85: The Night of Broken Glass


During November 1938, a man would be murdered in Paris, and it would have drastic consequences for Jewish Germans.


  • War and Economy in the Third Reich by R.J. Overy
  • The Wehrmacht and German Rearmament by Wilhelm Deist
  • The Third Reich and Yugoslavia: An Economcy of Fear, 1933-1941 by Perica Hadzi-Jovancic
  • Hitler A Biography by Ian Kershaw
  • Hitler’s Eagles by Chris McNab
  • Quest for Decisive Victory: From Stalemate to Blitzkrieg in Europe, 1899-1940 by Robert M. Citino
  • The Blitzkrieg Myth by John Mosier
  • The Path to Blitzkrieg: Doctrine and Training in the German Army, 1920-1939 by Robert M. Citino
  • 1930s German Doctrine: A Manifestation of Operational Art by Tal Tovy
  • The Blitzkrieg Myth: How Hitler and the Allies Misread the Strategic Realities of World War II by John Mosier
  • The Origin of the Term “Blitzkrieg”: Another View by William J. Fanning Jr.
  • Storm of Steel: The Development of Armor Doctrine in Germany and the Soviet Unition 1919-1939 by Mary R. Habeck
  • Hitler’s Eagles by Chris McNab
  • Military Innovation in the Interwar Period Edited by Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett
  • Ship-of-the-Line or Atlantic Raider? Battleship Bismarck Between Design Limitations and Naval Strategy by Timothy P. Mulligan
  • Strategy for Defeat the Luftwaffe 1933-1945 by Williamson Murray
  • Battleship Bismarck: A Design and Operational History by William H. Garzke Jr., Robert O. Dulin Jr., and William Jurens
  • The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy by Adam Tooze


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 85 - The Night of Broken Glass. This week a big thank you goes out Kate for the Donation and to Scott and Douwe for supporting the podcast by becoming members. Members get access to ad-free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special Member only episodes, you can head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. In the early morning hours of November 10th, 1938, all over Germany Jewish synagogues were purposefully put to the torch and destroyed. This was not a random act of violence, it was not just a few instances of actions by disparate groups, it was a nationwide program of violence. 30,000 Jewish men would also be arrested on the 10th and over the days that followed, their destination? Concentration camps. Their crime? Existing. It was not the first, and it would certainly not be the last violent act ordered by the Nazi government, but it did represent a sudden and drastic amplification of their policies that had one purpose, the removal of all Jews from Germany. In this episode today we will look at some of the changes in the anti-semitic practices of the Nazi government during the summer of 1938, before looking at what would be known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. Then we will end the episode by looking at the actions of the German government after November 10th 1938, and how they used the events of that night as justification for even greater levels of discrimination.

After 1933 the Nazi government would ramp up its campaign of discrimination against all Jewish Germans. It would happen slowly at first, but as the power and position of the regime became more and more secure their anti-semitic elements accelerated. This treatment would then be extended to Austrian Jews who were incorporated into Germany after the Anschluss. In April 1938 another new law was put in place whereby all Jews with more than 5,000 Reichsmarks in assets were required to report those assets to the government. Along with this, the pressure put on Jewish business owners to sell to non-Jewish owners was increased, and the Finance Ministry and the Reichsbank made policy changes that discriminated against Jewish businesses, culminating in a simply ending any lending to any Jewish owned business. Along with problems in obtaining funds, Jewish businesses also found themselves cut out of access to raw materials, with the Four Year Plan and its increased control over the materials allowing for Jewish businesses to be given the lowest possible priority. Along with these pressures, if they decided to sell they could be offered bottom dollar prices. This was just another way that the Nazi government exploited Jewish economic resources towards their economic goals, just as they had been doing for years with the large tax placed on any Jewish individual who decided to leave the counry. Economic discrimination was not the only set of changes in the summer of 1938, and in Munich, Nuremberg, and other areas synagogues were demolished by the order of local governments. There were also several cases of government seizure of property in Jewish neighborhoods, with all of a neighborhood’s Jewish inhabitants evicted and forced into temporary living situations, again with the hope of convincing them to leave the country. During this period all of these efforts were around the number one goal of all Nazi anti-semitic policies, which was to convince as many as possible to leave the country and go literally anywhere else. In the autumn more forceful measures began to be taken to force them out, with one example of 12,0000 Jews put on trains and taken to the Polish border, with 8,000 denied entry into Poland. Instead of bringing them back to their previous residences, those denied entry were just left on the border in a state of limbo with no support or supplies.

