When Adolf Hitler rose to power during the early 1930s, he moved quickly to isolate the Jewish community from the rest of German society. By early 1938, Nazi authorities announced that residence permits for all foreigners — including Jews — were revoked. In late October, as part of the subsequent “Polenaktion,” some 12,000 Polish Jews were ordered to fill a single suitcase with all the belongings they could and leave for their homeland. Only a third of them were granted entry into Poland, with the rest left to languish in a refugee camp. Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew living in Paris whose family was among those trapped near Poland, received word of what had happened. Furious, he purchased a pistol and ammunition on the morning of November 7th, then gained entrance to the German embassy and shot dead Ernst vom Rath, a diplomat from the Foreign Office. He held a postcard in his pocket that read, “May God forgive me…I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do.”
When Hitler found out about the incident on the evening of November 9, 1938, he instructed Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to utter the famous last words: “[Demonstrations] should not be prepared or organized by the party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.” Within hours, regional party leaders were in the streets destroying property — joined by ordinary citizens riled up by years of anti-Jewish propaganda. While burning synagogues and destroying the windows of Jewish storefronts, authorities were ordered to capture as many Jews as possible for deportation to concentration camps. By the end of the night, glass was strewn about the streets and some 200 houses of worship were on fire in Germany alone, with perhaps another hundred or so in the capital of annexed Austria, Vienna. At least 96 Jews were killed and hundreds more injured. According to official Nazi reports, approximately 100,000 Jews had been arrested and some 20 percent of all Jewish property was claimed by the government in the following days. Though Kristallnacht arrived some three-and-a-half years before the official declaration of Hitler’s Final Solution, the world clearly understood German intentions for the Jewish people in the build up to World War II.