Kristallnacht: The Night of Broken Glass
Known as the “night of broken glass,” Kristallnacht was a sudden and widespread assault on Jews and their property in Germany prior to World War II. It was the first widespread use of massive force against Jews by the Nazi regime. The attack legitimized violence against Jews by the German state and foreshadowed Adolf Hitler’s later attempts to exterminate European Jews through the so-called “Final Solution.”.
The violence of Kristallnacht took place on November 9th and 10th, 1938. The impetus for the attack stemmed from the assassination of a German government official in the French Embassy. Herschel Grynspan, a 17-year-old Jewish refugee then living in Paris, had recently learned that his parents had been deported. Angered by the treatment of his parents by the Nazis, Grynspan decided to strike back at Germany. He entered the French Embassy and attempted to shoot the German ambassador to France; however, he missed the ambassador and instead killed Ernst von Rath, the third secretary in the German legation.
After learning of the news, the German government whipped up public anti-Semitism. Joseph Goebbels, the public minister of information for the Nazi regime, organized a widespread pogrom against German Jews. A special unit of the Nazi political machine, known as the Sturmabteilung (SA), led groups of civilians across urban centers of Germany, where they sacked more than 500 Jewish homes, synagogues, and storefronts.
When the violence ended, 90 Jews lay dead and over 30,000 Jewish men were taken into “protective custody” at labor camps or prisons under Nazi control. During the attack, German men also raped Jewish women, despite severe penalties regarding sexual relations between Jews and German citizens.
The term Kristallnacht itself reveals the rampant anti-Semitism that fueled the violence. So many Jewish synagogues and storefronts had been smashed that Hermann Goering described the shattered glass as so many Jewish “crystals” or “diamonds.” Two days after the attacks, Goering ordered the enactment of statutes to punish the Jewish community. Jews were disallowed from owning stores, working as independent skilled workers, or attending concerts, movies, or other forms of public entertainment—they were even prohibited from driving cars.
Perhaps the most harmful aspect of Goering's new laws for Jews was the freeing of German insurance companies from paying for claims resulting from the destruction of Jewish property. As a further insult, Goering ordered that the Jewish community be fined $400 million for the attack. Not surprisingly, over 150,000 Jews left the country in the wake of Kristallnacht.
One of the most far-reaching changes wrought by Kristallnacht was a general shift in Nazi policy toward the Jews. Prior to Kristallnacht, the German government had dealt with its Jewish “problem” by compelling Jews to immigrate voluntarily to other nations. After Kristallnacht, the German government took a more direct approach that ultimately resulted in the Holocaust—a massive genocide of Jews and other people deemed undesirable or dangerous by the Nazi regime, both in Germany and in occupied countries.