While discrimatory laws had been put in place, and German society had become more and more hostile to Jewish individuals, the actions of November 10th 1938 still represented a rapid escalation. This escalation would be caused by a murder in Paris. On November 7th, Herschel Grynszpan, who was of Polish descent but had grown up in Germany, was informed that his parents had been among the German jews who had been deported to Poland, but then they had been denied entry and were stuck at the border. Angry and frustrated at this treatment Grynszpan acquired a revolver and headed for the German embassy. His plan was to shoot the German ambassador, but that would prove to be impossible and instead he just fired on the first diplomat he encountered, which ended up being Third Secretary Ernst vom Rath. vom Rath would then later die on November 9th. When vom Rath was shot the Nazi propaganda machine put in the high octane juice and went into overdrive. Directives were sent from the Propaganda Ministry to the press to give the story prominent placement in all print and radio broadcasts. These instructions were followed, and around Germany on the morning of November 8th stories were ran that denounced all German Jews and claimed they were responsible for the act of violence. Along with the propaganda directives were a series of government decrees which shut down all remaining Jewish publications, banned Jewish children from elemetnary schools, and banned all public Jewish cultural activities. Then when the news of vom Rath’s death arrived in Germany, Hitler and Goebbels would immediately move to use his death as an excuse for another wave of violence against Jews in Germany. The goal was to ramp the intimidation up another level, with both destruction of synagogues and Jewish businesses along with a massive roudn of arrests of Jewish men. These orders would synchronize nicely with the protests that were already happening all over Germany, as well as Nazi Party celebrations that were happening due to it being the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch. This meant that when orders went out to local party officials they were often already in a celebratory mood, and no small amount of alcohol had been consumed. These protests and celebrations meant that even before November 10th, 80 Jews would be murdered throughout Germany. Also due to it being the Beer Hall anniversary, most of the Nazi Party leadership was together in Munich, and it would be from Munich that the orders that would be forthcoming were spread around Germany. The official orders would be sent out on the evening of November 9th, with Party memberrs told to stage more demonstrations throughout the niht, with a few specific targets. The actions that followed, and this is an important fact to remember, were not random or spontaneous, they were specifically planned down to which activities were to be allowed and encouraged by the party, and which were to be halted. Goebbels would record Hitler’s order like this “Actions against Jews, in particular against their synagogues, will very shortly take place across the whole of Germany. They are not to be interrupted. However, measures are to be taken in co-operation with the Order Police for looting and other special excesses to be prevented . . . The arrest of about 20-30,000 Jews in he Reich is to be prepared. Propertied Jews above all are to be chosen.” At 1:20 AM on November 10th Reinhard Heydrich would send out an order to all police forces, stating that their goal was to let all demonstrations continue, and to only intervene if the destruction, looting, or arson endangered non-Jewish property. There were also orders that looting was to be prevented if possible, that foreign nationals should not be harmed, and direct acts of violence against Jews should be stopped. not all of these restrictions were followed in all cases, but they do make it clear that the goals of the actions taken were the amplify intimidation, in the hopes that this would accelerate existing immigration trends, not to go on a murder spree.

