The loanword "Kristallnacht" is most frequently described in English as "the night of broken glass". It's also called "crystal night", but that doesn't make sense to me because the night didn't involve crystals or valuable gemstones, apart from those being looted, or if someone with a grim sense of humour described broken glass as looking like crystals. (As a side note, scientifically speaking, glass is not a crystal)

Yet when I look up "Kristall", the definitions and examples I find are only those of "crystal", and none are to do with broken glass:

  1. English edition of Wiktionary describing the German word Kristall
  2. dict.cc
  3. linguee example sentences
  4. Google.de image search

Can "Kristall" mean "broken glass"?

  • 6
    No. Kristall can not mean broken glass. The alternate English name is merely descriptive, not a translation (at least not of Kristallnacht)
    – Chieron
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 13:56
  • 8
    @Chieron please don't use comments to answer questions. Use answers instead, thanks. Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 14:22
  • 4
    As you wrote yourself, glass is not a crystal. However, the misleading term Kristallglas (see also das Kristall) exists, which does not refer to its chemical structure but to its optical properties (i.e. refractive index).
    – user9551
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 16:35
  • I don't speak much German, but in English "crystal" is sometimes used to mean "glass" (eg Merriam-Webster "a clear colorless glass of superior quality; also : objects or ware of such glass"); the word (both English and German afaik) comes from Latin crystallus, meaning "ice" (and that originally came from a similar Greek word.)
    – rici
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 17:25
  • What @Loong says. Swarovski crystals, for instance, are just polished and glorified pieces of lead glass. You could say it‘s (deliberately) broken glass.
    – Crissov
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 19:58

4 Answers 4


The Kristallnacht/Crystal night is called in German Novemberpogrome 1938, (Reichs-)Kristallnacht or Reichspogromnacht. In school, I learned that we should avoid Reichskristallnacht and better use Reichspogromnacht, because Kristallnacht is downplaying the horror of the night.

In the German wikipedia article is written:

Viele Augenzeugen der Pogrome erinnerten sich an damals umlaufende Ausdrücke wie Glasnacht, Gläserner Donnerstag und Kristallnacht, die auf die an diesem Tag zersplitterten Fensterscheiben jüdischer Häuser anspielten.

Many eyewitnesses of the pogroms remembered hearing terms such as glass night, glassy Thursday or Crystal night. Those terms all refer to the broken glass windows of jewish houses. (my translation)

Here you find an photo showing some destruction and scattered glass.

So to answer your question, no crystal night or the German Kristallnacht has nothing to do with gemstones, and no, broken glass is not called crystal in everyday life. But in the Novemberpogrome 1938 a lot of glass was broken and there were fires in the streets, so the sparkling of the broken glass on the street might have looked like beautiful sparkling gemstones (especially, if you were a Nazi and loved the terror).

  • 1
    Where were you told to use "Reichsprogromnacht" instead of "Kristallnacht"? In my opinion, the very fact that "Kristallnacht" combines just two harmless words makes it the more frightening. And Progrome have happened in many places, at many times. Kristallnacht was one unique event that marked the starting point of an altogether new level of prosecution.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 23:10
  • 4
    @gnasher729, in school, in Southern Germany
    – Iris
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 9:36
  • 2
    I'd say that history teacher (I assume it was a history teacher) should teach kids what happened. The word "Kristallnacht" may have been downplaying what happened when it was invented many years ago. Today it is a word with one very specific meaning.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 21:45
  • 4
    @gnasher729: I, too, was cautioned at school against saying "Kristallnacht", precisely because it gives a wrong impression of what happened. After all, a "night of crystal" sounds like something really precious and beautiful, not at all like the pain, damage, and violence of that night. Given that the word "Pogrom", at least combined to "Pogromnacht", is rarely used nowadays in German unless specifically referring to the "Reichskristallnacht", the term seems sufficiently unique to me. Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 16:03
  • 2
    @gnasher729 Combining two harmless words does not make it more frightening, but is a euphemism that hides the terror that happened. It's not about a teacher explaining kids what happened, but it's about not romanticising someting. Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 23:30

The word "Kristallnacht" refers to the specific event, celebrating the broken glass, destruction, terror, and murder as something precious (to the Nazis). "Kristall", here, does not name broken glass, it glorifies it.

