Kristallnacht: Seventy years later

By The Hon. David Kilgour on November 13, 2008

It is a challenge to address the stark issues posed by the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. One difficulty is that too many in my own spiritual community (Christian) stood by during the worst catastrophe in all of recorded history.There were exceptions-some famous, some virtually unknown—but most Christians in Europe and elsewhere, including Canada, did not do enough to love and care for our Jewish neighbours as ourselves. Another is drawing two effective lessons from the Holocaust of practical use today in Canada and elsewhere.

Kristallnachtt (“night of broken glass”) was about much more than glass. Seventy years ago agents of Adolf Hitler murdered 92 Jewish Germans and arrested more than 25,000 others for deportation to concentration camps. The spark had been struck two days earlier when a 17-year-old Jewish boy, enraged by his family’s expulsion from Germany, entered the German embassy in Paris and wounded one of its diplomats. When the man died two days later, a carefully-planned campaign of violence against Jewish Germans was unleashed. It included the destruction of more than 200 synagogues and the looting of tens of thousands of their homes and businesses. It served as the prelude to the Holocaust. The systematic eradication of a people who could trace their ancestry in Germany to Roman times.

Lucy Dawidowicz writes in The War Against The Jews, 1933-1945: “It has been my view-now widely shared-that hatred of the Jews was Hitler’s central and most compelling belief and that it dominated his thoughts and his actions all his life...It became his fixed idea, one to which he remained steadfast all his life...”              

In Mein Kampf, written in 1923-24 in prison, Hitler provides much of our knowledge about his demented world view.  He was a confirmed anti-Semite as early as 1904 when he was only fifteen, at least partly, it appears, because of the influence of anti-Semitic teachers at his junior and senior schools. For him, Judaism was racial, not a religion. In Mein Kampf, he blames Jews for every social ill.

By 1920, his National Socialist party was afloat on the country’s sea of various kinds of woes and he was giving speeches-unfortunately gathering large crowds-on the causes of Germany’s defeat in the First World War, blaming of course Jews. He dismissed democracy and Jews together thus: “...only the Jew can praise an institution which is as dirty and false as he himself.”  Overall, his views seemed indistinguishable from the anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages.

Dawidowicz notes: “All his life, Hitler was seized by this obsession with the Jews. Even after he had murdered (them), he had still not exorcised his Jewish demons...The last day of his life in the Berlin bunker, he finished dictating his political testament. His last words to the German people were: ‘Above all, I charge the leaders of the nation and those under them to scrupulous observance of the laws of race and to merciless opposition to the universal poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry.’”

A question many have asked since is how such a deranged individual could become Chancellor of Germany, whose people and culture ranked highly among world civilisations? Did it have something to do with generations of German anti-Semitism? What responsibility do German and other Christians across Europe bear for not resisting Hitler effectively?

We know that German nationalism emerged from defeat in the Napoleonic wars. Modern anti-Semites thrived in Germany when nationalism grew. There is the often applicable quote about nationalism in many lands by Zlatko Disdarevic in Sarajevo: A War Journal (1993), which reads: “Because somebody somewhere decided that the bestial concept of a herd, composed of only one colour, all speaking the same language, all thinking along similar lines, all believing in the same god, must wipe out everything else.”

The world must keep always in mind what Hitler’s lunacies had caused by the time of his suicide in 1945. According to Dawidowicz, the estimated number of Jews Hitler and his followers murdered across Europe were as follows:

Poland: 3,000,000 (90% of the estimated

pre-’Final Solution’ population)

Baltic countries: 228,000 (90%)

Germany/Austria:  210,000(90%)

Slovakia: 75,000 (83%)

Greece: 54,000(77%)

The Netherlands: 140,000(75%)

Hungary: 450,000(70%)

SSR White Russia: 245,000 (65%),

SSR Ukraine: 900,000 (60%)

Belgium: 40,000 (60%)

Yugoslavia: 26,000 (60%)

Rumania: 300,000 (50%)

Norway: 900 (50%)

France: 90,000 (26%)

Bulgaria: 14,000 (22%)

Italy: 8,000 (20%)

Luxembourg: 1,000 (20%)

Russia (RSFSR-Germans did not occupy

all of this republic):107,000 (11%)

Denmark: none

Finland: none

TOTAL:5,933,900 (67%)

It is evident from these figures that the patterns were different in Denmark, Finland and Bulgaria. I understand that the citizens in these three countries strongly resisted all Nazi efforts to get them to deport Jews to concentration camps. In occupied Denmark, for example, the king and large number of Danes wore yellow stars to show support for their Jewish neighbours. Many Danes risked their  lives smuggling a large number of Jewish Danes to neutral Sweden. Finland and Bulgaria simply refused Nazi demands to hand over their Jewish nationals.

