A Jewish shop in Berlin on 11 November 1938, after the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht.
A Jewish shop in Berlin on 11 November 1938, after the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht

On this night 75 years ago, the Nazis unleashed a series of riots against Jews in Germany and Austria. In only a few hours, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed. For the first time, tens of thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps simply because they were Jewish. This event came to be called Kristallnacht or Night of the Broken Glass, a reference to the shattered glass from shop windows that carpeted the streets of German towns.

Kristallnacht was a crucial turning point in Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, and a significant stage in the evolution of the Holocaust. As Simon Schama crisply put in on BBC radio this week:

It’s incredibly important.  You can’t really overstate its importance: not because a thousand synagogues were burned or 90 people were killed or twenty thousand people taken off to what were then concentration camps – not killing centres, but places like Dachau and Belsen and Orianienburg – but because it was a theatre for the public.  And once people were humiliated and defiled, and their property was looted and synagogues were burned down and nothing happened except the sound of applause, there was a kind of aha! moment in the core of the Nazi party itself after which … the Final Solution.

shattered stained glass windows of the Zerrennerstrasse synagogue
The shattered stained glass windows of the synagogue in Pforzheim after its destruction on Kristallnacht

Officially, Kristallnacht was launched in retaliation for the assassination on 7 November of Ernst vom Rath, a German embassy official in Paris, by a young Jewish refugee named Herschel Grynszpan. That same night, Nazi regional Party leaders were gathered in Munich to commemorate the anniversary of Hitler’s (failed) attempt to take over the Bavarian Government in 1923.

When the news of the assassination came through, the Nazi Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, addressing the Nazi leaders, raged that ‘World Jewry’ had conspired to commit the assassination and announced that, ‘demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered’. Goebbels’ words were taken as a command for unleashing a pogrom. After his speech, the assembled regional Party leaders issued instructions to their local offices. Violence began to erupt across Germany and Austria through the late evening and early morning hours of November 9-10.

Ober Ramstadt, Germany. November 10, 1938
On the morning after Kristallnacht, local residents watch as the synagogue in Ober Ramstadt is destroyed by fire. The local fire department prevented the fire from spreading to a nearby home but did not try to limit the damage to the synagogue.

The shop windows of Jewish businesses were smashed, the stores looted, hundreds of synagogues and Jewish homes were burnt down and many Jews were physically assaulted. Around 30,000 Jews were arrested and deported to the concentration camps at Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald, where they were subjected to inhumane and brutal treatment and many died. During the pogrom itself, some 90 Jews were murdered.

flames pouring out of a synagogue in Siegen
A synagogue burns in Siegen during Kristallnacht. In the early 1930s, about two hundred Jews lived in Siegen, a small city 100 miles north of Frankfurt, Germany. Today there are none. In Siegen during Kristallnacht, the windows of Jewish homes were smashed and 11 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps. In May 1939, 41 Jews remained in Siegen. Four committed suicide shortly before the rest were deported to the death camps in 1942-43.

The rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland. Many synagogues burned throughout the night, in full view of the public and of local firefighters, who had received orders to intervene only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings. SA and Hitler Youth members across the country shattered the shop windows of an estimated 7,500 Jewish-owned commercial establishments, and looted their wares. Jewish cemeteries became a particular object of desecration in many regions.

A group of people stand outside a Jewish-owned shop in an unnamed German town on the morning after Kristallnacht.
A member of the SA posts a sign on a Jewish shop urging Germans not to buy from Jews.
Jews scrawled on the exterior wall of the destroyed synagogue in Buehl
‘Jews’ scrawled on the exterior wall of the destroyed synagogue in Buehl.
Residents in Graz, Austria, watch as the Jewish cemetery’s ceremonial hall burns
Residents in Graz, Austria, watch as the Jewish cemetery’s ceremonial hall burns on 10 November 1938.

In The Holocaust, Martin Gilbert writes:

The Jews who had been seized during the Kristallnacht, and sent to concentration camps, experienced a foretaste of what that vengeance might be. On November 23 the News Chronicle, a London newspaper, reported the arrival of sixty-two Jews, including two rabbis, at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Berlin. The arrested men had reached the camp gates under police escort from Berlin. At the gates, the police were made to hand them over to an SS unit. The sixty-two Jews were then forced to run a gauntlet of spades, clubs and whips. According to an eye-witness, the police, ‘unable to bear their cries, turned their backs’. As the Jews were beaten, they fell. As they fell they were beaten further. This ‘orgy’ of beating lasted half an hour. When it was over, ‘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.

A vandalized Jewish shop covered with anti-Semitic graffiti on 10 November 1938.

Simon Schama rightly refers to Kristallnacht as the ‘aha! moment’ for the Nazi party.  Historians have noted that after the pogrom, anti-Jewish policy was concentrated more and more concretely into the hands of the SS. Moreover, the passivity with which most German civilians responded to the violence signalled to the Nazi regime that the German public was willing to accept radical racist measures. The Nazi regime now intensified measures aimed at removing Jews entirely from German economic and social life, moving towards the policy of creating a Germany ‘clean of Jews’ (judenrein) by deportation of the Jewish population to the East and, ultimately, their annihilation.

