Paris, France November 7, 1938

On this date in 1938, 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan, an unem­ployed German-born Polish Jew living illegally in the French capital, severely wounded Ernst vom Rath, Third Secre­tary at the German embassy on the Rue de Lille on Paris’s Left Bank. He shot Rath, the young assassin told French authori­ties, to avenge his parents. His was an act of pro­test against the Nazi govern­ment’s recent depor­ta­tion of some 18,000 Polish Jews living in Germany, including members of his family, who were arrested, stripped of their property, and herded aboard trains to their native Poland. (The French even­tually turned Grynszpan over to German autho­rities, who carted the teen­ager off to Berlin, whence he vanished into Nazi Germany’s Nacht und Nebel (“Night and Fog”) disappearance program.)

Two days after the shooting, which was the fif­teenth anni­ver­sary of Adolf Hitler’s unsuc­cess­ful Beer Hall Putsch—the holiest day in the Nazi calen­dar—Rath died. That night 82 years ago care­fully orches­trated anti-Jewish vio­lence “erupted” through­out the Third Reich, which now included post-Anschluss Aus­tria, renamed “Ostmark” after union with Nazi Germany, and parts of German-annexed Czecho­slo­va­kia (Sudeten­land). During Kristall­nacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) and for the next 48 hours, Nazi hooli­gans, storm troopers, SS men, and Hitler Youth—many wielding rubber clubs, many singing mili­tary songs, many of them drunk—burned or dese­crated upwards of 1,500 syna­gogues and ran­sacked and smashed the windows of more than 7,500 busi­nesses, com­mu­nity centers, schools, and homes. Signs were affixed to looted Jewish-owned estab­lish­ments that declared, “Revenge for the Murder of vom Rath.” Almost 100 Jews were killed by govern­ment esti­mate (almost cer­tainly low-balled). Also killed were a few gentiles (“Aryans”) unlucky enough to be mis­taken for Jews. On Novem­ber 17, 1938, the middling young German diplo­mat from Paris was accorded an ela­bo­rate state funeral in Duesseldorf, which Hitler and the party faithful attended.

Approximately 20,000–30,000 Jews between the ages of 10 and 80—particularly wealthy Jews—were hauled off to German con­cen­tra­tion camps in the Novem­ber pogrom. Heaping insult on injury, the Nazi govern­ment forced the Jewish com­mu­ni­ty to pay Juden­ver­moegens­ab­gabe, a col­lec­tive fine of one bil­lion Reichs­marks (just under $250 million at the then exchange rate) for the murder of Rath and the riots that his death “instigated”—a fine levied by the com­pul­sory acqui­si­tion of 20 per­cent of all Jewish pro­perty. Addi­tionally, the state demanded that Jews sweep up the rioters’ mess and pay the state six mil­lion Reichs­marks to cover the cost of insur­ance claims for pro­perty damage. In the wake of the Novem­ber events between 250,000 and 450,000 people, roughly half of them Jews, left Nazi Germany, but only after paying hefty sums to leave.

The murderous rampage of Kristallnacht, followed by the force­ful German annex­ation of the rest of Czecho­slo­va­kia in March 1939 and the atro­ci­ty that swept over Poland in Sep­tem­ber of that year, built up a wave of resent­ment against Nazi Germany through­out the world—a wave that crashed over the U.S. two years later in Decem­ber 1941. Former Kaiser Wil­helm II, from his exile in Holland, char­ac­ter­ized the actions of his country­men as “gang­sterisms,” adding that for the first time ever he was ashamed to be a German.

Kristallnacht, November 9–10, 1938: Violent Turning Point in Nazi Germany’s Assault on Jews

Berlin storefront after KristallnachtBerlin’s Fasenenstrasse Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Left: Example of damage directed at Jewish busi­nesses during Kristall­nacht (literally “crystal night”), a German witti­cism alluding to the enor­mous num­ber of glass win­dows broken into tiny shards through­out the night and next day, mostly in syna­gogues and Jewish-owned shops. With Kristall­nacht the Nazis achieved three of their goals: confis­ca­tion of Jewish pro­perty by local branches of the Nazi Party to help finance the mili­tary build­up to war, ten months away; increased sepa­ra­tion, margin­ali­za­tion, and iso­la­tion of German Jews (in certain neigh­bor­hoods Jews were required to sell their homes at huge losses and move to other neigh­bor­hoods); and most impor­tantly, the move from the anti-Semitic policy of discrim­i­na­tion to one of ethnic cleansing, which con­tinued in the Third Reich and conquered territories until the end of World War II.

