80 Years Later: The Lesson of Kristallnacht

The night of November 9, 1938 was the beginning of the true violence in the Third Reich. Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, turned the corner in German antisemitism transitioning from virulent antisemitic rhetoric and policy to blatant, public violence. Over the course of the violence, the German people, not Nazi soldiers, targeted Jewish businesses, synagogues, schools, and homes. In the end, 267 synagogues were damaged or destroyed and thousands of Jewish businesses were looted, damaged, or completely destroyed. Worse than the property damage were the deaths of at least 91 Jews and the forced incarceration of 30,000 more.

So what pushed the German people over the edge into outright violence against their Jewish neighbors? By 1938, Nazi rule had normalized a particularly potent brand of antisemitism. Nazi policy and propaganda had already disenfranchised and ostracized German Jews. It scapegoated Jews for many of Germany’s economic issues and past military failures, particularly the loss of the Great War. The Third Reich filled a powder keg of hate and waited for the spark that could set it off.

That spark came when 17-year old Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew, shot and killed Ernst vom Rath, a German official. Grynszpan’s actions, spurred by the deportation of his family from Germany, was used to justify calls to action against the Jewish people. It justified any violence taken against German Jews while again scapegoating the Jewish people for the violence. It justified German authorities – firemen, police, and military – standing silently by while German citizens burned, looted, and murdered.

Kristallnacht was a Nazi machination at its core, but its violence was committed by the German people. The death and destruction wrought during the Night of Broken Glass did not require soldiers in the streets, late night police raids, or an organized military offensive. It required otherwise ordinary citizens believing in hate and embracing ideologies that vilified their neighbors. On November 9, 1938 the people of Germany turned fully against the Jewish people.

There is an important lesson we can learn looking back on Kristallnacht 80 years later. It is a lesson that can help prevent another Kristallnacht or new genocides today. It does not take a corrupted military, police force, or government to commit a genocide. It takes a populace that embraces the ideologies of those corrupt groups. It takes a population that sits silently by or even participates while other people’s lives are destroyed and ended. The greatest lesson we can take away from Kristallnacht is that there need not be another as long as we, as everyday people, recognize and stop hate in our communities and in our governments.

About the author:

Marcus Steiner is the Development Director for the Center for Genocide Research and Education. His research specializations include Comparative Genocide and Geographic Information Systems. He holds a Master of Arts in History with a Global focus from Arizona State University.