What is Kristallnacht?

The term "Kristallnacht" ('Night of Broken Glass") refers to the organized anti-Jewish riots in Germany and Austria, November 9 10, 1938. These riots marked a major transition in Nazi policy, and were, in-many ways, a harbinger of the "Final Solution."

Nazi antisemitic policy began with the systematic legal, economic, and social disenfranchisement of the Jews. This was accomplished in various stages (e.g. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which, among other things, stripped German Jews of their citizenship.) One of these steps involved the deportation of Polish Jews who were residing in Germany (est. 56,500). On the night of October 27, 1938, 18,000 Polish Jews were deported, but were initially refused entry into Poland by the Polish authorities. Caught in between, the Jews were forced to camp out in makeshift shelters. Upon hearing that his family was so trapped, 17 year-old Herschel Grynszpan, a student in Paris, shot the third secretary of the German Embassy, Ernst vom Rath, whom he mistook for the ambassador. This assassination served as a welcome pretext for the German initiation of Kristallnacht.

Heydrich Orders Policy of Violence

Reinhard Heydrich (the head of the Reich Main Security Office which oversaw the Gestapo, police and SD operations) sent a secret telegram at 1:20 A.M., November 10, 1938 to "all head quarters and stations of the State Police; all districts and sub-districts of the SD" He gave instructions for the immediate coordination of police and political activities in inciting the riots throughout Germany and Austria. "...The demonstrations are not to be prevented by the police," he ordered, rather, the police are "...only to supervise the observance of the guidelines."

The result of this policy was the first violent pogrom (riot) on Western European soil in hundreds of years. 36 Jews were killed (some authorities have this figure as high as 91); 30,000 more were deported to concentration camps; 267 synagogues were burned and over 7,000 Jewish shops, businesses and homes were vandalized and ransacked.

Immediately after Kristallnacht, a fine of one billion marks was levied, not upon the criminals, but upon the victims, the Jewish community of Germany. Along with the fine came a decision, taken in a conference of Nazi leaders on November 12, 1938, to "Aryanize the German economy, to get the Jew out...." Nazi policy had now moved into the overt destruction of all Jewish life in the Third Reich.


Apathy in the Western World

The violence of Kristallnacht aroused the world to condemn the Nazi actions. President Franklin D. Roosevelt recalled the American ambassador from Berlin stating that he, "could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a twentieth century civilization." However, even the condemnations failed to change western immigration policies. With a few exceptions (e.g. En gland, which increased its absorption of refugees after Kristallnacht), the doors to safety remained barred. As one leader of German Jewry stated two months after Kristallnacht (January 25, 1939), "From America, nothing tangible (in immigration possibilities) has arrived." With violent antisemitism now institutionalized, and with few places to flee, the Jews of Germany, Austria, and later, occupied Europe, were trapped and doomed.

Kristallnacht serves as the symbol of that destruction. The synagogues and Torah scrolls that were burned and desecrated, signified, as Rabbi Leo Baeck had earlier realized, that "the thousand-year history of the Jews in Germanv had come to an end." It is that noble history and glorious legacy of German Jewry that we remember on Kristallnacht, a legacy of religious scholarship, intellectual creativity and scientific achievement. Nobel Prize winners and rabbinic scholars, businessmen and soldiers, government ministers and social activists all had their worlds shattered, along with the thousands of windows that gave Kristallnacht its name.

The Legacy of Kristallnacht

There are important lessons to be drawn from Kristallnacht, for it served as a bridge experience for both Jews and Nazis. For the Jews, there was the terrifying realization that political antisemitism can lead to violence, even in Western Civilization. It also demonstrated that apathy can still pervade the world when the lives of Jews or other minorities are threatened.

For the Nazis, Kristallnacht taught that while the world might condemn their pogroms, it would not actively oppose them. World opinion, however, taught the Nazis the value of secrecy in the perpetration of future actions against Jews. Added to the complaints of Germans offended by the random violence of Kristallnacht, the stage was set for the "Final Solution"--the organized, bureaucratically efficient genocide of 6,000,000 men, women, and children.

In retrospect, Kristallnacht was more than the shattering of windows and illusions. It portended the physical destruction of European Jewry. As such, this commemoration must be observed both as a memorial and as a warning.

Simon Wiesenthal Center-Museum of Tolerance Library & Archives 
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