Kristalnacht: "Night of Broken Glass": Start of the Holocaust

Updated on December 13, 2019
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Angela loves history and feels it is essential to our future to know the past—or else be destined to repeat it.

Germans pass this Jewish-owned business destroyed during "the night of broken glass" in Berlin, Germany. This occurred on November 10, 1938.
Germans pass this Jewish-owned business destroyed during "the night of broken glass" in Berlin, Germany. This occurred on November 10, 1938. | Source

What Happened the Night of Broken Glass?

On November 9, 1938, the world was forever changed by a tragic incident given a beautiful name Kristallnacht, because it left the streets littered with broken glass from stores and synagogue windows. For two straight nights, Nazis demolished German cities. Although it only lasted two nights, the impact of this event and the events following would affect people all over the world for years to come.

Kristallnacht, which is German for Crystal Night, is also known as Night of Broken Glass or November Pogroms. It marked the beginning of the Holocaust. That night German Nazis did their first horrific act and subjected thousands of Jews to terror and violence. They destroyed over 1,000 synagogues and 7,500 Jewish businesses throughout Germany by smashing and torching. Jewish hospitals, schools, homes, and cemeteries were vandalized. 30,000 Jewish men between 16 and 60 years old were arrested and then sent to the concentration camps Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen. Due to the massive influx of people sent to these camps, they expanded in order to accommodate. Nazis murdered 91 Jews. All of this occurred in less than 48 hours. Many that attacked Jewish families were their own neighbors.

Throughout this time, all police officers and firefighters were ordered not to intervene. The only exception was that firefighters were allowed to put out fires that could be detrimental to the home of someone who was of the Aryan race.

Who Was Held Responsible for Kristallnacht?

Their attacks were not just physical. The Nazis held the Jewish community responsible for the damage done those two nights, and they imposed a one billion Reichsmarks (which is equal to $400 million during 1938) fine on them according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They also confiscated any reimbursements that would they normally have bn compensated to the Jews for insurance claims. The Nazis also expected the Jewish community to clean up the mess themselves.

These horrific events were a surprise to those all around the world. Although Hitler had been chancellor of Germany since 1933 and already began repressive policies, up until then, most repressions were not violent. Kristallnacht was the beginning of worsening conditions for Jewish people throughout Europe. It was after this that anti-Jewish legislations were set in place including:

  • Jewish businesses and factories were to be taken over by the Nazis
  • Jewish people were not allowed in most public areas.
  • Jewish children were no longer allowed in German schools.
  • Jewish people had a stringent curfew.
  • Jewish people were forced to emigrate out of Germany.
  • Jewish people were required to wear a badge with the Star of David for identification.

During Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a synagogue burns in Siegen, Germany. November 10, 1938.
During Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a synagogue burns in Siegen, Germany. November 10, 1938. | Source

What Led Up to These Events?

Although few foresaw the events that occurred on Kristallnacht, there were steps that Hitler took that eventually led to that night. Five years prior, Adolf Hitler became Germany's chancellor. His first course of action was instituting policies that isolated and persecuted the Jewish community in Germany. He had asked the citizens to boycott Jewish businesses, and he dismissed all active Jews that held civil service jobs. Then in May, he burned all books written by un-German authors and Jewish people at a ceremony held at Berlin's Opera House.

Within two years, businesses overtly denied serving Jewish persons. That same year on September 15, 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were passed, which was an addendum to the Reich Citizenship Law. Although antisemitism was already extreme, this gave the regime more control and became more organized in their mission to rid the world of the "virus," a term Hitler used in Mein Kampf for the German people.

What Were the Nuremburg Laws?

The Nuremberg Laws state that only Aryans (non-Jewish Germans) could be full German citizens. Jewish Germans were considered subjects of the German Reich. By being classified subjects, they were supposedly under the protection of the Reich and therefore were obligated to it. Unfortunately, it also meant they had no legal or political rights and were left entirely to the will of the state. They were not allowed to vote nor own rural property either. Since they were now considered aliens in the country, they were required to pay double the amount of taxes than other German citizens. Due to the Nazi goal of keeping the Aryan race pure, it became illegal for Aryan and Jews to marry or even have intercourse.

Three years later, on April 11, 1938, all German citizens were required to prove their status as Aryan by providing birth certificates, marriage licenses, and questionnaires about genealogy. If a parent or grandparent was Jewish, they were no longer considered Aryan. The law stated at the time, "A Jew is a Jew is a Jew," which meant that they would look three generations back to know if their blood was "pure."

