On the ninth of November, 1938, the terror of the National Socialists against Jews acquired a new dimension. From 1933, Jews had been harassed, isolated and persecuted, but Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, signaled the movement of this discrimination from the back rooms onto the streets and into the public eye. State terror permeated immediate neighbourhoods and forebode the deliberate, systematic and merciless persecution that was to come. The November pogrom was not a spontaneous outburst of public wrath, but a calculated, centrally initiated and locally organized phenomenon that, in turn, triggered widespread involvement on a local level.

On the night of October 28, 1938, eighteen thousand Jews with polish passports were awoken and deported across the Polish border. This expulsion was in reaction to an Expatriots Law enacted by the anti-Semitic Polish regime of Marshal Smigly-Ridz, threatening the citizenship of Polish Jews living outside Poland. A deadline of October 31 had been set, by which time all Poles wishing to renew their passport were to have had their documents reviewed and stamped by the Polish consulate. Many Jews had no intention of returning to Poland, having fled the country and its growing anti-Semitism. However, without renewal, a Polish passport would become null and void, and return to Poland made impossible under any circumstances. Seventy thousand Polish Jews living in Germany now faced becoming stateless people without the option of emigration to escape Nazi persecution should it worsen.

It became clear, however, that Poland was unwilling to accept the Jews either, as many were refused the vital stamp at their consular offices. In early October, Poland clarified her intention to block those with un-stamped passports from re-entering Poland. To combat this development, the Foreign Office declared that “Jews of Polish nationality will, therefore, as a measure of precaution, be expelled from the Reich on the shortest possible notice”. The Gestapo were entrusted with the duty of expulsion, and commenced on October 27. By October 28, seventeen thousand Poles were en route to the border traveling via cattle truck or train. Initial transports of Jews passed through the border, but openings were eventually closed off. It became clear that Poland was willing to forcefully resist the restoration of her citizens.

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Polish border police constructed barbed wire fences and patrolled with machine guns to prevent forced entry. Eighteen thousand people found themselves pinched between border guards who would not allow them to enter, and Gestapo who would not allow them to return to their homes. A no-man’s land developed near Zbaszyn in Posen, as Jews found themselves caught between two forms of anti-Semitism, forced outdoors and exposed to the elements until Polish-Jewish relief organizations provided emergency shelter. A provisional settlement was eventually reached, allowing the majority of the refugees to pass into Poland, and the rest to prepare for deportation from Germany. Neither nation was satisfied with the arrangement, but emphasis shifted from the crisis on the seventh of November, when another occurred.

Amongst those expelled from Germany was the Grynszpan family from Frankfurt. Their seventeen year old son had emigrated to live with relatives in Paris, and was appalled to hear of his family’s unjust suffering. [Img. 1] In reaction to their fate, Herschel Grynszpan bought a pistol and went to the German embassy in Paris, intending to shoot the German ambassador. The ambassador failed to appear, so Grynszpan took his revenge on the legation secretary Ernst von Rath instead, inflicting mortal wounds. The shooting of a German delegate provided an opportunity not to be missed, the necessary pretext for unleashing the Kristallnacth pogrom as a cross-Reich operation.

Joseph Goebbels received news of the assassination in Munich at the annual meeting of the National Socialist Old Guard, held in celebration of the anniversary of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. Despite the fact that he had not been involved in the Putsch and thus not technically an ‘old fighter’, Goebbels continued to take a prominent role. In response to the murder, he proclaimed that the deed would be avenged and that German and international Jewry would have to make atonement. Hitler and Goebbels, throughout the evening, were, it has been reported by eyewitnesses, engaged in “serious discussion during which Goebbel’s was overheard to say that the SA should be allowed to have its final fling”. Goebbels went on to speak that evening, discussing the assassination in Paris and its wider implications for Germany and suggesting, obliquely, that any reprisals may be allowed to pass with impunity.

Without the National Socialists openly sanctioning actions against Reich Jewry, the stage was set for the ensuing Kristallnacht to appear as spontaneous public action. News of the assassination spread through the media, with the story reaching the front page on November ninth, publishing Goebbel’s inflammatory proclamation that “the Germans people [were] entitled to identify the Jews in Germany with the crime” and that such an unspeakable act could not go unpunished. The execution of this punishment came through the instigation of a well organized, cross-Reich operation, initiated immediately from Munich and ordered by telephone and police radio. Units of the SS and the SA, some in civilian clothing, were to implement action, while police and fire brigades were instructed to let events take their course without intervention.

