On November 9–10, 1938, throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria, Jewish homes were ransacked, as were shops, towns and villages, as SA stormtroopers and civilians destroyed buildings with sledgehammers, leaving the streets covered in pieces of smashed windows. Ninety-one Jews were killed, and 30,000 Jewish men—a quarter of all Jewish men in Germany—were taken to concentration camps, where they were tortured for months, with over 1,000 of them dying. Around 1,668 synagogues were ransacked, and 267 set on fire. In Vienna alone 95 synagogues or houses of prayer were destroyed.
The trigger of the attacks was the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a German-born Polish Jew in Paris, France. Kristallnacht was followed by further economic and political persecution of Jews.
Early Nazi Persecutions
In the 1920s, most German Jews were fully integrated into German society as German citizens. They served in the German army and navy and contributed to every field of German science, business and culture. Conditions for the Jews began to change after the appointment of Adolf Hitler, as Chancellor of Germany, who was the leader of the Nazi group, on January 30, 1933, and the assumption of power by Hitler after the Reichstag fire. From its inception, Hitler’s regime moved quickly to introduce anti-Jewish policies. The 500,000 Jews in Germany, who accounted for only 0.76% of the overall population, were singled out by the Nazi propaganda machine as an enemy within who were responsible for Germany’s defeat in the First World War, and for her subsequent economic difficulties, such as the 1920s hyperinflation and Great Depression. Beginning in 1933, the German government enacted a series of anti-Jewish laws restricting the rights of German Jews to earn a living, to enjoy full citizenship and to educate themselves, including the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which forbade Jews to work in the civil service. The subsequent 1935 Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship and forbade Jews to marry non-Jewish Germans.
The result of these laws was the exclusion of Jews from German social and political life. Many sought asylum abroad; thousands did manage to leave, 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.” To provide help an international conference was held on July 6, 1938 to address the issue of Jewish and Gypsy immigration to other countries. By the time the conference was held, more than 250,000 Jews had fled Germany and Austria, which had been annexed by Germany in March 1938. However, more than 300,000 German and Austrian Jews were still seeking shelter from oppression. As the number of Jews and Gypsies wanting to leave grew, the restrictions against them also grew, with many countries tightening their rules for admission.
Expulsion of Polish Jews in Germany
In August 1938 the German authorities announced that residence permits for foreigners were being cancelled and would have to be renewed. This included German-born Jews of foreign origin. Poland stated that it would not accept Jews of Polish origin after the end of October. In the so-called “Polenaktion”, more than 12,000 Polish-born Jews, among them philosopher and theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, were expelled from Germany on October 28, 1938, on Hitler’s orders. They were ordered to leave their homes in a single night, and were only allowed one suitcase per person to store their belongings. As the Jews were taken away, their remaining possessions were seized as booty by both the Nazi authorities and by their neighbors.
The deportees were taken from their homes to railway stations and were put on trains to the Polish border. The Polish border guards sent them back over the river into Germany. This stalemate continued for days in the pouring rain, with the Jews marching without food or shelter between the borders. Four thousand were granted entry into Poland but the remaining 8,000 were forced to stay at the border. They waited there in harsh conditions to be allowed to enter Poland. A British newspaper told its readers that hundreds “are reported to be lying about, penniless and deserted, in little villages along the frontier near where they had been driven out by the Gestapo and left.” Conditions in the refugee camps “were so bad that some actually tried to escape back into Germany and were shot,” recalled a British woman who was sent to help those who had been expelled.
Vom Rath Shooting
Among those expelled was the family of Zindel and Rivka Grynszpan, Polish Jews who had emigrated to Germany in 1911 and settled in Hanover. Their seventeen-year-old son, Herschel, who was living in Paris with an uncle at the time, received a postcard from his sister, Berta, 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 November 3. On the morning of Monday, November 7, he purchased a revolver and a box of bullets, then went to the German embassy and asked to see an embassy official. After he was taken to the office of Ernst vom Rath, Herschel shot him three times in the abdomen. He made no attempt to escape the French police and freely confessed to the shooting. In his pocket, he carried a postcard to his parents with the message “May God forgive me… I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do.”
