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Address by Heiko Maas, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the opening of the Exhibition “From the Inside to the Outside: the November 1938 pogroms in diplomatic reports from Germany”

08.11.2018 - Speech

The average life expectancy in Germany today is just under 81 years. So when we now remember the pogroms of November 1938, the distance between now and then is the average length of a human life.

One is tempted to say “just one human life”. For the images of burning synagogues, of Jewish citizens being attacked amidst the ruins of their shops and homes seem much further away than that. 

The images of the rampaging mob roaming the streets of Berlin and many other towns and cities in Germany murdering and plundering – they seem so archaic, as if they come from the darkest Middle Ages or from an even more distant past. 

How could something like this happen in a supposedly modern and civilised country? In the country of poets and thinkers?

Shocked and struggling to grasp what had happened, the chargé d'affaires at the British Embassy in Berlin was preoccupied with that question when he reported back to London on 16 November 1938: “Modern civilisation has certainly not changed human nature.” 

It’s comments like this which make the exhibition “From the Inside to the Outside” so topical even today. Many of the reports are not just interesting historical sources. They go deeper. They raise fundamental questions – questions about good and evil, about the forces of resistance in societies and about humanity and moral integrity.

Above all, they serve as a warning that hate and agitation lead to violence. This proved true just a few days ago in the most horrific way in Pittsburgh, where eleven innocent people were the victims of pure hatred against Jews. 

Hate creates divisions. Hate agitates. Hate kills. 

It was already too late when the synagogues burned in November 1938. Germany had already embarked upon the path which would result in the systematic annihilation of Europe’s Jews. Decency and integrity crumbled along with the burning synagogues. The diplomatic reports also bear testimony to this. However, they are not part of this exhibition but, rather, are stored in the Archive of the Federal Foreign Office. 

They are reports from German embassies about the reaction abroad to 9 November 1938. 

These reports contain no trace of the horror which marked the reports by foreign diplomats in Berlin. At most, concerns are voiced that Germany’s image, and I quote, as a “haven of law and order and a bulwark against riots and attacks on private property”, could be damaged. What lack of feeling, what indifference, what contempt for human life these words show! 

Ladies and gentlemen,

Just five years – from 1933 to 1938 – was enough to eliminate decency, moral integrity and humanity from the German state apparatus. Only a few, far too few, subsequently attempted to obstruct the state’s annihilation machinery, of which the Federal Foreign Office was also part at that time. 

A foreign correspondent states in another report: “The way that violence and shameless racism spread during those days, the way that right-wing extremists took control of the streets and openly revelled in doing the Nazi salute was simply abhorrent.” 

Ladies and gentlemen,

This report doesn’t date back to November 1938. It was published in August 2018 when the world looked with alarm to Chemnitz.

I find that shocking. It’s simply unbearable to read something like that today. For it’s unbearable when we see people brazenly doing the Nazi salute on our streets again. When men are beaten up for wearing a kippah and “Jew” becomes an insult in our school playgrounds. We cannot, we must not and we will not accept that in our country. 

The fact that Germany has again become home to many Jewish people is nothing less than a precious gift. We owe this not least to Jewish organisations and congregations at home and abroad who have worked hard to revive Jewish life in Germany. I’d like to thank you most sincerely for that! I’m therefore especially pleased that a group of rabbis from the UK, Canada and the United States are among our guests today. It’s an honour to have you with us.

A month ago, I had the privilege of being present when – for the first time since the Shoah – three orthodox rabbis were ordained in Berlin, not far from here in the Beth Zion Synagogue. It was a moving occasion. 

For these three individuals and their congregations thus demonstrated great confidence in our rule of law, in our democracy and in our open society.

Defending this trust against all animosity and protecting Jewish life must therefore be the maxim of our actions. Let’s work together to further human rights, tolerance and understanding: on the Internet and on the streets. At regular get-togethers, in sports clubs, among neighbours and colleagues. 

We must not allow anti-Semitic or racist resentment to take the slightest hold. For first it’s words – and then the actions follow. As the Swiss sociologist Kurt Imhof rightly remarked a few years ago, even today the “veneer of civilisation” is thin. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Viennese newspaper “Der Standard” wrote after the events in Germany in late summer: “Chemnitz could be a turning point for Germany. It is not yet clear which way the wind will turn.”

Ultimately, it’s up to us all to determine the way the wind turns. Populists and nationalists want to sow division. They are fuelling resentment and prejudice.

Let’s make clear that we’re on the other side – on the side of tolerance, respect and empathy. As politicians, as democrats, but above all else as human beings.

Thank you very much and welcome to the Atrium at the Federal Foreign Office!

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