Our Man In Cologne
The night from the 9th to the 10th of November 1998 marks the 60th anniversary of an event that might be largely unknown outside Germany. Here, it serves as an important symbol in German history and is the symbolic date that serves as a reminder of the Holocaust in Germany. During that night in 1938 a "spontaneous outburst of anger and revolt" against German Jews took place. The reason to it was the assault on a member of staff of the German embassy in Paris. Germans put in Jewish windows, looted their shops, set fire to Jewish houses and destroyed almost all Synagogues in Germany. 91 people were killed. The goal was to drive the Jewish population out of the country and to show the determination to do so. The name Crystal Night (Kristallnacht or Reichsprogromnacht) is derived from the reflections of the fires in the broken glass, a surprisingly poetic name given to such a startling event.
However, there are some aspects about Crystal Night that are untypical for the German dealings with its Jewish citizens. Historians have revealed that the riots during that night have by no means been spontaneous and were neither carried out primarily by ordinary citizens. 85% of those involved in Crystal Night were members of the SA, an organisation similar to the better known SS and only few ordinary people took part in the riot. These figures are hardly surprising, considering that Germans were "decent" and "respectful" citizens who had no inclination and better manners than to participate in such violent and barbaric acts.
This does not mean to imply that Germans were particularly friendly towards their Jewish countrymen. The opposite is true with anti-Semitism having a long tradition that flared up to new heights in the 19th century and culminated during the Nazi tyranny.
It is easy to imagine that most Germans sitting in their living rooms that night felt very uneasy about the occurrences outside their windows, if only because they were afraid that the fires might catch on to their own houses. However, this uneasiness did not result in any actions against the tyranny of the Nazis. Many people realised that they had made a terrible mistake putting Hitler into power. After the humiliation of the lost World War I, the repercussions of the Versaille Treaty and the global economic crisis, a loud, proud and demanding sovereign was needed. Hitler was the perfect man for the job. He was determined and willing to get rid of the loathed democracy that had been introduced after the First World War and did never really work. Very soon Germany became aware that it had not just elected a dog that would bark and retrieve some of the dignity and respect Germany deserved in their eyes, but a mad pitbull who was not in the least interested in anything else but his insane
Morality is a fragile good and the strong and successful do not have to worry about it. As long as Germany was on a winning streak, as long as the option of a world wide war was one that was soon to be won, as long as well-choreographed mass gatherings sedated with meaningless but powerful symbols - there was no need to consider the consequences or to contemplate morality. As long as there were chances of winning this war, there was no need to face the goals of Hitler's and so many kept their eyes firmly shut, pretending not to see or even better know about the massacres. Up to this day there are people insisting that the had not known about the concentration camps and the mass murderings.
There wouldn't be a need to remember such an event if it had no implications for the present or the future. When Spielberg's Schindler's List was released, an article in The International Time Magazine stated that the reactions in Germany and Israel were surprisingly similar. I am not qualified to judge and do not intend to make this comparison myself, but it doesn't seem unlikely. The Holocaust much more than World War II has shaped Germany significantly. Immediately after the war the people did not want to spend too much time thinking about the crimes committed. They were busy rebuilding the bombed cities and rather saw themselves as victims either of the war or of Hitler's tyranny. Only in the sixties when Germany was prospering again did people deal with the twelve years of terror and started to ask how it could happen that a once proud and highly sophisticated culture could retreat to such inhuman acts. Thus the younger generation of Germans dealt with the issue much more in-depth than those who had witnessed it.
When I was about nine or ten an American TV series hit Germany. "Holocaust" caused a lot of attention prior to its screening. Even at nine years I sensed very quickly that the first parts where not of the highest quality. Basically I thought it was a soap opera about a Jewish family living in Nazi Germany. However this sentiment changed with the last episode. The last episode had some changes. Most notably there was black and white footage taken from the death camps.
This footage showed skeletons. Walking skeletons covered with skin - certainly no human beings. I wondered how these "things" could have walked or stood up straight. I was puzzled that these creatures had once been actual people and not the "subhuman" monsters they were in the film. Later on there were heaps of these bodies with skinny limps scattered around.
I had heard about Auschwitz before but had never really spent too much time thinking about it, as it was incomprehensible to me. Seeing this footage however left a huge impact. Apart from nightmares of walking skeletons haunting me in my sleep for several weeks I was confronted with some uncomfortable questions. I started to wonder what role my grandparents had played, I wondered what all those people I knew that had lived during that period had done. Had they been part of it? Had they contributed to it? Had they fought against the Nazis? I began to ask myself what terrible crime these Jews must have committed to spark such a cruel reaction. I wondered how people could actually turn other people into such monsters and even worse kill them. In a way I must admit thinking that the heaps of dead bodies seemed more appropriate and consolating than the still living people.
The answer to the question of guilt is simple. While my grandparents had not taken an active part in any of the crimes there, while they made fun of the silly gestures and manners of the Nazis, of the local dumbwit who came to never before experienced fame and power wearing the brown uniform and insisted on the Hitler greeting, while they still memorated the rather romantic thoughts of my grand father coming home from British captivity on Christmas Day, walking through rain and snow for miles and miles to return to my grandmother whom he had not seen for years, they were without the slightest doubt guilty like virtually all Germans. Guilty because they did not actively fight the system, because they contributed to it by working, by supplying for it and because my grandfather fought for it in Russia (although he did not volunteer and was lucky and happy to get injured and to go home and then into British captivity).
Realising that the peace of the surroundings one lives in is fragile and deceiving and that barbarism can infiltrate a society very quickly is the primary lesson learned. Today Germany is very much on the alert when right wing groups gain more than the crucial 5% barrier in elections, and every right wing demonstration is answered with counter demonstrations. Today's Germany is very much shaped by and aware of the atrocities it has caused.
Thomas Greuel can be reached at email@example.com