The History Place - The Triumph of Adolf Hitler

The Night of Broken Glass

After the successful conclusion of the Munich Agreement, many international leaders harbored the hope that Hitler was a statesman with whom they could continue to negotiate. But on the night of November 9, 1938, an event occurred which revealed the true nature of Hitler's regime to the world and also marked the beginning of deadly radicalization of Nazi policy concerning the Jews.

For some months now, moderate anti-Semites within the Nazi hierarchy had been losing ground to those favoring extreme measures such as the immediate removal of Jews from Germany. The subsequent removal of the first big group of Jews in late October 1938 sparked a chain of events resulting in the Night of Broken Glass, a massive, coordinated attack on Jews throughout Greater Germany.

On October 27th, about 17,000 Jews of Polish origin, including over 2,000 children, were abruptly expelled from Germany on orders of Reinhard Heydrich, second-in-command of the SS. The Grynszpan family from the city of Hanover were among the Jews forcibly transported in railroad cars then dumped at the Polish border as unwanted persons. Polish border authorities at first denied them permission to enter. The Jews thus ended up in a kind of no-man's-land between the German and Polish borders.

The Grynszpan family had not taken along their 17-year-old son Herschel. He had gone to Paris for safekeeping at the age of 15 to stay with his uncle who worked there as a tailor. Young Herschel was a sensitive, somewhat sickly youth who stood just over five feet tall and weighed about 100 pounds. He was devoutly Orthodox, attended temple regularly, and strictly observed the various rules of his faith.

Proud of his Jewish heritage, Herschel had a keen interest in the plight of his family and the half-million Jews still living in Greater Germany. During his years in Paris he regularly read the Yiddish newspapers his uncle brought home which chronicled the downward spiral of "his people" under Nazi control in Germany, Austria and the newly acquired Sudetenland. The papers also reported the mass expulsion of the Polish Jews from Germany.

Just before that expulsion, Herschel suffered a major setback of his own. His request for permanent residency in France was rejected by local French officials, followed by a decree of expulsion to take effect on August 15, 1938. Herschel ignored the expulsion decree and remained in Paris illegally for the time being until he could figure out where to go.

Jews of Polish origin are abruptly expelled from Germany in late October 1938 - allowed to take a suitcase and little else - then taken by train and dumped at the Polish border with nowhere to go. Below: Portrait of Herschel Grynszpan in jail after his arrest.
Below: A crowd watches as a temple is allowed to burn while only the surrounding structures are hosed down by German firefighters.
Below: A smashed plate-glass window and looted contents of a Jewish-owned shop in Berlin.
Below: Jewish men at Baden-Baden in Germany are marched off under heavy guard to a concentration camp - marking the advent of Nazi mass roundups of Jews.

He had become, like his family, a man without a country, unwanted anywhere because of his Jewish ancestry. Herschel sank into deep depression at this turn of events and even considered suicide. Making matters worse, he then received a letter from his family describing the ordeal of their expulsion from Germany.

His 22-year-old sister, Esther, wrote: "You undoubtedly heard of our great misfortune. I will describe to you what happened...On Thursday evening at 9 o'clock a Sipo [Nazi security policeman] came to us and informed us that we had to go to police headquarters and bring along our passports...We were not told what it was all about, but we saw that everything was finished for us. Each of us had an extradition order pressed into his hand, and one had to leave Germany before the 29th. They didn't permit us to return home anymore. I asked to be allowed to go home to get at least a few things. I went, accompanied by a Sipo, and packed the necessary clothes in a suitcase. And that is all I saved. We don't have a penny..."

His father had spent the past 28 years building up a modest tailoring business in Hanover.

Driven half-mad with sorrow and anger over all that was happening, Herschel decided to commit a radical act of violence to draw the world's attention to the plight of the Jews.

On Monday morning, November 7, he walked into a Paris gun shop and purchased a 6.35-caliber revolver along with a box of 25 bullets. When the shop owner asked why he wanted the gun, Herschel answered that he sometimes carried large amounts of money for his father and needed the protection.

