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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Kristallnacht - Remembrance and Vigilance

Today marks 75 years since Kristallnacht, the 'night of broken glass', in which Nazi brownshirts and German civilians rampaged through Jewish neighbourhoods in Germany, destroying synagogues, businesses, buildings, houses and apartments. Approximately 100 Jews were killed that night, and around 30,000 were imprisoned in concentration camps.

Kristallnacht was allegedly a response to the assassination of a German diplomat by a German-born Polish Jew. However, it is likely that it would have happened anyway; if not that night, then certainly not long after. Hitler's Mein Kampf foreshadowed what was to come. He blamed the Jews for Germany's loss in World War I and for the economic crisis in Germany, amongst other things. Hitler believed in patriotism, nationalism and racial purity.

Kristallnacht is generally seen as the beginning of the Final Solution that culminated in the Holocaust, which saw the genocide of at least 6 million Jews and other 'undesirables'. However, Hitler began his campaign for the purity of Germany years before this.

In 1933, he incarcerated Communists and Social Democrats. He also targeted dissidents, gypsys, homosexuals, the mentally ill and the physically lame.

Who spoke up?

Some Germans claim that they didn't know of the massacres that were occuring in the concentration camps, however, they did know of the arrests, of the incarcerations because these were reported in newspapers and obvious on the streets as people were arrested and taken away. Few, if any spoke up. In their defence, it would have been a brave and frightening thing to protest the persecution as they would also have been incarcerated.

Hitler's persecution of those he didn't like is a pertinent reminder today that we must speak up against injustice, in all its forms. Across the globe, politics is becoming more and more aggressive with arguments aimed at specific people or groups. We see attacks on other religions and political ideologies, as well as on homosexuality or other 'undesirable' traits.

In Australia, there is the forced incarceration of asylum seekers, victims of persecution in their own land and victims of persecution in the 'civilised' society of Australia. In the USA, we see the rage against Obamacare and the wild accusations of it being Socialism. In the West, there have been numerous groups attacking the 'welfare' state, claiming that it makes people lazy and dependent. Yet, if not for welfare, who would care for those in need? If not, for socialised medicine who would care for the sick?

The polemic vitriol of modern politics sounds a lot like the arguments Hitler used to justify his persecution of Jews, Communists, Socialists, homosexuals, gypsys, the sick and lame, and anyone else who didn't fit his ideal of what a German should be.

On the anniversary of Kristallnacht, we must never forget just how slippery the slope is from 'patriotism' to persecution to pogrom.

Martin Niemöller was a German pastor who opposed Communism and initially supported Hitler. He liked what Hitler had to say. It resonated with his Christian belief and German nationalism. When he was incarcerated in 1937, it became personally clear that he'd been very wrong to not have spoken up earlier.

Niemöller is accredited with a number of quotes. The most famous being:

'When the Nazis came for the communists,
 I remained silent,
 I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,

I remained silent,
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,

I did not speak up,
because I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for me,

there was no one left to speak out'.

This quote has been modified numerous times, but is the one listed on the Martin Niemöller Foundation's website (1):

I'm referencing Niemöller because his quotes are particularly relevant today.

Niemöller wrote (2) about whose fault the Holocaust was. It may well have been orchestrated by Hitler and the Nazis, but it was allowed to happen by the people:

'This should be our starting point, and with this very thing in mind, we have to start in earnest. Nobody wants to take the responsibility of the guilt, no one of our German people is guilty, everybody shoves the guilt over to his neighbor. The local official says: I was only a little man, the whole guilt lies with you, Herr local commander; and he, in turn says: I did not wrong anybody; I only obeyed orders. The whole guilt lies with you, you of the Gestapo. But the latter don't want it either and finally everything lands on Himmler and Hitler. These are the greatest sinners, who cannot throw the guilt on others anymore, even if they did try to do so before their death. Can it disappear into thin air this way? The guilt exists, there is no doubt about it. Even if there were no other guilt than that of the six million clay urns, containing the ashes of burnt Jews from all over Europe. And this guilt weighs heavily on the German people and on the German name and on all Christendom. For these things happened in our world and in our name. Can we of the Confessional Church have nothing to do with it? Can we say that the church triumphed on all the fronts?'

