In October of 1938, the radically anti-Jewish Polish government decided that all Polish Jews living abroad who did not renew their passport in Poland by the end of October of that year would have their citizenship revoked. At that time, tens of thousands of Polish Jews were living in Germany, the majority of them in Berlin. Evidently, for them, Hitler’s Germany was still the better place to be. However, the National-Socialist German government was not enthused by the threat of having tens of thousands of Polish Jews thrust upon Germany for good. Hence, they organized special trains and deported some 12,000 of these Jews to the Polish border, so they could cross into Poland and renew their passports. Although it was still October, and thus these Polish Jews, as Polish citizens, should have had the right to enter Poland, the Polish government closed the border for them. This resulted in a standoff between German and Polish border officials, with some 8,000 Jews caught in the middle. Many of them had to spend days stuck at the border zone. Eventually, the Germans caved in and let the Jews return home.
Enraged by this treatment of his fellow Jews, his parents among them, a Polish-German Jew living in Paris named Herschel Grynszpan went to the German embassy in Paris on 7 November and shot the German embassy official Ernst vom Rath. Two days later, vom Rath died of his wounds. When this news reached Germany, riots against Jewish individuals, synagogues, businesses and community centers broke out across Germany in the night from the 9th to the 10th of November 1938. It quickly developed into a full-fledged country-wide pogrom, during which roughly 100 Jews were killed, more than 200 synagogues were destroyed, and thousands of Jewish businesses were damaged to one degree or another. The financial damage went into the billions of reichsmarks. Due to the many Jewish shop windows broken during that night, this pogrom is commonly referred to as Kristallnacht in German – Crystal Night, the Night of Broken Glass.
It remains an open question to what degree the Third Reich’s government and their paramilitary groups the SA and the Stosstrupp Hitler, instigated the actions. On the one hand, sanctioned anti-Jewish measures had been ramping up for some time, but acts of vandalism were frowned upon. For an extended defense against government involvement in Crystal Night, see Weckert 1991.
On the other hand, when actions were underway, the German government was happy to let them unfold, and even to fan the flames. In his diary entry of 10 November, Joseph Goebbels recounted events as they happened: “I bring the matter to the Führer. He decides: let the demonstrations continue. Withdraw the police… That’s only right.” Of the many fires at Jewish businesses and synagogues, Goebbels wrote, “We intervene only when necessary to save adjacent buildings. Otherwise, let them burn down.”
Soon thereafter, the German government’s reaction to this pogrom clearly shows that they thought the damage done wasn’t enough. They passed a law, illegally applied retroactively, which prevented insurance companies from paying out any insurance payments to Jews who had coverage against vandalism. Next, they imposed a collective fine on all Jews of one billion reichsmarks, which amounted to a partial expropriation of German Jewry. It was an excessive collective punishment for the crime of one individual (Grynszpan), designed to drive the Jews out of Germany.
In the eyes of many observers abroad but also in Germany, the National-Socialist government made its ultimate step from civilization to barbarism with these acts. The Western powers used Crystal Night to accelerate their anti-German rhetoric and to become ever-more belligerent. The world geared up for war, which began not even ten months later.