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Germany recalls Kristallnacht as anti-Semitism, nationalism on rise

In recent years across Germany on November 9, 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
JOHANNES EISELE (AFP)
Berlin's administrative court overturned a decision to prohibit far-right demonstration during the remembrance

Germany on Friday remembered 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 9, 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 color, 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.

She criticized the inaction or complicity of neighbors of Jews and society at large, further explaining that exclusion, racism or anti-Semitism must be stamped out from the start.

Turning to the current situation in Germany, Merkel underlined the duality of being both a home to a thriving Jewish community - “an unexpected gift after the break with civilization during National Socialism” - and the site of rising anti-Semitism. “So we must ask ourselves: What did we really learn from the past?”

Tobias SCHWARZ (AFP)

“At such times, there is a particularly great danger that those with apparently simple answers to the difficulties and consequences of upheavals become popular. Simple answers that too often come with a brutalization of language in the streets, as well as online. That is the beginning which we must oppose decisively," 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 7, 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.

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

"I saw the smoldering 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'

Like in years past, people knelt on November 9 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 stolen just before the Kristallnacht anniversary.

John MACDOUGALL (AFP)

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

On the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, also known in Germany as Reichspogromnacht, far-right militants had called a demonstration in Berlin, but only a handful turned up.

In comparison, hundreds of counter demonstrators mobilized against the far-right march.

"The idea that right-wing extremists are going to march through the government district in the dark, possibly with 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."

While Geisel had banned the far-right demonstration on Kristallnacht, saying it would negate the meaning of the day, Berlin's administrative court overturned the decision Friday after finding that it would pose no threat to the public order.

'No respect'

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

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, noted the "frightening climate of anti-Semitism and xenophobia currently spreading across Europe and the United States".

"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."

Frank Rumpenhorst (dpa/AFP)

The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, called out the AfD, accusing it of fomenting hate against refugees, Muslims or Jews, citing over 60 cases of arson.

The AfD has "perfected this incitement. They are intellectual agitators. They have no respect for anything...they institutionalize the resistance for their own goals, they interrogate the survivors of the Shoah in order to compare them to Nazi perpetrators...they want to destroy our culture of remembrance," he said, using a Hebrew reference to the Holocaust.

He also alluded to mosques being sprayed with hate slogans as a “scandal" and similarly to synagogues even though they are being protected. The fact that these things are happening in Germany in 2018 is “shameful” for our country, he said.

But unlike in the 1930s, "today we are democratic enough" to combat racist nationalism, Schuster said stressing that future generations have to be inoculated against such hate.

Felix Klein, Germany's commissioner on fighting anti-Semitism, also said that "our democracy today is stable, strong".

"At the same time, these values need to be brought back to the fore, and defended."

Polina Garaev, i24NEWS's correspondent in Germany, contributed to this report.

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