Kristallnacht, which took place 9-10 November 1938. Wikimedia. Public domain.
We commemorate the past to understand the present. In learning about Europe’s imperial histories, for example, we explain problems faced by former colonies abroad and by minority communities at home. In the US, African-Americans shed light on current predicaments by teaching the histories of slavery and segregation.
What situation in today’s world are we seeking to understand when we memorialise Kristallnacht?
Unlike those other injustices, our mass media often present the Holocaust in a vacuum, frozen in time, sealed off from today’s antisemitism. People indeed seize the moment to take their swipes, insisting that what Israel does is ‘just as bad’.
When asked what purpose Holocaust commemorations serve, politicians and journalists commonly respond, ‘It’s important to know history’ or ‘We mustn’t let the past repeat itself’. But those bromides apply to any bad thing that has ever happened. They don’t explain the specificity of the Holocaust. They factor it out.
Jews were certainly not the only victims of the Holocaust. Through round-ups and concentration camps, millions of Europe’s most vulnerable people were killed. Jews may well differ from other groups because they were hit particularly hard; yet to reduce the calamity to a head-counting exercise, a competition of ‘More victim than thou’, wholly misses the distinct character of the Jewish Holocaust. No other group came, from fascism’s earliest days, to embody the arch-opposite, the arch-enemy of the Aryan ideal with such ideological rigour or such systematic regularity. The director Fritz Hippler might well have depicted any number of groups, but what the Nazi party in fact commissioned was his 1940 film, seen by millions, called ‘The Eternal Jew’.
From 1923-45, Julius Streicher’s weekly newspaper Der Stürmer ranted about all and sundry ‘enemies’ of the German people. The motto emblazoned onto each and every front page was, however, ‘The Jews are our wretchedness’. (That last word, Unglück, is too frequently rendered by the more urbane ‘misfortune’.) The paper’s most incessant and spine-tingling invective was hurled at Jews. As in the Venice of Antonio and Portia, the resounding word for evil in Hitler’s Europe became Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler equally hurls words at every type of imaginary foe, yet all those words combined do not begin to equal those he spits at Jews. The Jews as the nemesis of humanity, the Jews as arch-enemies embodying the root of all evil, the Jews as the essence to define everything the true human is not….
Those stereotypes are alive and well in our world today. That hatred of Jews screams out from dozens of countries, through iconographies that differ not a jot from what the Nazis had manufactured.
An Austrian recently posted on Facebook, ‘The Zionist Money-Jews are the global problem. Europe, and in particular Germany, are now reaping revenge from the Zionist Jews, particularly rich Zionist Jews in the USA, for their centuries of persecuting Jews in Europe. Zionists want to cut off Europe, particularly Germany, from the US as economic competitors.’
Just another internet loon? Yet Susanne Winter, Member of the Austrian Parliament, quickly agreed. ‘You take the words right out of my mouth. There are a lot of things that I am not allowed to write. Therefore I’m even more pleased with courageous, independent people.’
In September, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras appointed MP Dimitris Kammenos deputy minister for infrastructure, transport, and networks. To a tweet by Russia Today about the surge of antisemitism in Europe, Kammenos responded in April, ‘Have you recorded the attacks of Jews against all of us?’ Kammenos had earlier posted on Facebook the familiar anti-Semitic credo: ‘Don't forget, no Jew went to work’ in New York’s World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001. Meanwhile Stavroula Xoulidou, another MP, has pushed the old conspiracy that the ‘World Zionist Movement’ threatens the Greek nation.
At least Winter and Kammenos have since been expelled. In Eastern Europe, overt or thinly disguised references to Jewish political manipulation are more frequent and scarcely face consequences. As the media monitoring results of Get The Trolls Out! – a project against antisemitism in the media – show, Hungary recently commemorated the death of liberal leader and president Árpád Göncz. The MP István Szávay, Vice President of the country’s second strongest political party (Jobbik), posted on Facebook a photo of the 1930s fascist president Gyula Gömbös, one of the pioneers of that decade’s wave of European Jewish-exclusion laws.
In Venezuela, former President Hugo Chavez routinely and openly villainized Jews, with Jewish communities and businesses brutally attacked several times by police, under the bogus pretext of stockpiling weapons. As his successor Nicolás Maduro continues the public invective, the West’s zealous enthusiasts of the Chavez and post-Chavez regimes utter not a whisper of condemnation.
In many Muslim-majority states—not only in the Middle East but even as far away as Malaysia—the mainstream mass media remain rife with tales of Jewish ritual child murder and sinister world control, along with frequent calls for the death of all Jews.
In October a pro-Hitler poster appeared on the University of Birmingham campus. Izzy Lenga, the student who draw attention to this incident and spoke up against antisemitism, received antisemitic threats and abuse on Twitter. Swastika graffiti, verbal attacks, and conspiracy theories in blogs and websites have become common online currency.
In Poland, football-related graffiti often uses the word ‘Jew’ as an insult. The phrase ‘RTS Łódzka kurwa’ was recently found scrawled above a Star of David, ‘RTS’ referring to the football team and the rest meaning ‘Łódź whore’, recalling the infamous ghetto in which thousands of Jews were killed or deported to death camps. Similar graffiti actually popped up recently near a London stadium.
‘Antisemitic attitudes can erupt into race-hate abuse, threats and attacks,’ said David Delew, chief executive of the Community Security Trust commenting the last year’s increase in recorded incidents.
We must avoid using Holocaust commemorations solely to consign Judeophobia to an eternal yesterday. We must recall the Holocaust in order to warn the world about similar and ongoing antisemitism in our world today.