On 7 November 1938, a German diplomat named Ernst vom Rath was shot and fatally wounded by Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew. In retribution for vom Rath’s death, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels instigated an anti-Jewish pogrom across Germany. Such was the ferocity of this pogrom that the night of 9-10 November, on which it took place, became known as Kristallnacht; the Night of Broken Glass.
An act of desperation
Anti-Semitic persecution had been rising in Germany since the Nazi accession of power in early 1933. Grynszpan’s parents were Polish immigrants who had lived in Hannover for over twenty years, but in late October 1938, they were among thousands of foreign Jews forcibly expelled from the Reich. Horrified by their plight, 17-year-old Grynszpan, who was living in Paris, walked into the German Embassy with a pistol. By shooting a German diplomat, he sought to avenge the persecuted Jews and alert the world to the gravity of the situation in Hitler’s Germany.
Vom Rath sustained multiple wounds and died two days after Grynszpan’s desperate act, on 9 November. Under the direction of Goebbels and other senior Nazis, his death became a pretext for a wave of public attacks against the Jewish community. In Germany, Austria and the Czech Sudetenland, Storm Troopers and members of the Hitler Youth took to the streets on the night of 9-10 November, determined to unleash violence.
Nearly two-thirds of Jewish businesses in Germany had been Aryanized (transferred to gentile ownership) by April 1938, but well over 7,000 Jewish-owned stores were nevertheless pillaged throughout Kristallnacht, the shattered glass from their windows covering the streets. One hundred and ninety-one synagogues were destroyed, many burned to the ground, and Jewish cemeteries were also attacked. To add insult to injury, the Jewish community was subsequently declared liable for the material damage and ordered to pay a fine of 1 billion Reichsmarks to the treasury.
The violence of Kristallnacht was not limited to destruction of property and religious centres. 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and imprisoned in concentration camps, often after being cruelly beaten. Although the majority were detained temporarily in Dachau, Sachsenhausen or Buchenwald, hundreds still died while incarcerated due to maltreatment. Ninety-one Jews were killed on 9-10 November alone, but the ultimate death toll far exceeds this number: fearing that subsequent persecution on a similar or worse scale was inevitable, many Jews committed suicide in the months following Kristallnacht, thereby becoming indirect victims of the pogrom.
A turning point
The Kristallnacht pogrom is widely considered a crucial turning point in the escalation of anti-Semitic persecution in Nazi Germany. It was the first occasion on which the Nazis violently attacked, rounded up and interned Jews en masse. Thousands of Jews had left Germany since 1933 due to the increasing intolerance they faced, but the unprecedented violence of 9-10 November prompted another wave of immigration. Legal decrees continued to ensure that those Jews who did not or could not leave the Reich were segregated, restricted and demeaned.
Herschel Grynszpan was arrested by French police following the assassination of vom Rath and later taken to Germany. He was interned for a time in Sachsenhausen, but his final whereabouts and ultimate fate remain unknown. It is likely, however, that he was one of the millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
Read more: The Holocaust: History in an Hour