On November 8, Germany announced the first punitive measures in response to the shooting. Jewish newspapers and magazines were to cease publication immediately. This cut off Jews from their leadership, whose task was to advise and guide them, particularly about emigration. It was a measure, one British newspaper explained, “intended to disrupt the Jewish community and rob it of the last frail ties which hold it together.” At the time three German Jewish newspapers had a national circulation, and there were four cultural papers, several sports papers, and several dozen community bulletins, of which the one in Berlin had a circulation of 40,000. The government announced that Jewish children could no longer attend German state elementary schools. All Jewish cultural activities were also suspended indefinitely. Their rights as citizens had been stripped.
Death of Vom Rath
Vom Rath died of his wounds on November 9. Word of his death reached Hitler that evening while he was at a dinner commemorating the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch with several key members of the Nazi party. After intense discussions, Hitler left the assembly abruptly without giving his usual address. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels delivered the speech instead, in which he commented that “the Führer has decided that… demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.” Chief party judge Walter Buch later stated that the message was clear; with these words Goebbels had commanded the party leaders to organize a pogrom.
Some leading party officials disagreed with Goebbels’s actions, fearing the diplomatic crisis it would provoke. Heinrich Himmler wrote “I suppose that it is Goebbels’s megalomania…and stupidity which are responsible for starting this operation now, in a particularly difficult diplomatic situation.” Some believed that Goebbels had personal reasons for wanting to bring about Kristallnacht. Goebbels had recently suffered humiliation for the ineffectiveness of his propaganda campaign during the Sudeten crisis, and was in some disgrace over an affair with the Czech actress Lída Baarová. Goebbels thus needed a chance to prove himself in the eyes of Hitler.
At 1:20am on November 10, 1938, Reinhard Heydrich sent an urgent secret telegram to the state police and the Sturmabteilung (SA) containing instructions regarding the riots. This included guidelines for the protection of foreigners and non-Jewish businesses and property. Police were instructed not to interfere with the riots unless the guidelines were violated. Police were also instructed to seize Jewish archives from synagogues and community offices, and to arrest and detain “healthy male Jews, who are not too old,” for eventual transfer to concentration camps.
The timing of the riots varied from unit to unit. The Gauleiters started at about 10:30pm, only two hours after news of vom Rath’s death reached Germany. They were followed by the SA at 11pm, and the SS at around 1:20am. Most were wearing civilian clothes and were armed with sledgehammers and axes, and soon went to work on the destruction of Jewish property. The orders given to these men were very specific, however: no measures endangering non-Jewish German life or property were to be taken (synagogues too close to non-Jewish property were smashed rather than burned); Jewish businesses or dwellings could be destroyed but not looted; foreigners (even Jewish foreigners) were not to be the subjects of violence; and synagogue archives were to be transferred to the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). The men were also ordered to arrest as many Jews as the local jails would hold, the preferred targets being healthy young men.
The SA shattered the storefronts of about 7500 Jewish stores and businesses, hence the appellation Kristallnacht. 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.
This pogrom damaged, and in many cases destroyed, about 200 synagogues (constituting nearly all Germany had), many Jewish cemeteries, more than 7,000 Jewish shops, and 29 department stores. Some Jews were beaten to death while others were forced to watch. More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps; primarily Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. The treatment of prisoners in the camps was brutal, but most were released during the following three months on condition that they leave Germany.
The number of German Jews killed is uncertain. The number killed in the two-day riot is most often cited as 91. In addition, it is thought that there were hundreds of suicides. Counting deaths in the concentration camps, around 2,000-2,500 deaths were directly or indirectly attributable to the Kristallnacht pogrom. A few non-Jewish Germans, mistaken for Jews, were also killed.
