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On Kristallnacht Anniversary, Critical Lessons Remain Unheeded

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NAZIS SMASH, LOOT AND BURN JEWISH SHOPS AND TEMPLES UNTIL GOEBELLS CALLS HALT, The New York Times announced on its front page of November 11, 1938. From Austria, the newspaper reported "All Vienna's Synagogues Attacked" and "Many of those arrested were sent to prisons or concentration camps in busses." From Berlin correspondent Otto Tolischus wrote of concentration camps and the errie noise of the "shattering of shop windows falling to the ground." Tolishus described:

A wave of destruction, looting and incendiarism unparalleled in Germany since the Thirty Years War and in Europe generally since the Bolshevist Revolution, swept over Great Germany today as National Socialist cohorts took vengeance on Jewish shops offices and synagogues....In extent, intensity and total damage, the day's outbreak exceeded even those of the 1918 revolution and by nightfall there was scarcely a Jewish shop, café, office or synagogue in the country that was not either wrecked, burned or severely damaged.

Dramatic historical events are often made singularly important and there are frequent efforts to derive lessons from them. Such is the case as the world marks the seventy-second anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom against German, Austrian and Czech Jews, which occurred on November 9-10, 1938. Kristallnacht's importance lay not only in the violence that occurred those evenings, but in the incremental measures that preceded it and the unspeakable evil that it would presage in the years to come. The name Kristallnacht, strictly translated from the German "crystal night" refers to actually two evenings of shattered glass across the region. Historian Dr. Michael Berenbaum in The World Must Know notes that the broken glass losses alone were five million marks or over two million dollars. Of course broken glass was the least of what was destroyed. While Kristallnacht marks a critical point on Germany's directed march toward genocide, it was far from the first of many more graduated steps that started with estrangement and degradation and culminated in the Holocaust.

Berenbaum further explains:

Within forty-eight hours, over one thousand synagogues were burned along with torah scrolls, Bibles, and prayer books. Seven thousand Jewish businesses were trashed and looted, ninety-six Jews were killed, and Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, and schools were destroyed. The attackers were often neighbors. Thirty thousand Jews were arrested. To accommodate so many new prisoners, the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were expanded.

The pogrom came after a 17 year old Pole named Herschel Grynszpan killed Ernst vom Rath a low level German embassy staffer in Paris after the teenager's family was victimized by the Nazis despite his pleas to the embassy. Subsequent reports also suggest a possible affair between the two.

Hitler's Brown Shirts or Sturmabteilungen, sometimes joined by Hitler youth, at the behest of Nazi officials embarked on a "spontaneous" orgy of violence and destruction directed at their Jewish neighbors. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels greenlighted the violence, "[T]he Führer has decided that ... demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered." Police and firefighters were ordered not to respond other than to prevent the spread of the flames to adjoining Aryan buildings and to seize victims. The violence and destruction was so rampant that even Nazi officials became concerned that losses and injury would extend beyond the initial Jewish targets.

Legal scholar James Weinstein explains, "The effect of Kristallnacht on German Jews was greater than the sum of the damage to buildings and assaults on individual victims." On a broad scale it marked the violent end of centuries of Jews living with either the reality or possibility that they were also, a viable part of German civil society. For victims, it was something less philosophical--it was a terrifying transformation that even a child could feel. It was when anti-Semitism metastasized from a moral threat to a life threatening one for every Jew on the continent, as well as a threat to the very character of Europe itself.

In Witness: Voices From the Holocaust, Walter, who was 15 years old at the time and from Mannheim stated:

I remember vividly...The [school] gates were closed. The principal told us, "Kids, please go home. Something is happening. Please go home and hide."....We looked [from] behind the curtains to see what was going on in the street. We saw Nazis smashing windows, and about a block, a block and a half away was a dentist's office, a Jewish dentist. We could see how they broke into the doors and smashing everything. We were young and scared.

Golly, who was 16 and from Bremen told how her family was seized from their house in the middle of the night by Nazi Brown shirts and her father and brother separated and "taken away." She learned the next morning:

That the Brown Shirts were busy smashing the Jewish store windows, entering the Jewish homes and apartments, smashing everything they could. My father's business was destroyed that night. And of course we had one synagogue which in Bremen, which was burned down.

Video from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

How lucky we, particularly religious minorities like Jews and Muslims, and non-believers as well, are to live in the United States in 2010, where different faiths or none can be practiced without the violence and threat that still blights other parts of the world. To be sure, religious hatred and intolerance does exist in the United States, and as someone who studies extremism across the board, I can conveniently spotlight incendiary demagogues from each of the Abrahamic faiths to demonstrate that intolerance is primarily a human trait, rather than a religious one. Neither our laws, our President, or religious minorities themselves will allow those pogroms of the past to occur here in the immediate future. Responsible leaders such as Presidents Obama and Bush, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Retired Justice John Paul Stevens have rightfully spoken out against religious intolerance, and Islamophobia in particular.

The most probable and immediate threat to American Muslims today is not that they will be rounded up over a couple of days in some dramatic orgy of state approved violence like Kristallnacht. Rather, the threat lies in a continuing incremental erosion and estrangement of them by other Americans. The repetitive degradation in the dominant culture and functional exile from meaningful participation in the civic life of many of our communities is the real danger. In many places a dabbler in Satanic witchcraft will outpoll a follower of Muhammad. The presence of intolerant regimes in some Muslim nations overseas, a real terrorist threat from both organized and lone wolf religious extremists and a small number of bigoted splinter idiotic Salfists is being used as a license by malevolent vocal Islamophobes to degrade the Muslim faith as a whole and to block American Muslim from meaningful participation in our nation's religious and civic discourse. Thus if we are going to counter religious bigotry, it must be achieved at the local level through schools, houses of worship, universities, and human relations organizations.

While the lessons of Kristallnacht may be most studied here, they must be embraced universally for greatest effect. In recent weeks Chicago synagogues were targeted by bombs mailed from Yemen, a wave of anti-Christian bombings have hit Baghdad including one of a church that left over 30 dead, and Muslim worshippers were slaughtered in deadly attacks in Pakistan and Iraq.

President Obama's speech in Indonesia today is particularly important in light of these recent events:

Our world has grown smaller and while those forces that connect us have unleashed opportunity, they also empower those who seek to derail progress. One bomb in a marketplace can obliterate the bustle of daily commerce. One whispered rumour can obscure the truth, and set off violence between communities that once lived in peace. In an age of rapid change and colliding cultures, what we share as human beings can be lost.

Indonesia, the world's most populous predominantly Muslim country had its own pogrom in 1998 when 1,500 ethnic Chinese were murdered in the wake of the end of a dictatorship and economic scapegoating.

The tragedy of Kristallnacht lay not only in what the Nazi's did do , but in what the majority of the world failed to do. That may well be Kristallnacht's most important, yet most unheeded lesson. As Martin Luther King declared:

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.