Niemöller was in no doubt about the acquiescent role that the church played in supporting Hitler's genocide and persecutions in this speech he gave on 6 January 1946 and which was published in 'Die deutsche Schuld, Not und Hoffnung' ('The German guilt, misery and hope') (3):

'When Pastor Niemöller was put in a concentration camp we wrote the year 1937; when the concentration camp was opened we wrote the year 1933, and the people who were put in the camps then were Communists. Who cared about them? We knew it, it was printed in the newspapers. Who raised their voice, maybe the Confessing Church? We thought: Communists, those opponents of religion, those enemies of Christians - "should I be my brother's keeper?" Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. - I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it's right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn't it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? -- Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started talking, until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we aren't guilty/responsible? The persecution of the Jews, the way we treated the occupied countries, or the things in Greece, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia or in Holland, that were written in the newspapers. … I believe, we Confessing-Church-Christians have every reason to say: mea culpa, mea culpa! We can talk ourselves out of it with the excuse that it would have cost me my head if I had spoken out. … We preferred to keep silent. We are certainly not without guilt/fault, and I ask myself again and again, what would have happened, if in the year 1933 or 1934 - there must have been a possibility - 14,000 Protestant pastors and all Protestant communities in Germany had defended the truth until their deaths? If we had said back then, it is not right when Hermann Göring simply puts 100,000 Communists in the concentration camps, in order to let them die. I can imagine that perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 Protestant Christians would have had their heads cut off, but I can also imagine that we would have rescued 30-40,000 million [sic] people, because that is what it is costing us now'.

Kristallnacht and its ramifications must never be forgotten. We must remember the Jews who were murdered that night, the 30,000 who were taken away, most to their deaths in concentration camps.  We must also remember that it was done with the complicity and open support of most Germans, including the church.

Although most countries don't have death camps, in many cases we are complicit in the persecution of others, either because we fail to help or to speak out against injustice. We cannot defend oppression, even if it is our own country that it doing it.

Sinclair Lewis published a novel in 1935 entitled 'It can't happen here', in which he depicted the rise of a Fascist president in the USA on the back of a 'populist platform, promising to restore the country to prosperity and greatness', playing the patriotism and 'traditional values' card. In commenting on this book, journalist Harrison Salisbury (4) wrote:

'Sinclair Lewis aptly predicted in It Can't Happen Here that if fascism came to America it would come wrapped in the flag and whistling 'The Star Spangled Banner'.

We must remain vigilant against the insidious nature of politics that panders to fear, xenophobia and prejudice, for those who condone such politics are guilty of human rights violations through abrogating their moral duty to defend others from injustice, persecution and oppression.


1. Martin Niemöller Foundation, The quote, accessed 9 November 2013.

2. New York: Philosophical Library, 1947 [79 pp. 21 cm.], Of Guilt and Hope, by Martin Niemöller, accessed 9 November 2013.

3. Harold Marcuse, Martin Niemöller's famous quotation: "First they came for the Communists ... ", accessed 9 November 2013.

4. Stephen Wylder, Sinclair Lewis never said it; the rules of misquotation, accessed 9 November 2013.

1 comment:

  1. the rise of racism hiding behind the banner of patriotism is a sad inditement of our fedral polititions and our society as a whole, i heard somehwere that %77 of australians are racist and my personel experience has convinced me it is probably higher, when racist movements like reclaim australia gain 10 X the support of anti racist movements you know theres something sick in our society....claiming that islam is not a race and therefore its ok to discriminate against them is as stupid as saying jews are not a race and therefore it was ok to exterminate them...we are on a slippery slope at the moment if someone doesnt put the brakes on this rampant patriotism soon its going to end in bloodshed.