Kristallnacht: The first step on the road to Auschwitz

The true meaning of the Night of Broken Glass only became clear to the outside world many years later


Eighty years ago, synagogues in Germany burned. It was Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass — a turning point in National Socialism’s war on the Jews, when Hitler ordered a state-sponsored assault on its Jewish minority, the first step on the road to Auschwitz.

A powerful JC editorial commented: “It is the culmination of a process which began five years ago with the accession to power of the most ruthless set of desperadoes that has ever seized the reins of government.”

Hundreds of synagogues were destroyed and German Jews coerced to pay for their demolition. Nearly 100 Jews were killed — and probably more if suicides are included — and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and interned in camps. Thousands of Jewish-owned businesses were vandalised or demolished. There were reports of Jews being shot and knifed, burned to death or thrown out of high windows. In Sachsenhausen, the newly incarcerated were made to run a gauntlet of guards using whips, clubs and shovels.

Goebbels, who had instructed the party organs, wrote that the violence on the night of 10-11 November 1938 testified to “the healthy instincts of the German people”.

Kristallnacht was a retaliation for the killing of a 29-year-old German diplomat, Ernst Vom Rath, at the Paris embassy by a 17-year-old Jewish youth, Herschel Grynszpan.

It took place after a year of Nazi advance. Germany had annexed Austria in March and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in October, following the handshake between Hitler and Chamberlain on signing the Munich Agreement. Within a few weeks, 12,000 Jews of Polish origin were expelled and dumped at the Polish border. The border guards turned them back in a repeated game of exile and return. Four thousand were allowed to eventually cross over into Poland while the rest had to endure the biting rain and bitter cold. Mr Grynszpan’s parents were amongst these bedraggled and bewildered Jews who had been thrown out of their homes.

They had arrived in Germany as ostjuden before the First World War and settled in Hanover, but never acquired German citizenship. Mr Grynszpan himself had actually been born in Germany, but was living illegally in Paris and hunted by the French police. On receiving a postcard from his sister, informing him of what had happened, an emotional, angry Mr Grynszpan bought a gun, visited the embassy, looking for the German ambassador, but settled on any diplomat within range. He made no attempt at escape and told the police that he had acted “in the name of 12,000 persecuted Jews”.

As Vom Rath lingered between life and death, all Jewish children were barred from attending school and many Jewish publications closed. On 9 November, Vom Rath succumbed to his injuries. On 10 November, Hitler ordered Goebbels to implement an act of revenge.

In all parts of Britain, there was a deep sense of outrage at the violence, directed at innocent civilians. Durham miners protested that Nazi Germany was “outside the ambit of civilised nations”. The British press was scathing and ridiculed German claims that the attacks had been spontaneous. The Daily Herald termed it “a disgrace to the human family”. There was also criticism of Chamberlain for doing little practically to help German Jews leave. The News Chronicle told its readers that sympathy was not enough. The JC berated the international community: “it folded its arms and did nothing”. Only the British Union of Fascists suggested that press reports on the events in Germany were “grossly exaggerated” and that the British record in Ireland did not give it the moral right to interfere.

Labour MP Phillip Noel-Baker, later a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, gave chapter and verse in the House of Commons. He spoke about the closure and destruction of boarding schools (Caputh near Potsdam), hospitals (Nuremberg) and old age homes (Ems). He reported raids on Jewish institutions – the cutting off of telephone lines, the disconnection of electricity, the smashing of heating systems.

Synagogues of all definitions held a special service on Sunday, November 20. In the Great Synagogue at Duke’s Place, Chief Rabbi Hertz told the assembled that Hitler’s regime was “a government of terror as had never before been seen in a civilised country”. Eight thousand people, including Christian clergymen of all denominations, attended a Board of Deputies protest at the Albert Hall.

Internationally there were similar protests and expressions of disgust. In Australia, there was a remarkable demonstration by aborigines, fighting their own struggle as “a marginalised, discriminated people”, Led by a communal leader, William Cooper, they marched and delivered a letter of protest to the German consul in Melbourne. Only in Spain did Francisco Franco’s Nationalists justify Kristallnacht as “a defensive Nazi measure against the Jews”.

Jewish communities quietly condemned Mr Grynszpan’s act as irresponsible, but he remained defiant: “Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog”. One alternative theory in recent years for the killing was that it was due to a gay affair between the two that had gone badly wrong. This is probably the result of Mr Grynszpan’s lawyer’s attempt to depoliticise the killing by depicting it as a crime passionel that would not have led to the guillotine in France.

Following the Nazi invasion of France, in the summer of 1940, Mr Grynszpan was taken to Berlin. However the German judiciary found it difficult to stage a trial which would inevitably convict him. After all, he was not a German citizen – and how could he be convicted for a crime committed outside Germany?

Mr Grynszpan was last heard of in a prison in Magdeburg in 1942. Did he survive the war? Did he adopt a new identity away from the glare of publicity? He was formally declared dead in 1960. Today conspiracy stories abound. Two years ago a photograph, discovered in a Vienna archive, indicated a 95 per cent facial identification with an image of Mr Grynszpan. The photograph was taken in a camp for displaced people in July 1946.

For ordinary people in this country, Kristallnacht was unimaginable. It sensitised many to the truth that Hitler’s insatiable hatred of Jews would never be satisfied. The devouring of more and more territory brought war closer.

The horror of Kristallnacht was only exceeded when film of the wreckage of European Jewry, liberated — and buried — in Bergen-Belsen was seen by British audiences in London cinemas in May 1945. It was only then that the meaning of Kristallnacht truly came to be understood. The bookends of a tragedy.


Colin Shindler, emeritus professor of Israel studies at SOAS, University of London, is currently the Mandelbaum scholar in residence at the University of Sydney

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