Kristallnacht was an orgy of anti-Semitism. But, contrary to the proclamations of the Nazi media, it was not simply a spontaneous riot brought on by the murder of a German diplomat. It was an orchestrated next step in Hitler’s systematic plan to eradicate the Jewish community.

For several previous generations, German Jews had been fully integrated into German society. Like Herman and his family, many thought of themselves as Germans to the core. They served in the army, contributed to German business and science, revered German music, art, and philosophy, read German folktales to their children, ate German food, and wore dirndls and lederhosen on local holidays. Many did not even practice the religion of their grandfathers. But from the moment Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, anti-Semitism became public policy for the first time since legal discrimination against Jews had been outlawed in 1871.

Within months, the Nazi party enacted laws restricting the rights of German Jews to earn a living or gain an education. These laws were reinforced by negative media propaganda, which incited the hatred of average citizens. The passage of the infamous Nuremberg Laws of 1935 robbed Jews of their German citizenship, forbade them to marry Aryan Germans, and codified the definition of a Jew. At the same time, German churches began to supply records to the government verifying who was a Christian and who was not. In March 1938, when Austria was annexed to the Third Reich, Austrian Jews also come under the anti-Semitic laws of Germany. By that summer, more than 250,000 German and Austrian Jews had fled, but more than 300,000 still waited in desperation, looking for countries willing to accept them as refugees.

The Nazis steadily accelerated the daily degradation of the Jews who remained in the Third Reich. Then in August 1938, the German government announced that all residence permits for foreigners were cancelled and would have to be renewed. Because only the permits of Aryan applicants would be reinstated, this was the first official action that resulted in the deportation of Jews out of Germany. As a result, thousands of Polish Jews, many of whom had been living and working in Germany for decades, along with their German-born children, were evicted from their homes and taken by train to the Polish border, where they were dumped. Caught between two countries, neither of which wanted them, they huddled in hastily organized refugee camps without money, adequate shelter or food, and nowhere to go. 

Among those caught in the no-man’s-land between Germany and Poland was the family of Sendel and Riva Grynszpan who had lived in Germany since 1911. They wrote a postcard telling of the horrible conditions to their 17-year-old son who had already fled to France where he lived without papers with his uncle. On November 7, 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, distraught over the suffering of his parents, bought a gun, shoved it into his pocket, and went to the German embassy where he shot the first German official he encountered, Ernst vom Rath. Two days later, vom Rath, a minor official who had been under investigation by the Gestapo for expressing objections to the treatment of the Jews, died of his wounds. His death launched Kristallnacht.

Hitler and other important Nazi party officials received the news of the death of vom Rath at a gathering to commemorate the anniversary of their initial attempt to seize political power in Germany in 1923. After passionate discussion with Hitler, the Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, told the assembled audience of fervent Party members that “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.” This was interpreted by the die-hard Nazi audience as official sanction for whatever mayhem they could conjure up.

Two hours after the pronouncement by Goebbels, Kristallnacht actions had begun.


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