After buying the gun, Herschel walked to a nearby café, entered the restroom there and loaded it, then put the gun in his left coat pocket. He took the Paris subway to the German embassy, arriving at 9:35 a.m. He entered the building and asked the first person he encountered, the wife of the concierge, if he could see an embassy official concerning some important papers he wanted to submit. He was pointed toward a flight of stairs and told to see a Herr Nagorka, the clerk-receptionist, up there.

Upstairs, Herschel told Nagorka he had an important document he wanted to hand-deliver to an embassy official. Nagorka offered to deliver the document for him, but Herschel insisted he had to deliver it himself because of its importance. This is how he wound up in the office of 29-year-old Secretary of Legation, Ernst vom Rath, who was the most junior embassy official on duty that morning.

Vom Rath seated Herschel, took his own seat nearby, then asked to see the document. Herschel responded to his request by shouting: "You're a filthy Kraut and in the name of the twelve-thousand persecuted Jews, here is the document!"

Herschel reached into his coat pocket, took out the gun, and blasted away at vom Rath, shooting five shots wildly, striking vom Rath twice as he stood up. The first bullet lodged in vom Rath's left shoulder and did little damage. The second bullet struck him in the lower left side, causing severe internal damage.

Herschel dropped the empty gun to the floor. The wounded vom Rath gave Herschel a quick smack with his fist, then dashed toward the door, clutching his abdomen and calling out for help. Herschel never left the office but just waited to be arrested. He was taken into custody by Nagorka and another embassy worker. At Herschel's request he was then handed over to the French police.

Vom Rath was rushed to the hospital where he underwent emergency surgery to remove his ruptured spleen, and to repair damage to his stomach and pancreas. Despite the surgery and massive blood transfusions, vom Rath suffered from a very high fever and gradually weakened until he expired at 4:25 p.m., Wednesday, November 9th.

While this was occurring, Adolf Hitler and most of the highest ranking Nazis were in Munich for the annual re-enactment of the Beer Hall Putsch. Every year on November 9, veterans of the 1923 Putsch gathered to retrace the same steps they had taken in their failed attempt to overthrow Germany's democratic government. The day was also a national holiday known as the Day of the Movement with Germans enjoying a day off from work and kids staying home from school.

Upon first hearing of the shooting incident, Hitler had sent his own personal physician to Paris to aid vom Rath. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, meanwhile, instantly recognized the shooting as a golden opportunity. Goebbels was by now the most powerful anti-Semite in the Nazi hierarchy, second only to Hitler. The little man with the club foot, who had been teased about his own so-called Jewish looks as a youth, harbored a life-long, deep-seated hatred for Jews. For five years now, Goebbels' propaganda machine had been spewing out a never-ending stream of messages portraying Jews as the mortal enemy of the German people. For Goebbels, the shooting in Paris was a chance to incite the German people to "rise in bloody vengeance against the Jews."

Goebbels, of course, wouldn't do anything without his Führer's approval. In the early evening hours of November 9, a messenger arrived bearing news of vom Rath's death just as Hitler and his old cronies were about to sit down to a festive dinner at Old City Hall in Munich, following a long day of self-congratulations, pomp and Nazi pageantry. Upon being told of vom Rath's demise, an angry looking Hitler took Goebbels aside and conferred privately for several minutes, finally telling Goebbels the SA storm troopers should have a "fling" at the expense of the Jews.

After dinner, Hitler left the hall without making a speech, leaving Goebbels to deliver the actual marching orders to the assembled Nazi leadership. Goebbels first announced vom Rath's death, then launched into an anti-Semitic diatribe, prompting the SA and Nazi Party leaders to incite a popular uprising against Jews throughout Greater Germany without making it look like the Nazi Party was the actual instigator.

When Goebbels finished his remarks, most of the assembled leaders headed for the nearest telephone to call their local SA and Party offices to deliver the appropriate instructions. However, the nuance of Goebbels message somehow got lost amid all of the telephone conversations. As a result, uniformed Brownshirts and Party activists carrying swastika banners took to the streets instead of nondescript civilians.

