Learning the lessons of Kristallnacht: 80 years on


80 years ago today one the most appalling pre-war acts of the Nazi German regime occurred. Kristallnacht which is Crystal Night or Night of the Broken Glass is an incident in that period when the full force of the German state and its supporters was unleashed against Germany’s Jewish population. Thousands of businesses, synagogues, homes, memorials, graveyards and sites of cultural importance to the Jewish population were trashed; 30,000 or more healthy Jewish males were rounded up to be sent to labour camps. Thousands more were injured.

Kristallnacht revolted the world. Jewish emigration to Israel and Palestine as well as other nations sky rocketed. But as bad as it certainly was, it was just a prelude to much worse. 80 years later, with far right politicians on the rise, the world showing significant indifference to humanitarian crises in the Middle East, Myanmar, and an increasingly toxic political debate with ethnic overtones surfacing, have we really learnt the lessons of this act of barbarism?

I do not believe New Zealand is at risk of such a horrendous act as Governments and the authorities have gone to lengths to ensure that all ethnic groups can feel safe in this country. The Police encourage people who have been subject to racist abuse to contact them. New Zealand communities would at all levels frown upon on such conduct. That was not the case in Germany in 1933 in that that Kristallnacht was stoked by Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels, and that the violence and vandalism was carried out by members of the S.S. and S.A. It was enabled by the Enabling Laws and was part of a much more systemic campaign to rid Germany of its Jewish population.

New Zealand however is not free of racial and other types of intolerance. On social media, in pubs and elsewhere casual racism can be seen on a daily basis. It might be subtle or not so subtle, but it is nonetheless the first step on the way to stoking worse offence. The causes are largely what they have been in the past – deliberate stoking of injustices, perceived or otherwise, the use of history against particular groups.

In the case of Jews, the idea that they somehow control the banking system, that physical characteristics about them such as “crooked noses” all contribute to the problem. So do the deliberate misuse of images such as photos of the gas chambers, the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at Auschwitz. But who will police this?

We however owe it to the generation that fought in World War 2 and saw the hell of the death camps and the concentration camps. We owe it the survivors of those camps to ensure that there is no chance of such wanton destruction being repeated.

If one wants to see where such a systemic campaign of abuse can lead, they need look no further than the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. The Government there headed by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has used the military to empty communities and create a physical and social environment that is inhospitable to Rohingya. Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk and have been displace in Myanmar and Bangladesh. They live in refugee camps with minimal food, no water, bedding or shelter, with the United Nations grossly under equipped to handle such huge numbers.

The political climate in some countries is leaning towards open hostility towards minority groups. In the United States, Brazil and other countries heads of government and heads of state a developing sense of fear and division that leads to violence and eventually all out conflict is at grave risk of taking hold. Once the public are mobilized against such groups, a mob mentality can potentially exist in which instead of asking questions, everyone turns on an unfortunate group or individual. And just as Germany did in the 1930’s the power of the state can be mobilized.

What happens after that is a very slippery, very dangerous slope with dreadful consequences if one loses their footing.

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