Kristallnacht anniversary: Chemnitz riots show how pogroms start

Rioting in Chemnitz was reminiscent of how the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom unfolded in Nazi Germany, says historian Wolfgang Benz. Friday marks the 80th anniversary of the Night of Broken Glass violence against Jews.

As Germany on Friday remembers the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews, Wolfgang Benz, the author of many books documenting the Nazi era, said events in the eastern city of Chemnitz this year showed "how easily a pogrom can develop."

Unrest directed at persons perceived as foreign erupted in Chemnitz on August 26 after a fatal stabbing. One night later,  suspected neo-Nazis threw stones and bottles at a Jewish restaurant in Chemnitz. Its proprietor said he was told to "vanish from Germany." 

"That was not state-instigated, but it was a persistent hunting of people," Benz told the German dpa news agency, referring to the ongoing debate on how officials defined Chemnitz' weekend unrest.

Benz said some in Germany appeared to have learned little from the atrocities of the Nazi regime

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Initially, that rioting was not focused on Jews, Benz said, "but it shows how easily a pogrom can develop, and how easily a mob can be formed and an emotional surge generated."

From discrimination against Jews to persecution

On November 9, 1938, nearly six years after Hitler assumed power, Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, seized on a two-day-old shooting in Paris of a Nazi diplomat and addresses Nazi party adherents in a Munich beer cellar — as noted in his diary — before telephoning attack orders to Nazi paramilitary units across German territory. 

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The pogrom raged until 13 November.

Estimates on the number of people killed vary from between several hundred to 1,300 people being murdered or driven to suicide — far more than the 91 then officially stated shortly after the attacks. Some 1,400 synagogues and prayer rooms, and 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed. Some 30,000 people picked out as Jews, mostly men, were taken to concentration camps following Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.

"The 9th of November, for which the term Kristallnacht was then quickly adopted, was a turning point: from discrimination against Jews in Germany to persecution," Benz told the KNA Catholic news agency.

Over 1,000 synagogues in Germany and Austria were destroyed during the Kristallnacht pogrom

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"One can say that the Holocaust began on the 9th of November 1938. From then on, violence against Jews was publicly and officially endorsed," said Benz, born in 1941, whose early studies on extremism took him to Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians University in the 1960s and later to direct the Berlin Technical University'sCenter for Research on Antisemitism, from 1990 until 2011.

"In 1938, the state staged a rabble-rousing pogrom against a minority … people let themselves be inveigled by state propaganda, against fellow citizens, to turn against neighbors and business friends," Benz said.

"Everyone knew exactly what was happening," he stated.

80 years ago: the Nazi 'Night of Broken Glass' pogrom

What happened on November 9-10, 1938?

Anti-Semitic mobs, led by SA paramilitaries, went on rampages throughout Nazi Germany. Synagogues like this one in the eastern city of Chemnitz and other Jewish-owned property were destroyed. Jews were subject to public humiliation and arrested, and at least 91 and probably more were killed.

80 years ago: the Nazi 'Night of Broken Glass' pogrom

What's in a name?

The nationwide street violence against German Jews is known by a variety of names. Berliners called it Kristallnacht, from which the English Night of Broken Glass is derived. Nowadays in German it's also common to speak of the "pogrom night" or the "November pogroms."

80 years ago: the Nazi 'Night of Broken Glass' pogrom

What was the official reason the pogrom?

The event that provided the excuse for the violence was the murder of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris by a teenage Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan. Ironically he wasn't executed for the crime. No one knows whether he survived the Third Reich or died in a concentration camp.

80 years ago: the Nazi 'Night of Broken Glass' pogrom

How did the violence start?

After vom Rath's death, Adolf Hitler gave Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels oral permission to launch the pogrom. Violence had already broken out in some places. The SS were instructed to allow "only such measures as do not entail any danger to German lives and property."

80 years ago: the Nazi 'Night of Broken Glass' pogrom

Was the violence an expression of popular anger?

No, that was the just official Nazi party line, but no one believed it. Constant references to "operations" and "measures" clearly indicate that the violence was an act of state. It is unclear what ordinary Germans thought of the mayhem. There is evidence of popular disapproval, but the fact that the couple in the left of this picture appear to be laughing also speaks volumes.

80 years ago: the Nazi 'Night of Broken Glass' pogrom

What did the Nazis hope to gain from the violence?

In line with their racist ideology, the Nazis wanted to intimidate Jews into voluntarily leaving Germany. To this end, Jews were often paraded through the streets and humiliated as in this image. Their persecutors were also motivated by economic interests. Jews fleeing the Third Reich were charged extortionate "emigration levies" and their property was often confiscated.

80 years ago: the Nazi 'Night of Broken Glass' pogrom

Did the pogrom serve its purpose?

After such massive violence, German Jews could be under no illusions about the Nazis' intentions, and those who could left. But such naked aggression played badly in the foreign press and offended many Germans' desire for order, so further anti-Jewish measures took more bureaucratic forms such the requirement that Jews wear visible yellow Stars of David on their clothing.

80 years ago: the Nazi 'Night of Broken Glass' pogrom

What was the immediate aftermath?

After the pogroms, the Nazi leadership instituted a whole raft of anti-Jewish measures, including a levy to help pay for the damage of November 9-10, 1939. The second most powerful man in the Third Reich at the time, Hermann Göring, famously remarked, "I would not want to be a Jew in Germany."

80 years ago: the Nazi 'Night of Broken Glass' pogrom

What is the Kristallnacht's place in history?

In 1938, the beginning of what became known as the Holocaust was still two years away. But there is an obvious line of continuity from the pogrom to the mass murder of European Jews, in which the Nazi leadership would continue to develop and intensify their anti-Semitic hatred. In the words of one contemporary historian, the pogrom was a "prelude to genocide."

'Hitler began as a populist'

Asked about present-day Germany, Benz told KNA he saw the far-right opposition Alternative for Germany (AfD) party as regressive: "absolutely resistant against enlightenment and liberal accomplishments, without which our modern form of life would no longer be conceivable."

"That [voter] adherence to this movement is rising shows that not much has been learned from history," added Benz. "Adolf Hitler as mass criminal began his career as a populist."

Germany will mark the anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom at ceremonies across the country on Friday.


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