The Nazi Party’s anti-Semitism finally exploded into violence during one night of terror 75 years ago. Across Germany and Austria, Nazis attacked and murdered Jews, torched synagogues and vandalized Jewish businesses and homes in a state-orchestrated “spontaneous demonstration.” On the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, look back at the “night of broken glass” that foreshadowed the Holocaust.
Herschel Grynszpan carried a revolver and thoughts of revenge with him as he walked through the streets of Paris on the morning of November 7, 1938. The 17-year-old German refugee had just learned that his Polish-Jewish parents, along with thousands of other Jews, had been herded into boxcars and deported from Germany. From the day Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933, anti-Semitism had become encoded in the governmental policies of Nazi Germany. For years, Jews experienced state-sponsored discrimination and persecution, and Grynszpan had seen enough.
The young man who had emigrated to France two years earlier walked into the German Embassy on Rue de Lille in search of the German ambassador. When Grynszpan was informed that the ambassador was out on his daily walk, he was brought in to meet with diplomat Ernst vom Rath. Pulling out his revolver, Grynszpan fired five times at vom Rath and shouted, “You are a filthy kraut, and here, in the name of 12,000 persecuted Jews, is your document!”
Hitler sent his personal physicians to Paris to treat vom Rath, but two days later the diplomat died from his wounds. The Nazi regime found the murder to be a welcome excuse to launch a vast pogrom against the Jews living inside its borders. Until then, Nazi policies toward the Jews, such as boycotts and deportations, had been primarily nonviolent, but that all changed in the hours after vom Rath took his last breath.
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels orchestrated a “spontaneous” reaction to the political assassination. He sent a teletype message to state police stations and secret service headquarters with detailed instructions on organizing and executing a massive attack on Jewish properties. Goebbels ordered the burning of Jewish houses of worship, businesses and homes. He ordered the storm troopers to arrest as many Jews as the prisons could hold—“especially the rich ones”—and to prepare the concentration camps for their arrivals. Firemen were told to do nothing to stop the blazes unless the fires began to threaten Aryan-owned properties.
Starting in the late hours of the night of November 9, 1938, and continuing well into the next day, Nazis in Germany and Austria torched approximately 1,000 synagogues and vandalized thousands of Jewish homes, schools and businesses. Nearly 100 Jews were murdered during the violence, and approximately 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Following the night of terror, the shattered windows of vandalized Jewish businesses littered the sidewalks of Germany and Austria, which led to the rampage being known as Kristallnacht, German for “crystal night.”
After ruining their property and their temples in a murderous attack, the Nazis then made their victims pay for all the damage from the “night of broken glass.” The insurance companies paid the Jews in full, but the Nazi government confiscated all the money to pay back the insurance companies to prevent them from bankruptcy due to the catastrophic losses. The Nazis also fined Germany’s Jews $400 million for their “abominable crimes,” including the killing of vom Rath in Paris. Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second-in-command, said the sanctions would ensure “the swine won’t commit another murder.”
Foreign countries issued statements of condemnation. Hugh Wilson, the American ambassador to Germany, was summoned home for “consultations” and never returned. In spite of the words, though, most countries, including the United States, kept their restrictive immigration policies against European Jews in place, and there were few ramifications for the Nazis.
A week following the assassination in Paris that was used as a pretense for the state-sponsored “spontaneous demonstration,” vom Rath’s coffin, draped with the Nazi swastika flag, was paraded through the streets of Dusseldorf as thousands of mourners raised their arms in salute of the murdered diplomat. Grynszpan was transferred from prison to prison in France until the Nazi invasion during World War II when he was extradited to Germany where he was incarcerated in a concentration camp. His ultimate fate is unknown, but he may well have been among the 6 million killed during the Holocaust, the genocide that was foreshadowed on that November “night of broken glass.”