November Pogroms/Kristallnacht 1938

November Pogroms/Kristallnacht 1938

The term “November Pogroms” refers to the violent actions against Jews that were committed primarily in the night of 9–10 November 1938 throughout the German Reich. Though the pogroms were organized nationally and initiated by the Nazi leadership, regional and local members of the SA and SS were afforded a high level of autonomy to carry them out.

Approximately 400 individuals were murdered or driven to commit suicide. More than 1400 synagogues and places of worship were destroyed, as well as about 7500 businesses and homes. Jewish cemeteries and other Jewish community institutions were devastated. In the following days, the Gestapo arrested around 30,000 Jewish men and hauled them to concentration camps, where hundreds were murdered or died. Most of the surviving detainees were released after a few weeks or months.

The destroyed Ez Chaim Synagogue after the November Pogroms, Leipzig, 10 November 1938; Jewish Museum Berlin, accession 2016/342/1, purchased

The Terms “Pogrom,” Kristallnacht, and Judenaktion

The word pogrom comes from the Russian погром. It emerged in the 1880s during the czarist Russian Empire to designate massacres of Jews. Literally, pogrom means “devastation” or “riot.” In Germany over the decades, the term pogrom has become the established word for the events of 9–10 November 1938. The term Kristallnacht (or Reichskristallnacht), meaning Night of Crystal (i.e., broken glass), as the non-Jewish majority called the pogroms, is generally avoided in German today because it euphemizes the events by reducing them to physical damage: specifically, broken windows and crystal chandeliers. Additionally, this German term is misleading because the pogroms did not occur exclusively at night by any means, indeed continuing in broad daylight. Meanwhile, propaganda terms such as Judenaktion (“Jewish Action”) clearly belong to the language of the perpetrators.

The destroyed Leipzig department store Bamberger & Hertz after the November pogrom, Leipzig, 10 November 1938; Jewish Museum Berlin, accession 2016/342/2, purchased

Historical Context

The November Pogroms must be seen in the context of the radicalization of antisemitism in the Nazi Germany of 1938. This was preceded by the first mass deportation of Jews from the German Reich, specifically Jews who had Polish citizenship (the Polenaktion ("Polish Action")). Beginning on 28 October 1938, some 17,000 individuals were violently expelled across the German/Polish border. Among them was the Grynszpan family of Hanover. Their 17-year-old son Herschel then carried out an assassination at the German Embassy in Paris. On 7 November 1938, he shot the diplomat Ernst vom Rath, who died of his injuries two days later. For years already, the Nazi regime had been pursuing a plan of forcibly expropriating Jews and, in particular, “Aryanizing” Jewish businesses to finance Germany’s re-armament process. The assassination provided a welcome pretext to strike out against the Jewish population with unprecedented brutality. Nazi propaganda portrayed the pogroms as an outbreak of “spontaneous national rage” sparked by the “cowardly murder” in Paris.

Bescheid vom Polizeipräsidenten Berlin für Meilech Wolkenfeld, betreff Aufenthaltsverbot für das Deutsche Reich, Vordruck, handschriftlich, maschinenschriftlich, Berlin, 28.10.1938

This deportation notice was issued by the Police Chief of Berlin and contains the request for Meilech Wolkenfeld (1893-1954) to leave the German Reich territory within 24 hours. Immediately after the letter was handed over to him in Berlin on the 28th of October 1938, he was arrested and deported to the Polish border along with many others; Jewish Museum Berlin, accession 2013/263/14, gift of Jack Wolkenfeld. Further information on this document can be found in our online collections (in German).

State-Organized “Spontaneous” Actions of “National Rage”

Indeed, in some regions, there were early, violent anti-Jewish riots in the late afternoon of 7 November, as well as attacks on synagogues, homes, and businesses. On the night of 9–10 November, the regional pogroms became a nationwide wildfire, a shift that underscores the organized nature of this state-sponsored pogrom. On 9 November 1938, the Nazi Party leadership had gathered in Munich, as they did every year, to commemorate the failed putsch of 1923. During the gathering, news broke of the embassy secretary’s death. Adolf Hitler spoke with Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, who announced the news to all the party leaders present, as well as the Gauleiters and SA leaders. He then authorized them to organize “spontaneous” campaigns of “national rage” against the Jewish population – although the Party’s role as the organizer would not be publicized. Next, telegrams were sent to branch offices, agencies, and local Nazi groups throughout the country. The pogroms began before midnight.

