Kristallnacht Lesson Plan | Facing History & Ourselves
Image showing the destruction resulting from Kristallnacht.


Students learn about the violent pogroms of Kristallnacht by watching a short documentary and then reflecting on eyewitness testimonies.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies




Two 50-min class periods
  • The Holocaust


About This Lesson

In the previous lessons, students explored the variety of methods the Nazis used to marginalize Jews and other supposedly inferior groups and to create a “national community” shaped according to Nazi racial ideals. In this lesson, students will continue this unit’s historical case study by learning about a major escalation of the Nazi campaign against Jews, the violent pogroms of Kristallnacht on November 9–10, 1938. Students will learn about these events by watching a short documentary and examining a range of firsthand accounts. They will then look closely at the range of choices made by individuals, groups, and countries—to participate in the attacks, to oppose them, to help the victims, or to look the other way—and connect those choices to universal concepts about human behavior in times of crisis.

Unit Essential Question: What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

What do the variety of responses to Kristallnacht teach us about the ways that people respond in times of fear and crisis?

  • Students will cite evidence from a mini-documentary to understand the historical significance of Kristallnacht as a major escalation of the Nazi campaign against Jews, and they will respond to the video testimony of a survivor of the pogroms to reflect on the personal impact of the violence and terror that occurred across Germany.
  • Students will define the terms perpetrator, victim, bystander, and upstander and use first-person testimonies about Kristallnacht to demonstrate how these roles that people play in times of fear and crisis do not describe fixed identities; individuals move into and out of these roles depending on circumstances.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 6 activities
  • 3 teaching strategies
  • 2 videos
  • 4 handouts
  • 6 readings, available in English and in Spanish
  • 2 assessments
  • 2 extension activities

In the second half of the 1930s, the Nazis became openly aggressive toward neighboring countries and increasingly violent against Jews and other targeted minorities within Greater Germany.

By 1935, Hitler’s efforts to rebuild the German military forces (which had begun in 1933 in violation of the Treaty of Versailles) became public, and Germany began taking steps toward expanding the Third Reich across all of Europe. The first steps included annexing Austria (an act known as the Anschluss) and the part of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland, territories inhabited by so-called “true Germans” who Hitler believed ought to be part of the Reich. Fearful of igniting a new world war, the leaders of other countries were unwilling to oppose with military force Hitler’s demands for these territories. As a result, Germany expanded into Austria and Czechoslovakia without firing a shot. (The Nazis’ plans to expand Germany’s “living space” are explored in more detail in the next lesson.)

The German takeover of Austria and the Sudetenland increased the number of Jews affected by Nazi restrictions, while at the same time discrimination intensified to the point where Jews were effectively removed from German public life. This meant that Germany’s aggressive steps to expand its borders touched off both an international political crisis, as world leaders scrambled to avoid war, and a humanitarian refugee crisis, as hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Jews, sought safety from the Nazis.

The ineffective international response deepened the peril in which Jews in the Reich found themselves. The danger became even more dire on November 9–10, 1938, in what was called Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass)—the worst outbreak of terror and violence against Jews all over Germany since the Nazis came to power.

On that night, according to the Nazi propaganda, “the German people” spontaneously took revenge on the Jewish people for the murder of a Nazi diplomat in Paris by a young Jewish man named Herschel Grynszpan. In reality, the violence had been planned and organized by the Nazis, and carried out by the SS, SA, Hitler Youth, and other Nazi groups.

By the morning of November 10, they had destroyed thousands of Jewish homes and businesses, and they had set fire to 191 synagogues, the centers of Jewish social and spiritual life, in every part of Greater Germany. Fire departments were instructed not to put out the fires but merely to stand by and make sure that adjacent property did not go up in flames. Although the exact figure is not known, it is likely that anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 Jews died as a result of the violence and 30,000 others were afterward sent to concentration camps. Two days later, the German government fined the Jewish community one billion marks for “property damaged in the rioting.”

In this lesson, students will learn about the events of November 9–10, 1938, and they will explore the choices a variety of people made during and after this violent crisis to participate in the violence, help those who were targeted, or look the other way. This lesson introduces important terms that help us understand this range of human behavior in times of crisis. The roles of perpetrator, victim, bystander, and upstander can be assumed by individuals, groups, or even nations. But it can be difficult to define each term clearly. For example, under the label upstander, we often list those who take a variety of actions, including resistance and rescue. However, upstanders might also include those who are able to maintain a part of their identity despite opposition, such as people who continue to secretly practice their religious faith or others who refuse to give up hope. The term bystander can be even more complicated. In most dictionaries, it means a person who is simply “standing by” or who is present without taking part in what is going on—a passive spectator. But some scholars, like psychologist Ervin Staub, believe that even passive spectators play a crucial role in defining the meaning of events by implicitly approving the actions of perpetrators. The choice not to act or speak up is still a choice.

