Throughout Germany and Austria, riots broke out on this night 75 years ago in a night which is infamously referred to as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, after the destruction done to Jewish businesses and properties.
At least 91 Jewish people were killed; 30,000 men were arrested; hundreds of businesses were damaged or destroyed. Nearly every synagogue in Germany or Austria was damaged or destroyed.
In the aftermath, the German Jewish population was fined 1 billion Reichsmarks ($400 million in today’s money) for the damage.
Kristallnacht was not the beginning of the Holocaust. Kristallnacht was certainly not the beginning of Nazi mistreatment of Jews in Germany. From the time in which Hitler had come to power until Kristallnacht, the Nazi Party had chipped away at the rights and liberties of Jews living in Germany. In 1933, a wide scale boycott of Jewish businesses had been undertaken by the Nazis. Jews couldn’t own land. In 1934, Jews were barred from having health insurance. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of their citizenship and forbade them from marrying Germans. Jewish people could not work in the government. In 1938, Jews over the age of 15 were required to carry cards which identified them as Jewish which had to be shown upon the request of police.
The true horrors still awaited. Most German Jews were not deported to death camps until the early 1940s. Of the roughly quarter million Jews living in Germany prior to the outbreak of WWII, 90 percent would not survive to see the war’s end and the downfall of their Nazi oppressors.
Herschel Grynszpan’s family had immigrated to Germany long before the Nazis came to power. On October 27, 1938, Grynzspan’s parents were among Jews who were expelled from Germany and eventually forced to live in a refugee camp near the Polish border. Herschel was living in Paris and went to the German Embassy where he mortally wounded German diplomat Ernst vom Rath on November 7.
On November 9, vom Rath succumbed to his injuries. Hitler and other Nazi leaders were attending a banquet when the news arrived. Hitler left the event before making remarks, however German propagandist Joseph Goebels said
“The Führer has decided that… demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered”
That effectively gave permission to riot, though there were strict orders about not harming German citizens or their property. Close proximity to German properties inevitably saved some synagogues from being burned.
There are historians who argue that the Nazis had essentially been waiting for some sort of event which they could politicize as an excuse for a widespread assault on the nation’s Jewish population. The Nazi hierarchy was never one to ignore an anti-Semitic propaganda opportunity and vom Rath’s death was the perfect excuse.
As someone who’s always appreciated history, the Holocaust has always been especially fascinating to me. Of survivor’s accounts, perhaps the most striking thing to me is how often the story will end with a postscript saying something like “she was the only person in her family to survive the war.”
It’s so hard to imagine what that would be like. Families separated, and people forcibly ripped away from their homes. Parents who were completely helpless to do anything for their terrified and screaming children as they were ripped away, as they were loaded onto train cars like livestock. In death camps, for those who were too young or too old to work, they would have been almost immediately executed. For those who were physically able to work, they were slave labor, typically severely malnourished, often times being forced to work physically torturous jobs, in the face of disease and an omnipresent risk of being gassed or shot.
Unfortunately, the Nazis are not the only murderous regime which has committed genocide. But for the last three generations, the Nazis have been seen as the pinnacle of evil in the west. Everyone is familiar with the Holocaust. But genocides which have been carried out in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Armenia have received much less attention. Death camps in the Soviet Union, Cambodia, and North Korea don’t capture America’s attention in the same way as the Holocaust. But why?
I think there are a number of reasons. Part of it is that most Americans have German ancestry and that our international scope is fixated predominantly on Western Europe. I believe another reason is that there’s so much information which can be attained. There is so much specific information about the Holocaust because there were so many meticulously kept records. Thirdly, I think the fixation is part of a general interest in World War II.
In popular culture, I believe the Holocaust will continue to be a topic of interest. But from documentary footage of liberated survivors, no movie could ever truly capture the horrors of what it must have been like. Actors could never truly have the skeletal look and hollow, lifeless stares from the prisoners.