Destroyed synagogue in Wilhelmshaven, 10 November 1938; Jewish Museum Berlin, accession 2015/666/0, purchased

A mob of SA and SS members destroyed almost all synagogues and Jewish houses of worship in the Reich, mostly by arson. The fire departments and police simply looked on, and only intervened if a fire was in danger of spreading to neighboring buildings. The manner in which the non-Jewish majority responded to the public terror remain disputed. There was definitely a contingent of gawkers and bystanders, but others played an active role. During the pogroms, businesses designated as Jewish were also destroyed and often looted. The SA and SS broke into private homes and demolished them. Jews were publicly humiliated, abused, and terrorized. The violence did not abate until the afternoon of 10 November. In some places, there were recurring riots over the next several days. Annexed Austria was an exception; there, the pogroms did not begin until 10 November.

30,000 Arrests

During the programs, the entire Reich saw an unprecedented wave of arrests. The SS and the Gestapo arrested 30,000 Jewish men. They were herded through the streets and eventually transported to the three concentration camps that existed at the time: Buchenwald, near Weimar; Dachau, near Munich; and Sachsenhausen, close to the German capital.

The SS at the camps vented their anger at the new detainees with particular cruelty. Hundreds of these Jews were murdered or died from the belated consequences of their detainment. Most of the surviving detainees were gradually released from December 1938 onwards provided that they made a commitment in writing to emigrate from Germany as quickly as possible and leave their assets to the state.

Der Text lautet: »Ich habe bis auf weiteres Postsperre darf daher weder Briefe, Karten und Pakete empfangen noch absenden. Anfragen an die Kommandantur des Lagers sind verboten und verlängern das Schreibverbot. Max Weinberg, Block 50, Nr. 21807«

Max Weinberg's message saying he has been banned from sending and receiving mail in the Buchenwald concentration camp, Weimar, Buchenwald concentration camp November 1938; Jewish Museum Berlin, accession 2007/17/277, gift of Erwin Weinberg. Further information on this document can be found in our online collections (in German).

Release certificate from Sachsenhausen concentration camp for Heinrich Wohlauer, Oranienburg 14 December 1938; Jewish Museum Berlin, accession 2003/176/8, gift of Ursula Warner. Further information on this document can be found in our online collections (in German).

Victims Pay for Their Own Damage

As Commissioner for the Four-Year Plan, Hermann Göring called a meeting after the November Pogroms, which took place on 12 November 1938 in Berlin. At the meeting, it was resolved to take further state measures against members of the Jewish minority to compel them to emigrate and thus make Germany “free of Jews.” During the meeting, Göring was angry about the damage to property, which was estimated to be worth more than 225 million Reichsmarks. The attendees decided not only to fully “eliminate Jews from German economic life,” but to make the victims pay for the damage inflicted on them. The Jews were forced “collectively” to pay a “reparation” of 1 billion Reichsmarks to the German Reich. Beyond this, any insurance claims were seized. The tax authorities collected the money: any Jew who possessed more than 5,000 Reichsmarks in assets had to surrender 20 percent to the state.

The Pogroms as a Historic Turning Point

The November Pogroms mark the transition from the discrimination against the Jewish population that had been ongoing since 1933 to their subsequent systematic persecution. For Jews living in Germany, it finally became unmistakably clear (if it was not already) that they could no longer even take their lives for granted. After 9 November 1938, the number of them who made efforts to emigrate skyrocketed. In the few months before the war broke out, around 200,000 Jews left the Reich. Although there is no straight line leading to the mass murder of the Holocaust, the November Pogroms mark a drastic turning point.

Josef Hochfeld shortly after his release from Sachsenhausen concentration camp, January 1939; Jewish Museum Berlin, accession 2011/245/93, gift of Frank R. Hochfeld and Hanna Renning. Further information about this photo can be found in our online collections (in German).

Documents in Our Collection

The museum’s collection contains numerous documents, photographs, and objects related to the November Pogroms. Notably, there are eyewitness reports in letters and diaries, but also sworn declarations from the postwar reparation process. The wave of arrests is particularly well documented. There are surviving postcards sent home by concentration camp detainees as well as their discharge papers. Portraits of the released detainees give us hints of their physical infirmity. Our holdings also include, for example, a once privately-owned silver bowl that still bears the scars of that night’s destruction to this day.