From November 9 to 10, 1938, in an incident known as “Kristallnacht”, Nazis in Germany torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses, and murdered close to 100 Jews. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night” or the “Night of Broken Glass”), some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps. German Jews had been subjected to repressive policies since 1933, when Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. However, prior to Kristallnacht, these Nazi policies had been primarily nonviolent. After Kristallnacht, conditions for German Jews grew increasingly worse.
Hitler and Anti-Semitism
Soon after Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor in January 1933, he began instituting policies that isolated German Jews and subjected them to persecution.
Among other things, Hitler’s Nazi Party, which espoused extreme German nationalism and anti-Semitism, commanded that all Jewish businesses be boycotted and all Jews be dismissed from civil service posts. In May 1933, the writings of Jewish and other “un-German” authors were burned in a communal ceremony at Berlin’s Opera House.
Within two years, some German businesses were publicly announcing that they no longer serviced Jews. The Nuremberg Laws, passed in September 1935, decreed that only Aryans could be full German citizens. Furthermore, it became illegal for Aryans and Jews to marry or have extramarital intercourse.
Despite the repressive nature of these policies, through most of 1938, the harassment of Jews was primarily nonviolent. However, on the night of November 9, all that changed dramatically.
From Harassment to Violence
In the fall of 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew who had been living in France for several years, learned that the Nazis had exiled his parents to Poland from Hanover, Germany, where Herschel had been born and his family had lived for years. As retaliation, on November 7, 1938, the agitated teenager shot Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat in Paris.
Rath died two days later from his wounds, and Hitler attended his funeral. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister for public enlightenment and propaganda, immediately seized on the assassination to rile Hitler’s supporters into an anti-Semitic frenzy.
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Night of Broken Glass
Kristallnacht was the result of that rage. Starting in the late hours of November 9 and continuing into the next day, Nazi mobs, SS troops and ordinary citizens torched or otherwise vandalized hundreds of synagogues throughout Germany and damaged, if not completely destroyed, thousands of Jewish homes, schools, businesses, hospitals and cemeteries.
Nearly 100 Jews were murdered during the violence. Nazi officials ordered German police officers and firemen to do nothing as the riots raged and buildings burned, although firefighters were allowed to extinguish blazes that threatened Aryan-owned property.
After Kristallnacht, the streets and sidewalks of Jewish communities were littered with broken glass from vandalized buildings, giving rise to the names “Crystal Night” or “Night of Broken Glass.” The Nazis held the German-Jewish community responsible for the damage and imposed a collective fine of $400 million (in 1938 rates), according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Additionally, more than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to the Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen concentration camps in Germany—camps that were specifically constructed to hold Jews, homosexuals, political prisoners and other perceived enemies of the Nazi state.
U.S. Reaction to Kristallnacht
On November 15, 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, responded to Kristallnacht by reading a statement to the media in which he harshly denounced the rising tide of anti-Semitism and violence in Germany. He also recalled Hugh Wilson, his ambassador to Germany.
Despite Roosevelt’s condemnation of the Nazi violence, the United States refused to ease the immigration restrictions it then had in place, constraints that prevented masses of German Jews from seeking safety in America. One reason was anxiety over the possibility that Nazi infiltrators would be encouraged to legally settle in America.
A more obscured reason was the anti-Semitic views held by various officials in the U.S. State Department. One such administrator was Breckinridge Long, who was responsible for carrying out policies relating to immigration.
Long took an obstructionist role in granting visas to European Jews, and maintained this policy even when America entered World War II after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
A Wake-up Call to Jews
The violence of Kristallnacht served notice to Jews worldwide that Nazi anti-Semitism was not a temporary predicament and would only intensify. As a result, many Jews began to plan an escape from their native land.
Kristallnacht marked a turning point toward more violent and repressive treatment of Jews by the Nazis. By the end of 1938, Jews were prohibited from schools and most public places in Germany—and conditions only worsened from there.
During World War II, Hitler and the Nazis implemented their so-called “Final Solution” to what they referred to as the “Jewish problem,” and carried out the systematic murder of some 6 million European Jews (along with, by some estimates, 4 million to 6 million non-Jews) in what came to be known as the Holocaust.
Kristallnacht. PBS: American Experience.
Kristallnacht: 1938. British Library.
9 November 1938: “Kristallnacht.” Jewish Museum Berlin.
Breckinridge Long. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.