The pogrom allowed all those with deep-seated feelings of anti-Semitism to avenge vom Rath’s death. Together with the SS and the SA, the ordinary man partook in an orgy of violence “resulting in the most spectacular anti-Jewish pogrom since those of late nineteenth-century Russia”. The pogrom was carried out across Germany, and few regions spared. In those areas where communication was delayed, the pogrom was put off for a day or two, but occurred nonetheless. The violence and destruction that typified Kristallnacht was a new combination of organized terror and spontaneous action on a local level.

Near midnight on the ninth of November, a message was sent via telegraph instructing all SA and Gestapo units, advising them that

At any moment in all of Germany actions will be taken against Jews, and particularly against their synagogues. These are not to be disturbed, although, in agreement with the ordinary police, it is to be ensured that plundering and other particular excesses are to be prevented.

At the time this order was issued, the SS and Gestapo chiefs remained unaware of the action that was to ensue. Himmler, bitter at being excluded from planning, later attributed vindictive action to Goebbel’s “lust for power”. Heydrich, too, remained uninformed until the early hours of the morning when the Gestapo were ordered to commence a large scale arrest of Jewish males. Retrospectively, Heydrich was to emphasize his lack of involvement, absolving his units from the excess of the pogrom, and placing the blame squarely on the unrestrained action of the unregulated SA and the enraged masses.

The midnight telegram was followed at twenty past one with an order to the Gestapo to meet with local party offices to discuss the details of the day’s demonstrations. Boundaries were drawn, and it was made clear that

‘German’ lives and property could not be endangered; Jewish businesses and homes could be destroyed, but plunderers would be arrested; the businesses of ‘Germans’ had to be protected from potential damage; and foreigners, even when they were Jews, were to be left alone. Better-off (and healthy male) Jews were to be arrested in numbers which could be handled in local facilities; they were not to be mishandled, and would be sent to concentration camps as soon as possible.

Despite the fact that there was considerable covert planning, there was also confusion and chaos on a local level, as news and plans were transmitted by word of mouth and as ordinary men seized the opportunity to act on latent feelings of anti-Semitism. By the morning of November tenth, nearly three hundred synagogues had been burned, thousands of Jewish shops pillaged and vandalized, and over twenty thousand Jews arrested. “Property damage was estimated at several hundred million marks.

The value of broken glass alone, from which the Kristallnacht or “night of crystal” got its name, was thought to be about twenty-four million marks.” Of the few synagogues left standing, most had been gutted or severely damaged by fire.[Img.2] The desecration of synagogues was not an entirely new concept, as synagogues had been razed before in places such as Munich, in August 1938, and Dortmund, in September of the same year. During the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, on October fifth, Torah scrolls and religious objects had been publicly burned in Vienna. Smaller acts of vandalism had plagued synagogues and cemeteries throughout the Reich. The Kristallnacht program was unprecedented only in terms of its precision and national scope.

In many towns across the Reich, Jewish communities ceased to exist entirely, leaving their districts judenrein, or free of Jews. The sixteen Jews of Adelsberg, in Lower Fraconia, left their village within a month of the pogrom. In Burgpreppach, a Jewish community of one hundred and twenty-six was reduced to seven. In fourty-two other towns and villages in Lower Fraconia alone, the number of Jews dropped virtually to zero as Jews either emigrated, sought asylum in the larger cities, or were arrested. In areas where Jewish communities were not entirely eradicated, the impact of the pogrom was still astonishing.

“The pogrom was not so brutal and destructive everywhere, but virtually every community in which Jews still resided by November 1938 experienced it.” In the village of Oberthulba, with a total population of eight hundred and twenty, the number of Jews had declined by 1938 to just over thirty. A pogrom ensued, regardless, as civilians broke the windows of Jewish homes, burgled some and destroyed their contents. The pogrom came to be discussed in a public forum two days after the event, and, in light of the destruction, “the population to an extent agreed that for once the teeth should be shown to the Jews and their property, in part, destroyed”.

In the larger cities, particularly where large numbers of SA and SS members were assembled, destruction and brutality reached a grander scale. In the town of Hochburg, on November ninth, SA men, SS men and many ordinary citizens assembled at the city auditorium to commemorate the Beer Hall Putsch and honor its heroes with speeches, poems and songs. At ten o’clock, the celebrations ended and its revelers dispersed “filled with folkish sentiment and malicious anti-Semitism, yet devoid of direct incitement”. Some attended planned meetings, and others flooded into bars and coffee houses near the auditorium and metres from the town’s synagogue.