Members of the SA march Jewish men through the streets after their arrest during Kristallnacht. Erlangen, Germany. November 10, 1938
Members of the SA march Jewish men through the streets of Erlangen after their arrest during Kristallnacht.

The Nazi policy towards the Jews was implemented by degrees. They were excluded from professions. Their shops were boycotted and attacked. They were stigmatised by vicious propaganda and forced to wear a yellow star. They were segregated. They were rounded up and deported in conditions of extreme cruelty. They were held in camps of unimaginable horror. And, in their millions, in a mechanised industrial form of killing, they – men, women and children – were systematically murdered.
– Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century

For the Nazi regime, the aha! moment of realization came to embrace not only the response of their fellow-Germans to Kristallnacht, but also the lack of any diplomatic response from beyond the borders of the expanding Reich – revealed in an exhibition of  previously unseen historical documents that has just opened at the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin. The exhibition, entitled From the Inside to the Outside: The 1938 November Pogroms in Diplomatic Reports from Germany, is important, as its curators argue, for what the documents reveal about the international response to Kristallnacht:

What is noteworthy about the documents is what they do not contain. In this respect, they point to the failure of the international community and its far-reaching consequences. The diplomats almost unanimously condemned the murders and acts of violence and destructions. The British described the pogrom as ‘Medieval barbarism’, the Brazilians called it a ‘disgusting spectacle’, and French diplomats wrote that the ‘scope of brutality’ was only ‘exceeded by the massacres of the Armenians’, referring to the Turkish genocide of 1915-1916.  Nevertheless, no country broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin or imposed sanctions, and only Washington recalled its ambassador. Most of all, however, the borders of almost all countries remained largely closed for the roughly 400,000 Jewish Germans.

German civilians watch as the furnishings of the Mosbach synagogue are burned in the town square
Germans watch as the furnishings of the Mosbach synagogue are burned in the town square.

The unwillingness of countries that were soon to go to war against Nazi Germany to open their borders to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution is picked up by Martin Gilbert in history of the Holocaust:

On December 2, the first train bound for Harwich with German Jewish children on board arrived from the Hook of Holland: two hundred children, all of them orphans, who had left Germany at twenty-four hours’ notice, each with two bags of clothing. In Britain they found sanctuary, as had more than fifty thousand German and Austrian refugees. But while tens of thousands found sanctuary, there were neither permits nor funds for the hundreds of thousands. ‘The first effort’, noted the provincial Council for German Jewry in Hull, ‘will be to save the children.’

The persecutions in Germany continued. The only possibility of bringing pressure to bear on the German Government, wrote one British official, Roger Makins, ‘is by retaliation, expulsion of German citizens, and by a clear indication that until persecution or spoliation of Jews ceases, the policy of appeasement is at an end’. But the policy of appeasement was not at an end. Nor were the gates of immigration to be opened by any country to the extent required.

A man cleans up on 10 November 1938 after the violence of Kristallnacht.

Kristallnacht reminds us … what happens when we don’t live by values of fairness, justice, welcome, hospitality, graciousness.
– Alexandra Wright, Senior Rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, BBC Radio 4

The Gunter Demnig stolperstein marking the Berlin address in the 1930s of Margot Bendheim.

For many years the German artist Gunter Demnig has been engaged in a remarkable act of witness and memory.  In towns and cities across Germany and other European countries he has created stolpersteineStolperstein (in the singular) is the German word for ‘stumbling block’. Demnig’s stolpersteine are small, cobblestone-sized brass memorials for the victims of the Nazi regime. Set into the pavement in front of the buildings where Jews once lived or worked, they call attention both to the individual victim and the scope of the Nazi war crimes. Over 40,000 stolpersteine have been placed in several countries in Europe, making the project the world’s largest memorial.

Cambridge historian Joseph Pearson writes:

It is not what is written [on the stolpersteine] which intrigues, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person. It is the emptiness, void, lack of information, the maw of the forgotten, which gives the monuments their power and lifts them from the banality of a statistic.

This week, the NPR website has the story of Margot Bendheim, whose Berlin address in the 1930s is marked by one of Demnig’s stolpersteine (above):

“I did not hear fire engines and we understood then that they didn’t come because they wanted the synagogues to burn,” she says. “We never thought that Germans would stand by, and not do something about it.”  Friedlander’s family knew then they had to leave Germany, but their attempts to emigrate failed until it was too late. Her father left without them, and her brother and mother were deported to Auschwitz, where all three eventually perished. Margot went into hiding in Berlin.  And it is because of those few courageous, gentile Germans who helped her that she felt able to return to Berlin three years ago.

Friedlander spends much of her time with young Germans, visiting schools and sharing her valuable testimony. She is adamant they should not feel guilt, but a sense of responsibility. And responsibility is something the German state takes very seriously.

The same article adds this:

Stefan Redlich, spokesman for the Berlin police, states, “The Berlin police protects all Jewish schools, all hospitals, all kindergartens and all synagogues in the city,” he says, noting that 250 policemen stand guard in front of Jewish properties throughout the city.  But German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said she is not proud of this fact: “I feel deep shame that there is not a single Jewish building in Germany without police protection because we still have to worry about anti-Semitic attacks.” Merkel’s concerns are justified. On last year’s Kristallnacht anniversary, vandals in the northeastern city of Greifswald removed a number of cobblestone memorials.

