9 November 1938: Broken glass confirms Nazi brutality
German Jews are brutalised in a night of rioting
Few dates have such sinister resonance as 9 November 1938, the night Germans called ‘Kristallnacht’ – the night of broken glass. To observers all over the world, the news of a government-backed pogrom against Germany’s Jewish population seemed the final confirmation of the Nazis’ barbarity. Even those who had urged appeasement of Adolf Hitler now changed their tune. “No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world,” said The Times, “could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenceless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.”
The pretext for the riots was the murder of a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, by a Polish Jew in Paris. Some historians suggest that the Nazis were itching for an excuse to seize the Jews’ financial assets; others directly blame the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, who was keen to distract attention from his affair with a Czech actress.
But the consequences for Germany’s Jews were horrifying. Within hours of the news of vom Rath’s death, gangs of SA storm troopers, SS men and party supporters were attacking Jewish homes across the country. Almost a hundred people were killed, while some 30,000 were arrested and held in concentration camps. Hundreds of synagogues, shops and businesses were burned, and afterwards hundreds of thousands of Jews fled into exile.
“I have seen several anti-Jewish outbreaks in Germany during the last five years,” wrote the Telegraph’s correspondent, “but never anything as nauseating as this. Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete hold of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable middle-class mothers held up their babies to see the ‘fun’.”
The Nazi regime was yet to adopt the Final Solution. For many people, however, this was the moment the Holocaust really began.
Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries…
9 November 1809
Painter and engraver Paul Sandby died at his home in St George’s Row, Bayswater. His work had done much to popularise the art of watercolour and the appreciation of landscape.
9 November 1841
9 November 1907
The Transvaal Government gives Edward VII the Cullinan Diamond, the world’s largest known uncut diamond, as a 66th birthday present.
9 November 1940
Neville Chamberlain dies of bowel cancer. Six months earlier he had resigned as prime minister following the failure of the Norwegian campaign, but served on in Winston Churchill‘s cabinet until ill health forced him to leave office a few weeks before his death.
9 November 1989: The Wall comes tumbling down
East Berlin meets West amid tears and celebrations
By November 1989 the Berlin Wall had stood for 28 years, severing all links between capitalist west and communist east. To many young Germans, it had long seemed a baleful part of the fabric of life. Yet by the autumn of 1989, pressure for change was becoming irresistible.
When Hungary opened its borders, thousands of East Germans who had gathered there escaped into the west via its border with Austria. On 18 October, East Germany’s aged dictator, Erich Honecker, was forced to step down.
Meanwhile, in East Berlin, crowds of demonstrators chanted: “We want out!” As the demonstrations continued, the new communist leader, Egon Krenz, decided on radical measures. At a meeting on 9 November, he and his colleagues decided they would open the border checkpoints the following day.
But at a press conference, the East Berlin party leader, Günter Schabowski, who had been inadequately briefed, told reporters that the border was open “immediately, without delay”. What followed was one of the most famous moments in modern German history. As Schabowski’s words were repeated on the West German evening news, thousands of East Berliners flooded towards the wall.
At 10.45pm the border guards, having given up trying to control the waves of people, opened the gates. At that moment, Schabowski said later, East Germany simply “ceased to exist”.
The scene that night, which immediately flashed around the world, became one of the iconic moments of the 20th century. Even as West and East Germans wept, hugged and shared bottles of champagne, the communist empire was falling apart. In East Berlin, Günter Schabowski’s elderly mother-in-law asked her daughter what the fuss was about.
“They’ve opened the border,” the younger woman said. “Does that mean we’ll have capitalism now?” her mother asked.
“Yes,” said Mrs Schabowski, “it probably does.” “Well,” her mother replied, “in that case I’ll hang around for a few more years and see what it’s like.