What Was Kristallnacht? - Definition, Facts, Date & Quotes

Instructor: Ashley Kannan

Ashley has taught history, literature, and political science and has a Master's Degree in Education

Parents put their kids to bed only to wake up to the sound of broken glass and the smell of fires being set. This happened during the horrific night of Kristallnacht. Read on to learn about this historical event and then test your knowledge with a quiz following the lesson.

Definition and Date

Kristallnacht refers to a series of anti-Jewish riots that took place on November 9 and 10, 1938 throughout Germany, Nazi-occupied Austria, and in areas of the German-occupied Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Literally translated, Kristallnacht means 'Night of Crystal~.' It has also been translated to mean 'Night of Broken Glass.'

Background: Nazi Discrimination of Jewish People

Kristallnacht took place over two nights, but was years in the making. After gaining power in Germany in 1933, Adolf Hitler commenced with a systematic persecution of Jewish people. Hitler's political party, the Nazis, used its political power to discriminate against this group. For example, the Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935 to target the Jewish population, reducing it to 'subjects' without rights. Accordingly, the Nazis created a society where Jewish people were outsiders, even though many had lived in Germany for years. As noted scientist Chaim Weizmann observed, 'The world seemed to be divided into two parts- those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.' This debasement accelerated in 1938.

The shooting of Ernst Vom Rath

In August of 1938 , the Nazis reinforced the citizenship component of the Nuremberg Laws by stating that all foreign-born Jewish people living in Germany would have their residency revoked. All Jewish people of Polish origin were ordered to leave Germany in October. They were given one night to collect all of their belongings in a single suitcase.

Polish Jewish people expelled from Germany, 1938

When they got to the Polish border, the refugees waited for asylum. Many of them were denied entry, as Poland refused to accept everyone. Their wait took a physical toll. Two of these refugees were Sendel and Riva Grynszpan. Desperate for money, they wrote to their son, Herschel who was studying in Paris.

Herschel Grynszpan

Outraged at what his parents had experienced, Herschel proceeded with a revolver to the German embassy in Paris. He was taken to meet with a German diplomat named Ernst Vom Rath. When Vom Rath entered the room, Herschel fired five bullets, two of which hit their target.

Ernst Vom Rath

Nazi Reaction and 'Spontaneous Demonstration'

Vom Rath died two days later. Hitler had sent his private medical staff, but to no avail. During a Nazi celebration commemorating the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch (one of Hitler's first attempts to gain power), Hitler received word that Vom Rath had been killed. He left the ceremony and his Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels addressed the Nazi gathering, telling them that Hitler wanted 'spontaneous demonstrations.' The belief was that the public should view the disturbances as authentic and 'spontaneous' outrage over Vom Rath's death at the hands of a Jewish person.

Later that evening the Nazi chief of police, Richard Heyrdich, once described by Hitler as 'the man with the iron heart,' sent directions to his Nazi security detail. He described how the riots should proceed, what should be done with property, and how to handle the issues of fires. With that telegram, Kristallnacht was born.

The Night of Broken Glass

Different branches of the Nazi security structure participated in the riots. Members of the Hitler Youth, Storm Troopers, and the Gestapo Secret Police all played vital roles. Many of them dressed in civilian clothes, thereby adding to the 'spontaneous' element, and were provided with axes, hammers, and incendiary devices. They sought to destroy Jewish businesses and synagogues. While trying to look 'spontaneous,' security detail members humiliated Jewish people while destroying their property.

Eyewitness accounts reveal the extent of this degrading behavior. One example concerned an elderly Jewish man being 'dragged down and pushed to his knees' as arsonists 'admired the results of their destruction.' Another example featured a mob attacking a hospital for sick Jewish children. After the windows were broken, children were pushed 'out over the broken glass, bare-footed and wearing nothing but their night shirts.'

Over the course of two nights, mobs destroyed Jewish neighborhoods. Their directives to use violence were well received. More then 200 synagogues and 7,500 Jewish-owned commercial buildings were destroyed.

Storefront damage

Destroyed synagogue

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