What Was Kristallnacht?

S. Ashraf

Kristallnacht, a German word meaning "night of broken glass," is the name given to the violent anti-Jewish riots that began on the night of 9 November 1938 and continued through the day of 10 November. The Kristallnacht riots were orchestrated by the German government and carried out by members of the Assault Detachment, known as Storm Troopers; the Schutzstaffel (SS); the Hitler Youth organization; and local branches of the Nazi Party. Riots took place throughout Germany as well as in Austria, which had been annexed by Germany, and in an area of German-occupied Czechoslovakia known as Sudetenland.

Kristallnacht is considered to be the start of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were murdered.
Kristallnacht is considered to be the start of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were murdered.

Violence was so massive and severe that Kristallnacht is considered the first pogrom to occur in Germany since the Middle Ages. In fact, some scholars consider it to be the most brutal public display of anti-Semitism in German history up to 1938. Along with Jewish cemeteries, homes, hospitals and schools, more than 1,000 synagogues were attacked and burned, with 76 being completely destroyed.

The sentiments behind the Kristalnacht would eventually lead to the internment and killing of millions of Jews.
The sentiments behind the Kristalnacht would eventually lead to the internment and killing of millions of Jews.

Approximately 7,500 businesses, all Jewish-owned, were looted and their windows shattered, which gave the night its name. So much glass was broken that Germany had to import plate glass from Belgium because it could not produce enough to repair the damaged homes and businesses. The Jewish community was required to remove the rubble left from ruined synagogues. A total of 91 Jewish people were killed in the riots, and an estimated 30,000 Jewish men age 16-60 were arrested by units of the Gestapo and transported to concentration camps.

It is significant that Kristallnacht is the first time the German government moved to imprison Jewish people on a massive scale simply based on their ethnicity. Kristallnacht was launched by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Chief of Propaganda, using the pretext of the assassination of a German diplomat by a Polish-Jewish student on 7 November 1938. On 9 November, the Gestapo informed all police units that actions against Jews and synagogues would happen throughout Germany and were not to be interfered with. Instead, the police were instructed to arrest the victims of the attacks, and fire companies were given direct orders to let all synagogues burn after they were attacked. Consequently, Jewish people were freely attacked wherever they worked, lived or worshiped.

Kristallnacht is considered the starting point of the Holocaust. Subsequent to it, measures were introduced by the government to remove both Jews and their influence from Germany. Within the next few months, Jews were restricted from most public places, physically segregated within towns and placed under curfew, among many other prohibitions enacted by the German legislature.

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Discussion Comments


We may never know whether it was planned or not in advance. Hitler came to power in 1933 and concentration camps were immediately built for real or perceived political opponents.

However, before Kristallnacht in 1938, there were only four concentration camps that were used to incarcerate those who were deemed to be political threats. After 1938, the authority to incarcerate persons in a concentration camp formally rested exclusively with the German Security Police, rather than local law enforcement or civilians, which held this exclusive authority de facto since 1936. The “legal” instrument of incarceration was either the “protective detention” (Schutzhaft) order (which the Gestapo could issue for persons considered a political danger after 1933) and the “preventative detention” (Vorbeugungshaft) order, which the Criminal Police could issue after December 1937 for persons considered to be habitual and professional criminals, or to be engaging in what the regime defined as “asocial” behavior. Neither order was subject to judicial review, or any review by any German agency outside of the German Security Police.

It is no secret that Hitler had plans for the Jews years before 1938. He enacted laws just after coming to power in 1933 which made it illegal for Jewish people to work in certain professions, hold certain positions, etc. Hitler was a mastermind of propaganda. After Germany was left in destitution following World War I, he took to placing the blame on the so-called wealthy Jews rather than the political powers who actually sanctioned the nation. I agree that the student’s assassination of Rath was not intended to create such a response. However, one can assume that since Goebbels was Hitler’s chief propagandist, Hitler may have influenced the use of the event to further his hatred of the Jewish people.


Kristallnacht doesn't actually translate to "Night of Broken Glass", that's a nickname. It translates to "Crystal Night".


@simrin-- It's true that Kristallnacht started on the same day. In fact, the first attacks are reported to be two hours after the diplomat's death. But I don't agree with you that there was no plan. There certainly was because the people carrying the acts out were not regular Germans- they were German law enforcement and secret service.

They were also given specific directions. How else did they avoid all German homes, businesses and property and single out all the Jewish ones? There was definitely direction coming from the German officials.

It's such a sad event. My brother-in-law who is Jewish attends events to remember the pogrom every year. His extended relatives were also Holocaust victims whose business and home was destroyed during Kristallnacht and who were consequently deported to camps.


@turquoise-- I'm not so sure about that because the third secretary to the German Ambassador to France- Ernst vom Rath- died on November 9th and the the pogrom started on the same exact day, almost instantaneously. So I don't think that there was any official planning.

Plus, I think Hitler wanted to leave the appropriate response to the public and that's why he ordered that whatever was to happen, the German law enforcement was not to interfere. Whether Hitler actually ordered German police to attack Jews and some of the other Kristallnacht facts are still uncertain. Allowing it to happen is approval but I definitely think that everything happened very quickly and in an unplanned manner.


While reading about Kristallnacht, "the night of broken glass" for a school assignment, I learned that the student who assassinated the German diplomat in France did this as a response to his family's expulsion from Germany. I'm sure he had no idea that what he did would be followed by such a huge response against the Jews by the German government.

My personal view is that the assassination was just an excuse. If it hadn't happened, the Nazi regime would have found another reason to carry out Kristallnacht because they were planning this for a long time. It wasn't like all of the sudden the German government decided to attack Jews. There was already a dislike for Jews and many had already been deported out of Germany or they were harassed and their businesses taken over.

So I think that Kristallnacht didn't happen because of the assassination, it was going to happen anyway but it did give the German government the justification to start moving.

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