The night of violence dubbed Kristallnacht initiated the deliberate, government-sanctioned extermination of the Jews in Germany now known as the Holocaust. Subdued reaction to the anti-Semitic violence from both the international community and “ordinary” Germans opened the door to the Nazi policies of extermination that soon followed.

Summary of Event

German anti-Semitism did not suddenly materialize with Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933; it was already entrenched among many in Germany’s non-Jewish population. Hitler, however, fomented anti-ethnic sentiments and promulgated the myth of “Aryan” superiority to consolidate his power, establishing policies and laws against German Jews from the beginning of his rule. In 1933, he announced a daylong boycott against Jewish businesses, legislated against kosher butchering, and set in motion a policy prohibiting Jewish children from attending public schools. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws Nuremberg Laws (1935) declared that Jews were no longer German citizens. Soon afterward, Jews were relieved of their voting rights and outright hatred was exhibited throughout Germany on signs that read Jews Not Welcome. Laws passed in 1938 restricted Jewish enterprise and job opportunities and required that all Jews carry identification cards. [kw]Kristallnacht
Nazi Germany;Kristallnacht
[g]Austria;Nov. 9-10, 1938: Kristallnacht[09865]
[g]Germany;Nov. 9-10, 1938: Kristallnacht[09865]
[c]Terrorism;Nov. 9-10, 1938: Kristallnacht[09865]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Nov. 9-10, 1938: Kristallnacht[09865]
Grynszpan, Herschel
Goebbels, Joseph
Göring, Hermann
Hitler, Adolf

On November 7, 1938, a seventeen-year-old Polish-Jewish student, Herschel Grynszpan, assassinated German diplomat Ernst vom Rath Rath, Ernst vom in Paris in protest against the deportation of some twelve thousand Polish Jews living in Germany—including his own family—a week before, on October 28. The Polish government would not admit the homeless expatriates, who wandered near the border in pouring rain, without food or shelter, for several days. (The Polish government would eventually admit them to a concentration camp where conditions were generally worse.) Grynszpan received a letter from his mother on November 3 outlining their situation, and Grynszpan, a youth with few resources, appealed for help to the uncle and aunt with whom he was staying, but they could do little. Grynszpan, distraught, purchased a gun on November 7, walked into the German Embassy in Paris, and asked to see an official; vom Rath, a junior official, was on duty and Grynszpan was admitted to his office. He shot vom Rath three times in the stomach, reportedly cursing him and saying he was acting on behalf of the twelve thousand exiled Jews. Little did Grynszpan realize that he had provided the Nazi regime with an excuse to unleash unspeakable atrocities on Jews throughout Germany and Austria.

Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels made the best of the opportunity, organizing “spontaneous” demonstrations against Jews that erupted in violence in cities and villages across the country. According to Goebbels, Hitler had received the news of vom Rath’s death on November 9: “[T]he Führer,” Goebbels reported in an address to the Nazi leadership, “has decided that . . . demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.”

In fact, the riots were initiated by members of the Gauleiters, the Sturm Abteilung (SA), and the Schutzstaffel (SS), who for the most part wore civilian garb. German citizens eventually joined them. What followed was a orgy of violence that lasted for two days. The rioters administered axes and sledgehammers to Jewish storefronts, shattering window panes—hence the name Kristallnacht, meaning “crystal night,” in reference to the broken glass. The term was a euphemism, however. The destruction went well beyond the smashing of glass. Thousands of homes and stores were looted, damaged, or burned, and the destruction extended to more than fifteen hundred synagogues and several Jewish cemeteries. Police and firefighters stood idly by, their only mandate being to protect “Aryan” property.

Estimates vary on the number killed in the rioting, from as few as three dozen to as many as two hundred. The deaths were mainly the result of bludgeoning. In the aftermath of the rioting, thirty thousand Jewish men were arrested and transported to concentration camps: Concentration camps, Nazi Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and elsewhere. The camps would be expanded to accommodate their new charges, and a means of systematic extermination began to emerge.

On November 11, Goebbels called for an end to the violence, which went unheeded in the camps. The number of deaths that followed as an immediate result of Kristallnacht—by suicide and in the camps—ran into the thousands. The London News Chronicle reported that at Sachsenhausen, for example, sixty-two men were beaten until they fell: “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.”