Stolpersteine in Berlin in memory of members of the Kroner family.
German Jews Pouring into this country Daily Mail, Saturday 20 August 1938
‘German Jews Pouring into this country’: Daily Mail, Saturday 20 August 1938 (from open Democracy)

In a letter in today’s Guardian a number of Kristallnacht witnesses, members of the British Jewish community, and other public figures write:

Many Jews left hurriedly to seek refuge in friendly countries, including Britain, but Britain was already in the grip of an “aliens scare”. Newspaper headlines declared: “Alien Jews pouring in”, and claimed that “Refugees get jobs, Britons get dole”. The media accused Jewish asylum seekers of “overrunning the country”. Despite wide public revulsion at the violence of Kristallnacht, powerful elements in British politics and business continued to admire Hitler and the Nazi regime.

Seventy-five years after Kristallnacht, racists and fascists inspired by the Nazis continue to attack minorities in Europe. In Hungary neo-fascists target Gypsies and Jews. In Greece Golden Dawn members and supporters brutally attack migrants and political opponents. Here in Britain, minority communities, especially Muslims, have been targeted in an atmosphere that is increasingly hostile towards migrants and refugees.

Mindful of this history, we are equally alarmed at continuing fascist violence and the toxic sentiments expressed by many politicians and much of the media against migrants, asylum seekers, Gypsies and Travellers. We stand shoulder to shoulder with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in their efforts to live here in freedom and safety, to contribute to society and be treated as equals. As Jews we stand together with all communities seeking to combat racism and fascism here and elsewhere.


See also


15 thoughts on “Kristallnacht: the Nazi’s ‘aha! moment’

  1. The synagogue in the small town of Bytow,northern Poland (then Butow in Germany) was also destroyed on that night. It had served a small Jewish population all of whom had either left the town sometime earlier and in some cases managed to emigrate and survive or had stayed and were later murdered in various camps. After the war, the destruction wreaked on the town by the Red Army ensured that no trace remained either of the synagogue or the Jewish cemetry. For several decades the people of Bytow, mostly newcomers were too busy coping with their own lives in communist Poland to think much about what had so recently happened in the town which was now their home. But in recent years local historians and ordinary people began to ask questions and search for evidence. 2 years ago, when a street was being dug up to lay pipes, the workers found pieces of Jewish gravestones, with Hebrew lettering which had been cut up to make “hard core”. This discovery stimulated the setting up of committee to create a memorial for the Jews of Bytow. Yesterday we held the unveiling ceremony near the site of the destroyed synagogue. The granite obelisk has some of the gravestone pieces embedded in it and a simple message in 3 languages. There was a large crowd of local people, teachers with their students and various VIPs including the German consul from Gdansk.

    1. Thanks for your response, Ewa. It reminds me that I meant to add to the photo and caption regarding the burning of the synagogue in Siegen this detail (from an online article, The Jews Who Lived Among Us at http://bit.ly/1ewCgN5):

      “In the early 1930s, about two hundred Jews lived in Siegen, a small city 100 miles north of Frankfurt, Germany. Today there are none, but they have not been forgotten. For more than three decades, Klaus Dietermann, a local schoolteacher, has been obsessed with documenting and restoring the memory of this vanished Jewish community. He wants local residents not only to lament the loss of the town’s Jews to the Nazis’ horrors, but also to celebrate their noteworthy contributions to Siegen life. Dietermann has led hundreds of tours to places where the Jews once lived, worked, and prayed. He’s also written books and articles, everything from Jewish family biographies to histories of Jewish cemeteries. And in 1996, on the site of a synagogue destroyed in Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938), he helped establish the Active South Westphalian Museum to teach the history of Siegen’s Jews, Gypsies, and other Nazi victims.”

      So many stories, so many lost souls now being remembered.

    1. Thanks for your link: there is something rather strange about the 9th of November for Germany. I first noticed it when teaching European Studies and often wondered at its singularity.

      1. Cheers Gerry, it’s an excellent piece, powerful and moving. The thanks are due to you, for this piece and for your blog which has inspired me so often.

  2. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and comprehensive post. I did a brief posting today on Kristallnacht and Mary Travers’ birthday. Please stop by and visit. Thanks.

    1. Thank you, Ilene. I’m glad you found the post worth reading. I posted this about Mary Travers shortly after her death in 2009: http://wp.me/poJrg-zF. Until your post of today, I hadn’t made the connection between the day of her birth and Kristallnacht. I’ve added a link to the very pertinent openDemocracy piece that you mention in your post.

  3. Superb Gerry – thoughtful and well researched. I just wanted to say thanks for posting such thought-provoking and interesting blogs

    1. Thank you, Jon; that’s very generous. I’m pleased you’ve found these posts of interest – though I do it for myself (to work out ideas and have a memory in the cloud now that the one in my own brain is failing) comments like yours make writing the blog seem even more worthwhile.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.