Reinhard Heydrich's Kristallnacht Order:

A German Cultural Catalyst

Eric Woodruff

Within any political system, officials at the top may exploit their authority to mobilize their ranks towards an objective--usually imagined by the officials themselves. They do so knowing that the lower ranks will follow their orders, more often than not, without question, especially when the system has been designed around this concentration of power. Commands and goals are made public by the officials to allow for transparency between the administration and the masses. At the same time, however, keeping the aims of the administration clandestine from the public can also be politically expedient. Thus Nazi Party members attempted to mask the violence that was planned for the night of Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938, which called for a physical assault on Germany's Jewish population, along with their residences, businesses, places of worship, and cemeteries. (1) The German public, led by Nazi Party members, SA members (Sturmabteilungen, more commonly known in English as "Storm Troopers"), and Hitler Youth dressed in civilian clothes, rioted through the streets, destroying anything Jewish they could find. (2) Concealing their plan at the time seemed to pose no challenge for the Nazi Party since events prior to this night had already demonstrated that the German public would comply with orders without much questioning. From the Reichstag Fire Decree to the Nuremburg Laws, the German public as a whole seemed to go along with everything without protest. The cooperation between the Nazi party and various groups within German society is demonstrative of the ways the Nazi ideology permeated German culture at the time. By acting as a tipping point in the allowance of violence towards Jews in Germany, however, the Kristallnacht Order quickly became the catalyst for anti-Semitic acts committed by both members of the central administration and Nazi sympathizing groups that, in turn, led to more widespread ethnic and racial violence under the Nazi regime.

Antisemitism in Germany did not suddenly appear with the emergence of a stronger Nazi Party. Throughout Germany's history, along with that of most of the rest of Europe, resentment and persecution of Jews took place periodically. William Brustein and Ryan King concluded in their article, "Anti-Semitism in Europe Before the Holocaust," that "the number and nature of European anti-Semitic acts before the Holocaust [and subsequently prior to Kristallnacht] varied significantly over time and across countries." (3) In Germany's case, the foundation for intense anti-Semitism had been laid in German culture long before the rise of the Nazis. (4) Henry Singer, a Jewish man born and raised in Berlin, wrote about his experience of living in Berlin prior to Kristallnacht, saying, "[T]he anti-Semitism in Germany was there before Hitler came to power. He just openly sanctioned it." To illustrate his point, he went on to detail a story of when, as a kid, he was playing with a German boy who, upon losing, told young Henry that he hoped he would take an "Einbahnstrasse nach Palestina [take a one-way street to Palestine]." (5) Not unique to one individual, events like this had happened time and again to Jewish individuals residing in Germany prior to the existence of both the Nazi Party and the Kristallnacht Order. With such a culture conditioned in racist ideologies and already having established a precedent of abuse towards Jews, it was easy for the Nazis to obtain support for the pogrom of Kristallnacht. (6)

The violence of Kristallnacht followed closely on the heels of the Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels' assertion earlier on November 9th (incidentally, also the anniversary of the "Beer Hall Putsch" of 1923) before an assembly of leading Nazi Party members that 'World Jewry' had conspired to commit the assassination of Nazi embassy official Ernst vom Rath in Paris. Goebbels told his audience that "the Führer has decided that . . . demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered." (7) Party leaders circulated a set of instructions giving both implicit and explicit commands to the German police force (comprised of members of the SS, or Schutzstaffel, and the Gestapo, the Geheime Staatspolizei or Secret State Police). As the riots got underway across Germany, Reinhard Heydrich, then the second most powerful man in the SS behind Heinrich Himmler, sent a telegram containing specific instructions that simultaneously set limits on police intervention and legitimized the acts that the administration anticipated were being committed. According to Heydrich's Kristallnacht Order, those Germans who were "rioting" in response to the death of vom Rath were to take no measures endangering (non-Jewish) German life or property; looting (even of Jewish possessions) was forbidden; foreigners (including even Jewish foreigners) were not to be subjected to violence; and the rioters were to remove all historical synagogue archival materials prior to vandalizing the synagogues and other properties of the Jewish communities, and they were to transfer those archival materials to the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst, or SD). The orders also indicated that police officials should arrest as many Jews, preferably young healthy men, as the local jails could hold.