All over Germany groups spread out into cities to begin the night of destruction. One German Jewish man, Rudolf Bing, would later write that ‘In Nuremberg the whole SA was ordered to appear on the main market square in full uniform at midnight (Nov 10). Individual units were then dispersed over the whole city. Every single street was to be covered and each unit was given its own particular area under a designated leader.’ In Berlin paul Ostereicher, who was quite young at the time, would also later write ‘What seemed like hundreds of men, swinging great truncheons, jumped from lorries and began to smash up the shops all around us.’ All over Germany the destruction would begin. Businesses and synagogues were the most frequest target, with many of the businesses looted of anything that was worth anything. In some areas Jewish cemeteries were dug up, gravestones were smashed, and corpses despoiled. Destruction would also spread out to Jewish houses as well, especially as the sweeping paths of arrests spread out through various cities. Margot Schwarz, who was 17 years old in 1938 would later record that ‘Very early in the morning they came to arrest my father. Granfather they left at home. He was over eighty. Horb was a little town, everybody knew everybody. The man who arrested my father grew up with him. They even served together in the First World War. One of them even excused himself: “I am sorry, but this is an order.” That’s what they always said."’ 20,000 Jewish men would be arrested over the course of November 10th, with more to follow. In Vienna, there were frequently long lines of Jews at the various foreign consulates around the city, trying every day to get one of the limited number of visas to leave the country. On November 10th groups of Nazi party members and police woul be taken from the lines and arrested, destind for local concentration camps and prisons. Alose in the morning all over Germany the same type of public humiliation that had taken place in early years would be amplified. Jewish individuals were rounded up and forced to line up to endure abuse, or were made to clean up the destruction caused by others. One account from the Saarland would describe what would happen in the days that followed: ‘As soon as one appears in public, swarms of children run after him, spit after him, throw dirt and stones at him or make him fall over by “pecking” at his legs with bent sticks. A Jew who is persecuted in this way dare not say anything or he will be accused of threatening the children. The parents lack the courage to hold the children back, because they fear this will cause difficulties.’ The official report given to Heydrich the next morning would list 76 synagogues destroyed and 1919 set alight. The report would underestimate the number of synagogues that would be classified as destroyed, with the final tally being over 1,000. It would also report 36 deaths, although that was almost certainly far too low, with precise numbers challenging to determine, but likely being around 90. The offical report would also list 815 businesses destroyed, along with over 100 private homes, both numbers also being far too low. It is hard to know if the incorrect numbers on these reports were due to some kind of malice or if when it was provided on NOvember 119th it was still simply too early to know the full extend of the damage.

The damage done to Jewish property would then be calculated by the government, this was of course not done to allow for Jewish individuals and businesses to be compensated for their damaged property, but instead to calculate the the total cost of all incidental damage and cleanup efforts for later payment. The total value of the damage was calculated at somewhere around 220 million Reichsmarks, according to government records. The number was higher when the price of the actual cleanup activities was then included, with the eventual number being put at a nice round 1 billion Reichsmarks. And who was going to pay for this amount? Well it was going to be placed upon all of Germany’s Jewish citizens. This was not a new idae, of making German Jews pay for the violence committed agains them, and in fact years before in 1936 Hitler had already written this idea into the original Four Year Plan memorandum, to quote from that document: ’the whole of Jewry be held responsible for all the damage individual examples of this crimianlity have done to the German economy and thus to the German people.’ He would also consider the idea of creating a law that would consider German Jews liable for any damaged that was blamed on them by the government. The events of Kristallnacht would then be blamed on them due to the attack on vom Rath. The official order for this payment was made on November 12th, when the 1 billion number was announced, along with the declaration that all Jewish taxpayers would help meet the fine by paying one fifth of all of their assets. The government knew what those assets were because of the laws that had been passed earlier in the year that required all personal assets to be declared and registered with the government. Any insurance money that was to be paid to Jewish individuals or businesses would also be confiscated by the government. To add onto all of these new items, the November 12th meeting from which the billion mark fine originated would also be the origin point for another lenthy list of new regulations against jewish interactions with the German economy. All tax concessions were removed, for example the tax breaks that were provided to families with children. All Jewish individuals would also be provided with only one tax rate, the highest. New regulations were also put in place to put further controls in place around the sale of all jewish real estate, which would be in place by the end of the year which was one of the last major areas that was not already under government control and surveillance. When it came to employment and business, new regulations were also added to the already lengthy set of restrictions placed on all German Jews. They were banned from being a retailers, exporter, or manager of any business. All Jewish owned businesses had to be sold by the end of the year or they would simply be confiscated. Jews could also not attend many cultural events, like concerts, the cinema, or theater. In February 1939 additional economic restrictions were added that forced all assets, cash, securities, valuables, everything to be deposited into special accounts. Then any withdrawals from those accounts required special government permits that were, surprise!, rarely if ever actually provided. So just to review, by the spring of 1939 German Jews no longer had access to their own financial assets, were banned from owning businesses or participating in many areas of the economy, and they could not partake in many pieces of German culture.