In fact, the popular uprising Hitler and Goebbels hoped to ignite never materialized. Most civilians either pulled down their window shades and stayed inside or stood silently on the sidewalk along with the regular German police and watched as storm troopers, SS men and Hitler Youth, accompanied by miscellaneous street punks, broke into Jewish homes, beat up and murdered Jewish men and terrorized Jewish women and children.

All over Germany and Austria that evening, Jewish shops and department stores had their windows smashed and contents wrecked. Synagogues were especially targeted for vandalism, including desecration of sacred Torah scrolls which were unraveled and tossed into a pile then burned.

Hundreds of synagogues went up in flames while fire fighters stood by watching or simply hosed down surrounding buildings to prevent the fire from spreading. Nearly all Jewish cemeteries near the synagogues were also desecrated.

About 25,000 Jewish men were hauled off to Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen concentration camps where they were brutalized by SS guards and in some cases randomly chosen to be beaten to death. In all, it is estimated that up to 2,500 Jews perished from beatings on the street, incarceration in the camps, and from the numerous suicides that occurred, including entire families.

The many thousands of broken plate-glass windows resulted in the term Kristallnacht or Night of Broken Glass to describe the events of November 9th lasting into the early morning hours of the 10th. Although the Nazis didn't get the popular uprising they had hoped for, they did notice that the overall population of some 60 million Germans showed remarkable indifference toward this first mass persecution of the Jews. Those who were shocked or outraged knew enough to keep their thoughts to themselves or risk being sent to a concentration camp.

Outside of Germany, however, the shock and outrage were not silenced. Radio commentators and newspaper writers in the United States declared that Germany had descended to a level of barbarism unseen since the pogroms of the Middle Ages.

The storm of negative worldwide publicity served to isolate Hitler's Germany from the civilized nations of the West and weakened any pro-Nazi sentiments in those countries. Before Kristallnacht, small pro-Hitler movements existed in both Britain and the U.S. After Kristallnacht, sympathy for the Hitler regime gradually evaporated. The United States also permanently recalled its ambassador from Germany.

However, radical anti-Semites within the Nazi hierarchy didn't care what the world thought. A few days after Kristallnacht, on November 12th, a dozen top Nazis including Joseph Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, and Hermann Göring, gathered to discuss what happened and to decide on further measures.

Heydrich reported 7,500 Jewish businesses destroyed, 267 synagogues burned (with 177 totally destroyed) and 91 Jews murdered during Kristallnacht. Heydrich then requested new decrees forbidding Jews from having any social contact with Germans by excluding them from public transportation, schools, and hospitals, essentially forcing them into ghettos or out of the country. Goebbels said the Jews would be made to clean out the debris from burned-out synagogues which would then be demolished and turned into parking lots.

At this meeting there was a general agreement to eliminate Jews entirely from economic life in the Reich by transferring all Jewish property and enterprises to non-Jews, with minor compensation to be given to the Jews in the form of German bonds.

Regarding the economic damage from Kristallnacht and the resulting massive insurance claims, Göring declared the Jews themselves should be billed for the damage and that any insurance money payable to them should be confiscated by the Government.

"I shall close the meeting with these words," said Göring, "German Jewry shall, as punishment for their abominable crimes, et cetera, have to make a contribution for one billion marks. That will work. The swine won't commit another murder. Incidentally, I would like to say that I would not like to be a Jew in Germany."

As for Herschel Grynszpan, he was interrogated by the French police and declared: "It was not with hatred or for vengeance against any particular person that I acted, but because of love for my parents and for my people who were unjustly subjected to outrageous treatment. Nevertheless, this act was distasteful to me and I deeply regret it. However, I had no other means of demonstrating my feelings...It is not, after all, a crime to be Jewish. I am not a dog. I have the right to live. My people have a right to exist on this earth. And yet everywhere they are hunted down like animals."

Herschel eventually wound up in the clutches of the Gestapo and spent time in various Nazi prisons and concentration camps, and vanished without a trace.

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