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Nazis. Kristellnacht - the Night of Broken Glass.

Kristallnacht, example of physical damage
Kristallnacht, example of physical damage

Kristallnacht, also known as Reichskristallnacht, Pogromnacht, Crystal Night and the Night of Broken Glass, was a pogrom against Jews throughout Germany and parts of Austria on November 9-November 10, 1938.

Jewish homes were ransacked in numerous German cities along with 8,000 Jewish shops, towns and villages, as civilians and SA stormtroopers destroyed buildings with sledgehammers, leaving the streets covered in smashed windows - the origin of the name "Night of Broken Glass." Jews were beaten to death; 30,000 Jewish men were taken to concentration camps; and 1,668 synagogues ransacked with 267 set on fire.

The Times of London wrote of the violence: "no foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenceless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday."


Names for this event are the subject of some controversy. It was originally referred to as die Kristallnacht (literally 'crystal night'). Unlike windows of residential homes, shop windows at that time were made of expensive, high quality Kristallglas (crystal glass). Therefore the term Kristallnacht was not meant to be ironic but alluded to the enormous number of shop windows, mostly owned by Jewish shopkeepers that were broken during the night. Thus Kristallnacht is often translated as "The Night of Broken Glass".

The term Kristallnacht is - in its origins - not a term of Nazi propaganda, but rather a colloquial expression. On the one hand, the broken glass was an obvious visual symbol for the pogrom. On the other hand, as people were aware of the fact that much more serious crimes than breaking windows had been committed, the term was also suitable because people feared repression by the Nazi state apparatus for calling the pogrom a pogrom. Many people also saw that the events of that evening were not an outbreak of the "spontaneous wrath of the German people" as the Nazi propaganda tried to portray it, but a state-organized act of terror, executed mainly by party activists in casual garb.

The prefix Reichs- (imperial) was later added (Reichskristallnacht) as a pun on the Nazis' propensity to add this prefix to various terms and titles like ReichsfÜhrer-SS (Himmler) or Reichsbeauftragter fÜr den Vierjahresplan (Göring). This was also done in other contexts to ridicule and criticize aspects of the Nazi dictatorship (e.g. Reichswasserleiche - "National Drowned Body" for actress Kristina Söderbaum).

Today in official German sources the term Reichskristallnacht is largely considered politically incorrect and associated with positive romanticizing connotations (crystal). As explained above, however, this is a misconception as the link between Kristallnacht and the broken Kristallglas has been lost over time. The term became to be seen as a euphemism only well after the second world war as the meaning of (Reichs-)Kristallnacht as a term criticizing and accusing the Nazi dictatorship for what took place had largely been forgotten. The preferred official terms now are Reichspogromnacht or Novemberpogrome. Nevertheless the terms "Reichskristallnacht" or "Kristallnacht" are still in common use.


Main articles: History of the Jews in Germany and Nuremberg Laws

By the end of the 1920s, most German Jews were loyal to their country, assimilated and relatively prosperous. They served in the German army and contributed to every field of German science, business and culture. After the Nazis were elected to power in 1933, as a result of progressively harsher state-sponsored antisemitic persecution, by 1938 the Jews had been almost completely excluded from German social and political life. Many sought asylum abroad, and 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."

Historian Eric Johnson notes that in the year preceding Kristallnacht the Germans "had entered a new radical phase in anti-Semitic activity." Although still controversial, some historians believe that the Nazi government had been contemplating a planned outbreak of violence against the Jews for quite some time and were waiting for an appropriate pretext, as there is even evidence of such planning stretching back to 1937. The Zionist leadership in Palestine wrote in February 1938 "a very reliable private source - one which can be traced back to the highest echelons of the SS leadership, that there is an intention to carry out a genuine and dramatic pogrom in Germany on a large scale in the near future."

The events

October deportations and the assassination of vom Rath

On October 28, 1938, 17,000 Polish Jews living in Germany (some for more than a decade), were arrested and taken to the river marking the Polish-German border and forced to cross it. The Polish border guards sent them back over the river into Germany and this stalemate continued for days in the pouring rain, the Jews marching without food or shelter between the borders until the Polish government admitted them to a refugee camp. The conditions of these camps "were so bad that some actually tried to escape back into Germany and were shot" recalls a British woman who was sent to help the expellees.

