Kristallnacht Memorial ceremony at Yad Vashem
Kristallnacht Memorial ceremony at Yad VashemHezki Ezra

Between the late evening hours of November 9, and the early morning of the 10th, the German rioters destroyed and firebombed 1,000 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland, leaving many of them burning during the night in full view of the public and local firefighters, who had received orders to intervene only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings. Explosives were used in some locations to wreck the buildings. [1]

The shop windows of an estimated 7,500 commercial establishments out of approximately 9,000 Jewish-owned stores were smashed and their merchandise looted or scattered on the sidewalk and streets.[2] It as estimated the amount of plate glass shattered equaled half the yearly production of the plate-glass industry of Belgium, from which the glass had been imported.[3]

Schoolboys were in the vanguard of many attacks against the Jews, and in breaking windows. Teachers provided them with clubs for them to demolish Jewish businesses.
Schoolboys were in the vanguard of many attacks against the Jews, and in breaking windows.

Teachers provided them with clubs for them to demolish Jewish businesses.[4]

Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, the chief propagandist for the Nazi Party, initiated the nation-wide pogrom without any well-defined objective or any strategy as to the methods that would be employed. This led to a “hasty and improvised organization” causing “messiness and miscommunication.” Aside from being disorganized, impulsive and chaotic, “the lack of control” is what terrified the victims. [5]

The magnitude of murder, rape and sexual attacks (the extent to which will never be known), the systematic public humiliations, indiscriminate looting of private homes, loss of property and the level of terror that ensued, shocked the nation and unnerved the regime.

The nation-wide pogrom, which “was an exponentially aggravated continuation of the violence” that would periodically erupt since the beginning of the year, resulted in a decisive change in the way in which the Nazis would engage with the Jews in Germany. Never again would they organize anti-Jewish violence on German streets. Either the Germans would export the violence or camouflage it. [6]

No less than 90 Jews were murdered or died, despite there having been no directives to murder anyone or demolish Jewish commercial establishments. If there had been an order, the number of fatalities would have been massive. Protecting Jewish wealth for the war effort, “to which it had staked a claim,” had been a priority of the state. Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Main Office, the SS and police agency,

Investigations and arrests were made to preserve the authority of the Reich as a state governed by laws, although Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Main Office, the SS and police agency, confined the punishments to a minimum in most cases. Many looters who returned the stolen property were not prosecuted. Serious crimes were referred to the party’s own courts. [7]

In Austria, 27 people were murdered, and 40 synagogues were destroyed. Vast number of Jews were evicted from their apartments and their homes were confiscated. Jews expelled from their residences in the provinces arrived in Vienna, along with their household effects. [8]

Jews Imprisoned and Forced to Immigrate

Approximately 27,000 Jews between the ages of 16 and 60 were incarcerated in the Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. [9] Relatives of Jews who died at Buchenwald were compelled to pay 3 marks ($1.20) for their loved one’s ashes. [10]

Those who obtained release from the camps were informed it was on condition that they begin the process of emigration from Germany. The goal of Kristallnacht was to compel the Jews to leave the country.

To facilitate the “smooth cooperation in all questions of Jewish emigration with the government agencies in charge,” Hermann Göring, Director of the Four-Year Plan in the German economy, commissioned Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of the Security Police and Security Service to establish the Central Reich Office of Jewish Emigration. The office had unrestricted authority to find countries willing to accept Jews, expediating the procedure of obtaining German documents and passports and procuring funds for travel for poor Jews that Jewish communities were expected to arrange. [11]


The virulent antisemitic propaganda, legal discrimination, direct physical violence, and an environment of intimidation, which pervaded daily life, created a surge of emigration of German (and subsequently Austrian and Czech) Jews. Between 1933-1941, 64,500 German and Austrian Jews emigrated to Palestine, approximately 110,000 to the US, no less than 40,000 to South America, 17,000 central European Jews to Shanghai, and 6,000 to South Africa. Out of a Jewish population of 500,000 living in Germany at the beginning of 1933, 214,000 remained by 1939. Between 1933-1939, there were approximately 40,000 non-Jewish Germans who left Germany. Many of them were political enemies of the Nazis, who emigrated in 1933. [12]

Any suggestion that German Jews were passive in not seeking ways to leave the country are clearly mistaken. Most of those who could escape succeeded in doing so. By 1941, two thirds of German and Austrian Jews had departed. Many of those who stayed were either destitute, too old or “disadvantaged females,” and for that reason were unable to acquire foreign visas. A number remained “out of stubborn German patriotism.”

Several thousand retuned to Germany including from Palestine. The Germans succeeded in capturing and murdering those who were unable to escape far enough. Between 15,000-16,000 Austrian Jews who left Austria were murdered out of a total of 130,000. [13]

Pretext for Kristallnacht

The pretense for Kristallnacht was the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, third secretary of the German embassy in Paris on November 7, 1938 by Herschel Grynszpan. Grynszpan, a 17- year Polish Jewish student, who had been born in Germany in 1921, was living and working illegally in France.

On October 27, 1938, the Gestapo initiated a nation-wide campaign to arrest and deport 17,000 Jews of Polish nationality living in the Reich. [14] These were the “despised Ostjuden,” who were viewed as the “strength and vitality of the ‘Jews’”-in both the biological and spiritual sense. The Germans believed their “noxious influence of the spirit of Judaism” had to be constrained. [15]

This serious escalation in actions against the Jews had been “triggered” by the Polish government when it passed legislation to revoke émigré Poles of their citizenship, making them stateless and creating an obstacle for them to emigrate.

Of the 16,000 to 17,000 Jews who were deported, a number returned to Germany, some were allowed to enter Poland, and others were confined to a no-man’s land, the largest of which was Zbaszyn, a Polish border town. When Grynszpan’s sister informed him that his parents along with two young siblings were living under dire conditions in Zbaszyn together with thousands of other Jews, he went to the German embassy intending to kill the German ambassador.

When Goebbels was told of the murder, he immediately seized on the opportunity to take revenge against the Jews. [16]

A Final Note

In statement to representatives of the foreign press, Goebbels responded to the outrage at Germany’ assault on its half million Jewish citizens, which represented 0.76 percent of Germanys population, by challenging the Western democracies: “If there is any country that believes it has not enough Jews, I shall gladly turn over to it all our Jews.” [17]

After recounting the horrific events of Kristallnacht in the British House of Commons, Labor party member Philip Noel-Baker noted that Goebbels said he hoped the West would soon forget the Jews of Germany. “He hopes in vain,” declared Noel-Baker. “His campaign against them will go down in history with St. Bartholomew’s Eve as a lasting memory of human shame. Let there go with it another memory, the memory of what the other nations did to wipe the shame away.” [18]


[1] David Cesarani, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016), 183-184.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lucy Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945 (New York: Bantam Book, 1976), 136.

[4] Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 38.

[5] Cesarani, op.cit. 183-186.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. 187.

[8] Ibid. 191.

[9] Ibid.199-200.

[10] Arthur D. Morse, While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy (New York: An Ace Book,168) 184

[11] Christian Gerlach, The Extermination of the European Jews (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 50,52-54.

[12] Ibid. 52.

[13] Ibid. 50,52-54.

[14] Ibid. 179-181.

[15] Dan Michman, The Emergence of Jewish Ghettos during the Holocaust (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 155.

[16] Cesarani, op.cit. 181-183.

[17] Morse, op.cit. 186.

[18] Ibid 185.

Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME). He is author of The Palestinian Right To Israel. and co-author of Denying History: Who Says The Holocaust Never Happened And Why Do They Say It? He lives in Jerusalem