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Kristallnacht Redux: How the Lessons Never 'Crystallized'

November 5, 2009 By:
Robert S. Wistrich
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Robert S. Wistrich

On Nov. 9, 1938, a massive nationwide anti-Jewish pogrom took place during peacetime across the entire territory of the Third Reich. The pretext for this orgy of violence against German Jews was the shooting in Paris two days earlier of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish-Jewish refugee.

The state-organized pogrom -- instigated by Hitler and henchman Joseph Goebbels -- resulted in the burning or damaging of more than 1,000 synagogues; the ransacking of about 7,500 businesses; the murder of at least 91 Jews; and the deportation of another 30,000 Jewish males to concentration camps in Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.

This murderous onslaught against German Jewry, cynically described by the Nazis as the "Night of Broken Glass" (Kristallnacht), was a major turning point on the road to the "Final Solution" of the so-called "Jewish Question." It signified that the Nazi regime had crossed a Rubicon, and would no longer be deterred by Western public opinion in its "war against the Jews."

The economic expropriation of German Jewry -- and its complete social ostracism and public humiliation -- swiftly followed. Only a fortnight after "Crystal Night," the SS journal, Das Schwarze Korps, chillingly prophesied the end of German Jewry through "fire and sword," and its imminent complete annihilation.

Today, the specter of such apocalyptic anti-Semitism has returned to haunt Europe and other continents, while often assuming radically new forms. In the Middle East, it has taken on a particularly dangerous, toxic and potentially genocidal aura of hatred, closely linked to the "mission" of holy war or jihad against the West and the Jews.

Islamist anti-Semitism is thoroughly soaked in many of the most inflammatory themes that initially made possible the atrocities of "Crystal Night" and its horrific aftermath during the Holocaust. For example, consider the pervasive use of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, with its perennial theme of the "Jewish conspiracy for world domination;" the medieval blood-libel imported to the Muslim world from Christian Europe; or the vile stereotypical image of the Jews as a treacherous, rapacious and bloodthirsty people engaged in a ceaseless plotting to undermine the world of Islam.

To these grotesque inventions one must add more up-to-date libels, such as Holocaust denial, which is increasingly pervasive in the Arab world.

Equally fashionable is the slanderous identification of Israel with Nazism, or the "ethnic cleansing" of the Palestinians. This modernized version of inverted anti-Semitism, which sails under the mask of "anti-Zionism" and anti-Americanism, is a global phenomenon, but has special resonance in the Middle East as a result of the unresolved "Palestinian question."

The scale and extremism of the literature and commentary in Arab or Muslim newspapers, journals, magazines; on Islamist Web sites, Middle Eastern radio and TV news; in documentaries, films and educational materials are comparable to that of Nazi Germany. Yet the Western world largely turns a blind eye to the likely genocidal consequences of such a culture of hatred, much as it did 70 years ago.

My own research into this phenomenon has, unfortunately, convinced me that the Holocaust did not truly succeed in neutralizing the scourge of anti-Semitism. In a sinister and sometimes devious manner, the widespread defamation and demonization of Israel has, in effect, revived fantasies of completing the murderous work of the Third Reich. This is especially palpable in the case of Iran.

Hence, the anniversary of "Crystal Night" raises two fundamental questions for the future of human civilization: Are we capable of learning from history, and will the Jewish people once again have to stand alone in the face of concrete threats to annihilate it?

Robert S. Wistrich is director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism From Antiquity to the Global Jihad.

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