Kristallnacht: A Brief History

Every year, the Kansas City community marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a turning point for many Jews in Europe that foreshadowed the catastrophic events still ahead.

Seventy-five years ago, on November 9-10, 1938, the Nazis unleashed their first attempt at large-scale anti-Jewish violence: a pogrom that, in the flippant, ironic slang of Berlin, came to be called Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass”), because of the beveled plate glass (Kristallglas) from the shattered display windows of Jewish-owned shops that littered the streets.

Officially, the Nazis represented Kristallnacht as a spontaneous popular reaction to the November 7 shooting of Ernst vom Rath, an official at the German embassy in Paris, by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17 year old Polish Jew whose parents had been deported from Germany to Poland. In reality, it marked the radical culmination of a series of offensives against the Reich’s Jews that began after the annexation of Austria (March 1938) and continued throughout the summer and fall, undermining their public and private status and increasing their segregation from the general society. The Nazis passed laws restricting Jewish participation in German economic, political, social and cultural life, arrested large numbers of Jewish men and imprisoned them in concentration camps, and attacked Jewish businesses and synagogues. At the same time, they intensified their pressure on Jews to leave the Reich, despite the obstacles to emigration made manifest at the Evian Conference (July 1938), where representatives from 32 countries, led by the United States, refused to increase immigration quotas to accommodate Jewish refugees. The Nazis also expelled individual Jews as well as entire groups, mainly from Austria and from the parts of Czechoslovakia ceded to Germany after the Munich Agreement (September 1938); and on October 28, 1938, they arrested about 17,000 Jews with Polish citizenship, who had been living legally in Germany for decades, and deported them across the Polish border. Refusing to admit them, the Polish government interned them in “relocation camps” near the border town of Zbaszyn. Herschel Grynszpan’s parents were among them, and it was news of their plight that drove him to his desperate act.

At first, Vom Rath’s shooting provoked an only and inflammatory editorial in the Volkischer Beobachter, the official Nazi newspaper, and some sporadic anti-Jewish rioting on November 8. However, on the afternoon of November 9, Vom Rath died. That evening, Josef Goebbels, head of the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, harangued the “old fighters” of the party who had gathered in Munich to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of Hitler’s failed “Beer Hall Putsch” (November 8-9, 1923). Then, with Hitler’s consent, he hinted that this was the hour for action against the Jews and the SS communicated instructions to law enforcement officials throughout the Reich. The ensuing violence, spurred on by the SA (Strumabteilung or “Brown Shirts”), resulted in the vandalization or destruction of more than 200 synagogues, 7,500 Jewish businesses, and hundreds of Jewish homes. Jews were attacked physically and nearly 100 were murdered. About 30,000 Jewish men were arrested, often in accordance with previously prepared lists, and thrown into concentration camps. Although officially the pogrom ended on November 10, it continued on in many places for several days.

The outrage expressed by the world press and public did not influence the Nazis. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in protest, recalled Ambassador Hugh Wilson, they retaliated by denouncing “American interference in internal German affairs” and recalled the German ambassador to the United States. However, public pressure did influence many West European governments to admit a few more Jewish refugees – especially children. Most of all, Kristallnacht marked a critical turning point for European Jewry. With few safe havens available and with antisemitic violence now an official part of Nazi policy, the Jews of Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland were trapped.