Kristallnacht, also known as Reichskristallnacht, Pogromnacht and in English as The Night of Broken Glass, was a massive nationwide pogrom in Germany and Austria on the night of November 9, 1938 (including early hours of the following day). It was directed at Jewish citizens throughout the country, and was for many observers the first hint that what is now called the Holocaust (of which it was an early event) might be unique in scale in the history of Central and Western Europe.
Names for this event are the subject of some controversy. It was called Kristallnacht (German for "crystal night") by the common people evoking the many shop windows, mostly owned by Jewish shopkeepers, that were broken during the night. There are basically two explanations for this term:
Dr. Walter H. Pehle, a historian specializing in modern Germany, has argued that the direct translation should be unacceptable because its original intent was cynically propagandizing the violence into something metaphorically holding "sparkle and gleam" for Germany.
In the term Reichskristallnacht, the prefix "Reichs-" is grammatically a possessive of "Reich", which means "Empire". Both forms of that word were heavily used in German-government propaganda during the Nazi period, and in this case it would seem intended to assert that (no matter how spontaneous it was presented as being) it was an event of importance to the whole nation, not just a collection of local events whose significance was limited to the respective local communities.
The English term "The Night of Broken Glass" is often explained as avoiding the ironic intent of Kristallnacht.
A much more probable but forgotten origin of the term Kristallnacht is not the Nazi propaganda but the conversation of the ordinary people, especially in Berlin. Aware of the fact that much more serious crimes than breaking windows were committed, the euphemistic term was coined because people were fearing repression by the Nazi state apparatus for calling a spade a spade. Many people also saw that the November progroms were not an outbreak of "spontaneous wrath of the German people" as the Nazi propaganda tried to portray it, but a state-organized and executed act of terror. This explains the prefix Reichs- (imperial), that people used also in other contexts to ridicule and criticize aspects of the Nazi dictatorship (e.g. Reichswasserleiche - "Imperial Drowned Body" for actress Kristina Söderbaum). The meaning of (Reichs-)Kristallnacht as a term critizing and accusing the Nazi-dictatorship for what took place has largely been forgotten.
Today in Germany it is mostly called Pogromnacht ("pogrom night"), reflecting a consensus that "Kristallnacht" was too euphemistic given the fact that the original dimension of the term has been lost.
In the 1930s, many Jews of Polish origin lived in Germany. On Friday, October 28, 1938, 17,000 of them had been gathered without warning in the middle of the night and deported from Germany to Poland. (Many of them had been in Germany for most of their lives; some were decorated German veterans of the First World War.)
The Polish government refused to admit them, resulting in their trudging between the German and Polish border posts in the cold day and night, until German authorities finally persuaded the Polish government to grant entry.
Herschel Grynszpan, a Jewish German who had fled to France, had received a letter from his family describing the horrible conditions they experienced in this deportation. Seeking to alleviate their situation, he appealed repeatedly over the next few days to Ernst vom Rath , secretary of the German Embassy in Paris, who apparently had no intention of being helpful.
On Monday, November 7, Grynszpan shot and killed vom Rath.
Kristallnacht, example of physical damage
Vom Rath's assassination served as an excuse for launching a rampage against Jewish inhabitants throughout the country. The attack was intended to look like a spontaneous act, but it was in fact orchestrated by the German government. This meant it was pursuant to the leadership of the Nazi Party, and as it often did, the government drew on the party's organization in addition to formal government lines of authority.
This pogrom damaged, and in many cases destroyed, about 1574 synagogues (constituting nearly all Germany had), many Jewish cemeteries, more than 7,000 Jewish shops, and 29 department stores. More than 20,000 Jews were arrested and taken to concentration camps; a few were even beaten to death with others forced to watch. The number of Jewish Germans killed is uncertain, with estimates ranging from 36 to about 200 over two days of rioting. The number killed is most often cited as 91. The indiscriminate nature of the violence suggests some non-Jewish Germans were killed simply because someone thought they "looked Jewish".
The events in Austria were no less horrendous, and most of Vienna's 94 synagogues and prayer-houses were partially or totally damaged. People were subjected to all manner of humiliations, including being forced to scrub the pavements whilst being tormented by their fellow Austrians, some of whom had been their friends and neighbours.
Contemporary foreign response
The Kristallnacht pogrom sparked outrage all over the world. It discredited pro-Nazi movements in Europe and North America, leading to their eventual decline. Many newspapers condemned the Kristallnacht, with some comparing it to the murderous pogroms incited by Imperial Russia in the 1880's. The U.S. recalled its ambassador (but did not sever diplomatic relations) while other governments severed diplomatic relations with Germany in protest.
The persecution and economic damage done to German Jews did not stop with the pogrom, even as their places of businesses were ransacked. They were also forced to pay a collective fine of 1 billion marks to the Nazi government. This was a bit of irony--as even the New York Times had photographic proof at around the same time that the Nazis were at least partially responsible, although now we know that it was approved by Hitler, and that Hitler was involved in the planning of it. This was arguably a form of collective punishment, later denounced in the Geneva Conventions.
In announcing the forced payment, top Nazi official Hermann Göring who had in fact pushed for earlier measures against the Jews, inadvertently described the hard reality exposed by the Kristallnacht:
"German Jewry shall, as punishment for their abominable crimes, et cetera, have to make a contribution for one billion marks. The swine won't commit another murder. Incidentally, I must acknowledge that I would not like to be a Jew in Germany."
The night ushered in a new phase in the anti-Semitic activities of the Nazi party and state apparatuses, leading to the deportation and, finally, the extermination of most of the Jewish people living in Germany. Although few people knew it at the time, the Kristallnacht pogrom was a first step in the systematic persecution and mass murder of Jews throughout Europe in what came to be known as the Holocaust.
- George L. Mosse, Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism
- ---- Confronting History: A Memoir
- ---- Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural, and Social Life in the Third Reich (George L. Mosse Series in Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History)
- ---- The Crisis of German Ideology : Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich
- Christopher R. Browning , Collected Memories: Holocaust History and Post-War Testimony (George L. Mosse Series in Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History)
- William L. Shirer The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 1959.
- Leni Yahil, The Holocaust: the Fate of the European Jewry
Many decades later, association with the Kristallnacht anniversary was cited as the main reason against choosing November 9, the day the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, as the new German national holiday; a different day was chosen (October 31990, German reunification).
CNN: Germany commemorates Nazi era Kristallnacht http://edition.cnn.com/WORLD/europe/9811/09/germany.kristallnacht/ (November 8, 1998)
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55