Germany recalls Kristallnacht with warning for the present

Germany has been remembering victims of the Nazi pogrom that heralded the start of the Third Reich's drive to wipe out Jews, at a time when anti-Semitism is resurgent in the West.

Germany recalls Kristallnacht with warning for the present
German chancellor Angela Merkel at a ceremony on Friday. Photo: DPA

On Friday the country held services for victims of the Nazi pogrom that heralded the Third Reich's drive to wipe out Jews, at a time when anti-Semitism and nationalism is resurgent in the West.

In a speech at the Bundestag marking the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the violence on November 9th, 1938 marked “the incomparable break from civilization, Germany's fall into barbarism”.

Germany must never look away again if “some try again to speak for the 'real people' and seek to exclude” those with a different religion or skin colour, he said.

In a clear reference to a growing far-right movement in Germany, Steinmeier warned against a “new, aggressive nationalism” that “conjures up an idyllic past that never existed”.

Joining Steinmeier and Jewish leaders at a ceremony later at Germany's biggest synagogue, Chancellor Angela Merkel underlined that Kristallnacht happened after a creeping process in which anti-Semitism was first tolerated, and later encouraged.

Exclusion, racism or anti-Semitism must be stamped out from the start, said Merkel, warning against a repeat.

“Easy answers, which often go with a coarsening of the discourse on the streets and in the Internet, that's a start that we must decisively counter,” she said.

“We are remembering with the conviction that the democratic majority must stay vigilant.”

 'Why aren't the firemen coming?'

Eight decades ago on this day, Nazi thugs murdered at least 90 Jews, torched 1,400 synagogues across Germany and Austria, and destroyed Jewish-owned shops and businesses.

The pretext for the coordinated action was the fatal shooting on November 7th, 1938, of a German diplomat in Paris by a Polish Jewish student.

The Nazis rounded up and deported at least 30,000 Jews to concentration camps and made Jews pay “compensation” for the damage caused to property.

SEE ALSO: 'Everything was changed': What led to, and followed, Kristallnacht 80 years ago?

Charlotte Knobloch, former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, recalled walking through town that day with her father.

“I saw the smouldering synagogue and asked: why aren't the firemen coming? I got no reply,” she told public broadcaster ZDF.

The brutal rampage marked the point at which local persecution of Jews became systematic, culminating in the Holocaust that claimed some six million lives.

'Neo-Nazis emboldened'

In recent years across Germany on November 9th, people have got on their knees to polish “Stolpersteine” (stumbling stones) – coaster-sized brass plaques embedded in pavements bearing the names of Jewish victims in front of their former homes.

But in Berlin last year, 16 plaques were dug up and stolen just before the Kristallnacht anniversary, in a sign of a resurgence in anti-Semitism.

On the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, also known in Germany as Reichspogromnacht, far-right militants were planning a demonstration in Berlin, forcing authorities to step in with a ban.

SEE ALSO: Hundreds to stand against far-right march planned on 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht

“The idea that right-wing extremists are going to march through the government district in the dark with the burning candles is unbearable,” said Berlin's interior minister Andreas Geisel.

“We must not tolerate open right-wing extremism under the cover of freedom of speech.”

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, noted the deteriorating situation across the West.

SEE ALSO: Stolpersteine: Standing defiantly in communities amid rising tensions

“It would be impossible to mark this seminal event in Jewish history without noting the frightening climate of anti-Semitism and xenophobia currently spreading across Europe and the United States,” he told AFP.

“The far right is gaining power at an alarming speed, and neo-Nazis are feeling emboldened to march in the streets shouting hateful slurs and advocating the most dangerous brands of nationalism and hatred.”

'Our duty'

In Germany, the far-right AfD party is now the biggest opposition party in parliament, even though its key members have challenged the country's culture of atonement over World War II and the Holocaust.

Across the Atlantic, the United States suffered its worst anti-Semitic attack late last month when 11 people were gunned down at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Felix Klein, Germany's commissioner on fighting anti-Semitism, acknowledged that the “discourse in society is coarsening” but stressed that “our democracy today is stable, strong.  It's completely different from the situation in 1938 or the Weimar Republic”.

He added however: “At the same time, these values need to be brought back to the fore, and defended.”

Lauder also called on the population to remain watchful.

“In November 2018 we are not at the precipice of another Kristallnacht,” he  said, “but it is all of our duty to prevent such atrocities from ever happening again.”

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.