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'Everything was changed': What led to, and followed, Kristallnacht 80 years ago?

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'Everything was changed': What led to, and followed, Kristallnacht 80 years ago?
A destroyed synagogue in Kiel. Photo: DPA
10:53 CET+01:00
November 9th, 2018 marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, an event often considered a seminal point in the persecution of the Jews under National Socialism. As historian Max Rein said, “Kristallnacht came…and everything was changed.”

November 9th, 1938

Kristallnacht, which is also known as Reichspogromnacht and Novemberpogrome, was a series of violent attacks on Jewish communities across Germany. It was perpetrated by the Sturmabteilung, or SA - the Nazi party’s original paramilitary force - as well as German civilians on the night of November 9th.

Although there had been much discrimination against the Jewish community prior to 1938, such as the boycott of Jewish shops in 1933 and the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, Kristallnacht is generally viewed as the beginning of the Holocaust.

Precise figures are hard to ascertain, but it is estimated that about 100 Jews were killed in the attacks, at least 1,000 synagogues were burned down, and approximately 8,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed. In the days that followed, some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.

The trigger for the violence

On the evening of November 9th, Hitler and several important Nazi figures were at a dinner celebrating the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 when they received news from Paris that a Nazi diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, has been assassinated by a seventeen-year-old Jew named Herschel Grynszpan.

Herschel Grynszpan following his arrest. Photo: DPA

Grynszpan was living with his uncle in Paris, but his parents, who had been living in Hannover since 1911, had recently become victims of the Polenaktion: the forced expulsion of around 17,000 Polish Jews from Germany. Upon hearing the news, an angered and embittered Grynszpan went to the German embassy in Paris and shot vom Rath.

Following the dinner and a discussion between Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister informed Nazi leadership that retaliations against the Jewish community would not be organized or prepared by the party. But, if they erupted spontaneously, they wouldn’t be stopped.

Telephone calls were made, police were commanded to arrest the victims rather than the perpetrators, and thus ensued the horrific violence.

After Kristallnacht

Even though there had been violent attacks against Jewish communities before 1938, this date is key as it signaled a more intense, systematic approach by the Nazis to the so-called “Judenfrage”, or the “Jewish Question”.

The pogrom itself had caused massive damage, but it was of course the Jewish community which was forced to pay. It was fined one billion Reichsmarks as reparations, and a law was passed on November 12th which effectively banned Jews from most of the professions which they had still been entitled to.

Moreover, subsequent measures taken against the Jews worked to further alienate them from German society. They were forced to sit in separate train compartments and were excluded from German schools, for instance.

Such restrictions were in addition to the Nuremberg laws, also called the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour, which had already effectively stripped Jews of their German citizenship.

Although the Final Solution, or the Endlösung, wasn’t officially decided until the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, many considered Kristallnacht as the first step into the Holocaust.

Remembering Kristallnacht in Germany

Stolpersteine

Stolpersteine in Berlin. Photo: DPA

One of the primary ways in which the attacks - and the Holocaust more broadly - are remembered is through Stolpersteine. Meaning ‘stumbling stones’, Stolpersteine are 10 cm by 10 cm concrete cubes covered in brass. Each Stolperstein has its own inscription remembering a victim of Nazi persecution.

Approximately 70,000 brass cubes have been laid since the project started in 1996. The cubes are cemented into the pavement where the individual last freely chose to live or work, before falling victim to Nazi persecution.

Exhibition

To remember the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Topography of Terror in Berlin is holding an exhibition. Entitled “Kristallnacht”, it has a focus on two main topics.

Firstly, the exhibition employs photos to examine examples of anti-Semitic attacks carried out on November 9th, 1938 such as the burning of synagogues and the arrest of Jews.

Secondly, the exhibition considers how Kristallnacht has been remembered throughout history. The name of the exhibition, “Kristallnacht”, was chosen purposefully to demonstrate its focus on commemorative history.

Schicksalstag

It’s also interesting to consider how November 9th is sometimes labelled as Germany’s Schicksalstag (day of fate), as it is the date on which a number of significant events in Germany’s history have taken place. Along with Kristallnacht, November 9th is also the date of the abdication of Kaiser Wilhem II (1918), the Beer Hall Putsch (1923) and the Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989).

The fall of the Berlin wall is the most recent of these events, yet the event is commemorated on October 3rd, the day of German reunification. This is not only a mark of respect for the victims of Nazi horrors, but also a sign of Germany’s ongoing debate about how to remember its traumatic history. 

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