Nov 9, 1938: Kristallnacht (Pogromnacht)

Paul Sullivan on the day the Nazis committed the worst pogrom in Germany since the Middle Ages…


On October 27, 1938, Hanover resident Zindel Grynszpan and his family were forced out of their home by German police. Grynszpan’s modest tailor’s shop, which he had been operating since 1911, was confiscated along with his family’s possessions and they were forced to move over the Polish border—part of a “relocation” of 17,000 Polish Jews by the Nazis.

Nazi harassment of Jews had already been happening for several years at this point, of course. As early as 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power, a one-day boycott was proclaimed against Jewish shops, a law was passed against kosher butchering and restrictions were imposed on Jewish children attending in public schools. By 1935, the Nuremburg Laws had deprived Jews of German citizenship, and a year later Jews were prohibited from participation in parliamentary elections; signs reading “Jews Not Welcome” started to appear in many German cities.

But 1938 was a major turning point, a year when many Jews realised that their hopes for working around the existing restrictions were vanishing; that they would they soon be forced to leave even though leaving was becoming more difficult. More evidence that the Nazi noose was tightening came in March 1938 and the Law On The Legal Status On Jewish Religious Organisations’, which stripped Jewish communities of their official religious status, and another passed in July that required all Jews to carry identification cards.

In late October of that year, the Polish government had refused to admit the deportees from the so called Polen Aktion, resulting in them being interned in ‘relocation camps’ on the Polish frontier. This included Zindel Grynszpan, whose seventeen-year-old son, Herschel, was living with an uncle in Paris when he received news of his family’s expulsion. Young and passionate, he decided to get revenge—by assassinating the German Ambassador to France.

Herschel Feibel Grynszpan after being arrested by French police on 7 November, 1938
Herschel Feibel Grynszpan after being arrested by French police on 7 November, 1938. Image via Wikipedia.

On the morning of 7th November, Herschel wrote a farewell postcard to his parents, bought a revolver and a box of bullets with his remaining francs, and visited the German Embassy where he asked to see an official. Grynszpan was ushered into Ernst vom Rath’s office, whereupon he pulled out his gun and shot vom Rath—who was at the time under Gestapo investigation for pro-Jewish activity—five times in the abdomen. According to the French police account, he shouted “You’re a filthy boche” and that he had acted in the name of 12,000 persecuted Jews.

Vom Rath died two days later, on 9th November, providing Goebbels with the perfect excuse to launch a major pogrom against German Jews. Denouncing the incident as a conspiratorial attack by “international Jewry” against the Reich and the Führer, Goebbels let loose his rampaging mobs throughout Germany and the newly acquired territories of Austria and Sudetenland, who attacked Jews in the street, in their homes and at their places of work and worship.

At least 96 Jews were killed and hundreds more injured; more than 1,000 synagogues were burned and almost 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed; cemeteries and schools were vandalised. Around 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps (in Berlin, around 3,000 Jewish men were deported to Sachsenhausen and many more were detained in jails for days). Jewish areas like Ku’damm and Alexanderplatz were trashed.

Even though the event is usually referred to as one night (“The Night of the Broken Glass”), the pogroms continued for several days. The Hungarian chargé d’affaires reported from the German capital on November 10th: “In the afternoon, after school, 14- to 18-year-old teenagers, mostly members of the Hitler Youth, were unleashed on the shops. They forced their way into the businesses, where they turned things upside down, destroyed all furniture and everything made of glass, jumbled all the merchandise and then, while cheering for Hitler, left the scene to search for other places to ransack. In the city’s eastern districts, the local populace also looted the devastated shops.”

Eyewitness Ernest Günter Fontheim remembers being sent home from school on that same day. “I quickly walked back to the Tiergarten Station and decided to look out the window when the elevated train would pass the Synagogue Fasanenstrasse where I had become Bar Mitzvah. It was a beautiful structure built in Moorish style with three large cupolas. I literally felt my heart fall into my stomach when I saw a thick column of smoke rising out of the center cupola.”

Shortly afterwards, he also saw an elederly Jewish man being beaten by a crowd. “An elderly bald-headed man was brutally pushed through the crowd while fists rained down on him from all sides accompanied by antisemitic epithets. His face was bloodied. One single man in the crowd shouted: “How cowardly! So many against one!” He was immediately attacked by others. After the elderly Jew had been pushed to the curb, a police car appeared mysteriously; he was put in and driven off. I left this scene of horror completely drained, incredulous, in a trance and went home.”

Smashed windows in Magdeburg
Smashed windows of a Jewish-owned store in Magdeburg, November, 1938. Image via Bundesarchiv.

Experts estimate that up to 1,500 people died in the days surrounding November 9th, making it the worst pogrom in Germany since the Middle Ages. On November 12th, Hermann Göring called a meeting of the top Nazi leaders (Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Walter Funk) to assess the damage done during the night and place responsibility for it.

It was decided at the meeting that, since Jews were to blame for these events, they be held legally and financially responsible for the damages incurred by the pogrom. Accordingly, a fine of one billion Marks was levied for the murder of Vom Rath, and a further six million Marks paid by insurance companies for broken windows was to be given to the state coffers.

Moreover, while the international community universally condemned the murders and acts of violence and destructions (the British described the pogrom as “medieval barbarism”, the Brazilians called it a “disgusting spectacle”), no country broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, nor imposed sanctions, and only Washington recalled its ambassador. Perhaps worst of all, most of the countries kept their borders closed to the roughly 400,000 Jewish Germans.

This is even more excruciating in retrospect, since we now know that Kristallnacht (increasingly known in Germany as Pogromnacht due to the euphemistic elements of the former term) turned out to be a crucial turning point in German policy regarding the Jews. Leipzig-based historian Dan Diner has called it “the catastrophe before the catastrophe”—in other words, the actual beginning of what is now known as the Holocaust.