The Road from Kristallnacht: Unlearning the Past
Seventy-Five years ago tomorrow, on 12 November 1944, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle laid a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It commemorated the multitudes who had fallen during World War I. Churchill, De Gaulle and many others who gathered there on that cold November day must have quietly reflected: ‘Why did this happen again? How could we have allowed this conflagration to take place? Why Hitler? Why Nazism? Why did we fail? After all, the Great War of 1914-1918 was the war to end all wars.
For the Jews in Paris on that day, the question was ‘Why the Shoah?’ In World War II, 75,000 French Jews had been ‘deported to the East’, 97% did not return. Five hundred Jews were deported in the last transportation from Paris on 31 July 1944, just a few weeks before the city’s liberation.
The laying of the wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier symbolised the twilight zone between the light of freedom and the darkness of continuing occupation. The war was not over. Hitler was firing V-1 and V-2 rockets at civilians in England. The Battle of the Bulge was about to take place.
Seventy-Five years ago the anniversary of Kristallnacht was the last to be commemorated with Nazism still in power, the last Kristallnacht before Jews could dance on Hitler’s grave.
Seventy-Five years ago, on 7 November 1944, President Roosevelt was elected for a fourth term. It was also the time when John Pehle, the Director of the War Refugee Board, asked that Auschwitz should be bombed as an act of moral outrage. The request was shelved by the US Administration. It was also the day that Hannah Szenes was executed by the Nazis – she had left the safety of her new home in Palestine and parachuted into Hungary in an attempt to save the community which had reared her.
On the following day, 8 November 1944, the death marches from Budapest to the Reich’s border at Hegyeshalom began. Instigated by Adolf Eichmann and the new fascist Arrow Cross government, thousands of Jews, clad in light clothing and without provisions, trudged in the biting wind and rain in the full bitterness of a Hungarian winter towards the border. Men, women and children, old and young, the able and the disabled – all were needed to provide the slave labour required to sustain the shrinking Reich. Trains were required for other purposes. Thousands died where they fell.
Seventy-Five years ago, the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, reacted to this situation by racing with his helpers to Hegyeshalom to rescue those Jews who had survived the march – those who possessed the schutzpass, the Swedish protective passport, bearing the insignia of the three crowns. In cooperation with the Red Cross, Wallenberg was able to deliver five truckloads of food and medicine. Through bluff and bravado, a disdain for the Nazis and the Arrow Cross fascists, Wallenberg was able to save hundreds of people. As history records, his reward was a short life and an uncertain death in one of Stalin’s execution chambers.
In Berlin Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, was angered by this initiative of the Swedes and the Swiss. He instructed his representative in Hungary to threaten the Arrow Cross government with ‘undesirable consequences’ if Hungary continued to allow diplomats of neutral nations to utilise the protective passports.
Ribbentrop’s uncompromising approach in late 1944 symbolised the attitude of many who could not accept the prospect of a shrinking Reich and the inevitability of defeat.
Many Germans were, of course, diehard Nazis and believed that the Fuhrer would reverse German fortunes. Others blurred patriotism for the Fatherland with loyalty to the Nazi state. Most feared the advance of the Red Army and the revenge that the Russians would wreak.
Seventy-Five years ago, the Germans began to demolish Auschwitz as the Red Army neared. The SS Guards there were awarded the Iron Cross for services rendered. Yet medical experiments on inmates at Neuengamme, Stutthof and a plethora of other camps continued.
On 12 November 1944, the RAF sank the pride of the German Navy, the battleship Tirpitz in Norway. As the ship sank, the men on it could be heard singing Deutschland Uber Allies. Around a thousand men went to their deaths.
Two days later, the Nazis hanged Bernard Letterhaus, a Catholic trade unionist, at Plötzensee prison in Berlin, for his part in the July plot to assassinate Hitler and bring an end to his regime. As history records, Hitler survived and ferociously exacted his revenge on all those who had participated. Letterhaus would have been appointed Minister of Reconstruction in the new Germany if the coup had succeeded.
All this happened 75 years ago around the anniversary of Kristallnacht. History is for all, but for some it is memory that matters. The Baal Shem Tov, the Jewish mystic of three centuries ago, commented that ‘Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption.’
It is for this reason that we gather here today – 81 years after the event. It is therefore important to try and understand the historical context in which Kristallnacht took place in 1938 and to understand its relevance for today.
As is well known, Kristallnacht took place on the night of 9 and 10 November 1938 as an act of revenge for the killing of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by a seventeen Jewish youth, Herschel Grynszpan – 200 synagogues burned to the ground, thousands of Jewish shops and homes ransacked, 30,000 sent to Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen, 100 killed.
During Kristallnacht, Jews were trampled to death and thrown out of windows. Old age homes and orphanages were attacked and emptied. In the smallest of villages ordinary people from all walks of life turned on their Jewish neighbours. 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 Bad 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 such as in the confessing church 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 Zbąszyń on the Polish German border. In March 1938, the Polish government had 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 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 actually 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 Zbąszyń where there was nothing to eat or drink. Jews crowded onto the station platform where disease and despondency quickly set in.
Otto Buchholtz who was deported to Zbąszyń wrote that ‘Women and children fainted, went insane; people died, faces turned yellow like wax. A veritable cemetery of corpses’.