Herschel Grynszpan, a German-Polish Jew living in Paris, France, had received a letter from his family describing the horrible conditions they experienced in this deportation. Seeking to alleviate their situation, he appealed repeatedly over the next few days to Ernst vom Rath, Third Secretary of the German Embassy in Paris, who could not help him. On Monday, November 7, 1938, Grynszpan shot vom Rath in the stomach. He attempted and missed three additional shots. Two days later, on November 9, vom Rath died.


Vom Rath's assassination served as a pretext for launching a rampage against Jewish inhabitants throughout Germany. The word of this death reached Hitler during his "Old Fighters" dinner with several key members of the Nazi party. After intense conversation 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 such demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered." This may seem a fairly innocuous comment, but attending chief party judge Walter Buch later stated that the message was clear; with these words Goebbels had commanded the party leaders to organize the pogrom that would later be known as Kristallnacht.

Some leading party officials disagreed with Goebbels’s actions, fearing the diplomatic crisis it would provoke, and Heinrich Himmler even went so far as to write "I suppose that it is Goebbels’s megalomania…and stupidity which are responsible for starting this operation now, in a particularly difficult diplomatic situation." Friedlander, among other historians, believes that Goebbels had personal reasons for wanting to bring about Kristallnacht. Goebbels had recently suffered humiliation in the ineffectiveness of his propaganda campaign during the Sudeten crisis, and was in disgrace over an affair with a Czech actress. Goebbels thus needed a chance to prove himself in the eyes of Hitler, and Kristallnacht was just that.

At 1:20am on November 10, 1938, Reinhard Heydrich sent an urgent secret telegram to "All Headquarters and Stations of the State Police, All Districts and Sub-districts of the SA" containing instructions regarding the riots.

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 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 German 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 S.D. The men were also ordered to arrest as many Jews as the local jails would hold, the preferred targets being young, healthy males, and wealthy if possible.


Jewish homes and stores were ransacked all throughout Germany and also in Vienna, with a mixture of German citizens and Stormtroops going to destroy buildings with sledgehammers, leaving the streets covered in smashed windows of destroyed businesses the next morning (the origin of the name "Crystal Night"). Although violence against Jews had not been condoned by the authorities, there were cases of Jews being beaten or assaulted.

This pogrom damaged, and in many cases destroyed, about 1,574 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 males 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, with estimates ranging from 36 to about 200 over two days of rioting. The number killed in the rioting is most often cited as 91. There are believed to have been hundreds of suicides in addition to this, as the slim slivers of hope that remained in some Jews disappeared completely. Counting deaths at 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 were described as "approaching the ghoulish" by the United States Consul in Leipzig. Even graveyards were not spared, as tombstones were uprooted and graves violated. Fires were lit, and prayer books, scrolls, artwork and philosophy were thrown upon them, and the 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 coloured 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 Austria were no less horrendous. 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 neighbours.

Official figures released after the event by SS leader Heydrich:

191 Synagogues were destroyed and 76 completely demolished. 100,000 Jews were arrested. 3 Foreigners were arrested 174 people were arrested for looting Jewish shops. 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".

Concentration camps

Jews arrested during Kristallnacht line up at the Appellplatz for roll call at Buchenwald concentration camp
Jews arrested during Kristallnacht line up at the Appellplatz for roll call at Buchenwald concentration camp

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 newspaper of London published an article on an incident at one concentration camp 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. For half an hour they were submitted to this "orgy" of violence. 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 males that had been imprisoned during Kristallnacht were released over the next three months, but by then over 2,000 had died.


The top Nazi official 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.'

Interior of Berlin's Fasanenstrasse synagogue after Kristallnacht. The Jewish Community Center was built in its place in 1959.
Interior of Berlin's Fasanenstrasse synagogue after Kristallnacht. The Jewish Community Center was built in its place in 1959.

The persecution and economic damage done to German Jews did not stop with the pogrom, even as their places of business were ransacked. They were also forced to pay "Judenvermögensabgabe", a collective fine of 1 billion Marks for the murder of vom Rath (equal to roughly $US5.5 Billion of today’s currency), which was levied by the compulsory acquisition of 20% of all Jewish property by the state. Six million Marks 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 spiked as those who could left the country, and this was a desirable outcome for the Nazi party. 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.

