At 11:55 P.M. Heinrich Müller 9 sent a telex from Berlin to the SD (Security Police) and German police officials with instructions about the pogrom. In the telex, Müller warned that actions against the Jews were to begin and were not to be interrupted. Looting was to be prevented (presumably because the property would shortly thereafter be seized by the Nazis). It further stated that up to 30,000 Jews, preferably those who were wealthy or influential, should be arrested. (“Propertied Jews above all are to be chosen.”) He promised that more detailed instructions would be issued later.
At 1:20 A.M. on November 10, 1938 Reinhard Heydrich transmitted by telex an amplification of the orders given to him by Heinrich Himmler that in turn expanded on the ones sent earlier by Heinrich Müller. The telex instructed the police not to prevent the destruction of Jewish property and instructed the SD (Gestapo) not to get in the way of violent acts committed against German Jews. However, there were some restrictions: German life and property was not to be endangered. Jewish shops and dwellings could be damaged but their contents were not to be looted (for later seizure by the Nazis) and Jewish foreign nationals were not to be assaulted or arrested.
At 2:56 A.M. Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Führer to Hitler and Head of the National Socialist party, sent out a circular to local party officials. This memorandum forbade any ‘setting of fire to Jewish shops’ as many Jews rented their premises from non-Jewish Germans and the property of the shops was to be protected for future seizure.
It is unthinkable that these men would have transmitted these instructions without authorization from Hitler.
The Aftermath of the Pogrom
Most of the violence in Germany ended on November 10, but in Austria it only began on that day and was especially fierce. In Vienna the pogrom raged fiercely: Jews were attacked (at least eight were beaten to death), 5,000 Jewish shops were wrecked, and all but one of the city’s 21 synagogues were burnt down. 10
After the pogrom, the Nazis began a concerted effort to complete the process of ‘Aryanization’ 11 and renewed their attempts to pressure German Jews to emigrate. They weakened and destroyed the Jewish self-governing bodies and replaced them with one of their own to act as a puppet organization for their emigration policies. In addition, Hermann Göring, who was in charge of the economic Four Year Plan of the Third Reich, imposed a fine of one billion Reichsmark (about $400 million) on the Jews of Germany. 12
Although most of the Jewish men who had been arrested during the pogrom were released after a couple of weeks, many hundreds more died or committed suicide in the camps. They were generally released upon the promise of the prisoner that they and their family would leave the country for good, hence the emphasis on arresting wealthy Jews. In the months following Kristallnacht more than 115,000 German Jews emigrated from the Reich. Tens of thousands went to western European countries and Palestine, and at least 14,000 made it to Shanghai, China. In 1939, the combined German-Austrian annual immigration quota (27,370) for the United States was filled for the first time during the Nazi era. 13
The Nazis put the number of synagogues burned at 267 and announced that 815 shops, 29 department stores, and 171 dwellings of Jews had been burned or destroyed. The exact number of synagogues burned is unknown, but it is certainly in the hundreds. Richard Evans cites a minimum of 91 known deaths, not including those who died in the camps or who committed suicide. In addition, hundreds of other Jews were brutally beaten and even raped. In Austria alone there were at least 680 suicides during or in the wake of the pogrom. Historian Avraham Barkai, an expert in the economic life of Jews under the Nazis, notes that there were only about 9,000 Jewish shops remaining in Germany in 1938, of which Reinhard Heydrich estimated that 7,500 were destroyed or damaged. The figures on synagogues that were burned are debated by responsible historians and range from 520 to 1,200 out of a total of some 1,200 to about 2,000. 14
The significance of Kristallnacht lay in the reaction of the Nazi regime to intense and vocal criticism from abroad, which reacted to the pogrom with horror and condemnation. Thereafter the Germans chose to conduct mass physical violence against Jews in secret. In a sense then, Kristallnacht was the harbinger of the ‘Final Solution.’
Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Volume 2: Kristallnacht (Leni Yahil): pp. 836-840.
Evans,Richard. Expert Witness Report, Part 4. Irving’s writings on Hitler, Section 4.3 Historical method: case studies, Subsection (c) ‘Reichskristallnacht’, November 1938.
Read, Anthony and David Fisher. Kristallnacht: The Unleashing of the Holocaust. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1989.
Schwab, Gerald. The Day the Holocaust Began: The Odyssey of Herschel Grynszpan New York: Praeger, 1990.
Thalmann, Rita and Emmanuel Feinermann. Crystal Night: A Gripping Documentary of the Nazi Night of Terror that was Prelude to the Holocaust. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974.
Previous questions and answers on Kristallnacht are at our Questions and Answers page.
Last modified: November 28, 2003