On the 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, Overturning Assumptions About the Nazi Atrocity

Germans now prefer to call the ‘Night of Broken Glass’ the ‘November Pogrom,’ rejecting Nazi terminology of the time. It is just one of the perceptions to have changed over the years about the November 1938 attack, scholars say

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
People walking past the broken windows of the Lichtenstein store, following a night of wanton vandalism and attacks by Nazi mobs targeting Jewish businesses and properties, November 1938.
People walking past the broken windows of the Lichtenstein store, following a night of wanton vandalism and attacks by Nazi mobs targeting Jewish businesses and properties, November 1938.Credit: Bettmann / CORBIS / Bettmann Archive
David Green
David B. Green
David Green
David B. Green

November 9-10 marks the 80th anniversary of the event commonly known as Kristallnacht. The name, of course, is German for “Night of Broken Glass,” and refers to the windows of synagogues and other Jewish-owned property around Germany that were smashed during an orgy of violence unleashed against the country’s Jews in 1938.

The extent of property damage was indeed horrific: The Israeli scholar Meier Schwartz, himself a Holocaust survivor, has calculated that the number of synagogues destroyed countrywide during those two days exceeded 1,400. No less appalling was the death toll – more than 1,300 fatalities – in addition to those who were injured in beatings meted out both by German officials and civilians.

For a long time, the conventional wisdom about Kristallnacht was that it was organized at the senior levels of the Nazi regime, which took advantage of the November 7 assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a 17-year-old Jew as an excuse to let loose with a spasm of violence against Jews within the Reich.

Whereas most of the anti-Jewish activity in Germany since the Nazi rise to power five years earlier had been legal and bureaucratic in nature, Kristallnacht was said to be the first time the Nazi Party encouraged the use of physical violence en masse.

In fact, according to this version, unaffiliated Germans were for the most part shocked, if not opposed, to the rioting.

The 80th anniversary provides a good opportunity to look at these assumptions, some of which have been upturned by recent decades of scholarship.

‘Bagatelle of broken glass’

We can begin by noting that among researchers, and in Germany in general, the term “Kristallnacht” is no longer in vogue, with the preferred terminology being the “November Pogrom.”

Prof. Alan Steinweis, author of the 2009 book “Kristallnacht 1938,” explains that Germans prefer to avoid the word because of the “widespread belief that the term was coined by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels as a euphemism.” Steinweis, a professor of history at the University of Vermont, tells Haaretz via email that although he and his colleagues “actually do not fully understand the origin of the term,” many Germans are reluctant to employ terminology coined by the Nazis.

Moshe Zimmermann, professor emeritus of German history at the Hebrew University, adds that the use of “Kristallnacht” gives the impression that it was “just a bagatelle of broken glass,” which “detracts from the importance of the event.”

Zimmermann argues that if “the traditional approach has been to relate first and primarily to an image of burned synagogues,” that perception should be replaced by “one of a German crowd that watches as lines of Jews are being sent out of town to concentration camps by way of Main Street.”

This expulsion began almost immediately, as the regime quickly set in motion a plan for mass arrests. Within days, some 33,000 German-Jewish men were rounded up and sent to one of three different concentration camps: Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Dachau. This amounted to one of every five Jewish men between the ages of 20 and 50.

That staggering statistic testifies to what the real strategy of the Nazi regime was in 1938 – not to murder the Jews but “to compel [them] to leave Germany, preferably with as little of their wealth as possible,” writes Steinweis in “Kristallnacht 1938.”

According to Prof. Raphael Gross, the Swiss-born president of the German Historical Museum in Berlin, this mass incarceration “targeted Jews whose property had not yet been ‘aryanized,’ so they could be forced to immediately sell” their holdings, if possible at a large discount.

Needless to say, singling out the most fitting victims took significant planning. According to Gross, author of the German-language book “November 1938: The Catastrophe Before the Catastrophe” (2013), the “process started before 1938 – but now was immensely accelerated.”

Historians agree that the Final Solution – the genocide of Europe’s Jews – took shape only after the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, by which time Germany had to reckon with millions of Jews in lands now under its control. But in 1938, the Holocaust was still not an inevitability. Nonetheless, the period immediately preceding and following Kristallnacht can be understood as a turning point – if not for German society in general, then for Jewish-German society, according to Gross.

“Until November 1938, for Jews the idea was how to emigrate,” he tells Haaretz by phone from Berlin. “You prepare your affairs, you choose a country that might accept you. This was difficult after the Anschluss [the Nazi annexation of Austria in March 1938], but people still tried to emigrate. And in the Zionist organizations they still thought in terms of emigration. After November, however, we’re talking about a refugee crisis. Jews were no longer thinking about the best place to go, but just how to get out.”

If anyone doubts that, says Gross, they need only look at the Kindertransport operation, in which some 10,000 Jewish children from the German Reich were sent by their desperate parents to be cared for by volunteers in the United Kingdom. “If you send your children to another country, alone, without knowing if you will see them again, that’s dramatic,” he observes,

State of limbo

Kristallnacht is one of the best-known events in pre-Holocaust Nazi Germany, but the weeks that bookended it were no less dramatic, even if they didn’t easily lend themselves to photographic documentation.