As such, the word "Kristallnacht" should be used with utmost care, and not at all outside of its historic context.

There is a certain high-quality glassware(*) that is called "Kristallglas" (which might, actually, be shortened to "Kristall"), but the context is completely different -- and if it's broken, it's zerbrochenes Kristallglas, or zerbrochenes Kristall, not just "Kristall", full stop, except perhaps in the past tense ("Das war Kristall!").

(*): Paraphrasing the German WP article, "Kristallglas" is not crystaline, but amorph like other glass types. It contains metal oxides or -ions, giving it a higher refraction index and reflection.


To answer your last question:

No, Kristall never means "broken glass", irrespective of the context - at least in contemporary speech. It usually just means "crystal".

But the stem word can also be used an adjective or as a part of one, e.g. "kristallklar" which means "crystal-clear" or "almost invisible". Sometimes, that adjective is even part of a noun, e.g. "Kristallweizen" ("crystal wheat beer").

According to the German Wikipedia, "Kristallnacht" indeed refers its etymology to splittered glass but beside that I've never heard any other word beginning with Kristall or Kristall itself in that meaning.

  • 3
    Actually, "Kristall" can be used in the context of "glass" - Like in Beim Streit in der Chefetage wurde viel Kristall zerschlagen. This refers to the term "Kristallglas" that is sometimes used for high-quality glassware (Like champaign glasses). And does not have any connotation to the "Reichskristallnacht" IMHO.
    – tofro
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 19:33
  • 1
    I've never heard it in that way. It really has historical sounding. I don't think it's still used in contemporary texts/speech (maybe in some regions/dialects?). But this is the internet - feel free to proof by pointing a link to a contemporary source.
    – MRalwasser
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 19:49
  • Holger Wissel, "Schnauze Wessi: Pöbeleien aus einem besetzten Land"
    – tofro
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 21:20
  • 2
    The word "crystal" meaning "fine glassware" is very common and is in widespread contemporary use. Many well-known high-quality glassware manufacturers have/had the word in their name, for example "Waterford Crystal", see waterfordvisitorcentre.com Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 21:59
  • @PeterFlynn That's true. But that doesn't conclude that it also means broken glass.
    – MRalwasser
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 0:05

"Tafelkristall" refers to facetted glasses, usually wine glasses. "Kristalleuchter" are lamps hanged with such facetted glasses. They were quite more popular a century ago and an inherent part of table finery as well as family heirlooms. As a status symbol, they were useful as a focusing point of class/property envy, one of the rallying points of bourgeoisie-targeting antisemitism.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of the shards in the streets were of different origin, but "Reichskristallnacht" was a propaganda term in the first place.

  • A propaganda term used by anti-nazi propagandists, or anti-Jewish propagandists?
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 9:58
  • Shortly after the events: The former - The term was used to express sarcasm and maybe express a minimal amount of hidden criticism. After the NSDAP came across the term, they adopted it, so the latter. From then, it was actually an attempt to diminish what had happened. For that reasons, there was actually an extensive discussion whether it would be an acceptable term to use or not.
    – tofro
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 10:50
  • 2
    This answer is wrong. It was not a propaganda term initially. It was a local slang term coined in Berlin, years later adopted by the NSDAP and prepended with "Reichs" (because everything was "Reichs-..." back then), and after the war used as derogatory anti-propaganda term by the SPD who then tried to smut anyone using the word unwittingly (or deliberately because that's what they thought was the right word) as someone who deliberately euphemizes what happened that night.
    – Damon
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 14:11
  • See lyricsmode.com/lyrics/b/bap/kristallnaach.html for some reasonably modern and deeply frightening use of the word.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 23:18
  • 1
    Wikipedia has some cited statements: „[…] den 8./9. November 1938, den man doch nicht, Herr Bundesjustizminister, als ‚sogenannte Reichskristallnacht‘ bezeichnen sollte. Das ist ein blutiger Berliner Witz gewesen, weil man sich damals nicht anders zu helfen wusste.“ and "so sagte der Funktionär Wilhelm Börger im Juni 1939 auf dem Gautag der NSDAP in Lüneburg:[89] „Die Sache geht als Reichskristallnacht in die Geschichte ein (Beifall, Gelächter).“
    – tofro
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 10:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.