Seventy-one years ago tonight. a widespread and brutal riot was perpetrated against Jews in Germany and Austria. Reichskristallnacht, or “the Night of Broken Glass” represented one of the first mass attacks on Jews under the Nazi government, and it is widely believed, by scholars of the period, to be the act that lit the way to the Nazi’s horrid and unthinkable “final solution.”
Accurate figures are difficult to ascertain. According to The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “rioters burned or destroyed 267 synagogues, vandalized or looted 7,500 Jewish businesses, and killed at least 91 Jewish people. They also damaged many Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes as police and fire brigades stood aside.” I have heard, from varying sources, that more than a thousand synagogues were destroyed, and close to two hundred people were killed, though the sources generally agree on the figures for the destruction of Jewish businesses.
Regardless of the numbers, however, I think this event is an important one to remember because it represents the beginnings of state-sponsored hate against members of its citizenry (which is not to say that this is the first instance of such a thing, but it is certainly a visible and visceral one). While the Nazi party leadership took pains to distance themselves from the riots – they claimed that they were “spontaneous” responses to the assassination of a minor German diplomatic figure in France at the hands of a teenager distraught over the deportation and mistreatment of his Jewish parents – the truth of the matter is that the orders for the riots came from those in authority. People whose job it was to protect German citizens – and let’s not forget that the greatest proportion of Jews targeted in these attacks were citizens up until the Nuremberg laws revoked their status, leaving them country-less – chose instead to aid the rioters. The fire brigades manned their hoses not to put out the fires in synagogues, but to prevent those flames from spreading to the homes and offices of “innocent Germans.” The police, instead of rounding up and arresting the vandals and rioters, arrested Jews by the thousands and sent them to concentration camps. Murder, while not officially condoned, was not punished, either.
The burning of the synagogue in Ober Ramstdt during Kristallnacht. The local fire-department prevented the fire from spreading to a nearby home, but made no attempt to intervene in the synagogue fire.
Trudy Isenberg Collection, USHMM Archives
What I’m getting at here is that we always, all of us, walk a very thin line. I hear some of the rhetoric coming from the fringes (on both sides) in this country and I wonder just how long it’s going to be before our “us vs. them,” “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” philosophy breaks down OUR republic. What I’m getting at here is that we must remember, even (especially) in the midst of our most passionate disagreement, our common humanity. I may not agree with you. I may not even like you very much, but I will always respect you as a human being.
We’re smart enough to learn from the past; to do otherwise is to invite certain peril. Let’s not let this ever, ever happen again.