“Why isn’t the fire brigade coming?” – That is the question which kept going through the mind of six-year-old Charlotte Knoblauch on the night of 9 November 1938 as she walked through the streets of Munich holding her father’s hand. Synagogues were on fire, Jewish shops lay in ruins – in Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt, indeed all over Germany. Yet almost nowhere did the fire brigade appear on the scene.
I visited Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem together with Charlotte Knoblauch this year. Her own memories of 9 November 1938 bring home to us that only 80 years have passed since then. The burning synagogues, the rampaging mob roaming the streets murdering and plundering seem to be from the darkest Middle Ages or from an even more distant past. But it happened here, in the heart of our cities, only 80 years ago. It happened in a supposedly modern and civilised country, in the country of poets and thinkers.
Shocked and struggling to grasp what had happened, George Ogilvie-Forbes – the chargé d'affaires at the British Embassy in Berlin – reported back to London on 16 November 1938: “Modern civilisation has certainly not changed human nature.”
This sentence is only an extract from one of the many reports by foreign embassies which the Federal Foreign Office is currently showcasing in an exhibition to commemorate the November pogroms. Yet this sentence encapsulates the sheer horror in the face of the realisation that the values of the Enlightenment and the supposed civilisation and modernity of a nation of culture do not in fact form an impenetrable bulwark against nagging resentments or blind hatred, let alone against uncontrolled violence. This sentence raises questions – about the forces of resistance in societies, about humanity and moral integrity. We are confronted with these questions again today.
Once more, we see the Nazi salute on our streets. We see young men being beaten up for wearing a kippah. We see that “Jew” has become an insult in our school playgrounds. That is intolerable. We cannot, must not and will not accept that here in our country!
If there is a lesson to be learned from 9 November 1938, then it is this: hate creates divisions, hate agitates and hate kills. This proved true just a few days ago in the most horrific way in Pittsburgh, where eleven innocent people were the victims of a pure hatred of Jews. We must therefore feel impelled to take action every time a red line is crossed.
When the synagogues were burning in November 1938, it was already too late. With a few exceptions, decent people did not stand up and protest. Only five years – from 1933 to 1938 – was enough to undermine moral integrity and humanity. The way was paved for the worst crime against humanity in history, the murder of several million Jewish men, women and children.
Given our history, the fact that only 80 years later Germany has again become home to many Jews is an undeserved gift for us Germans. We owe thanks to people such as the three orthodox rabbis at whose ordination ceremony in the Beth Zion Synagogue in Berlin I was a guest. It was the first ordination of orthodox rabbis in Berlin since the Shoah. By returning to our, to their country, these three individuals and their congregations have demonstrated great confidence in our rule of law, in our democracy and in our open society. This trust must be defended against all animosity. For being German will always mean shouldering responsibility for the protection of Jewish life.
We must not allow anti-Semitic or racist resentment to take hold. First it is words – and then the actions follow. As the Swiss sociologist Kurt Imhof remarked a few years ago, even today the “veneer of civilisation” is thin. Our modernity and the sheer infinite amount of knowledge available to us in a world of digital technology are no safeguard against intolerance, racism and anti-Semitism.
But we have the choice. The brutality and hate which shocked the British attaché d’affaires in 1938 when he witnessed the pogroms are only one side of human nature. Populists and nationalists use it for their own ends. They are playing with fear. They are fuelling resentment and prejudice.
Let us make clear that we are on the other side – on the side of tolerance, respect and empathy. As politicians, as democrats, but above all else as human beings.