Two weeks earlier, for example, Germany gave its neighbor to the east, Poland, an ultimatum: Rescind an October 6 law that threatened to strip citizenship from Poles who had lived outside the republic for more than five years, or Germany would expel the approximately 70,000 Polish-Jewish refugees living there and in Austria.

Poland refused to cancel the decree and so, between October 27 and 29, 1938, German authorities arrested some 17,000 Polish-Jewish refugees and, without giving them an opportunity to pack even a suitcase, shipped them by train to the Polish border. The Poles responded by sealing the border, leaving most of these Jews stranded in a no-man’s-land between the two countries at the beginning of winter, with no shelter and no supplies.

Among those left in a state of limbo were the family of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew who was born and raised in Hannover. He had emigrated illegally to Paris in 1936, from where he hoped to sail to British Mandatory Palestine.

Grynszpan later testified that it was the postcard he received from his sister Berta, on November 3, in which she described the family’s deportation from Hannover, “without a pfennig,” that impelled him to seek revenge on Germany.

Grynszpan bought a revolver and, on the morning of November 7, entered the German Embassy in Paris and asked to see the ambassador. The ambassador had just departed for his morning constitutional, and by chance, apparently, Grynszpan was ushered into the office of Ernst vom Rath, a 29-year-old junior embassy official. He shot Vom Rath and then immediately turned himself in to French police, telling them he had shot “a dirty German.” Vom Rath died two days later in a French hospital, and his body was returned to Germany for interment as a national martyr.

Eventually, Grynszpan too was sent back to Germany for what was supposed to be a show trial. But it never took place, and it remains unknown just when and how the assassin died. Because he was never convicted of a crime in Germany, reports Gross, in one of the most bizarre ironies of the affair, Grynszpan’s parents – who survived the Holocaust in Soviet Russia – were able to sue the postwar West German government for compensation for the death of their son while he was in Nazi custody. Indeed, in 1962, a German court accepted their claim – although they never received any money.

Gross recounted the Grynszpan saga in great detail in his book, and summarized it in a lecture he gave in English at the City University of New York in 2013. Even without a courtroom extravaganza, Grynszpan’s act had great propaganda value for the Nazis, who, according to Gross, claimed that the “attack was not directed against Germany alone, but was [evidence of] a world Jewish plot against all non-Jews.”

Göring’s criticism

Grynszpan shot Vom Rath at the beginning of the workday. By the evening, and through the next two days, Jews were being attacked in several German locales, including the city of Kassel, in the country’s center. Like Kristallnacht, says Steinweis, these pogroms were organized by Nazi Party members, but also drew “a significant number of non-party members.”

By November 9, the order had gone out for anti-Semitic violence countrywide. What all the historians note is that, even if the attacks – which even extended into the homes of Jewish families – were initially carried out by ruffians from the SA (Storm Troopers) and other party faithful, they were soon joined by regular Germans.

Writes Steinweis: “The circle of perpetrators expanded during the following day. In many localities, entire workforces of business enterprises mobilized to participate in the vandalism of Jewish homes and the desecration of synagogues. … Similarly, classes of schoolchildren were marched from their schools and let loose on Jewish targets, egged on by their teachers.”

In his book, Steinweis reviews a number of dates – beginning in 1933, and again in 1935 and 1938 – when enthusiastic party members directed violence at German Jews. The responses of senior party officials varied from encouragement to eventually tamping down the attacks.

Ironically, after Kristallnacht, Hermann Göring actually criticized the destruction of Jewish-owned property, since it was that same property the state was intending to expropriate by driving the Jews to emigrate.

According to Gross, Göring actually suggested that it would have been better to just slaughter 200 Jews and leave all the German goods intact.

On November 11, Göring convened a meeting at the Aviation Ministry of some 120 top German officials to discuss the way forward. They talked about such topics as who was to pay for the property destroyed during the preceding two days’ rioting. (Eventually, the Jewish community was ordered to pay an “atonement tax” of some 1 billion Reichsmarks (more than $400 million at 1938 rates of exchange).

Gross has studied the minutes of that meeting, and says they make for shocking reading.

“This was a meeting where many, many high-ranking civil servants were present. Yet this was one of the cruelest documents of anti-Semitic policy you can find.” A lot of sarcastic remarks were made about Jews by the bureaucrats. No one seemed to feel compelled to demonstrate restraint. “Whether you were for or against the pogroms, something had changed,” says Gross.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


From the cover of 'Shmutz.'

'There Are Similarities Between the Hasidic Community and Pornography’

A scene from Netflix's "RRR."

‘RRR’: If Cocaine Were a Movie, It Would Look Like This

Lake Kinneret. The high water level created lagoons at the northern end of the lake.

Lake Kinneret as You’ve Never Experienced It Before

An anti-abortion protester holds a cross in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Roe v. Wade: The Supreme Court Leaves a Barely United States

Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid Is the Most Israeli of All

A young Zeschke during down time, while serving with the Wehrmacht in Scandinavia.

How a Spanish Beach Town Became a Haven for Nazis