When Ernst vom Rath went to work on the morning of November 7, 1938, he had no idea he would soon be mortally wounded—or that his death would serve as the excuse for a two-day terror attack on German Jews. He was at work at the German embassy in Paris when Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew, walked up to him and fired five times at close range.
Days later, vom Rath was dead and the streets of Germany were littered with shards of broken glass. The young diplomat’s death was used as the excuse for Kristallnacht, a two-day, nationwide pogrom against Germany’s Jews that is now seen as a harbinger for the Holocaust. But who was the man whose death supposedly instigated the violence, and why did Grynszpan kill him?
Vom Rath would not even be a historical footnote had it not been for the political forces that swept through Germany when he was in his early twenties. He was born in 1909 to a Frankfurt politician, and later studied law. In 1932, he made a decision that would influence not only his brief life but world history: He joined the Nazi Party.
Hitler was not yet in power, but the party was increasingly attracting Germans looking for relief from the country’s financial plight in the aftermath of World War I. Vom Rath was an enthusiastic participant, and in 1933 he joined the party’s paramilitary wing. The Sturmabteilung, or SA, was known for its violence and loyalty to the party’s leader, Adolf Hitler. Functioning as a kind of private army, it protected Nazi rallies, hassled Jews and engaged in street violence on behalf of the party.
This loyalty was rewarded. In 1934, Hitler purged the SA of suspected enemies, consolidating his own political power and putting the most dedicated Nazis in charge. Apparently, vom Rath passed the test—he survived the purge and became a low-level diplomat.
Still, he may never have been in the history books if not for his murder. Witnesses said that Grynszpan simply walked into the embassy, asked vom Rath a question, and shot him. The boy didn’t resist arrest, and while in custody he told authorities that he had shot vom Rath as an act of revenge for the expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany earlier in 1938. Though Grynszpan lived in Paris, he had heard that his parents, like thousands of other Jews, were living in limbo in a refugee camp near the Polish border after they were denied entry into Poland.
However, Grynszpan also gave another reason for killing vom Rath: he claimed the two had had a sexual affair. Soon thereafter, vom Rath’s planned show trial was dropped, presumably to prevent embarrassment that might result from those revelations. However, it’s unclear if Grynszpan’s story was true.
The story could have been a way to protect the young man at trial and divert attention from his crime to a sex scandal. But German historian Hans-Jürgen Döscher claims that the relationship claims were likely true and that both Grynszpan and vom Rath frequented the gay bars of bohemian Paris. According to Döscher’s version of events, Grynszpan, who was living in Paris illegally, murdered his partner after the diplomat failed to follow through on a promise to get him identity papers.
Regardless of the reason, the murder was the perfect excuse for the Nazis to escalate their campaign of hatred against Jews. Hitler sent his personal doctor to care for vom Rath and when he died, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels gave a speech indicating that the Nazis would not quash any “spontaneous” protests against the Jews, who were blamed for the murder.
Conveniently, vom Rath died on the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, a failed 1923 coup that catapulted Hitler into the German national consciousness. Whipped into a frenzy by Goebbels’ words and their hatred of Jews, Nazis all over the country began to prepare for violence. Though violence appeared spontaneous, it was anything but: It was well organized and dictated by specific instructions from the Nazi Party.
Between November 9 and 10, 267 synagogues, countless businesses and the homes of thousands of Jews were looted and destroyed. At least 91 Jews were killed and up to 30,000 men were arrested merely because they were Jewish. The pogrom is now seen as the unofficial kickoff of the Holocaust—a powerful message that Jews were unwelcome in Germany.
A week after his death, vom Rath was given a lavish state funeral. “We understand the challenge, and we accept it,” Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop said during his funeral oration. Germany’s war on Jews had begun in earnest.
Though many details of the murder of European Jews by the Nazis are now known, Grynszpan’s fate is still unclear. He was held for years pending a show trial intended to blame the events of the war on Jews, but it is uncertain what happened to him after 1942. In 2016, a photo surfaced that might show Grynszpan in a displaced person’s camp in 1946.
It remains unknown if he really was the man depicted in this photo or if he managed to survive the war. He was pronounced dead in 1960—the same year vom Rath’s brother sued a journalist who wrote about the alleged relationship between Grynszpan and the diplomat.