Today In History: Kristallnacht
Today in 1938, the Jewish population of Germany was subjected to Kristallnacht, a day of terror and death that presaged the Holocaust. Kristallnacht translates into English as “Night of Broken Glass,” referring to all the windows that were smashed out of Jewish businesses.
Roughly one hundred Jewish people lost their lives during Kristallnacht and 7,500 Jewish establishments were damaged. The Nazis destroyed hundreds of Jewish homes, graveyards, synagogues and schools. About 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and subsequently sent to concentration camps until they were released on orders to leave Germany.
Kristallnacht was justified as a response to the murder of a German diplomat in Paris by a teenaged Polish Jew. The seventeen year old boy killed the diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, as revenge for deporting his parents from Germany to Poland. Tens of thousands of Polish Jews were similarly deported.
Joseph Goebbels, in response to vom Rath’s murder, gave the orders for German soldiers to orchestrate outbursts of public violence disguised as “spontaneous demonstrations” aimed at German Jews. The police and fire departments were ordered not to intervene on behalf of the Jews.
The consequences were horrific. The violence was so severe and the terror so great that some Jewish victims killed themselves in response. Including whole families.
The Nazi government then placed blame for the violence at the Jewish population’s feet and leveled a one-billion-mark fine on them. A billion marks was roughly four hundred million US dollars in 1938. When the fine could not be paid, the state seized Jewish property and insurance money. Policies of open discrimination against Jews would follow.
Kristallnacht prompted more than 100,000 Jews to flee the country. Other countries protested the oppression but the Nazis suffered no significant consequences for their violence. Many people believe this emboldened them to commit the Holocaust.
Kristallnacht marked the turning point when economic, social and political persecution of German Jews escalated to physical violence. It is often referred to as the true beginning of the Holocaust. Max Rein, historian, said of the events, “Kristallnacht came… and everything was changed.”
The Nazis had not yet started using the “Final Solution” language, but their actions illustrated their intentions towards the Jews. The newspaper Das Schwarze Korps, an SS organ, published an article at the same time that advocated “destruction by swords and flames.”
Hermann Göring remarked at a conference the day after Kristallnacht, “The Jewish problem will reach its solution if, in any time soon, we will be drawn into war beyond our border–then it is obvious that we will have to manage a final account with the Jews.”