The next month, Hitler got his pretext.
A young Polish Jewish exile, whose family had first been impoverished then rendered stateless by Nazi policies, struck back by assassinating a German diplomat in Paris on the night of November 7, 1938.
The Nazi leadership seized on the killing as proof of a global Jewish plot against Germany. Brownshirts were ordered to attack Jewish lives and property—and police were ordered to stand aside. Almost every important synagogue in Germany was set ablaze, Jewish homes and apartments were invaded and plundered, and the few remaining Jewish-owned shops were smashed and looted. At least 100 Jews died in the pogrom, according to the unreliable official figures, almost certainly many more. Thousands were sent to concentration camps. After it was all over, insurance companies were forbidden to compensate Jews for the damage done to them. The state expropriated to itself the proceeds instead, and then imposed further massive fines upon the Jewish community.
At the end of 1937, some 350,000 Jews had remained in Germany, down from a 1932 population of 437,000. In the 10 months after Kristallnacht, more than 115,000 fled the unified German-Austrian Reich—in most cases, leaving behind virtually all their possessions to be stolen by the state.
Kristallnacht opened a new chapter in the Nazi extermination project. To that point, the regime had used murder as a means to terrorize Jews into emigrating. After the November pogrom, it was suddenly thinkable that murder might mutate into an end in itself—into outright genocide, a word that had not yet been coined.
So it was not possible to establish November 9 as the new German national day after the country’s reunification. That honor was set for October 3, the date of the legal union of the two Germanys in 1990.
Yet November 9 retains its place in memory as Germany’s “day of fate,” the date—like Tisha B’Av on the Hebrew calendar—on which history again and again seems to turn.
On November 9, 1848, the German democrat Robert Blum was shot to death by a Habsburg firing squad in Vienna. Blum’s execution would be interpreted after his death as the final extinguishing of the liberal hopes of 1848 that Germany could overthrow its kings and princes and be united as a liberal republic. Germany would be united, all right, but as an authoritarian and militaristic regime under an emperor.
On November 9, 1918, the last of those emperors abdicated as his armies dissolved in defeat. Another German democrat, Philipp Scheidemann, would rush to the window of the Reichstag that same day to proclaim another attempt at a liberal republic, the one we remember as Weimar.
Five years later, a fascist agitator named Adolf Hitler attempted to topple that republic. After rousing his followers with an impassioned speech in a Munich beer hall on the night of November 8, he marched 3,000 Brownshirts into the center of the city the next morning. Hitler expected the city authorities to surrender to him. Instead, shots erupted, and more than a dozen Nazis were killed. One more lucky bullet could have altered world history. Instead, Hitler ran away with a dislocated shoulder.