On 9-10 November 1938, Nazi leaders launched a series of pogroms against Jewish population centers across Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland in the former Czechoslovakia, which had been absorbed by the Reich. The event became known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a reference to the shattered glass that littered the streets in front of destroyed Jewish stores, synagogues, and buildings.
While the pogroms were billed as “spontaneous” violence against the local Jewish communities, it was orchestrated by the Nazi leadership as retribution for the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris by Herschel Grynszpan, a sixteen-year-old Polish Jew. In fact, late on 8 November, Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller sent a telegram to all police units informing them that “actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all of Germany. These are not to be interfered with.”
Over the following 48 hours, violent mobs, encouraged by Nazi officials, destroyed approximately 300 synagogues, 7,500 businesses, countless homes and even Jewish cemeteries. Many of these were burned down in front of local firefighters, who received orders only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings. The Nazis proceeded to round up thousands of Jewish men who were sent to concentration camps and imposed a staggering fine of one billion Reichsmarks (approximately $7.5 billion) on the Jewish community for the damage that had been perpetrated on their own property. While initial figures released by Nazis officials said that 91 Jews died in the pogroms, recent studies have suggested that there were in fact hundreds of dead.
While Germany attempted to prevent images of Kristallnacht from reaching newspapers in the United States, American newspapers covered it on their front pages for several weeks. Life Magazine was one of the first to publish several images from the pogrom and the Los Angeles Examiner headline read, “Nazis Warn World Jews Will Be Wiped Out Unless Evacuated by Democracies.”
Reacting to the atrocities, a US consular official in Leipzig, Germany described the events in the following manner: "Having demolished dwellings and hurled most of the moveable effects to the streets, the insatiably sadistic perpetrators threw many of the trembling inmates into a small stream that flows through the zoological park, commanding horrified spectators to spit at them, defile them with mud and jeer at their plight."
During a press conference on 15 November 1938, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt denounced Nazi Germany’s terror attack on Jews, saying, “I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a twentieth-century civilization.” While the US would recall its ambassador to Germany, Hugh Wilson, it would be the only nation to do so, and would not ease immigration regulations.
Kristallnacht represented a turning point in the Third Reich’s treatment of Jews from antisemitic legislation and rhetoric to violence and aggressive actions against the Jewish community, eventually culminating in the Holocaust. While the pogroms motivated many German Jews to seek refuge overseas, the majority were unsuccessful.