November 9th: Infamous Past, Disturbing Present

When I checked my departmental mailbox this week there was a postcard from the UMN administration that couldn’t be more timely: it showed two students wearing maroon and gold, hugging — one blonde and Caucasian and the other black and Somali — and a very simple phrase: “You are here. We like that.”

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One might wonder why such an obvious message would be at all necessary at a major American public University. The political reality that has unfolded in this country over the last months — reaching its culmination on Tuesday — has sadly shown that this reminder is more necessary than ever. Basic democratic norms, pluralism and willingness to coexist peacefully with people of different religions, languages and origins, has proven not to be a given for millions of Americans.

This chilling eye-opener comes on a fateful date. The night of November 9th marks the 78th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s state-sponsored riots known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), a turning point in Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy. Before I read about Kristallnacht in books I had heard about that infamous night from my father, who remembers to this day how the police came to his home in Pirmasens, a small town in the Palatinate region, and arrested his father. By fortune, and unlike so many other Jewish families, they were able to leave Germany in time.

The Kristallnacht commemoration teaches that democratic institutions and values are not automatically sustained and that a modern society can become numbed to the fate of its minorities. This day reminds us what occurs when a community based on mutual acceptance has been destroyed. This day urges us to be mindful that the path that leads from verbal incitement to discriminatory policy and murderous action can be very short.

The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies November/December newsletter is devoted to this historical event and features a number of educational resources (bibliographies, testimonies, artwork, newspaper articles). In this newsletter we ask our readers to teach the lessons of the past to wind back the divisive rhetoric that has been unleashed.

 Alejandro Baer is the Stephen C. Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

November 9: A day of infamy or a day of celebration?

“If there is such a thing as collective memory,” wrote social anthropologist Paul Connerton, “we are likely to find it in commemorations.” Anniversaries and commemorations declare certain events in history to be worth remembering. They enable states to shape a particular self-image and convey a sense of shared identity among the population.

Continue reading “November 9: A day of infamy or a day of celebration?”

Book of the Month: Kristallnacht: Violence, Memory, and History

Kristallnacht: Violence, Memory, and History

Edited by Nathan Wilson, Colin McCullough

41eYkEPdVXL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgWhat did people hear about Kristallnacht outside of Germany in 1938 from governments and media sources? How did governments and ordinary people respond to the plight of the Jewish community there? How have lives been affected by Kristallnacht in the seventy years since its occurrence? This interdisciplinary study of erasure and enshrinement seeks to answer these questions, exploring issues of memory and forgetting (in both the material and symbolic sense), and how the meaning of Kristallnacht has been altered by various actors since 1938.

Remembering Kristallnacht: It starts with apathy

The following commentary appeared in a November 9, 2012 op-ed story in the Star Tribune. It can be found here

Yesterday and today mark the 74th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s state-instigated pogroms known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), a turning point in Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy. For most scholars, it marks the beginning of the period we now define as the Holocaust.

imagesNazi militants destroyed thousands of stores and Jewish homes, desecrated cemeteries and burned down hundreds of synagogues. German Jewish citizens were arrested, systematically humiliated and abused in public in every city, town and village of Germany and in the recently annexed Austria. The majority of German citizens were bystanders to the pogrom and did not try to prevent the vandalism and destruction.

The events of Kristallnacht teach a valuable lesson. They show that a modern society can become numbed to the fate of its minorities. Since Hitler’s rise to power in March 1933, Jews had been classified and categorized as “others.” They were demonized, legally discriminated against and spatially segregated. Non-Jewish Germans were increasingly convinced that the treatment of Jews was justified and did not concern them.

Already in April 1935, the Berlin rabbi Joachim Prinz wrote in the German Jewish weekly newspaper Jüdische Rundschau: “It is outside that the ghetto exists for us. In the markets, in the streets, in restaurants. The ghetto exists in every place. It has a sign. That sign is: no neighbors.”

A “successful” Kristallnacht was the precondition for Auschwitz. Subsequent anti-Jewish measures such as physical ghettoization and deportation to the forced labor and extermination camps in the East became possible. Response or resistance from within was no longer to be expected.

 Ethnic cleansing and genocide can happen when a community of mutual acceptance has been destroyed. It requires only a systematic program of detachment and distantiation, a process that sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has defined as the “social production of indifference.” Killing is only the last step.

Kristallnacht stands out as a warning of this lethal historical sequence, which always already lingers in an early seed called indifference.

Alejandro Baer is the Stephen Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He joined the University of Minnesota in 2012 and is an Associate Professor of Sociology.