Police records detail trouble involving the Hitler Youth who broke into the synagogue school room, throwing furniture out of the first floor window. Windows were broken and crude attempts made to set the temple alight. The following day, as the synagogue smoldered, a round up of all Jewish men ages eighteen to sixty-five took place, to be put into custody ‘for their own protection’. Once gathered, these men, and other ‘undesirables’, were rounded into cars “like those in which cattle [were] transported”. They were taken temporarily to the city jail then shipped to the Buchenwald concentration camp, a fate similar to that suffered by twenty-five thousand other Jews across the Reich.

Similar occurrences took place in Wurzburg and Aschaffenburg. In Wurzburg, plans were highly organized and particularly devastating. At midnight on November ninth, word arrived from Munich detailing the ‘spontaneous’ anti-Semitic action that was to take place. A meeting of the Gestapo took place to confirm responsibilities. At ten past three in the morning, the order was given to the 81st unit of the Gestapo to burn the local synagogue, who failed to do so lest neighbouring property be damaged.

Instead, the temple’s interior was plundered while the synagogue of the neighbouring community, Heidingsfeld, was razed to the ground. In the early morning of the following day, the party heads of the NSDAP gathered more than a thousand men together, dividing them into squads with specific targets and objectives. These mobs ran riot throughout the town, destroying Jewish property and hunting down and rounding up the Jews themselves. Several Jews died in Wurzburg, one elderly man having thrown himself from his window to avoid the mob. Three women later committed suicide as a direct result of the destruction of the pogrom. Nearly three hundred Jews and gypsies were collected from the area and sent to Buchenwald or Dachau.

In Aschaffenburg, the Jewish population of nearly six hundred was reduced in a day to just under three hundred and fifty. The local synagogue was completely destroyed by fire, an event inspired by an inflammatory call from Munich. Jewish businesses, including a large department store, were completely destroyed, and several known Jewish residences fire-bombed by roving bands led by branches of the Gestapo.[Img. 3] All action attracted large popular attention, as people flooded the streets to watch the devastation.[Img.4] In Aschaffenburg alone, three Jewish men were beaten and killed by the SA. One, dragged through the street and the other shot repeatedly in the stomach. Thirty more Jewish males were sent to Dachau. [Img. 5] It was not until the eleventh that order was restored to the city, though no one was ever found responsible for the destruction, partly due to the intervention of the local Gestappo.

Hochburg, Wurzburg and Aschaffenburg are representative examples of the widespread destruction that took place in towns, villages, and cities throughout the Reich.

In Germany as a whole some ninety-one Jews were murdered in the course of the pogrom, while several hundred died after about thirty thousand Jews were shipped to various concentration camps; an estimated thirty six people were seriously injured or committed suicide; two hundred and sixty-seven synagogues were burnt or destroyed; seven thousand five hundred businesses were wrecked and/or plundered; all Jewish cemeteries were also damaged; total property damage was in the range of twenty five million marks.[Img. 6]

The Kristallnacht pogrom, a curious combination of calculated party planning and resultant ‘spontaneous action’ was novel in that it marked the “unvarnished legalization of violence as a justified eruption of popular anger to avenge the heinous act committed in Paris”.

In one way or another, the Kristallnacht involved all of the individuals and groups who had ever interested themselves in German life. This fact alone supported the easy interpretation that events of the ninth and tenth of November were a carefully conceived action, coordinated in advance at the highest level and approached by all factions in the Nazi movement.

Evidence supports the conclusion that the pogrom was the result of planning that spurred great portions of the German populace to action. This sort of clandestine rabble rousing allowed for the emergence of the Gestapo as the head of local tactical operations. It became clear, however, that such action could not be repeated because of the difficulties that a lack of large-scale, thorough coordination raised. It was clear that, in order to achieve the ultimate goal of a judenrein Germany, the Jewish policy and its execution could not be left to amateurs.

“If there were to be successes on the scale envisioned by Hitler the cold steady hand of the professional was the first requirement. Only from this hand could come a coordinated policy, one with a single direction and a clearly defined objective.” Kristallnacht had greatly intensified the level of discrimination and hostility towards Jews while simultaneously increasing the ordinary German’s tolerance for it by involving them directly. The wanton destruction of the ninth and tenth of November, 1938, was a mere foretaste of the systematic and merciless persecution that was to come.

Img. 1: Herschel Grynszpan

Img. 2: A synagogue’s ravaged interior in Reichenbachstra�e, Munich

Img. 3: Germans pass by the broken shop window of a Jewish-owned business that was destroyed during Kristallnacht

Img. 4: German civilians watch the burning of a synagogue in Kuppenheim

Img. 5: Jewish prisoners awaiting transport to Dachau

Img. 6: Map of synagogues destroyed throughout Germany


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