80 Years After Kristallnacht, I Call Berlin Home

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I’ve been asked time and again how, being Jewish, I could choose to live in Berlin, of all places. The 80th anniversary of an event known in modern Germany under the unwieldy German-Russian name Novemberpogrome, is a good day to attempt an answer.

The English-speaking world refers to it as Kristallnacht. The word Reichskristallnacht was first heard in 1939 from Nazi functionary Wilhelm Boerger to describe the events of Nov. 9, 1938, when Nazi stormtroopers throughout Germany and Austria staged a coordinated attack on Jewish-owned businesses and synagogues; it was a reference to the glass shards raining down from broken shop windows. More than 1,300 people died during and immediately after the pogroms. More than half of Germany’s synagogues and Jewish prayer houses were razed. Thousands of Jews were packed off to concentration camps in the immediate aftermath as Hitler’s policy switched from trying to force Jews out of the country to open elimination.

Most Germans reacted to the pogroms with a frightened indifference. They’d known by then not to cross the SA and the SS. That, more than the Nazi atrocities themselves, is the reason people ask the question about living in Berlin today.

In August, the German government reported in response to a question from a legislator that between 2010 and 2017, Germany has seen a steady stream of anti-Semitic crime, averaging about 1,400 a year, 39 of them violent. There’s been an uptick in recent years. In the first half of this year, 696 anti-Semitic crimes, including 17 violent ones, took place, suggesting an improvement compared with 1,504 cases for the whole of 2017; but it’s not clear if that will reverse the longer term trend.

Berlin is the leading German state when it comes to these offenses. There are parts of the city where a kippah would get you attacked or at least insulted with a pretty high probability, and where an Israeli flag will have the same effect on locals as a red rag on a bull. Synagogues, unlike any other houses of prayer, are under permanent police protection, but every Jew cannot walk around with a police detail.

It’s not just the capital. In recent years, the number of Jewish community members in Germany has been on the decline after a large influx of former Soviet Jews in the 1990s and early 2000s. Some Jews are leaving because they feel unsafe. Meanwhile, 80 years after that night of flying glass no one knows the answer to what Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier termed “the hardest and most painful question of German history.” In a speech on Friday, Steinmeier recalled that Nov. 9 is also the 100th anniversary of the fall of the German monarchy and the proclamation of the republic, which would later be known as the Weimar one. “How could it be,” Steinmeier asked,

that the same people who dared to opt for democratic self-determination on 9 November 1918; who in the following years made so much progress in so many areas of human progress; who listened to symphonies in their concert halls and danced swing in their nightclubs; whose scientists won Nobel Prizes; whose workers built cooperative housing; whose artists tossed traditions in the trash; whose movies thrilled the world — how could it be that within a few years these same people helped the enemies of democracy to a majority in democratic elections; wreaked war and annihilation on their European neighbors; looked away, if not looked on and cheered, when at home, in its own streets, Jewish neighbors, homosexuals, mentally ill people were dragged from their homes, led away by the henchmen of a criminal regime — a regime that stuffed Jewish families into cattle cars and sent parents and children to gas chambers?

If there’s no clear answer to this question, some fear that there’s no reason to believe it will never happen again. The nationalists are back in parliament, and while the Alternative for Germany party is at pains to convince Germans it’s not a Nazi reincarnation, it treats the Hitler years as no more than “bird droppings” on a glorious German history, for which it’s time to stop apologizing.

So why do I live here and call Berlin my home?

One reason is Wilhelm Kruetzfeld, a career Prussian cop in charge of a police station in central Berlin who on Nov. 9, 1938 saw some stormtroopers setting fire to the magnificent synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse. He pulled his gun and chased them away, then got the fire brigade to put out the flames. The synagogue, with its grand ornate cupola, one of the wonders of 19th century Berlin, still stands today thanks to him. 

There are many more Germans like Kruetzfeld today. Anti-Semitic incidents are often reported to the police by passers-by, not victims. People actively intervene when they witness attacks, even when there is physical danger. Police treat anti-Semitic crime as a priority, perhaps in part because the media do.

Another reason is that much of the current anti-Semitism in Germany, at least the violent and loud variety, comes from Middle Eastern and North African immigrants. Many of these people know no better: They’ve come from places where their ears had been filled with anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish propaganda. “Imported anti-Semitism,” deplorable and dangerous as it is, doesn’t rise to the same level of threat as state-sponsored SA and SS goons.

The third and most important reason, though, is the way Steinmeier formulates that cursed question. I come from the country where the word pogrom was invented, and I’ve never heard a Russian leader ask “How could we have done it?” about any of the numerous atrocities in Russian history. Germany operates differently at the highest level of government, even though it no longer has to.

Nov. 9 is also the anniversary of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. The German government quashed it easily and underestimated the danger the nascent Nazi movement posed. I’m not about to draw a Nazi analogy here — nothing happening this century can match the calamity of the German “national revolution” of the 1930s — but I’ve watched one World War II victor after another make the same mistake of pooh-poohing a revanchist, populist threat. The Russian elite didn’t realize what it was in for with Vladimir Putin when he rose to prominence in the late 1990s. The U.S. was shocked by the power of the Trump movement. The U.K. allowed populist loudmouths to trick it into Brexit.

So why expect Germany to do something similar? Every country bears the germ of disaster, every nation can end up asking itself, “Why did we do it?” Germany, however, has already been down this road. A repeat would require stupidity of which I don’t believe the Germans capable. That’s why I sit in Berlin this Nov. 9, marking all the anniversaries with a heavy heart but without much fear.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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