Kristallnacht symbolised the plight of the refugee, disowned and detested – those whom no one wanted.
Not all Germans approved of this pogrom against the Jews. Even Goering felt that it would be counter-productive. It was one thing to feel humiliated at the terms of the Versailles Treaty and to welcome Hitler’s success in the return of pre-1918 territory, it was something else to become a gloating bystander at the destruction of places of worship. Das Schwarze Korps, the organ of the SS, was particularly annoyed at such quiet disapproval by German citizens. It described them as ‘a rabble worse than the Jews’. It told them:
The hour when we shall muzzle you has struck. We know that behind the hypocritical mask of your goodwill, your mildness, and your wordy humanitarianism is hidden nothing but the bestial cruelty of weak cowards. . . You are, in fact, the cruellest and most inhuman rabble which one could hope to meet. And you expect to be allowed to weep for the poor Jews unpunished. We will teach you differently.
The reaction of the western powers was one of deep anger and profound outrage. President Roosevelt said: ‘I could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a twentieth century civilisation.’ while former President Hoover accused the Nazis of taking Germany back 450 years to Torquemada’s expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Senator King of Utah demanded the severance of diplomatic relations. Editorials in the American press were scathing while Mayor LaGuardia of New York instructed that the police squad deputed to guard a visiting Nazi delegation should now consist only of Jews.
In the British parliament and press, there were similar expressions of outrage. Only the British Union of Fascists publicly claimed that the reports from Germany were ‘exaggerated’ – privately they vowed that ‘the Jews’ blood will soon flow here’.
Given all this, what has led to today’s resurgence of anti-Semitism 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 in England repeatedly fail to recognise anti-Semitic 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 anti-Semitic tropes? Whereas Richard Nixon would privately commit his anti-Semitic comments to the tape recorder, today public figures publicly provide the rhetorical foundation for the overt racism of others. In August of this year, Jews who voted for the Democrats were accused of ‘great disloyalty’. This subconscious accusation of double loyalty aroused the admiration of proud nationalists and the ire of Jewish organisations.
The Book of Proverbs says that the words of a man’s mouth are as deep waters. Yet shallow words are repeatedly launched from the lips of the powerful and continue to land in the psyche of those who preach hate and enjoy violence.
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. Is it by chance that both Mussolini and Putin have displayed this penchant to strip to the waist to impress their followers by their imaginary machismo? In Poland and Hungary there has been a push to rewrite the recent history of the past to fit a political agenda 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, to bang the drum for a national rebirth, to advocate a return to the values of the past, to lead a movement of change which will construct a different, more just future where no one will get left behind.
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, Heinrich Brüning and Franz 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.
In the Warsaw Ghetto, Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum interpreted Moses’s attempt to understand God’s fury when the Jews built a golden calf to worship. Nissenbaum placed these words in the mouth of Moses in order to explain to the God of Jewish history, the vagaries and foibles of the Jewish people:
Almighty God, look upon this people with favour, because what is now their greatest vice will one day be their most heroic virtue. They are indeed an obstinate people…But just as now they are stiff- necked in their disobedience, so one day they will be equally stiff-necked in their loyalty. Nations will call on them to assimilate, but they will refuse. Mightier religions will urge them to convert, but they will resist. They will suffer humiliation, persecution, even torture and death because of the name they bear and the faith they profess, but they will stay true to the covenant their ancestors made with You. They will go to their deaths saying Ani ma’amin, “I believe.” This is a people awesome in its obstinacy – and though now it is their failing, there will be times far into the future when it will be their noblest strength.
Rabbi Nissenbaum perished in the Warsaw Ghetto, but he understood that It is this belief that peculates the heart of even the most secular of Jews.
It is the right to ask questions, it is the right to treasure knowledge, it is the right to revere expertise, it is the right to appreciate intellectual endeavour, it is the right to care for ‘your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free’ – it is the right to be 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, 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.
In his work, Moses and Monotheism, Freud emphasised that the traditional place of the Jews in ‘the unconscious of the peoples’ was that they were regarded as ‘a chosen people’ and therefore worthy of hatred and resentment. In the mindset of white supremacists, this sentiment exists in 2019 as it did for past generations in 1939.
Can we learn from history, from Kristallnacht?
The historian, Michael Burleigh, in his book Sacred Causes encapsulated why Hitler came to power. He wrote:
Hitler came from a humble backwater on the peripheries of an empire. The Great War was the authentic experience that emotionally connected the listless drifter with millions of ordinary Germans who, like him, had also returned to the chaos and political strife of the Weimar Republic. It was a two-way process, like people trying to touch each other in a dark room. Hitler’s early supporters had ‘found their way’ to him, their faith giving their lives ‘new meaning and a new goal’ or something akin to the transforming experience of a religious conversion.
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. The Fuhrer, Goering told the audience, had authorised him to coordinate the regime’s approach to the Jewish question. 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.
Then Goering made a prescient comment at this meeting on 12 November 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. By 1945 the Allies had won the war, but the Jews had certainly lost it.
In 2019, It is self-evident that the lesson from history is that no one should be a bystander. Today on the anniversary of Kristallnacht all those years ago, it is still apposite to recall the words of Primo Levi from 1946:
this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.