Until World War Two, as David Matas of Winnipeg and other scholars have reminded us, non-Jews were mostly left untouched by history’s anti-Semites.  Hitler’s regime sought to murder Jews everywhere, thereby launching, continuing and prolonging his war—even in Asia— for all affected by it. The Jewish community lost about one third of its world population. The total estimated deaths during the war were sixty two million (37 million civilians and 25 million military). Thirty one million non-Jewish civilians died in what Davidowicz concludes was a war to cover the planned murder of Jews everywhere by Hitler. “Hatred of Jews dragged the whole world down”, concludes Matas—and all of us must agree.

In an understandable effort to keep Germany on side for the Cold War, the work of the Nuremberg Tribunal was stopped in 1948 with only half the cases finished and no doubt many thousands of war criminals not

yet even identified. Did the immunity in effect provided for Nazi war criminals everywhere after 1948 somehow help to provide a licence for ensuing genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Sudan? ‘Never again’ became ‘again and again’.

Two lessons for 2008

There are many lessons still applicable from the Hitler years, and we all know that the Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites are not disappearing.

Anti-Semitism and hatred voiced against any other religion or culture must be actively denounced by civil society, community leaders, role models and governments at all levels while they are still in the shadows. Human dignity is ultimately indivisible today. As in the case of European countries in the early twentieth century, people of good will can be silent too long and social toxins can overcome reason.

No-one anywhere should be permitted to incite hatred against any religion or culture. Indeed, several years ago Edmonton police officers wanted to charge two diplomats from a foreign government for encouraging contempt of an identifiable community in Alberta’s capital under the “inciting hatred”  rovisions of our Criminal Code. In my view, the banning of incitement to hatred of identifiable religious, racial and cultural communities by Canada’s Parliament is sound public policy. “Bloody words”, in David Matas’ phrase, can be as dangerous as shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.

On the international level, consider the case of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In October 2005, he called for Israel to be wiped

off the map (“Our dear Iman (Khomeini) ordered that the occupying regime in Al-Qods (Jerusalem) be wiped off the face of the earth. This was a very wise statement.”). The Holocaust, the president says, “is a myth that has been used for 60 years by Zionists to blackmail other countries and justify their crimes in occupied territories.” No-one anywhere should take lightly such outrageous statements.

Hopefully, the mere 36 votes Iran received in the UN General Assembly on its government’s bid for election to the Security Council is an indication of mounting world concern about the voiced views of its

president. The Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, however, noting that Ahmadinejad was allowed again to speak at the UN General Assembly this fall, observed: “Ten years ago, and less, the ruler of a country that announced its aspiration for Israel to be wiped off the map would not have dared appear and speak on the UN’s podium.”

Many governments in my view still misunderstand both Iranians and Ahmadinejad, thinking that there are only two policy options available to the world: continued ineffective appeasement of the regime-often for commercial reasons— and suppression of Iranian opposition groups as directed by the ayatollahs in Tehran or bombing strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. An attack on Iran is the one thing that would unite seventy million Iranians behind their president and should be avoided at all costs. A third and peaceful option is to begin working with all Iranian opposition groups to bring the rule-of-law, peaceful intentions towards all neighbours and democracy to Iran.

I’ll end with a true story about the Holocaust told by Truda Rosenberg of Ottawa. Her family perished in the 1930s. Her mother’s last words to Truda were, “Don’t let anything destroy your Jewish soul”. Her then 13-year-old daughter survived only because she was small enough that she could be pushed out a hole in the wall of the train cattle car that was taking the family and many others to the death camps.

By 1951, Truda had managed to escape to Britain, pretending she was a Catholic girl from Poland, and had become a nurse and mid-wife there. No-one at the hospital where she worked knew about her background. One day, she was having tea with nurse colleagues, when one of them began to criticize Jews. “Why?” asked Truda. “Well”, the other replied, “they are high income doctors, but would never be a poorly-paid nurse.” Truda was silent for a moment and then said, “I am a nurse and I’m Jewish.” Today, in her 80s, Truda still goes to work in the city.


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