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Kristallnacht (Crystal Night)

Pogrom conducted throughout Germany and Austria on November 9-10, 1938. It was officially presented as a spontaneous outburst provoked by the assassination of the Third Secretary of the German Embassy in Paris, Ernst vom Rath, by a 17-year-old Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan. The name Kristallnacht comes from Kristallglas (beveled plate glass) and refers to the broken shop windows of Jewish stores.

The Kristallnacht riots were the culmination of Nazi assaults made upon the Jews in Germany and Austria following the Anschluss of March 1938. Nazi decrees and laws had gradually been undermining the Jews' public and personal status and increasing their segregation from the general public. Hermann Goering had made practical and legal preparations for the “Aryanization” (“Arisierung”) of Jewish property. The Gestapo and the SS under Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich had launched massive arrests of Jews, who were then imprisoned in the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. Beginning in July 1938, these camps were being prepared to receive an even greater number of Jews. Moreover, functionaries of the National Socialist party, the Gauleiter, and the SA (Sturmabteilung; Storm Troopers) instigated local assaults on Jewish businesses and synagogues.

Furthermore, the authorities had increasingly taken to coercing Jews into leaving the German Reich, disregarding the enormous obstacles to emigration. More and more individual Jews and entire groups were forcibly expelled, mainly from Austria and from Czechoslovakia after the latter had been truncated by the Munich Conference. The catalytic incident was the deportation of about 17,000 Polish Jews, who were driven into a no man's land between the two countries on October 28, 1938. Most of the deportees were left stranded near the border town of Zbaszyn. Herschel Grynszpan's parents were in this group. It was news of their plight that drove the desperate youth to his act of revenge.

Following the shooting of vom Rath on November 7, an inflammatory editorial appeared in the Voelkischer Beobachter, the official Nazi newspaper, and sporadic anti-Jewish rioting started on November 8. On the afternoon of November 9, vom Rath died. That same evening, Joseph Goebbels harangued the “old fighters” of the party who had gathered in Munich at their annual commemoration of Hitler's abortive putsch of November 8- 9, 1923. Apparently with Hitler's consent, Goebbels hinted that this was the hour for action against the Jews.

Although Goebbels's initiative surprised many top Nazi officials, instructions for actions were immediately conveyed to all parts of the country. Spurred on by the SA, mass frenzy broke out: Synagogues were destroyed and burned; Jewish homes were assaulted; and Jewish-owned stores were shattered and looted. In many places, Jews were physically attacked. About 30,000 Jews -- especially the influential and wealthy -- were arrested, often in accordance with previously prepared lists, and were thrown into the three above-mentioned concentration camps, where they were treated with great cruelty by the SS. This was the first time that riots against the Jews of Germany, accompanied by mass detention, had been organized on such an extensive scale. Though the violent onslaught was officially terminated on November 10, in many places it continued for several days. In Austria, it started only on the morning of November 10 but was particularly fierce.

On November 11, Heydrich reported to Goering that 815 shops, 29 department stores, and 171 dwellings of Jews had been burned or otherwise destroyed, and that 267 synagogues had been set ablaze or completely demolished (in fact, this was only a fraction of the synagogues destroyed). The selfsame report refers to 36 Jews killed and the same number severely injured, but it was later officially stated that the number killed was 91. In addition, hundreds perished in the concentration camps.

The pogrom was followed by administrative and legal orders issued with a fourfold objective: to complete the process of “Aryanization” to the benefit of the government's disrupted revenues; to expedite the Jews' emigration; to isolate the Jews completely from the general population; and, to abolish the still quasi-autonomous organization of the Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden (the representative body of German Jewry) and other official Jewish institutions. These goals were laid down in a meeting on November 12 that was called, and presided over, by Goering, who announced that Hitler had charged him with the implementation of the Reich's Jewish policy. In the ensuing discussion, the damage to Jewish property was estimated at several hundred million reichsmarks, and the insurance payments due to owners of 7,500 demolished stores was said to be 25 million reichsmarks.

Decisions taken on economic issues included imposing a fine of 1 billion reichsmarks on the Jewish community under the pretext of reparation for the murder of vom Rath, confiscating the insurance payments, and, at the same time, making the Jewish store owners liable for the repairs. “Aryanization” was to be implemented along the lines already practiced by Hans Fischbock, the Austrian Minister of Commerce. On Heydrich's suggestion, it was decided to coordinate the Jews' emigration through a Zentralstelle fuer juedische Auswanderung (Central Office for Jewish Emigration) to be established in Germany along the lines of the one developed by Adolf Eichmann in Austria. Some of the economic measures were announced the same day; additional steps were promulgated during the following months. The Kristallnacht prisoners surviving in the concentration camps were released early in 1939 for immediate emigration, or for the “Aryanization” of their property, and often for both.

The sharp reaction to Kristallnacht in the form of outrage and shock expressed by the Western press and public did not affect the Nazis. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt recalled the United States ambassador, Hugh Wilson, in protest, the German ambassador in the United States was likewise recalled home, because of “American interference in internal German affairs.” Public pressure did, however, force most of the Western European governments to admit more refugees, especially children.

Kristallnacht was the Nazis' first experience of large-scale, anti-Jewish violence. It opened the way for the complete eradication of the Jews' position in Germany.