On November 12, a meeting of Nazi leaders was convened by Field Marshal Hermann Göring to hear the official anti-Jewish policy. As Göring put it: “I implore competent agencies to take all measures for the elimination of the Jew from the German economy, and to submit them to me.” Göring concluded the meeting by noting that he “would not like to be a Jew in Germany.”


Incredibly, the Jews were seen as the instigators of the riots and were forced to clean the rubble of their ruined businesses and places of worship. Those who had survived the violence of the riots were now subjected to increasingly oppressive policies, fines, and restrictions on their movements—including the Judenvermoegersabgabe, a collective fine for the murder of vom Rath which today would be the equivalent of several billion U.S. dollars. The Nazis began to confiscate Jewish property as part of their program of “Aryanization.” Aryanization policies A mass exodus of Jews followed as many emigrated to the United States, Palestine, or sympathetic European nations. The assassin, Grynszpan, would remain in German custody awaiting a trial that never materialized; he was probably executed in 1944 or 1945.

Most striking, however, was the relatively mild reaction on the part of those Germans not directly in the path of Nazi violence. Even the international response—though outrage was expressed—was measured. Newspapers condemned the pogroms, but no immediate action was undertaken by the international community. In its November 11 issue, for example, The New York Times reported only that Goebbels had called a halt to the violence, not mentioning the undisguised fact that he had instigated it. The silence of the German people was tantamount to complicity: Whether they were cowed by fear, shared the Nazis’ ethnic hatreds, or simply were indifferent, their passivity in the face of the events of Kristallnacht made it clear to Nazi leaders that they faced little resistance. Hitler and his henchmen proceeded to excise the Jewish “threat” in the form of increasingly transparent atrocities that eventually constituted the Holocaust.

At the same time, Kristallnacht—to be followed four months later by the German invasion of Czechoslovakia (March 15, 1939)—made it clear to world leaders that the Nazi regime would stop at nothing to appropriate Lebensraum (living space) by incorporating central Europe into an Aryan empire. Support for the policy of appeasement was coming to an end as visionary politicians began to foresee a second world war. Kristallnacht
Nazi Germany;Kristallnacht

Further Reading

  • Gilbert, Martin. Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Prolific historian and Holocaust scholar Gilbert identifies Kristallnacht as the moment when the Nazi regime consolidated its momentum toward genocide. Eyewitness accounts from those in Berlin, Vienna, and other cities who endured the crime spree testify to the violence and personal terror experienced by the victims. Newspaper accounts and the reactions of ordinary people record the inadequate response. Photos and maps.
  • Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. 3d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. Comprehensive account of the Nazi treatment of the Jews of Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. Bibliography and index.
  • Johnson, Eric A., and Karl-Heinz Reuband. What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany —An Oral History. Cambridge, Mass.: Basic Books, 2005. In answer to the conventional wisdom that the non-Jewish German public was unaware of the anti-Semitic atrocities growing in the Nazi state, Johnson and Reuband, using hundreds of interviews reproduced here, document that regime’s popularity and the ease with which it took advantage of rampant anti-Semitism.
  • Laqueur, Walter, and Judith Tydor Baumel, eds. The Holocaust Encyclopedia. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Surveys all aspects of the Holocaust. Includes more than two hundred photos and many helpful research tools.
  • Read, Anthony. Kristallnacht: Unleashing the Holocaust. New York: Random House, 1989. Examines the Nazis’ exploitation of German anti-Semitism on Kristallnacht and the international reaction, which the authors describe as “mere squeaks of indignation.” A scholarly and complete examination of the Nazis’ institutionalization of their policy of Jewish extermination. Photos.
  • Rubenstein, Richard L., and John K. Roth. Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987. Analyzes the emergence and development of the concentration and death camps, focusing on both the victims and the perpetrators.

Racist Theories Aid Nazi Rise to Political Power

Beer Hall Putsch

Mein Kampf Outlines Nazi Thought

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

Nazi Concentration Camps Begin Operating

Great Blood Purge

Pius XI Urges Resistance Against Nazism

Nazi Germany Hosts the Degenerate Art Exhibition

The Anschluss

Nazi Extermination of the Jews

Gypsies Are Exterminated in Nazi Death Camps