1. The Chiefs of the State Police, or their deputies, must immediately upon receipt of this telegram contact, by telephone, the political leaders in their areas - Gauleiter or Kreisleiter - who have jurisdiction in their districts and arrange a joint meeting with the inspector or commander of the Order Police to discuss the arrangements for the demonstrations. At these discussions the political leaders will be informed that the German Police has received instructions, detailed below, from the Reichsfuehrer SS and the Chief of the German Police, with which the political leadership is requested to coordinate its own measures:

a) Only such measures are to be taken as do not endanger German lives or property (i.e., synagogues are to be burned down only where there is no danger of fire in neighboring buildings).

b) Places of business and apartments belonging to Jews may be destroyed but not looted. The police is instructed to supervise the observance of this order and to arrest looters.

c) In commercial streets particular care is to be taken that non-Jewish businesses are completely protected against damage.

d) Foreign citizens - even if they are Jews - are not to be molested.

2. On the assumption that the guidelines detailed under paragraph 1 are observed, the demonstrations are not to be prevented by the Police, which is only to supervise the observance of the guidelines.

3. On receipt of this telegram Police will seize all archives to be found in all synagogues and offices of the Jewish communities so as to prevent their destruction during the demonstrations. This refers only to material of historical value, not to contemporary tax records, and so forth. The archives are to be handed over to the locally responsible officers of the SD.

4. The control of the measures of the Security Police concerning the demonstrations against the Jews is vested in the organs of the State Police, unless inspectors of the Security Police have given their own instructions. Officials of the Criminal Police, members of the SD, of the Reserves and the SS in general may be used to carry out the measures taken by the Security Police.

5. As soon as the course of events during the night permits the release of the officials required, as many Jews in all districts - especially the rich - as can be accommodated in existing prisons are to be arrested. For the time being only healthy male Jews, who are not too old, are to be detained. After the detentions have been carried out the appropriate concentration camps are to be contacted immediately for the prompt accommodation of the Jews in the camps. Special care is to be taken that the Jews arrested in accordance with these instructions are not ill-treated. . . . (8)

Though written in terse, practical language, Heydrich's Kristallnacht instructions were not devoid of a deeper and far more sinister meaning. Henceforth Kristallnacht would impose a dark blot upon German history and fundamentally transform German culture.

Much of the authority that gave the order validity stemmed from the position of power held by Heydrich. In the absence of a top-ranking official submitting these orders, there might have been insufficient numbers of those willing to follow the instructions that had been issued. The Nazi party at the time held enough power to have a monopoly on the government, giving each of the party officials a voice that would be heard and obeyed by a majority of the people. This foothold enjoyed by the Nazi party in Germany reached the State Police Main Offices and Field Offices, giving them power over local police and allowing even more power and control as the national police force. As the entity that kept the population under control and enforced the law throughout Germany, the SS and Gestapo wielded such immense power that many Germans were intimidated and deterred from insurgence. Heydrich's command over this police force further gave him authority and opened the flood gates of anti-Semitism.

A form of authority not explicitly stated in the Order is that of the German people over the Jewish people, a superiority granted to them by a prejudiced classification system promoted by the Nazis. This classification system came out of the Nuremburg race laws that had been passed three years prior in 1935, which no longer recognized the Jewish population as part of the German population in an official sense. (9) The Kristallnacht Order planned and encouraged the destruction of Jewish property and the arrest of Jewish young men. It depicted the Jewish people socially as lower than German citizens, in the process elevating the status of Germans and characterizing the Jews as "Other," thus reinforcing the "us vs. them" culture of Nazi Germany. Heydrich's Order served to polarize the people with officially-sanctioned actions, doing exactly what the Nazi officials wanted by separating and isolating the Jews from the German population.

The Order begins by directly clarifying which group the pogrom will be targeting, namely, the Jews. Heydrich makes it quite clear whom he considered as "Others" and who therefore merited the aggression of the German population. This no doubt stemmed in part from the previously mentioned intense racism that persisted in Germany's culture long before this, though it is also well known from his leadership in planning the Final Solution that Heydrich's personal racist tendencies closely mirrored those of the Nazi Party. Immediately following this came the stern warning not to harm anything that would "jeopardize German life." (10) Heydrich included this to remove any possibility that the pogrom might become more of a riot than an attack directed toward the Jewish population. Also, the example given in this portion (see above, paragraph 1a.) provided the police force with an idea of what types of attacks that the participants might carry out during the night. The sanctioning of the destruction of Jewish synagogues only when there was no danger of harming of any other part of the surrounding German neighborhood would no doubt have given the police force the idea that any and all buildings qualifying as such could, and indeed should, be set ablaze.

