Astonishing moments in history – Kristallnacht and The Fall of the Berlin Wall

A Jewish-owned shop in Berlin after the Nazi riots of Nov. 9, 1938. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGESberlin20wall20freedom

November 9th and 10th serve as anniversaries of remarkable and astonishing events in global history, Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass) and The Fall of the Berlin Wall, respectively.  Each of these are inseparably connected to the world’s greatest self-inflicted tragedies of Nazism and World War II and its aftermath. These events stand at opposite poles of a spectrum that reveals mankind’s remarkable capacity for horrific and unspeakable acts as well as our unique capacity for human kindness, dignity, and the yearning for individual freedom. We are indeed a strange species with our seeming unbounded capacity for both evil and good that these events represent.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal puts one into the Kristallnacht events through the eyes of a child that suddenly is faced with certain death. For those not familiar with this historical event, it can best be summarized as a Nazi organized pogrom on Jews in Germany and the first mass arrest and submission of thousands of Jews to concentration camps. In essence, it was the launch of the Holocaust, as this 1988 newscast presents. One of the most harrowing and memorable lines is when the author states, “A group of Berliners said a stain on the street was a Jew’s blood. Even now I can hear their laughter.” When looking at these events from the lens of impartial spectator, one confronts the inevitable uncomfortable question of what we ourselves would have been like in those circumstances. Would we have had the courage to stand up for the oppressed and for what is right, even upon pain of death? Or would we too have joined the masses in complicity – just keeping our heads down with the common practiced art of not causing trouble or receiving unwanted attention, a macabre sense of thankfulness that it is someone else and not us being subjected to acts of violence. Even worse, would we be perpetrators of unspeakable violence and claim that we were, “just following orders.”

The author somberly observes that we have our own Kristallnacht analogous crisis happening right under our noses in which we can be accused of this same baleful complicity in the events in Syria and across the rest of ISIS dominated Middle East. He challenges us with this statement, “After nearly 75 years in the U.S., I still am stirred by the thought of American freedom—so precious and thrilling that I cannot imagine life without it. In the shadow of the Kristallnacht anniversary, I see that the Christian communities of the Middle East are being savaged by Islamic terrorists. Men are publicly beheaded, women condemned to acts of depravity, and churches destroyed. Who in our government has forcefully spoken out to stop this human tragedy? Who will throw the Christians of the Middle East a lifeline? I pray that our nation will.”

A group of Berliners said a stain on the street was a Jew’s blood. Even now I can hear their laughter.

Contrast the horror of Kristallnacht with the joy and optimism of the Fall of The Berlin Wall, one of the final vestiges of misplaced hopes in dreams of the Communist utopia being chipped away bit by bit with hammers and chisels, an act that served as a visceral metaphor for the yearning for common freedom and common brotherhood. One can almost emotionally join the jubilation by watching newscasts that chronicled the events in real time. We can never imagine a proper recompense for the events of the Holocaust, as the tell-tale signs of the terrors of the Holocaust still linger about us and much of Europe has never recovered their Jewish populations,  but it is striking nonetheless to think about young Berliners, particularly those on the Eastern side of it, bravely standing in the face of tyranny in their own defiant symbolic act in support of freedom and human dignity contrasted with the perpetrated violence and complicity of their forebearers. One can only hope and pray that we are a species capable of moving forward and not repeating the evils of the past, much like the microcosm of Berlin represents. Sadly, as the events of the Middle East indicate and other atrocities that we willingly visit upon mankind (I would argue abortion is one of those evils, but that is a topic for a different day), we always seem to have evil acts for which we are complicit at hand.


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