What was Kristallnacht (kris'·tahl·nockt)?
Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass," was a wave of violent pogroms against Jews throughout Germany and Austria that took place on November 9–10, 1938. On the night of November 9th, the Gestapo (Nazi State Police) informed local police by telegram about the actions against Jews and their synagogues that would be taking place throughout Germany, instructing them not to interfere with what was happening. During these two nights, violent mobs freely attacked Jews on the streets and in their homes, places of work and houses of worship. Close to 100 Jews were murdered and many more seriously injured. More than 7,000 Jewish businesses and hundreds of synagogues were destroyed. Jewish cemeteries were desecrated, Jewish schools were vandalized and 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Kristallnacht was orchestrated by the Nazis in retaliation for the assassination of a German embassy official in Paris by a 17-year-old Jewish youth named Herschel Grynzspan. Interpreted by Hitler’s chief of propaganda as a direct attack on the Nazi regime, the incident was used as a justification for the events that occurred on Kristallnacht.
Throughout Germany, Austria and Sudetenland, rampaging mobs smashed the glass windows of Jewish businesses, showering the streets with shards of glass. The following morning, Holocaust survivor Kurt Messerschmidt, then a young boy, tells of his efforts to ride his bike through seven miles of broken glass. Coming upon a large crowd, he and a friend discovered an elderly shopkeeper, who had been commanded by two Nazi soldiers to get down on his knees and pick up the broken glass in front of his shop. The boys decided to climb off their bikes and help the man. Years later, Messerschmidt reflected, “I’m sure that some of the people standing there disapproved of what the Nazis did, but their disapproval was only silence, and silence is what did the harm.”
Why is Kristallnacht an important historical event?
Kristallnacht marked a turning point from Hitler’s policy of forced emigration of Jews toward a systematic plan for their annihilation. In the months and years that followed, Jews would be forced from their homes, isolated in ghettos, and finally deported to labor and death camps. By the time Germany was defeated in May 1945, about two-thirds of Europe’s 9 million Jews—including 1.5 million children—had perished in what came to be known as the Holocaust.