On This Day: Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass


On 9th November 1938, a torrent of state-sponsored violence was unleashed across Germany and Austria in an event that would come to foreshadow the Holocaust.

Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, saw hundreds of attacks launched against Jewish people, their homes and businesses.

In total, more than 100 German and Austrian Jews were killed during Kristallnacht, which raged all day and through the night until the morning of the 10th. Several thousand Jewish-owned businesses, properties and places of worship were targeted by rioters and left vandalised, damaged or outright destroyed.

Contemporary reports from the New York Times described the events as a “wave of destruction, looting and incendiaries unparalleled in Germany since the Thirty Years War”. Somewhere in the region of 30,000 Jewish men were also arrested during the ordeal, with thousands interred at concentration camps such as Dachau or Buchenwald.

An interior view of the destroyed Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, Berlin, burned on Kristallnacht

An incident of this kind had been looming on the horizon for some time in Nazi Germany. In 1933, Adolf Hitler was confirmed as German Chancellor. Thereafter, the Nazi regime embarked on a widespread campaign to purge the country of its sizeable Jewish population.

Highly oppressive tactics were employed by the state against its Jewish citizens, and civil rights were diminished and discriminatory legislation against the country’s Jewish population was introduced.

On 28th October 1938, nearly two weeks prior to the Kristallnacht pogrom, more than 12,000 Polish Jews were expelled from Germany following changes to foreign national residency permits.

Jewish Poles expelled from the country were ordered to leave their homes and permitted to take just one suitcase per person. Remaining possessions and assets were subsequently seized by Nazi authorities.

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On 7th November 1938, the Nazi regime capitalised on the murder of a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, to further escalate its attacks against the Jewish population.

Vom Rath was assassinated outside the German embassy in Paris by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew who carried out the attack in revenge for his parents’ deportation to Poland.

Following the assassination, German stormtroopers were ordered to begin systematically targeting and attacking Jewish citizens and businesses. Infamous Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels made the call, which included orders that local emergency services were not to interfere or support those being targeted.

The Aftermath

In the wake of Kristallnacht, blame for the widespread disruption was placed on the German and Austrian Jewish population. In fact, the Nazi regime imposed a fine of one billion marks on the Jewish population for vom Rath’s assassination and seized Jewish-owned property and assets across the country.

Tens of thousands of Germany Jews fled the country following the attacks, with many fleeing to neighbouring countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands. Thousands more travelled east. A significant portion of those who fled would once again encounter the Nazi regime as it steamrolled across Europe.

Kristallnacht was internationally condemned and was widely reported in the press. The pogrom even prompted some nations to break off diplomatic relations.

British Jews protested against immigration restrictions to Palestine in the aftermath of Kristallnacht.

In Britain, Jewish charities and community initiatives urged the UK Government to facilitate the transport of Jewish children from Germany and Austria to Britain. One month later, the first group of children arrived in Britain and were placed under the care of foster families.

This initiative, known as the ‘Kindertransport’, eventually helped 10,000 child refugees flee to Britain.

Despite some efforts, the lack of a clear-cut response from the international community emboldened the Nazi regime, enabling it to escalate efforts to further discriminate against German Jews and laying the foundations for the Holocaust.

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