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The Night of Broken Glass

The window of a Jewish store, broken during the Night of Broken Glass, Berlin, 1938. USHMM#86838

The Night of Broken Glass (German: Reichskristallnacht) is the notorious name for the up to then worst pogrom (persecution) against the German Jews. It took place throughout the German Reich on 9-10 November 1938.
Many Jews were murdered, thousands of Jewish shops were devastated, and yet thousands of windows were broken – thus the name ‘Night of Broken Glass’.
Officially, the pogrom was an expression of the German people’s revenge for the murder of a German diplomat at the hands of a young Jew, but in reality the events were a centrally directed offensive against the Jewish population.
As a result of the pogrom, an enormous compensation was imposed on the Jews (!) and the amount of anti-Jewish legislation was steeply increased.

More about:
Course of events
Consequences and reactions


Julius Streicher
Herschel Grynszpan

Although the events of the Night of Broken Glass only took place on 9 November 1938 the number of assaults against the Jews had increased throughout the autumn of 1938. Synagogues had been ruined, windows had been broken, and Jews had been driven from local areas, particularly in Franken, where the extreme anti-Semite, Julius Streicher was Gauleiter for the Nazi Party.

The single episode that caused the events of 9-10 November 1938 was an assassination. On 7 November 1938 a young Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, shot the third secretary at the German embassy in Paris, Ernst vom Rath. The German diplomat was heavily wounded and died afterwards on the evening of 9 November. Herschel Grynszpan wanted to shoot the German ambassador, but instead he shot the first and best diplomat, he encountered at the embassy. The assassination happened as revenge for the expulsion of Herschel Grynszpan’s parents, who were Polish Jews, from Germany to Poland.

In spite of the murder it is important to see the events of the Night of Broken Glass as more than spontaneous riots caused by the resentment at a single event. At the time of the murder, ideas of a “public punishment of the Jews” had been in the air for a long time.

Course of events

Joseph Goebbels

November 9 was one of the Nazi Party’s most important red-letter days: on 9 November 1923 Hitler and his followers had tried to take over power in Bavaria at the so-called ‘Beer Hall Putsch’. As a result, Hitler was in Munich on 9 November 1938 in order to give his annual speech to the party’s leading figures and ‘old fighters’. Because of the death of Ernst vom Rath, Hitler’s speech was cancelled, and instead Joseph Goebbels gave an incendiary speech, where he lashed out at the German Jews. Presumably Goebbels took over the event for tactical reasons in order that Hitler could appear as innocent and unknowing of the later events.

The speech to these the most faithful of the party members had its results: from Munich the nazi leaders called their deputies around the Third Reich and got the action moving. Thus, the Night of Broken Glass was very far from being the ‘people’s rebellion against the Jews’, as it was presented in the Nazi-controlled press.

> Night of Broken Glass - sources

The Night of Broken Glass took place on 9 and 10 November 1938, and was consequently not a single night of excesses. The destructions were very extensive:

  • 91 Jews were killed
  • Many Jews committed suicide or died after being abused
  • 267 synagogues were destroyed or burned down
  • 7,500 shops and businesses were vandalised

The synagogue in Ober-Ramstadt burns. USHMM#04467

It was important to the party to have the excesses appear as a popular action, but in reality things were controlled from above. Among other things, orders were given to the police of not interfering, and the fire departments were told not to put out fires in Jewish buildings.

The pogrom on the Night of Broken Glass was carried out by troops from the SA and the SS, who wore civilian clothes, and by activists from the Nazi Party. They entered synagogues, destroyed the furniture and put the places on fire. Other troops broke the windows of Jewish shops, stormed them and spoiled them completely. Despite of a ban on looting, they often stole everything in the Jewish shops as well as in the Jewish houses that were also stormed. The residents were abused.

New prisoners, most of them Jews arrested during the Night of Broken Glass, in the concentration camp Buchenwald, 1938. USHMM#79914b.

The Gestapo also took part in the riots by arresting 25-30,000 Jewish men, who were then sent to concentration camps. The purpose of their stay in the camps was to break their resistance and thereby force them to immigrate.

In general, the perpetrators went unpunished. This was due to an order from the Ministry of Justice, since Goebbels, as the man responsible for the pogrom, had tacitly approved of the use of violence. Hitler was never officially tied to the events of the Night of Broken Glass as the man responsible for this extreme assault on the German Jews, but in all probability he was the one, who had given the real, secret order to the events.

Consequences and reactions

Large parts of the Nazi Party saw the Night of Broken Glass as a success. Certain parts of the population had been positive as well, and the Jews had been definitively segregated from the rest of the German society and were now living a ‘shadow existence’. By the events of 9-10 November 1938 it had been made particularly clear to the German population that any solidarity with the Jews could result in violence. In reality, however, large parts of the German population remained against the spontaneous violence of the Night of Broken Glass, which seems to indicate that the Nazi Party’s radical wing to some extent was out of touch with the population’s feelings towards the Jews.

Leading people within the state apparatus were not nearly as enthusiastic about the relatively chaotic progress of the Night of Broken Glass. Just a few days after the pogrom, on 12 November 1938, a conference was held, presided over by
Hermann Göring. The conference can be viewed as some sort of “anti-Jewish brainstorm”, where serious and not so serious measures against the Jews were contemplated. The conference took place, because the efforts against the Jews were to be coordinated – not least because of the lack of “proper” central direction during the Night of Broken Glass.

In practise, the conference resulted in the agreement among the Nazis that the Jews were to pay damages of 1 billion Reichsmark for the destructions. In other words the Jews were made responsible for the assaults on themselves. In addition, all Jewish businesses were to seize operation on 1 January 1939. Finally, all Jews were prohibited from attending German schools.

Goebbels was full of more or less exotic suggestions, such as banning Jews from German beaches, forests and even public baths.

The main purpose of all this new legislation was to make the Jews immigrate. It was to be made perfectly clear to them that their situation in Germany would only become worse.

> Night of Broken Glass - sources

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