But the consequences of November 10th went far beyond just these economic changes, and to discuss them we have to go back to the tens of thousands of men who were arrested all over Germany. After being arrested, the humiliation often began while still near their homes. Here is Richard J. evans from The Third Reich in Power: “As the police, stormtroopers and SS units, following Hitler’s orders, arrested all the Jewish men they could find, terrible scenes took place on the streets and squares of every German town. In Saarbrucken the Jews were made to dance and kneel outside the synagogue and sing religious songs; then most of them, wearing only pyjamas or nightshirts, were hosed down with water until they were drenched. In Essen stormtroopers manhandled Jewish men and set their beards alight. In Meppen, Jewish men had to kiss the ground in front of SA headquarters while brownshirts kicked them and walked over them.” Between November 9th and 16th 30,000 men woul be arrested and sent to various concentration camps all over Germany and Austria. Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen would each receive thousands. When they arrived at the camps the treatment amounted to simple torture, and any previous rules that had tempered the actions of the guards in the concentration camps were quickly forgotten. The death toll in the camps quickly increased ten fold, with 173 dying in Dachau just during the month of December 1938. Karl E. Schwabe would experience one of the camps during thi speriod, and he would then record his experiences after emigrating to the United States. He would have this to say about what happened after they arrived: “We stood there all day for no apparent reason. Always lining up again, being inspected by SS men; old, ill people collapsing; beatings. Finally, otwards evening, we were taken back to the barracks. On that day, we were given nothing to eat or drink.” He then goes on to expand on his experiences “On Monday, 13 November, after standing all morning, we sat from one o’clock to six on the cold, bare earth. No one was allowed to stand up or go to the toilet. SS men were constantly going up and down between the rows, checking the line-up and beating people and grossly insulting them. I saw people fall to the ground; an old man who could no longer endure sitting stood up, was dragged past us, kicked and beaten. On that day, people were literally beaten to death.” In January 1939 something that would never again be repeated would occur, the men who had been arrested would be allowed to leave the concentration camps, at least most of them, those with emigration papers or those who would promise to leave. They would have three weeks to get out of the country.

This ties back to the goal of the Nazi government, which had always been to push as many Jews out of Germany as possible, but oddly enough as they ramped up the persecution that was designed to convince more of them to leave, other changes were being made that made it much more challenging for individuals to actually do so. There were two major areas that were causing problems, both internal and external to Germany. Inside Germany the greatest problem was the immigration tax that was placed on any jew who wanted to leave Germany. This tax would bring in almost half a billion Reichsmarks during 1939, which was 5% of the total governmetn revenues for that year. This number would then actually decline in 1939 as it became more and more difficult for those left in Geramny to break through the bureaucratic formalities and the hurdles that had been created by the German goernment itself. The level of taxation placed upon those that were leaving would also make other nations more hesitant to make them, since it reduced their economic resources once they arrived. Many of those nations were already hesitant enough to accept more immigrants, which brings us to the other problem, it became more and more difficult for anybody to get the visas required to leave Germany and enter other nations. During 1939 and 1939 tens of thousands of jews would attempt to leave Germany, but they began to be denied in ever greater numbers by other nations. This resulted in all of the stories that you might hear of people trying to leave Germany and being denied, some of them even getting to their destination ports in other nations before they were not allowed to disembark. The result back in Germany was one of chaos, with just the rumor of a nation making more visas available being enough to cuase hundreds of people to immediately go to that nation’s consulate. But even with all of these problems, trying to find visas and having to basically lose all of their material possessions to leave, thoussands would still find a way to do so. In the last 18 months before the war, around 200,000 jewish individuals would make their way out of Germany. This would reduce the number of Jews in Germany from 324,000 at the end of 1937 to just over 150,000 in Germany and Austria when the war started. Most would ajus tmove to other nations surrounding Germany, although tends of thousands would be abel to make their way to various nations around the world.

It is impossible to discuss the treatment of Germany’s Jews during this period without at least referencing the giant shadow that is cast by the events after 1939. However, the period of the last two years before the war, and especially in early 1939 would be critical to later events because it was during this period that the first hints of later events would enter into official government discussion and declaration. At the end of January Hitler would threaten both Germany’s Jews and those of all of Europe with violence and possible annihilation, saying “if international finance Jewry in Europe and beyond should succeed once more in plunging the peoples into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” The anti-Semitic policies and actions of Germany would also become a model for other governments in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe where there were pre-existing anti-semitic feelings that were at times just as strongly felt as in Germany. In these nations they would never be as open or violent as what wa shappening in Germany, but it was at times not due to lack of trying. In the end the events of November 10th 1938, and then all of the actions of the German goverment between that date and the start of the war represent the final attempts of the Nazi regime to achieve its original goals that it had begun to pursue in 1933, the forced immigration of all Jews out of Germany. They would not be completely successful in their attempts to do this, but while trying to achieve it they were able to extract a tremendous amount of economic resources while excluding Jews from almost all aspects of public life in Geramny. The violence and oppression experienced during that itme would unforutnately only be a precurosr of what was to come.