Right: Interior of Berlin’s Fasenenstrasse Syna­gogue, con­structed between 1910 and 1912 in the affluent neigh­bor­hood of Charlotten­burg off Kurfuersten­damm, after it was set on fire during Kristall­nacht on the morning of Novem­ber 10, 1938 (per­haps not ironi­cally, on Martin Luther’s birth­day). In Berlin 9 out of 17 syna­gogues were torched; in Vienna, the Austrian capi­tal, 42. In all, over 1,000 syna­gogues were vandalized or destroyed.

Small Hessen synagogue burns during KristallnachtResidents watch synagogue burn on Kristalnacht

Left: Not even the smallest towns in Germany escaped the Nazis’ may­hem and wrath against Jews. In this photograph a small syna­gogue in Ober Ram­stadt (Hessen, Germany), roughly 18 miles south of Frankfurt am Main, burns on Kristallnacht.

Right: As the Ober Ramstadt synagogue burned, local resi­dents watched fire­fighters instead save a near­by house. In some German cities such as Cologne police handed out axes and other tools of destruc­tion to trouble­makers in the mob, supplying them with lists of names and addresses of Jewish pro­per­ties for them to destroy. The mobs cut fire hoses when conscientious firefighters directed water onto Jewish properties.

Munich’s Herzog Rudolfstrasse synagogue after KristallnachtGerman Jews await deportation to concentration camp

Left: Munich’s Herzog Rudolfstrasse syna­gogue off Maximil­lian­strasse. By mid­night, Novem­ber 9, 1938, attacks on Jewish busi­nesses, homes, and syn­a­gogues were occurring all over Germany and Austria prompted by a telex to regional and local police com­manders with orders from Hitler and tele­phone calls from Nazi Party leaders to their under­lings. Thugs and ordi­nary Germans roamed streets, shouting, “Beat the Jews to death!” In Munich, the first syna­gogues started burning at mid­night. In Berlin, Kristall­nacht was delayed till 2 a.m. on Novem­ber 10 so that police would have time to prepare. They identi­fied Jewish pro­per­ties that would be destroyed and set up road­blocks to keep traffic away from those areas. Police were instructed not to inter­fere with the rioters unless, para­doxically, the rioters resorted to looting or “other special excesses.” Never­the­less, Berlin’s Jewish-owned depart­ment stores were special targets, the vandals stealing furs, jewelry, silver, furni­ture, and clothes and tossing all sorts of objects out of upper-story windows to friends on side­walks below. Twenty-nine depart­ment stores were torched. Inter­estingly, reports collected by the Nazi police intel­li­gence ser­vice (Sicher­heits­dienst) showed that the majori­ty of Germans opposed open vio­lence, mass destruction of property, and the murder of Jews.

Right: As the looting and destruction wound down on Novem­ber 10, 1938, the arrests began. Jewish males of all ages were rounded up and marched through the streets as some of their Aryan (non-Jewish) neigh­bors hurled insults at them. In this photo­graph Jews arrested after Kristall­nacht await depor­ta­tion to Dachau con­cen­tra­tion camp north of Munich, where they were held in “pro­tec­tive cus­tody.” Others were sent to Buchen­wald and Sachsen­hausen in Eastern Germany. The treat­ment of camp inmates was brutal and humili­ating, but most inmates were released within three months on the con­di­tion they leave Germany “for ever.” In the ten months following Kristall­nacht, more than 115,000 Jews—25 per­cent of Germany’s Jewish popu­la­tion—had emi­grated, while 190,000 Austrian Jews had left their country by May 1939. As part of govern­ment policy, the Nazis seized houses, shops, and other property the émigrés left behind.

Kristallnacht, November 9–10, 1938: Holocaust Start Date