It is important to recognize that it is not these labels themselves, as words, that matter; it is the way we think and talk about the actions (or inactions) of others that helps us both understand history and make connections to the choices we all make in the present. In addition, it is important to remember that individuals and groups usually do not fit into only one category. Instead, they may move into and out of these roles throughout their lives.

But studying this history and others with these terms in mind, despite those limitations, allows us to think about the agency of individuals, groups, and nations—their ability to recognize the options available to them and make choices that impact their own lives, the lives of others, and the course of history. By reflecting on the agency of individuals, groups, and nations in historical context, we can better understand the possibility and power of the choices available to us today.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this text set, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

  • The terms bystander and upstander are difficult to define clearly because they can apply to a variety of different kinds of choices in different circumstances. It is important that students understand the nuances of these two terms before applying them to choices from the past they learn about in this lesson and their own personal choices. To help you guide students through the nuances, make sure to read carefully the discussion of these terms in the Context section before teaching this lesson.
  • Students will be asked to develop their own definitions for each term before also considering dictionary definitions. They will reference the handout they use to define these terms when they study the Holocaust in later lessons, so it is important that they keep it accessible with their journals and notes.

The readings in this lesson vary in length, so you might consider in advance how you will group students for Activity 2 on Day 2 (Analyze Responses to Kristallnacht). One option is to create heterogeneous groupings of readers so the stronger readers can assist struggling ones with pacing, vocabulary, and comprehension. Alternatively, you might group students by level and work more closely with struggling readers to target specific literacy skills while allowing the more confident readers to tackle the content independently.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Pogrom
  • Perpetrator
  • Victim
  • Bystander
  • Upstander

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

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Lesson Plans

Day 1


Tell students that in this lesson they will learn about an explosion of violence against Jews in Germany in November 1938, and they will examine the choices a variety of individuals made in response to these events. Then ask them to respond in their journals to the following prompt:

What can we learn by thinking about the choices people make in times of fear and crisis?

After students have taken a few minutes to respond in writing, discuss their thoughts using the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy. Alternatively, you might ask some students to share their ideas with the class, keeping a list of what they can learn on the board or chart paper to add to over the course of the lesson.

  • Students will initially learn about what happened on November 9 and 10, 1938, by watching two videos: one in which historians discuss the causes, events, and aftermath, and another in which a survivor whose family was targeted on Kristallnacht describes her experiences. Students will hear the word pogrom in this lesson, so if they have not yet learned it, provide the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition:
    pogrom: an organized massacre of helpless people; specifically :such a massacre of Jews
  • Pass out the handouts “Kristallnacht”: The November 1938 Pogroms Viewing Guide and Kristallnacht Testimony Viewing Guide. Then show the video "Kristallnacht": The November 1938 Pogroms (09:40). There are powerful images of destruction in this video, so it is important that your students are able to watch the film and not focus solely on their papers. You might ask students to read the questions in advance, and then pause the film a few times to allow them to record their reactions, or give them time to write after viewing the film.
  • After briefly discussing students’ responses to the first video, show the next one, the video Elsbeth Lewin Remembers Kristallnacht (09:43). Students will record on the handout a phrase or sentence from Lewin’s testimony that resonates with them. When the video is over, ask students to also write a word or phrase that describes their experiences of hearing her account.
  • Use the Wraparound teaching strategy to provide each student with the opportunity to share both the sentence from the video they recorded and the words they chose to describe their experiences. If you have the space in your classroom, you might ask the students to form a circle and share their sentences in the first “wraparound” and their experiences of watching Elsbeth Lewin’s testimony in the second. Remind students that it is fine if multiple students chose similar sentences and used the same words to describe their personal responses.

So far in this lesson, students have encountered stories of escalating violence toward Jews in Nazi Germany in 1938 and a powerful firsthand account of Kristallnacht. Before ending the period, ask students to briefly respond to two prompts on an exit ticket to help you understand how they are processing what they have learned:

  • Write down one thing you learned or observed in class today that you found surprising or troubling.
  • Record one question, about history or human behavior, that arose for you in response to what you learned about in class today.

Day 2


Begin the second day of this lesson by acknowledging the exit cards that students completed at the end of the previous day. Point out any patterns that you noticed. It can be helpful for students to know that others had similar responses to emotionally challenging material they encountered. Hearing some of their peers’ questions can also help to promote more thoughtful and sensitive contributions from students as they proceed together into lessons about violence, war, and mass murder that will likely challenge them both emotionally and intellectually.

