It happened today - November 9, 2015
Speaking of Naziism, Nov. 9 is the anniversary of “Kristallnacht” in 1938, when synagogues were burned, Jewish businesses looted, hundreds murdered and tens of thousands rounded up and sent to concentration camps in Germany and Austria. It was a firebell ringing in the night.
Now Kristallnacht was not the Holocaust. It was destructive and ominous. But it primarily was an attack on property rather than a mass slaughter. The concentration camps of 1938 were not those of 1943. And yet the implication was clear.
I do not say “the message”. There is far too much talk of messages nowadays, as though words were deeds. The implication of Kristallnacht can of course be put into words and it conveyed information. It was that Jews in Germany were not protected by law. But the implication was that they would one day be slaughtered, not that they were unpopular with those in power.
It is one thing to be the victim of social discrimination and even structured legal discrimination. And it is a bad thing. But it is far worse to be in a very real sense outside the law, to know that whatever formal protections you do possess are a façade and an illusion, that no one will be prosecuted for denying you your restricted rights and that, indeed, the state is very likely to do it itself.
In the case of Nazi Germany, there has been considerable debate about when the Holocaust became inevitable in something like the form it eventually took, how early it was planned, and how early people should have understood what was coming, both inside and outside the Third Reich.
My own answer is that it was implicit in Naziism from the outset. Events have an internal and often relentless logic because ideas do. Once you deny the humanity of, say, the Jews, as Hitler did openly in writing as early as Mein Kampf and doubtless much earlier in conversation and oratory and in his own thinking, you will necessarily travel down a road to unspeakable atrocities.
Kristallnacht was one step on that road. Deliberate, premeditated, designed in some sense not just to desensitize Germans to what was coming but to send them “a message” about it. But the message was about actions to come, not just striking an attitude.
Many people outside Germany, and inside it, found the events of Nov. 9 1938 ominous. But not ominous enough. They reacted as though it was an unfortunate thing based on unfortunate ideas but not as the inexorable unfolding of the inner logic of anti-Semitism.
For a time after 1945, the world learned not to ignore such events. Not perfectly and not everywhere, but with a degree of alertness conspicuously absent before World War II.
Lately, regrettably, we seem to have lost that alertness. And in forgetting our history, we increase the risk of repeating it.