Heydrich's Order then shifts to non-religious Jewish establishments, focusing on the homes and businesses. This section gave the police the power to arrest any who were looting the establishments that had been destroyed. Heydrich's reasoning here appears to have been simple; the Nazi Party wanted to confiscate all of the valuables and other items for the Party instead of allowing the "rioters" to seize the wealth. At the same time, this would ensure that the rioters retained their focus upon the destruction of Jewish property and the arrest of healthy Jewish men. Lastly, the order that the police force should directly supervise the destruction gave the police both a domineering presence and authority during the night. With the police standing directly at the sites of destruction, those participating would be afraid to go against the police and extend the destruction to non-Jewish establishments even though the rioters during this night held no qualms in the destroying of Jewish property in front of the police force. Heydrich's instructions prohibiting the destruction of non-Jewish German property served to further the idea that the preservation of "us" held more importance than the destruction of "them."

The conclusion to Heydrich's command held the most important implications. First, the wealthier and healthier Jews were ordered to be arrested, leaving their property and businesses open for the Nazi Party to loot them. The healthier the Jewish male, the more highly valued he was because he could be put to work at one of the concentration camps. Heydrich's Order designated these camps to house the arrested Jews. This was a process that would continue throughout the reign of the Nazi Party. The shipment of some 20,000 Jews to concentration camps in the days after Kristallnacht led directly to the build-up of these camps and, with hindsight, gave Heydrich's Order even more importance because it served as the precursor to the establishment of bigger, more effective, and, ultimately, more lethal concentration camps. (11)

The underlying message that Heydrich gave, namely, that of polarizing the Jewish population to allow for the continuation of the plans that would discriminate against and further segregate Jews and, though not fully stated at the time, later attempt to exterminate them, is quite clear. The targets are exclusively Jewish-owned businesses, places of worship, and so forth. No other groups are mentioned. Heydrich's guidelines were a reflection on the ideology of the German officer that issued them, giving further insight into the motivations of the Nazi system. Lacking any compassion whatsoever for the Jewish race, Heydrich held no sympathy for the havoc these orders would wreak. Along with this, anti-Semitism was perpetuated through the idea that others should join in the racial and ethnic hatred and violence. Meanwhile, by limiting the arrests to only those who looted Jewish houses/establishments, Heydrich alleviated any fears of retribution by the aggressive state police force that German citizens might have harbored. In doing so, the Jewish community was put in a state of helplessness as the Germans were emboldened to join in the violence directed against the Jews, which now became elevated to the status of one's patriotic German duty. (12)

It was paramount, of course, that these motives be kept secret from the public. The Nazi government's main goal was to manipulate the German people into carrying out Heydrich's Order with the conviction that these acts were their own doing. (13) Participation needed to be organic and voluntary; forced or instituted involvement would effectively be impossible. Carefully and cleverly utilizing the racist attitudes that were already present in the German population, the Nazis coaxed out the violence. And despite there being no clear evidence as yet of the eventual extermination, an outbreak like Kristallnacht was imperative to the future plans of the Nazi government.

This promotion of violence through Kristallnacht led to the bigger event that has darkened Germany's history: the Holocaust. Without Kristallnacht, the next phases of transferring them to concentration camps would have been far more difficult since the Jews would not have been already prepared for shipment. The very last part of Heydrich's Order--"after the arrests have been carried out the appropriate concentration camp is to be contacted immediately with a view to a quick transfer of the Jews to the camps" (14)--gives a glimpse at the ultimate goal. The plan to move the Jewish population to these camps was the Nazi leaders' goal all along. Thus they used Kristallnacht to gain the people's acceptance so that the next steps in a larger, vaguer plan could be undertaken. A vital part of genocide is the movement of people, forcing them away from their homes and leaving them in a state of confusion, making it easier to intimidate, exploit, and, ultimately, kill them. The Nazi government had clearly made Jewish towns and cities unsafe for Jewish people, making their relocation necessary and even inevitable. Heydrich's Kristallnacht Order made all of this possible because it sanctioned the police force's and the people's terrorizing of the Jewish population in their homes.