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. Tombstones were uprooted and graves violated. Fires were lit, and prayer books, scrolls, artwork and philosophy texts were thrown upon them, and precious buildings were either burned or smashed until unrecognizable. Eric Lucas recalls the destruction of the synagogue that a tiny Jewish community had constructed in a small village only twelve years earlier:
It did not take long before the first heavy grey stones came tumbling down, and the children of the village amused themselves as they flung stones into the many colored windows. When the first rays of a cold and pale November sun penetrated the heavy dark clouds, the little synagogue was but a heap of stone, broken glass and smashed-up woodwork.
After this, the Jewish community was fined 1 billion reichsmarks. In addition, it cost 4 million marks to repair the windows.
Events in only recently annexed Austria were no less horrendous. Of the entire Kristallnacht only the pogrom in Vienna was completed. Most of Vienna’s 94 synagogues and prayer-houses were partially or totally destroyed. People were subjected to all manner of humiliations, including being forced to scrub the pavements whilst being tormented by their fellow Austrians, some of whom had been their friends and neighbors.
Official figures released after the event by Reinhard Heydrich stated that 191 Synagogues were destroyed, with 76 completely demolished; 100,000 Jews were arrested; three foreigners were arrested; 174 people were arrested for looting Jewish shops; and 815 Jewish businesses were destroyed.
The Daily Telegraph correspondent, Hugh Carleton Greene, wrote of events in Berlin:
Mob law ruled in Berlin throughout the afternoon and evening and hordes of hooligans indulged in an orgy of destruction. I have seen several anti-Jewish outbreaks in Germany during the last five years, but never anything as nauseating as this. Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete hold of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable middle-class mothers held up their babies to see the “fun”.
Disarmament of the Jews
One of the significant purposes of Kristallnacht was the explicit disarmament of the German Jews. The SA were under orders to confiscate all Jewish-owned firearms. The order was issued “[a]ll Jews are to be disarmed. In the event of resistance they are to be shot immediately.”
The violence was officially called to a stop by Goebbels on November 11, but violence continued against the Jews in the concentration camps despite orders requesting “special treatment” to ensure that this did not happen. On November 23, the News Chronicle of London published an article on an incident which took place at the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen. Sixty-two Jews suffered punishment so severe that the police, “unable to bear their cries, turned their backs”. They were beaten until they fell, and when they fell, they were further beaten. At the end of it, “twelve of the sixty-two were dead, their skulls smashed. The others were all unconscious. The eyes of some had been knocked out, their faces flattened and shapeless”. The 30,000 Jewish men who had been imprisoned during Kristallnacht were released over the next three months, but by then over 2,000 had died.
Hermann Göring met with other members of the Nazi leadership on November 12 to plan the next steps after the riot, setting the stage for formal government action. In the transcript of the meeting, Göring said,
I have received a letter written on the Führer’s orders requesting that the Jewish question be now, once and for all, coordinated and solved one way or another… I should not want to leave any doubt, gentlemen, as to the aim of today’s meeting. We have not come together merely to talk again, but to make decisions, and I implore competent agencies to take all measures for the elimination of the Jew from the German economy, and to submit them to me.
The persecution and economic damage done to German Jews continued after the pogrom, even as their places of business were ransacked. They were forced to pay “Judenvermögensabgabe”, a collective fine of one billion marks for the murder of vom Rath (equal to roughly $US 5.5 billion in today’s currency), which was levied by the compulsory acquisition of 20% of all Jewish property by the state. Six million Reichsmarks of insurance payments for property damage due to the Jewish community were to be paid to the government instead as “damages to the German Nation”.
The number of emigrating Jews surged as those who were able, left the country. In the ten months following Kristallnacht, more than 115,000 Jews emigrated from the Reich. The majority went to other European countries, the US and Palestine, and at least 14,000 made it to Shanghai, China. As part of government policy, the Nazis seized houses, shops, and other property the émigrés left behind.