On the night of November 9, 1938, the Nazis coordinated an attack on the homes, businesses, and cultural institutions of German and Austrian Jews. It had been, according to the Sturmabteilung (the SA or brownshirts), a retaliation for the killing of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jewish refugee living there. In reality, the attacks were the culmination of increasingly antagonist policies towards the Jewish population occurring since 1933. While perhaps not actively involved in the wanton destruction that became known as Kristallnacht, non-Jewish citizens watched in stunned silence, allowing thousands of businesses, synagogues, and homes to be burned and looted. Reports of the violence spread in newspapers around the world in the days that followed.
We remember the horrors of Kristallnacht not solely because of its place on the path towards the Holocaust but also as a lesson in the dangers of passive compliance in the face of injustices. Part of what makes November 9th such a tragedy is understanding that ordinary citizens were unable, or unwilling, to protect their neighbors. The relationships that existed between perpetrators, victims, and bystanders are seemingly unconscionable in the face of buildings burning and lives being ruined.
And yet, in 2020 it seems as relatable as ever. Today, the flames of intolerance and hatred have been fanned by groups who spread their message through fear and intimidation.
As we mark the 82nd anniversary of Kristallnacht we must pledge to not be passive in the face of hatred. We must stand in solidarity, upholding the virtues of justice, equality, and democracy. In that way, we will truly honor the victims of Kristallnacht.
Joe Eggers is the Outreach Coordinator for the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies.