Kristallnacht: Fear, Illusion, and A Young Man with a Gun

Herschel Grynszpan after his arrest on Nov. 7, 1938. Photograph: o.Ang./Bundesarchiv

An autocrat bent on subverting societal norms. A country on edge, anxious for stability but in thrall to a myth. And an angry young man with a gun.

The tinder, the kindling and the match. The actors were Sturmtruppen and Feuerwehrmann, not Antifa or Proud Boys. The setting was towns like Karlstadt and Kassel, not Charlottesville or Kenosha. Eighty-two years ago, they came together to spark a searing and unforgettable performance. November 9th and 10th, 1938: Two nights of fire, destruction, screams and giddy laughter. And everywhere, littering seemingly every street like a dusting of poisoned snow, lay shards of broken glass: Kristallnacht.

Kristallnacht was the rest of the world’s last and best glimpse into what Nazism had made of Germany. A country that had prided itself on tradition, order and the rule of law had become a leading light of ethnic hatred. If the world needed to be convinced of the destructive power of image and illusion, here it was, bright as the domes of Germany’s synagogues as they burned. And while the events of Kristallnacht played out decades ago, the questions it posed — who is allowed to participate in society? is silence complicity? — may be more alive in the United States now than at any other time in the nation’s history.

The First and Most Important Job

In Germany, the threads of institutional anti-Semitism are long and deeply ingrained. As early as the 14th century, accusations of well poisoning during the time of the Black Death (1346–1353) led to slaughters of early German Jews. In the modern age, pogroms against selected Jewish communities were a more or less accepted fact of life through at least the first decades of the 19th century.

After the First World War, German commanders pinned the nation’s disastrous defeat on a “stab in the back” by leftists and Jews. Many embittered ex-soldiers joined the Freikorps, right-wing paramilitary groups who took to the streets with rifles and armored cars. There they would fight pitched battles against communists, socialists, and anyone else they suspected of trying to drag the nation into a chaotic and uncertain future. Many members of the Freikorps would go on to form the nexus of the future Nazi Party, including SS chief Heinrich Himmler; his rival Ernst Röhm, the head of the Storm Troopers and a closeted homosexual; and Rudolf Höss, who would eventually become commandant of Auschwitz.

The Nazi plan to rid Germany of its Jews had never been much of a secret. As early as 1920, Adolf Hitler was publicly calling for the banishment of Germany’s Jews. Two years later, in a conversation with the journalist Josef Hell, he was more explicit:

“If I am ever really in power, the destruction of the Jews will be my first and most important job. As soon as I have power, I shall have gallows after gallows erected, for example in Munich on the Marienplatz — as many of them as traffic allows.”

Once the Nazis actually took power in 1933, nothing suggested his stance had softened. But for the first few years, the state’s actions against Germany’s Jews would largely be legislative, economic and social. Kristallnacht was the moment in which they took physical form.

But what many misunderstand, or have forgotten, is that Kristallnacht nearly pushed the German people over a threshold, too. Many Germans — by habit respectful of property and place — found the violence directed at synagogues, businesses and homes repugnant.

Afterwards, the Nazi regime was more careful to keep such actions under wraps. By and large, it worked: As a result there was no mass protest movement in Nazi Germany, no large-scale demands to spare Germany’s Jews.

As a result, the vast majority of Germans were content to pretend that Kristallnacht hadn’t really happened. And it nearly didn’t; like so many other conflagrations, the genesis of this moment lay with an angry and unstable young man with a gun.

Grynszpan after his arrest, November 7, 1938. Photograph: Private Collection/Alamy

Herschel Grynszpan, Angry Young Man

In late 1938, Herschel Grynszpan was all of 17 years old. He was a handsome boy. In photos taken after his arrest, he shows a dramatic, even Gothic flair: Dark hair slicked back, expressive silent movie-star eyebrows over sullen and brooding eyes. He could be an angsty teen of the ’30s, or a figure in the crowd at a Joy Division concert.

A German Jew of Polish extraction, Grynszpan had recently arrived in Paris from Hanover. His parents were Polish Jews, who had settled there in 1911. In mid-1938, after the Nazis declared that all residence permits for foreigners would be subject to review, Grynszpan’s parents were among roughly 12,000 Polish Jews who found themselves suddenly stripped of their possessions and herded onto trains. Dropped off near the border, they were driven like livestock back towards Poland, all the while set upon by SS men, who beat many of the refugees bloody and destroyed their few belongings. The exiles found themselves equally unwelcome there, and would spend months in miserable limbo on the border, with thousands of refugees crowded into pigsties, barns, and other makeshift shelters.

German-Polish deportees arriving at Zbąszyń, Poland, 1938. Photo: Yad Vashem digital collection 2656/18

En route to Poland, Grynszpan’s sister managed to send a postcard to her brother, begging him for help. But if she was hoping for money or food, her brother — who even in primary school had already secured a reputation as being touchy and easily provoked — had another form of assistance in mind. On the morning of November 7, 1938, Grynszpan purchased a revolver and a box of bullets and headed to the German Embassy in Paris.

Claiming he had “important papers” to offer an embassy official, Grynszpan was taken to the office of Ernst vom Rath, the junior officer on duty that day. When vom Rath asked for the “important document,” Grynszpan allegedly leapt to his feet and shouted: “You’re a filthy Kraut and in the name of the twelve thousand persecuted Jews, here is the document!” Pulling the revolver from his coat pocket, Grynszpan fired wildly.

Although the two sat only a few feet apart from each other, Grynszpan was a miserable shot. Vom Rath was only hit twice, one bullet striking his shoulder and another piercing his abdomen. But that second shot did its work, tearing through his stomach, pancreas and spleen. Vom Rath staggered out of his office before collapsing. Grynszpan sat back down and waited calmly for the police to arrive.

The doomed Vom Rath lingered in hospital for a couple of days. Not even the ministrations of Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician, could save him. Then again, that was hardly the point. Vom Rath was nothing if not expendable: politically unreliable, rumored to be a homosexual. His death would serve merely as the pretext for payback to begin.

Adolf Hitler and other senior Nazi leaders attend the funeral for Ernst vom Rath, November 24, 1938. Photograph: Heinrich Hoffmann — Illustrierter Beobachter

A “Spontaneous Mob”

That evening in Berlin, senior Nazi officials were attending a dinner commemorating the 15th anniversary of the failed “Beer Hall Putsch,” the Nazi Party’s first attempt at an armed coup. Informed of vom Rath’s death, Adolf Hitler abruptly left the dinner, leaving Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to deliver an address in his stead. Declaring that the Party would not prepare demonstrations or reprisals, he added that — should they erupt spontaneously — they were not to be hampered.

If his comments left any room for interpretation, Goebbels need not have worried. Having briefed key party and police officials beforehand, he had already set in motion a nationwide pogrom. In Berlin, the police president arranged for gas and electric service to synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses to be cut — so as to prevent unwanted injuries to non-Jews — and set up barricades to shunt traffic away from the areas already designated for “spontaneous” mob actions.

Goebbels wrote an entry in his diary that night. Along with expressing his happiness at vom Rath’s timely death, he noted with satisfaction that no sooner had his own speech concluded than the hall emptied, officials rushing from the room to place telephone calls to every corner of the country. And so began Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Snapping to the orders barked down telephone lines, squads of fire starters — men of the Sturmabteilung, the Storm Troopers — fanned out throughout the country, torches and gasoline in hand. They would provide the spark, but they would not do their work alone.

Storm Troopers ransack a Jewish home, probably Nuremberg, November 9–10, 1938. Photograph: Elisheva Avital family archive

Inside the Storm

Pogrom” comes from the Russian, more or less meaning “to wreak havoc.” The most visible effect of Kristallnacht was indeed the havoc done to property, including the shattering of some 7,500 Jewish-owned storefronts all over Germany, Austria and the German-occupied Sudetenland. Less reported were the countless attacks on Jewish-occupied houses and apartments. But the most lasting damage was to the hundreds of synagogues that were damaged or destroyed outright, many by fire. In the span of two nights, the major centers of Jewish religious and cultural life were simply erased.

The number of Jews confirmed to have been killed during Kristallnacht is surprisingly low: 91. Even including subsequent suicides — of which there were many — and the deaths resulting from ill-treatment in prison and in concentration camps, the death toll might only climb to around 1,000. Of course, that we might consider the violent deaths of 1,000 people a “low” number speaks to the scale and efficiency of the industrial killing yet to come.

But it’s here this translation of “pogrom” falters. “Wreaking havoc” is something that is done to buildings, to shops, to property. It connotes a storm of mayhem and destruction, most of all a peculiarly terrifying randomness, like the ragged edges of a hurricane seen on a radar plot. Hurricanes do not differentiate between the objects in its path, and being next to its targets is just as dangerous as being one of them. Anything is liable to happen.

Residents watch the burning of the ceremonial hall in the Jewish cemetery in Graz, Austria, November 9–10, 1938. Photograph: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

But if “pogrom” implies randomness, Kristallnacht was anything but. Jewishness — and only Jewishness — made one a target. And while some Jews had been preselected as such, thanks to Minister Goebbels’ careful preparations, by and large the German Jews who bore the brunt of the violence that night were set upon by mobs of their peers. At the conflagrations, fire brigades trained their hoses on adjacent properties so as to prevent their being damaged “by mistake.” Jewish cemeteries and department stores were vandalized, piles of prayer books, scrolls, and artwork hurled onto giant bonfires. Less visible were the many instances of rape committed by Storm Troopers. Ironically, they would incur perhaps the only prosecutions of participants in the violence, though not on behalf of their victims. Instead, the perpetrators were found guilty of “social defilement” for having consorted with Jews.

This is where the hard nub resides: The sickening knowledge that one has become something else, a person less valued — or valued not at all — by your neighbors and coworkers, the shopkeeper you always chat with, the young woman at the coffeehouse. This grim realization was nothing new; it had been growing in silence for years. But Kristallnacht was the moment it took form and rose like some winged beast — borne on the thermals of burning synagogues, burning scrolls, burning prayers — above the cities of Germany.

The burning synagogue at Bielefeld, November 9, 1938. Photographer unknown.

Clapping Their Hands and Screaming in Glee

The Storm Troopers may have started the fires, but Kristallnacht and everything that followed required the participation of ordinary, middle-class men — and women — to take on its full, horrific dimensions. It’s impossible to know how many of them joined in. British correspondent Hugh Greene, watching in nauseous shock in Berlin as the violence unfolded around him, described well-dressed middle-class ladies “clapping their hands and screaming in glee”; mothers holding up babies to watch the “fun.” Families fleeing their apartments, hiding in city parks from the mob as all their possessions — books, photographs, even pianos — were hurled out windows and burned in the streets. Children beaten bloody and stunned. Taxi drivers fleeing rather than stopping to pick up Jews on the run.

There was more to come. In the ensuing days, after the fires had been put out, some 30,000 Jewish men would be arrested and sent to concentration camps: Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald. For the time being, these were mostly temporary confinements. Admittance to a concentration camp was not yet necessarily a death sentence, though for the old, the sick and the careless it was another story. Those who had been imprisoned were forced to sign strict non-disclosure agreements, leading many Germans to claim — with varying amounts of believability — that they had no idea what was being done in their name in prison camps all over Germany.

But it was impossible to stamp out all traces of what was being done. One schoolgirl at the time recalled her piano teacher’s Jewish husband being taken away. Weeks later, the teacher received a package from an official address, for which she was required to pay a fee. Inside were her husband’s ashes.

The Road Not Taken

Here’s where a counter-narrative emerges. If in retrospect Kristallnacht was the moment the Holocaust actually began, it was also a distinct low point of popular German support for the Nazi Party. The American ambassador to Germany at the time, Hugh Robert Wilson, noted general revulsion at the pogrom, among not only the intellectual classes but among more or less ordinary Germans as well. Contemporary newspaper editorials back up this assertion; not even the thrill of Germany’s having annexed Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland a few weeks earlier could dampen the collective sense of unease, the suspicion that the nation had gone seriously awry. There are many stories of personal kindness and bravery, of non-Jews sheltering their beleaguered neighbors, risking arrest or worse themselves.

Women stand outside a ransacked Jewish business in an unidentified German town, November 1938. Photograph: AP

Still, Germany’s majority was content to stay silent. Why? A book published a decade after the end of the Second World War offers some uncomfortable insights. They Thought They Were Free was written by Milton Mayer, an American journalist (and, incidentally, a Jew). After a year of conversations — and friendships — with ten ordinary ex-Nazis, Mayer drew some powerful inferences.

He pointed, among other things, to the generosity of state-sponsored social programs and the effectiveness of Germany’s propaganda ministry. Having faced the yawning abyss of the Great Depression — and, crucially, experienced the failure of the semi-liberal Weimar Republic to provide adequate social services — more Germans felt economically secure under Nazism. And for a country humbled and humiliated by its disastrous defeat in the First World War, the myth-making power of mass torchlight rallies and territorial gains cannot be underestimated.

Eerie resonances echo today. Reeling before the looming financial crisis, the United States turned first to Barack Obama and the promise of semi-liberal governance. In 2016, the nation opted for the inchoate nationalism of Donald Trump, a non-politician who promised a shakeup of traditional norms. In November 2020, barely half of eligible voters chose an uncontroversial centrist. As of this writing, the current administration had yet to concede defeat, instead installing loyalists in top positions in the Department of Defense. We watched, in real time, as they cemented the groundwork for a constitutional crisis.

Though they were written nearly seventy years ago, Milton Mayer’s words sound uncomfortably prescient today:

Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany — not by attack from without or subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler. It was what most Germans wanted — or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.

I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusion.

My manuscript “Fatherland: A Post-Holocaust Psychedelic Memoir” is currently with agents and early readers. Sign up for news and updates at:

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