Photo: Burning of the synagogue in Hanover, Germany, night of 9 November 1938

As historians Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt have observed about Kristallnacht, “The pogrom of 9 November 1938 was the end of the beginning; the 10th of November was the beginning of the end” (Holocaust: A History, p. 102).

Nazi Germany turned a corner on Kristallnacht. Prior to this night of violence and destruction, attacks on German Jews were largely legal and economic. Urge Jews to emigrate, declared the German leadership, by retracting civil rights protections and hindering any means to earn a living. Although physical attacks against persons and property occurred before November 1938, it was comparatively sporadic and targeted, and not the primary tactic of a nationwide policy. Kristallnacht changed all that.

It is an historical event with more than one name. Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, is a name commonly applied to the event. Long thought by historians to have been dubbed as such by Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, one of the primary organizers of the violence, some historians embrace the term November Pogrom to avoid using the language of the perpetrator. Yet the term seems to have originated among the sardonic (and non-Jewish) residents of Berlin, who coined the phrase as they stepped through shards of glass littering the sidewalks on Thursday morning, 10 November 1938. (The variant Reichskristallnacht simply capitalized on the Nazi fetish to add Reich to object names and titles.) It is also an event that lasted longer than one night, since the violence began a few days before 9 November 1938 and continued afterward for several more.

These latter points are some of the revelations found in Alan Steinweis’s Kristallnacht 1938 (Belknap Press, 2009). Dr. Steinweis, Professor of History and Miller Distinguished Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont, reevaluates the commonly held historical narrative about the pogrom to draw connections across policies and events not previously examined in depth. The book is largely based on the post-1945 trials of Germans – many ordinary citizens not affiliated with the Nazi Party or the stormtroopers (SA) – who were prosecuted for their participation on Kristallnacht. We learn from Dr. Steinweis’s book that these accomplices included women and men as well as children and youths, and that on-the-spot plunder of Jewish property functioned as motivation alongside anti-Jewish attitudes.

Kristallnacht 1938 focuses solely on the pogrom, from its preconditions to the postwar prosecution of the participants. The perspective rarely shifts from the actions and responses of the perpetrators. Martin Gilbert’s Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction (Harper Perennial, 2006) places the historical events into the wider context of the Nazis’ policies leading to the destruction of European Jews. Gilbert also brings in the voices of the German Jewish targets of the attacks, as well as the international responses ranging from condemnation to indifference. Two other studies of the pogrom present the narratives of German Jewish eyewitnesses. The Night of Broken Glass: Eyewitness Accounts of Kristallnacht, edited by Uta Gerhardt and Thomas Karlauf (Polity, 2012) presents selected accounts gathered in 1939 by Harvard sociologist Edward Hartshorne. Mitchell G. Bard’s 48 Hours of Kristallnacht (Lyons Press, 2008) is based largely on the testimonies at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute.

The alleged “provocation” for Kristallnacht – the assassination of German embassy staff member Ernst vom Rath in Paris on 7 November 1938 by Herschel Grynszpan, a German-Jewish refugee youth – is another facet of this complex history. Grynszpan, who acted to avenge his Polish-born Jewish parents after their deportation back to Poland on the night of 27 October 1938, is the focus of the recently published The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright, 2013) by Los Angeles attorney and author Jonathan Kirsch.

Alan Steinweis, Kristallnacht 1938 (Belknap Press, 2009)
Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction (Harper Perennial, 2006)
The Night of Broken Glass: Eyewitness Accounts of Kristallnacht, eds. Uta Gerhardt and Thomas Karlauf (Polity, 2012)
Mitchell G. Bard, 48 Hours of Kristallnacht (Lyons Press, 2008)
Jonathan Kirsch, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright, 2013)