Germany recalls Kristallnacht as anti-Semitism, nationalism on rise

In recent years across Germany on November 9, people have polished brass plaques embedded in pavements bearing the names of Jewish victims. (AFP pic)

BERLIN: Germany on Friday remembered victims of the Nazi pogrom that heralded the Third Reich’s drive to wipe out Jews, at a time when anti-Semitism and nationalism are resurgent in the West.

In a speech at the Bundestag marking the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the violence on November 9, 1938 marked “the incomparable break from civilisation, Germany’s fall into barbarism”.

Germany must never look away again if “some try again to speak for the ‘real people’ and seek to exclude” those with a different religion or skin colour, he said.

In a clear reference to a growing far-right movement in Germany, Steinmeier warned against a “new, aggressive nationalism” that “conjures up an idyllic past that never existed”.

Joining Steinmeier and Jewish leaders at a ceremony later at Germany’s biggest synagogue, Chancellor Angela Merkel underlined that Kristallnacht happened after a creeping process in which anti-Semitism was first tolerated, and later encouraged.

Exclusion, racism or anti-Semitism must be stamped out from the start, Merkel said.

“Easy answers, which often go with a coarsening of the discourse on the streets and in the Internet, that’s a start that we must decisively counter,” she said.

“We are remembering with the conviction that the democratic majority must stay vigilant.”

Why aren’t the firemen coming?
Eight decades ago on this day, Nazi thugs murdered at least 90 Jews, torched 1,400 synagogues across Germany and Austria and destroyed Jewish-owned shops and businesses.

The pretext for the coordinated action was the fatal shooting on November 7, 1938, of a German diplomat in Paris by a Polish Jewish student.

The Nazis rounded up and deported at least 30,000 Jews to concentration camps and made Jews pay “compensation” for the damage caused to property.

Charlotte Knobloch, former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, recalled walking through town that day with her father.

“I saw the smouldering synagogue and asked: why aren’t the firemen coming? I got no reply,” she told public broadcaster ZDF.

The brutal rampage marked the point at which local persecution of Jews became systematic, culminating in the Holocaust that claimed some six million lives.

Neo-Nazis emboldened
Like in years past, people knelt on November 9 to polish “Stolpersteine” (stumbling stones) — coaster-sized brass plaques embedded in pavements bearing the names of Jewish victims in front of their former homes.

But in Berlin last year, 16 plaques were stolen just before the Kristallnacht anniversary.

The far-right AfD is now the biggest opposition party in Germany’s parliament, even though its key members have challenged the country’s culture of atonement over World War II and the Holocaust.

On the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, also known in Germany as Reichspogromnacht, far-right militants had called a demonstration in Berlin, but only a handful turned up.

In comparison, hundreds of counter-demonstrators mobilised against the far-right march.

“The idea that right-wing extremists are going to march through the government district in the dark, possibly with burning candles, is unbearable,” said Berlin’s interior minister Andreas Geisel.

“We must not tolerate open right-wing extremism under the cover of freedom of speech.”

Across the Atlantic, the United States suffered its worst anti-Semitic attack last month when 11 people were gunned down at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

No respect
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, noted the “frightening climate of anti-Semitism and xenophobia currently spreading across Europe and the United States”.

“The far right is gaining power at an alarming speed, and neo-Nazis are feeling emboldened to march in the streets shouting hateful slurs and advocating the most dangerous brands of nationalism and hatred.”

The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, called out the AfD, accusing it of fomenting hate against refugees, Muslims or Jews.

The AfD has “perfected this incitement. They are intellectual agitators. They have no respect for anything… they mock the survivors of the Shoah by relativising the crimes… and seek to destroy our culture of remembrance,” he said, using a Hebrew reference to the Holocaust.

Schuster said that, unlike in the 1930s, “today we are democratic enough” to combat racist nationalism, but he stressed that future generations have to be inoculated against such hate.

Felix Klein, Germany’s commissioner on fighting anti-Semitism, also said that “our democracy today is stable, strong”.

“At the same time, these values need to be brought back to the fore, and defended.”