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 fatally wounded Ernst vom Rath, Third Secre­tary at the Ger­man em­bassy. He shot Rath, he told authori­ties, out “of love for my parents and for my peo­ple.” His was an act of pro­test against the Nazi govern­ment’s depor­ta­tion of some 12,000 Polish Jews living in Ger­many, including mem­bers of his family, who were stripped of their property and herded aboard trains to Poland.

Two days after the shooting, which was the fif­teenth anni­ver­sary of Hitler’s unsuc­cess­ful Beer Hall Putsch—the ho­liest day in the Nazi calen­dar—Rath died. That night care­fully or­ches­trated anti-Jewish vio­lence “erupted” through­out the Third Reich, which now included post-Anschluss Austria, renamed “Ostmark” after union with Nazi Germany. During Kristall­nacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) and for the next 48 hours, Nazi thugs burned or damaged as many as 1,500 syna­gogues and ran­sacked and smashed the windows of more than 7,500 busi­nesses, com­mu­ni­ty centers, and homes. Almost one hun­dred Jews were killed by govern­ment esti­mate (almost cer­tainly low-balled). Also killed were a few gentiles (“Aryans”) mistaken for Jews.

Approx­i­mately 20,000–30,000 Jews be­tween the ages of 16 and 60 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 for the murder of Rath (equal to roughly 5.5 bil­lion U.S. dollars in today’s cur­rency), which was 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.

The mur­derous ram­page of Kristall­nacht, followed by the force­ful Ger­man annex­ation of Czecho­slo­va­kia in March 1939 and the atro­ci­ty that swept over Poland later in Sep­tem­ber, 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 quantity of glass shards, the remains of win­dows broken 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; 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, 95. In all, over 1,000 syna­gogues were vandalized or destroyed.

Small Hessen synagogue burns during KristallnachtResidents watch synagogue burn

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. Mobs 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 the 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.

Right: As the looting and destruction wound down on Novem­ber 10, 1938, the arrests began. Jewish men of all ages were rounded up and marched through the streets as some of their Ger­man neigh­bors hurled insults at them. In this photo­graph Jews arrested after Kristall­nacht await depor­ta­tion to Dachau con­cen­tra­tion camp north of Munich. Others were sent to Buchen­wald, near the city of Weimar in the German state of Thueringen, and Sach­sen­hausen, 20 miles north of the German capital, Berlin. The treat­ment of camp inmates was brutal, but most inmates were released within three months on the con­di­tion they leave Ger­many. In the ten months following Kristall­nacht, more than 115,000 Jews emi­grated from the Reich. 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