‘The Night of the Broken Glass’ at 80

80 years ago this morning they were sweeping up across German cities after the Nazi pogrom usually nicknamed ‘The Night of the Broken Glass’ or Kristallnacht. 91 Jews were killed; 26,000 arrested; and 8,000 shops and 177 synagogues destroyed.

For the student of political violence, the anniversary is a thought-provoking one. The ‘excuse’ for this carnival of persecution had been the fatal shooting in Paris on 7 November of the German Embassy’s Third Legation Secretary Ernst Vom Rath by a seventeen year old Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan.

In today’s fashionable terminology, Grynszpan had been ‘radicalised’ — if that is indeed the correct word for his eminently reasonable sense of outrage — by the Nazis’ treatment of his parents. Deported from Hannover, and dumped with 18,000 other unfortunates on the Polish border, their suffering seems to have provided the ‘moral shock’ that tilted Grynszpan towards violence. As is so often the case with ‘lone actor’ attackers, the balance of personal and political motivations behind Grynszpan’s act were disputed: that said, the subsequent claim that he had been in a homosexual relationship with Vom Rath seems less than totally convincing.

Nazi state terror in response was anything but spontaneous — this was, effectively, a pogrom ordered by telephone. In fact, Goebbels had to work hard to make ‘the anger of the people’ explode. (By contrast, in the very different international circumstances of 1936, the Nazi regime’s response to the comparable shooting of the Nazi leader in Switzerland, Wilhelm Gustloff, had been distinctly muted.) Strikingly, though, the disorder of Kristallnachtprovoked widespread domestic unease and international condemnation. ‘If it is the policy of the German state to eliminate Jews from business’, admonished The Chicago Tribune severely, ‘the government is presumed to have means to accomplish it in legal forms and by its own agencies. To turn the task over to unrestrained private fury is the negation of civilised political responsibility’.

Kristallnacht, then, leaves a disturbing legacy. Dramatic mob violence seems to have shocked many who could very comfortably tolerate a quieter and more legalistic persecution of the Jews. Such lessons were hardly to be wasted on the Nazis when world war was shortly afterwards to present them with openings for systematic experiments in genocide and mass atrocity across Europe.

Dr Tim Wilson,

CSTPV Centre Director