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09-11-1938

Nazis launch Kristallnacht

On this day in 1938, in an event that would foreshadow the Holocaust, German Nazis launch a campaign of terror against Jewish people and their homes and businesses in Germany and Austria. The violence, which continued through to 10 November and was later dubbed "Kristallnacht" (literally “Crystal Night”), or "Night of Broken Glass," after the countless smashed windows of Jewish-owned establishments, left approximately 100 Jews dead, 7,500 Jewish businesses damaged and hundreds of synagogues, homes, schools and graveyards vandalised.

An estimated 30,000 Jewish men were arrested, many of whom were then sent to concentration camps for several months, primarily Dachau and Buchenwald. Kristallnacht represented a dramatic escalation of the campaign started by Adolf Hitler in 1933 when he became chancellor to purge Germany of its Jewish population, and many historians see it as the initial “crystallisation” of Hitler’s search for the Final Solution. The Nazis used the murder of a low-level German diplomat in Paris by a 17-year-old Polish Jew as an excuse to carry out the Kristallnacht attacks. On 7 November 1938, Ernst vom Rath was shot outside the German embassy by Herschel Grynszpan, who wanted revenge for his parents' sudden deportation from Germany to Poland, along with tens of thousands of other Polish Jews.

Following vom Rath's death, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ordered German storm troopers to carry out violent riots disguised as "spontaneous demonstrations" against Jewish citizens. Local police and fire departments were told not to interfere. However, it was clear from instructions given by Gestapo chief Richard Heydrich that the main purpose of the carefully orchestrated “riots” were to disarm the Jews. Every firearm in a Jewish home was seized, and the act of arresting 30,000 Jewish men was a blatant (and effective) move to cripple any thoughts of insurrection that the Jewish population may have harboured. The pogrom’s secondary, and equally effective, purpose was to terrorise and intimidate the country’s Jewish community.

The pogroms and riots in Austria were similarly successful. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, the Nazis blamed the Jews and fined them 1 billion marks (or $400 million in 1938 dollars) for vom Rath's death. As repayment, the government seized Jewish property and kept insurance money owed to Jewish people (this money was later used to finance the military build-up to war). In its quest to create a master Aryan race, the Nazi government enacted further discriminatory policies that essentially excluded Jews from all aspects of public life. Over 100,000 Jews fled Germany for other countries after Kristallnacht. The international community was outraged by the violent events of 9 and 10 November. Some countries broke off diplomatic relations in protest, but the Nazis suffered no serious consequences, leading them to believe they could get away with the mass murder that was the Holocaust, in which an estimated 6 million European Jews died.