On November 7, 1938, Ernst vom Rath, secretary of the German Embassy in Paris, was shot dead by Herschel Grynszpan, a Jewish German who had fled to France. Herschel had received a letter from his family, who had been deported from Germany to Poland on October 28, together with 17,000 other Jews. Many of these people had resided most of their lives in Germany: some were decorated German veterans of the first World War. Without warning, the Nazis gathered these German-Polish families in the middle of the night and deported them to Poland. The Polish government refused to admit them.
This impasse resulted in trudging between the German and Polish borders in the cold and at day and night until the Nazis finally persuaded the Polish government to grant entry. The letter to Herschel described the horrible conditions that the family endured in the first of what would ultimately become numerous forced deportations of Jews.
The Nazis used vom Rath's assassination as an excuse for launching a pogrom against Jewish inhabitants throughout the country. The attack was intended to look like a spontaneous act, but was in fact orchestrated by the Nazi party NSDAP.
Almost all synagogues, many Jewish cemeteries, more than 7,000 Jewish shops and 29 department stores were destroyed or damaged. More than 30,000 Jews were arrested and taken to concentration camps. An unknown number of Jews were killed, as were some Germans who simply "looked Jewish" to the Nazis.
The event was called Kristallnacht (German for "crystal night") because of the many shop windows, mostly owned by Jewish shopkeepers, that were broken during the night. Today in Germany it is mostly called Pogromnacht ("pogrom night"), since the word "Kristallnacht" was a creation of the Nazis and is deemed too euphemistic. Outside Germany the event is often called the Night of Broken Glass.
Whatever the name, the Kristallnacht pogrom sparked outrage all over the world. It discredited pro-Nazi movements in Europe and North America, leading to their eventual decline. Many newspapers condemned the Kristallnacht, with some comparing it to the murderous pogroms incited by Imperial Russia in the 1880's. The US Government and other nations severed diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany in protest.
The night ushered in a new phase in the antisemitic activities of the Nazi state apparatus, leading to the deportation and, finally, the extermination of most of the Jewish people living in Germany.