Berlin (AFP) – 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 is 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 who may have 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”.
Steinmeier will later join Chancellor Angela Merkel and Jewish leaders at Germany’s biggest synagogue to commemorate one of the country’s darkest days.
On November 9, 1938, 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’ –
In recent years across Germany on November 9, people have knelt 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 dug up and stolen just before the Kristallnacht anniversary, in a sign of growing anti-Semitism.
On the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, also known in Germany as Reichspogromnacht,far-right militants were also planning a demonstration in Berlin.
Authorities had imposed a ban, but that was later overturned by a court.
“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.”
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, noted the deteriorating situation across the West.
“It would be impossible to mark this seminal event in Jewish history without noting the frightening climate of anti-Semitism and xenophobia currently spreading across Europe and the United States,” he told AFP.
“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.”
– ‘Our duty’ –
In Germany, the far-right AfD is now the biggest opposition party in parliament, even though its key members have challenged the country’s culture of atonement over World War II and the Holocaust.
Across the Atlantic, the United States suffered its worst anti-Semitic attack last month when 11 people were gunned down at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Felix Klein, Germany’s commissioner on fighting anti-Semitism, noted that the situation today differs from that in 1938, as “our democracy today is stable, strong”.
“At the same time, these values need to be brought back to the fore, and defended.”
Lauder also called on the population to stay watchful.
“In November 2018 we are not at the precipice of another Kristallnacht,” he said, “but it is all of our duty to prevent such atrocities from ever happening again.”