The lessons of Kristallnacht are still with us — as Jew hate grows and reasserts itself

Kristallnacht is remembered and commemorated as a historical event. But its legacy, and the hatreds that were behind it, are reasserting themselves. We have to remember never to be a bystander, says Colin Shindler


Kristallnacht took place on the night of November 9 and 10 1938 as a planned act of revenge for the killing of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by a seventeen Jewish youth, Herschel Grynszpan. 200 synagogues were burned to the ground, thousands of Jewish shops and homes ransacked, 30,000 sent to Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen and 100 killed.

During Kristallnacht, Jews were trampled to death and thrown out of windows. Teachers led their pupils from the classroom to the synagogue and encouraged them to tear Torah scrolls and to play football with prayer books.

The banker, Emil Kraemer took his own life — one of several Jews who committed suicide rather than face the mob. Jewish cemeteries were desecrated in Hanover and Vienna. At Soden near Frankfurt, a Jewish hospital was closed down and its patients left to fend for themselves.

In Caputh near Potsdam, 100 children were thrown out of a children’s home. Many of them were orphans who were forced to walk the streets to find a Jewish home willing to take them in.

While some condemned what had happened, a Protestant pastor in Munich said that all this was God’s will, citing Matthew 27-25, that the blood of Christ had stained the hands of the Jews.

Why then did this seventeen-year old feel constrained to murder a German diplomat?

Grynszpan’s family was among the thousands of stateless Polish Jews expelled from Germany and now located in the limbo of Zbaszyn on the Polish-German border.

In March 1938, the Polish government legislated that Poles living abroad could be stripped of their citizenship if they had acted to the detriment of the state.

In early October the Polish Minister of the Interior announced that anyone returning to Poland would now require a special stamp for entry into the country.

The Germans enthusiastically cancelled the residence permits of such stateless Jews in their own country and transported them in trains to the Polish border where they were refused entry.

Herschel Grynszpan had been born in Germany but his parents had never acquired German citizenship despite having lived in the country for almost three decades. Close to 10,000 Jews, including Grynszpan’s family, were now marooned in deteriorating, insanitary conditions while both Poles and Germans refused to budge. Jews had to walk the last seven kilometres to the border station at Zbaszyn where there was nothing to eat or drink. Jews crowded onto the station platform where disease and despondency quickly set in.

Kristallnacht symbolised the plight of the refugee, disowned and detested — those whom no one wanted.

Given all this, what has led to today’s resurgence of antisemitism in the western world? Why Charlottesville — why did young men chant “Jews will not replace us”? Why is George Soros characterised as un-Hungarian and a traitor to national values? Why does Jeremy Corbyn repeatedly fail to recognise antisemitic caricatures and comments amidst proud claims of being a life-long anti-racist? Why white supremacism? Why Pittsburgh?

Both the far Right and the far Left have internationally shown their disdain for Jews — but why have some in political leadership in the US become enablers of those who utter antisemitic tropes?

Whereas Richard Nixon would privately commit his antisemitic comments to the tape recorder, today public figures publicly provide the rhetorical foundation for the overt racism of others.

Perhaps the central reason why Jews today are the target for both Right and Left is that they understand what it means to be ‘the other’ – to be the same but also to be different, to conform but also to dissent, to ask difficult questions when all around prefer silence.

In times of adversity, there is a craving for strong leaders who command and do not discuss. There is a demand for simplicity — easy black and white solutions — rather than the complexities of reality. There is an imperative to do away with the old order, to banish the elites, to demonise opponents and to bang the drum for a national rebirth.

Another feature of our times is the silence of seasoned politicians who easily swim in the same sewer in the subterranean belief that the present is merely temporary and that fate will undoubtedly bring a better tomorrow.

The conservative politicians, Brüning and Von Papen, facilitated Hitler’s rise to power in the belief that they could control him. The Catholic Centre Party voted for the Enabling Law on 23 March 1933 which allowed Hitler to rule without parliament for four years.

It is often said that the Jews are the canary in the mine of humanity, that they instinctively smell the gas. It is not by accident that they were disproportionately represented amongst dissidents in the USSR, amongst opponents in apartheid South Africa, amongst civil rights workers in the United States. History’s heretics, yesterday, today 
and tomorrow.

In Norway, Anders Breivik spoke of ‘white genocide’ in 2011. In Charleston, Dylan Roof said that ‘Europe is the homeland of the white people’ in 2015. In New Zealand, Brenton Tarrant spoke of ‘the great replacement of whites’ in March 2019. In El Paso in August of this year, Patrick Crusius believed that he was defending the US against ‘a Hispanic invasion’.

In Pittsburgh, one year ago, Jews were accused by Gregory Bowers of assisting these ‘invaders’.

What links all these murderers in their savagery? It is the belief that the Jews are the Machiavellian force behind a grand scheme to replace whites where blacks and hispanics provide the muscle. It is the belief that the Jews are working towards the mongrelisation of different groups so that whites will disappear. It is the belief that Jews are influencing whites to become more liberal and in so doing, cover up ‘the crimes of ethnic minorities’. It is the belief that Jews are no more than a fifth column – instigators of an elite plot to propagate multiculturalism and unrestricted immigration, that they oppose the notion that the nation is the be-all and end-all in politics, that Jews deviously support the unfair status quo by duplicitously defending the rule of law.

If in the twentieth century, nationalists had regarded Judeo-Bolshevism as the root of all evil, in the twenty-first century, they look upon Judeo-liberalism as its updated version.

Indeed, Hannah Arendt wrote that authoritarianism flourishes when there is an alliance between the elite and the mob. Those who stand in the path of this unholy alliance become targets of retribution.

On the day after Kristallnacht, Goering presided over a meeting of 100 government and Nazi party officials. He stated that Hitler, following the success of the Anschluss with Austria and the Munich Agreement with Great Britain, now felt that the time had come to deal with the Jews.

Only half of Germany’s Jews had emigrated since 1933. Following Kristallnacht, it was important, he argued, to continue expropriating Jewish property and to transfer these assets into Aryan hands — and this would expedite a wave of emigration. Goering joked that Jews could be moved to areas of dense forest where they would be indistinguishable from the moose because of their long noses.

Goering also made a prescient comment at this meeting on November 12 1938. He said: “If the Reich were to become embroiled in an international conflict in the foreseeable future, it goes without saying that we here in Germany would also consider it our first task to engage in a major settling of accounts with the Jews.”

In hindsight, we all understand what this meant. In 2019, It is self-evident that the lesson from history is that no one should be a bystander.

This is an abridged version 
of an address, given by Professor 
Colin Shindler last Monday 
at Duquesne University, 
Pittsburgh on the 81st anniversary 
of Kristallnacht.

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