  • Students will now read about a variety of experiences and choices that people made in response to the pogroms that occurred on Kristallnacht. If necessary, remind students of their opening journal reflections about what we can learn about human behavior from reflecting on the choices people make in times of fear and crisis.
  • Remind the class that in the last class period, they heard Elsbeth Lewin’s testimony of surviving Kristallnacht and the deep impact that night had on her family. Explain that her story is just one example of how personal testimonies from those who lived through particular moments in history can help us understand more than simply what happened; they can help us consider the complexity of the dilemmas that individuals faced along with the deep emotional impact that can be felt over the course of a lifetime.
  • Tell students that today, they will be reading and analyzing a testimony about Kristallnacht with a group and then reporting on what they learned to the rest of the class.
  • Give each student a copy of the handout Decision-Making in Times of Fear and Crisis to record their notes. For now, they should only complete the first three columns of the handout. Because each reading includes information about the choices of more than one person or group, they should use as many rows of the grid on the handout as necessary to capture the choices they discussed.
  • Divide the class into small groups and assign each group one of the following readings:
  • After groups have completed their charts and the discussion question, have a spokesperson for each group report to the class about one of the choices made in the reading that the group discussed, the reasons the individual made that choice, the role that the choice played in perpetuating or preventing injustice, and what this source suggests about human behavior in times of fear and crisis.
  • After each spokesperson’s report, ask the class to respond by briefly discussing how each individual they learned about seems to define his or her universe of obligation and how that individual’s sense of responsibility toward others influenced his or her actions.
  • Studying Kristallnacht and the responses from individuals and nations to that event provides an opportunity to introduce students to terms that describe a range of human behavior in response to unjust and troubling actions. For the final activity of this lesson, students will use context clues to help establish the definitions of four concepts that can be used to describe this range of behavior. 1
  • Pass out the handout The Range of Human Behavior Vocabulary Terms and instruct students to use the context clues in the sentences of the first column to predict the definition of the underlined words.
  • After asking a few students to share their predicted meanings of each word and how they came to that conclusion, you can share the dictionary definition and have them record the information in the third column of the chart.
    • Perpetrator: A person carrying out a harmful, illegal, or immoral act.
    • Victim: A person being targeted by the harmful, illegal, or immoral acts of a perpetrator.
    • Bystander: A person who is present but not actively taking part in a situation or event.
    • Upstander: A person speaking or acting in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied.
  • Invite students to critique the dictionary definitions. Do they have any questions about these definitions? How are they similar to or different from the students’ own definitions? Are the dictionary definitions adequate, or do they need to be further revised?
  • You might point out to students that these dictionary definitions are written in the present tense (“carrying out” and “being targeted”) and ask them to consider the fact that a person may act as a perpetrator or bystander at one moment in time and be targeted as a victim at another moment in time. Therefore, these are roles that people play rather than permanent identities.
  • Then ask students to return to the handout Decision-Making in Times of Fear and Crisis from the previous activity and complete the fourth column by labeling the actions they identified as victim, perpetrator, bystander, and/or upstander behavior.
  • Finally, lead a discussion in which students reflect on the task of using these terms to label specific actions in the readings about Kristallnacht:
    • Which terms were hardest to define?
    • Which actions were most difficult to label?
    • What has analyzing the variety of responses to Kristallnacht suggested to you about the ways people often respond to episodes of violence and terror?
    • What roles can people who are not targeted by violence and terror play in perpetuating or preventing injustice?
  • 1Kelly Gallagher, Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4–12 (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2004), 77–78.


Collect the handouts used in this lesson to assess students’ understanding of the range of human behavior and how they are analyzing the choices individuals made in response to Kristallnacht.

Apply the Text-to-Text, Text-to-Self, Text-to-World teaching strategy by assigning students to make connections to resources from this lesson. They can choose one or more of the readings or videos they encountered in this lesson and write a paragraph that describes how those stories connect to other literature, histories, current events, or personal experiences they know about. It is important to give students the choice about which of these three types of connections they want to write about, since their knowledge of literature, history, and, especially, their personal experiences will vary.

Extension Activities

The allegorical poem “The Hangman” by Maurice Ogden explores the consequences of inaction after a hangman arrives and constructs his gallows in the center of a small town. You can read The Hangman with your students. Conclude with an activity based on the Connect, Extend, Challenge strategy, in which students reflect on how the poem enhances their thinking about the range of choices in times of crisis and the reasons and explanations that bystanders might give for their choices.

For classes with older students, the primary source Nazi Telegram with Instructions for Kristallnacht, November 10, 1938 details the instructions sent from Reinhard Heydrich, major general of the SS, on November 10, 1938, that explained to local German officers how to carry out the anti-Jewish measures that became known as Kristallnacht. Consider sharing this document with students and asking the students to reflect in their journals on the following prompt:

What new, different, or deeper understanding of Kristallnacht do you have as a result of reading this Nazi telegram? What new questions does the document raise for you?

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