Ernst Vom Rath
Ernst Vom Rath | Source

Assasination of Ernst von Rath

Although the Nuremberg Laws played a large part in the Holocaust, the assassination of Ernst vom Rath was its turning point. Although many were deeply affected by the discriminatory laws, one young man decided to fight against them after his family was directly affected. He was a Polish Jewish student named Herschel Grynszpan, who had lived his entire life in Germany, but was currently studying in France, while his family was exiled to Poland.

Before the exile, the Polish government foresaw what the Nazi's were planning, and sent out a decree stating that citizens of Poland who lived abroad would be annulled unless they received a special stamp from a Polish official by October 31st. Without this, they would not be allowed to reenter Poland. Yet, they never gave out these stamps, which affected 50,000 Polish Jews.

Unfortunately, when the German government got wind that they were not allowed to return, they decided to expel 12,000 Polish-born Jews. They were given only one night to leave Germany and were only allowed to bring the belongings they could carry in one suitcase. They did this only four days before the cutoff on October 27, 1938. They were dropped off at a station in Zbaszyn on the border of the two countries without permission to enter either country.

Eventually, Poland allowed 7,000 of these people to stay in Poland, but the remaining stayed in the station without food, money, or housing. Herschel Grynszpan learned that his family was among those expelled from Germany when, on November 3rd, he received a postcard from his sister explaining what happened. Grynszpan chose to take immediate action. Three days later, he bought a gun and bullets; the next day, he went to the German Embassy to shoot the Ambassador. He never got the opportunity but did shoot the Third Secretary in the German Embassy, Ernst von Rath. Von Rath died two days later.

Hitler felt close to the Secretary and attended his funeral. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister, took this as an opportunity to rally anger against Jews. Adolf Hitler played off of this as well and used it as an opportunity to punish the Jewish community and retaliate by planning the Night of Broken Glass.

Their first plan of attack was to denounce the Jewish community as murderers by stating it in the newspapers on November 8th. The next day von Rath died. Goebbel and Hitler decided to punish them further through a more "spontaneous demonstration" of violence. Goebbels wrote about the decision by stating:

"He decides: demonstrations should be allowed to continue. The police should be withdrawn. For once the Jews should get the feel of popular anger. … I immediately give the necessary instructions to the police and the Party. Then I briefly speak in that vein to the Party leadership. Stormy applause. All are instantly at the phones. Now people will act.”

They then sent out telephone and telegram orders throughout Germany and some to Austria by Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller. The orders said, “in shortest order, actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all of Germany. These are not to be interfered with.” The police were to arrest any able-bodied male Jews. Firefighters were asked to stand by synagogues with orders to let them burn, and only control if the flames are going to harm Aryan homes or businesses.

As Kristallnacht proceeded, the first major deportation of Jews to concentration camps occurred, and so too did the Holocaust.

On November 10, 1938, this synagogue in Kuppenheim burned down during Kristalnacht. Many German children watched.
On November 10, 1938, this synagogue in Kuppenheim burned down during Kristalnacht. Many German children watched. | Source

The Aftermath

It was then, on November 15, 1938, after that Nazi government no longer allowed Jews to attend German schools. Then soon after, all Jews were given a strict curfew. By December, Jews were not allowed in public places. Hitler began what he called the "Final Solution," which was to exterminate the entire Jewish population. Although he did not fully succeed, he did murder 6 million European Jews and 4-6 million non-Jews that were either Catholic, mentally impaired, handicapped, or any other person who did not fit the specific Aryan ideal type.

By 1939, World War II broke out and would continue through 1945 in a desperate hope to stop Adolf Hitler. Although the United States did not immediately join the war, Franklin D. Roosevelt was quick to denounce anti-Semitism during a speech to the citizens of America on November 15, 1938.

Kristallnacht was a turning point that led to worsening violence and repressive treatments of Jewish people by the German government. Although the German people had mixed feelings about the treatment of the Jews; some supported the night of Kristallnacht, some felt the Jews should be punished, but not so violently, while others thought it was pure evil.

Kristallnacht remains one of the most horrific single events. It also marks the beginning of the Holocaust and the ambitions of an evil man. Although given a beautiful name, it symbolizes an especially harrowing event.

Survivors Remember Kristalnacht


  • Berenbaum, Michael. "Kristallnacht." Encyclopædia Britannica. May 15, 2017. Accessed February 10, 2018.
  • Staff. "Kristallnacht." 2009. Accessed February 10, 2018.
  • "Kristallnacht: November 9-10." The Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education. Accessed February 10, 2018.

© 2018 Angela Michelle Schultz


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