The events and atmosphere of Germany after the events of this night became increasingly brutal towards the Jewish population; the concentration camps noted in the Order became places of industrial killings, the forced movement of Jews into dilapidated ghettos, and the overall opinion of the public towards the Jews declined further. Josef Stone, a Jewish individual who managed to leave Germany after Kristallnacht, says in his account that "nobody went outside. No one felt secure, no one. You didn't trust your next-door neighbor because you didn't know what they were going to do to you. Neighbors who formerly came to your house, and were neighborly and friendly, all of a sudden refrained from even saying hello to you." (15) The treatment of Jewish people clearly changed. No longer could Jews trust their German neighbors to be kind, caring individuals, nor could they feel secure in their own homes. The night of Kristallnacht allowed the prejudices that already existed to be acted upon more openly and without a social stigma telling individuals that these actions should not have been taken. At the same time, there was genuine reason for fear among the German population, for those who did not share these racist views, but who resisted the Nazis, were also imprisoned and exterminated when caught. Despite the danger, however, a number of members of this Nazi opposition movement continued to hide Jews and helped to facilitate their escape whenever possible. (16)

Janet Jacobs concludes that "Kristallnacht commemoration has come to represent the wounding of God in the genocide of the Jews." (17) Established through Heydrich's Order, Kristallnacht has had a devastating impact upon Germany's subsequent history. The anti-Semitic attitudes and actions that this night sanctioned for German citizens marked the beginning of the Holocaust, the event that holds more significance in the history of massacres and genocide than any other (with the possible exception of the Armenian Genocide of 1915). From the polarization of the German people to the control over the police force, Nazi Germany proved its capability to transform the German culture into one of hate and violence, not through introducing new ideas, but from emphasizing ones that have existed for years prior.


"The 'Night of Broken Glass,'" United States Holocaust Museum, available at: (accessed February 16, 2017).


Kristallnacht: A Nationwide Pogrom, United States Holocaust Museum, available at: (accessed February 16, 2017).

3. William Brustein and Ryan King, "Anti-Semitism in Europe Before the Holocaust," International Political Science Review, vol. 25, no. 1 (January 2004): 35-53 at 48.

4. Ibid., 38.

5. Henry Singer, "The Antisemitism in Germany was there before Hitler came to power," in What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany: An Oral History, ed. and trans. Eric Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband (Cambridge, Mass.: Basic Books/Perseus, 2005), 14-18 at 14, 16.

6. For more on the historical and intellectual antecedents of anti-Semitism in Germany, see the excellent discussion by William L. Shirer in his Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, rep. ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011), 90-113.

7. Kristallnacht: A Nationwide Pogrom.


Reinhard Heydrich, Kristallnacht Order (November 10, 1938), Jewish Virtual Library: A Project of AICE, available at: (accessed February 16, 2017).

9. "Nuremberg Race Laws: Translation: Reich Citizenship Law of September 15, 1935," 2017, United States Holocaust Museum, available at: (accessed February 19 2017).

10. Heydrich, Kristallnacht Order.

11. Edouard Calic, Reinhard Heydrich: The Chilling Story of the Man Who Masterminded the Nazi Death Camps, trans. Lowell Bair (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1985), 193.

12. Ibid.

13. "The 'Night of Broken Glass.'"

14. Heydrich, Kristallnacht Order.

15. Josef Stone, "All the people on the sidewalks started yelling at us," in What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany: An Oral History, ed. and trans. Eric Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband (Cambridge, Mass.: Basic Books/Perseus, 2005), 35-40 at 35.

16. Here one immediately thinks of the theologian and Confessing (anti-Nazi) Church pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who paid the ultimate price for his actions as part of the German resistance, controversially at times, not only to oppose and attempt to assassinate Hitler, but also to help as many Jews as possible escape through Switzerland. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1963), esp. 11-35 ("Memoir" by Gerhard Leibholz); and the excellent biography by Bonhoeffer's student, Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, rev. ed., ed. Victoria J. Barnett (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).


Janet Jacobs, "Memorializing the Sacred: Kristallnacht in German National Memory," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 47, no. 3 (September 2004): 485-498 at 497.