Several major nations condemned the acts, though despite these reactions, the Nazi party never faced significant repercussions, and came to see that the world would tolerate persecution on a mass scale.

Contemporaneous German response

The German citizen’s reaction to Kristallnacht was varied. Martin Gilbert believes that "many non-Jews resented the round up", his opinions supported by German witness Dr Arthur Flehinger who recalls seeing "people crying while watching from behind their curtains". Some even went as far as to help Jews on the night, but the majority merely sat inside watching in horror, feeling helpless to do anything. Other German citizens took part, as it was not just Stormtroopers rioting. Evidence of this can be seen firstly in that riots broke out on the night of November 7 and continued in some places after the pogrom was later called to a stop, which were thus not the actions of the Nazis. Also, many sources mention women and children in the riots, who were clearly not Stormtroopers but ordinary citizens taking part. The number of German citizens involved in the riots is impossible to know however, as most of the Stormtroopers were wearing civilian clothes and they were thus indistinguishable.

According to Daniel Goldhagen, Bishop Martin Sasse, a leading Protestant churchman, published a compendium of Martin Luther's writings shortly after the Kristallnacht; Sasse "applauded the burning of the synagogues and the coincidence of the day, writing in the introduction, "On November 10, 1938, on Luther's birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany." The German people, he urged, ought to heed these words "of the greatest antisemite of his time, the warner of his people against the Jews." Diarmaid MacCulloch argued that Luther's 1543 pamphlet On the Jews and Their Lies was a "blueprint" for the Kristallnacht.

In an article released for publication on the evening of November 11, Goebbels ascribed the events of Kristallnacht to the "healthy instincts" of the German people. He went on to explain: "The German people is anti-Semitic. It has no desire to have its rights restricted or to be provoked in the future by parasites of the Jewish race."

Contemporaneous foreign response

The frontpage of The New York Times of November 11, 1938 did not mention that the German Nazi government initiated the attacks, but said that Goebbels called to stop it.
The frontpage of The New York Times of November 11, 1938 did not mention that the German Nazi government initiated the attacks, but said that Goebbels called to stop it.

The Kristallnacht pogrom sparked international outrage. It discredited pro-Nazi movements in Europe and North America, leading to eventual decline of their support. Many newspapers condemned Kristallnacht, with some comparing it to the murderous pogroms incited by Imperial Russia in the 1880s. The U.S. recalled its ambassador (but did not break off diplomatic relations) while other governments severed diplomatic relations with Germany in protest.

As such, Kristallnacht also marked a turning point in relations between Nazi Germany and the rest of the world. The brutality of the pogrom and the Nazi government's deliberate policy of encouraging the violence once it began laid bare the repressive nature and widespread anti-Semitism now entrenched in Germany and turned world opinion sharply against the Nazi regime, with some politicians even calling for war against it.


Kristallnacht changed the nature of persecution from economic, political and social to the physical forms such as beatings, murder and incarceration, and as such it is often referred to as the beginning of the Holocaust. In the words of historian Max Rein in 1988, "Kristallnacht came…and everything was changed."

Modern response

Many decades later, association with the Kristallnacht anniversary was cited as the main reason against choosing November 9, the day the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, as the new German national holiday; a different day was chosen (October 3, 1990, German reunification).

Avantgarde guitarist Gary Lucas's 1988 composition "Verklärte Kristallnacht", which juxtaposes the Israeli national anthem, "Hatikvah," with phrases from "Deutschland Über Alles" amid wild electronic shrieks and noise, is intended to be a sonic representation of the horrors of Kristallnacht. It was premiered at the 1988 Berlin Jazz Festival and received rave reviews. (The title is a reference to Arnold Schoenberg's 1899 work "Verklärte Nacht" that presaged his pioneering work on atonal music; Schoenberg was an Austrian Jew exiled by the Nazis).

The German Power Metal band Masterplan's debut album (also titled "Masterplan" and released in 2003) features an anti-nazism song entitled "Crystal Night" as the fourth track.

Why not also search for...

  • Evian Conference
  • History of the Jews in Germany
  • History of the Jews in Austria
  • The Holocaust
  • Israel's Department Store
  • Racial policy of Nazi Germany

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