The news story which appeared across the world on October 24th held a slight irony. Yaron Svornay, an Israeli journalist, claimed to have found relics of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass, in a dump on the outskirts of Berlin. German locals in the area indicated that after the atrocities of November 8-9, 1938, when more than 200 synagogues and thousands of German Jewish homes and businesses were looted and destroyed, the government had hauled several hundred tons of debris to the site. Svornay, who only recovered a few items that could be said to clearly validate the spot as a Kristallnacht mausoleum, has asked the German government to excavate the dump to prove its historicity. To date, the government has shown no interest in such an undertaking,
There is a good reason for their reticence. Kristallnacht, whose 70th Anniversary fell this week, is an event most Germans would probably rather forget. The pogrom unleashed against the Jews of Germany and Austria on those two days is a reminder of one of the darkest episodes in a very dark period. For Kristallnacht culminated nine centuries of state sanctioned pogroms against European Jewish communities. The word “pogrom” is actually a Russian word coined to describe state tolerated or sanctioned violence against ethnic groups. And true to form, the Russians, by the late 19th Century, had transformed the pogrom into something of a governmental art form – the most vicious and coordinated attacks against Jewish villages occurring in 1881-82 following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II and in 1905 with the brutal murders and rapes of Kishniev. During the Russian Civil War, both Red and White Armies, remembering their anti-Semitic training, perpetrated unspeakable acts of violence against Jewish communities throughout Russia. In one such attack, my own family suffered a devastating tragedy, when my maternal great-grandparents were burned alive in a Kiev synagogue. Their youngest son (my grandfather) was saved only when he was flung by his father from a second storey window.
The events of November 1938,however, took the pogrom to a new historic level. Germans from left to right, socialist to fascist, prided themselves on the differences that existed between themselves and their Slavic neighbors to the north. The thought of mobs rioting through city streets, given a free hand by police and the army to ransack private property and murder at will, rebelled against all their cultured dispositions. While millions of ordinary Germans may have been deeply anti-Semitic and already inured to Nazi brutality, nothing could have prepared them for the extent of the violence of those two days and nights. While lurid newspaper accounts around the world reported the scale of the destruction and massacre (in addition to the unparalleled physical destruction, over 100 Jews were murdered and 20,000 sent to concentration camps) Germans awoke on the morning of November 10th to the unhappy reality that the Russian north had come to Germany.
It was also not lost on the Nazi leadership that Kristallnacht fell two days shy of the 20th anniversary of the Armistice which brought about the surrender of the German army in the First World War. That humiliation, which had scarred the psyches of countless Germans, had been blamed squarely on the Jews – a libel that Adolf Hitler utilized to extraordinary effect in summoning support for his twelve year long anti-Semitic campaign.
The reality is that Kristallnacht was never designed as an attempt to teach the Jews a lesson. Instead, it was planned to inform the German people that in the 20th Century German Jewish citizens could be robbed, beaten and murdered and no one would intervene, much less protest. In fact, the tepid response of the democracies (who still fumbled, hoodwinked, in the darkening shadows of Munich), confirmed that the German people would be able to settle their Jewish problem without too much concern about what the rest of the world might think. In this way, the citizens of Germany were being psychologically prepared for a far more grisly undertaking – dispatching the entire Jewish population of Europe.
In our own day, we can see how well the lessons of Kristallnacht have been absorbed by dictatorial regimes. The governments of Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Chile, Guatemala and Nicaragua have all, over the past 60 years, staged their own performances of Kristallnacht which have then led to greater depredations against their own populations. But more ominous still is the way in which restive minorities within democratic states are beginning to sense how rioting – or the mere threat of it- can be used to intimidate a majority population. The Los Angeles riots of 1992, the French riots of 2005 and the Danish Cartoon riots of 2006 all possess echoes of Kristallnacht. Without a firm and unequivocal response to such violence, the continued manipulation of minority grievances and the willingness to exact retribution against a dominant culture, may become more a hallmark of modern democratic life than any of us care to envisage.
The Jews of 1930s Germany, for all the suffering they had already endured, were not out of their minds in believing that “the pogrom” was a thing of the past and that such an event could never occur modern day Germany. The shock of discovery that beneath the facade of German civility raged a barbaric blood lust that would not be quenched by the mere enactment of discriminatory laws, is a reminder to us all that nothing should be taken for granted. The notion that one can negotiate with a country whose leaders sanction violence against their own population or that states in general should seek to appease their own minority groups who seek to intimidate through violence, should be dismissed as dangerous delusions. The recently discovered relics of Kristallnacht in a Berlin dump, therefore represent far more than the ghost of a distant anti-Semitic event; they are the reminders of how quickly supposed civility can transform into barbarity and how vigilant must the West remain in assessing the re-emergence of atavistic forces which impel state sanctioned violence and encourage mob rule.
Avi Davis is the Executive Director and Senior Fellow of the American Freedom Alliance.