When I was in ninth grade in Berlin, my history class took a trip to Sachsenhausen, a former concentration camp just north of the city. Every year starting in middle school, our classes covered the history of World War II, and our lessons got darker as we got older. We visited the Holocaust Memorial in downtown Berlin and interviewed a Holocaust survivor to help us understand the gravity of the history. But no experience was as harrowing as standing in front of the wrought iron gates that read, “Arbeit macht frei” or “work sets you free” — the slogan used at concentration camps.
Our guide at Sachsenhausen brought us into the spaces that we had only come to know in textbooks and worksheets. We walked through the same narrow hallways that thousands of Jewish prisoners walked through and were asked to sit on replicas of the same hard beds that they were forced to sleep in. We took turns standing at the doorway of the camp’s gas chamber and looking inside.
Eighty-four years ago today in 1938, a year before the start of WWII, about 30,000 Jewish men were arrested by Nazi officials and transported to prominent concentration camps, including Sachsenhausen.
The arrests were part of a series of pogroms, targeted massacres of an ethnic or religious group, against Jews in Germany and its annexed territories. They began after a 17-year-old Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, assassinated a German diplomat in Paris. Grynszpan’s parents had been exiled from Germany as part of a mass expulsion of Polish Jews a few days prior.
Disguised as “spontaneous demonstrations,” Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party’s minister of propaganda, used the assassination to justify a public attack on Jewish culture. The “Sturmabteilung” (stormtroopers) and Hitler Youth burned synagogues, destroyed Jewish homes and hospitals, and looted Jewish shops and businesses. Today, the pogroms are remembered as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass,” referring to the glass shards that covered streets throughout the country in its aftermath.
Germans have been trying to reconcile the past for decades now and my school’s curriculum surrounding WWII is part of that effort. Obviously, people my age weren’t involved with the Holocaust directly, but our identity as Germans urges us to face the history of our country. To understand and remember what happened. Some of us have grandparents or great-grandparents who were directly involved on the wrong side of history, and that is something we have to acknowledge.
Despite efforts to establish a new national identity, Germany is not free from antisemitism. The country’s far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose representatives have criticized Germany’s effort to remember the Holocaust, currently makes up about 11% of government. According to the German news outlet DW, AfD representative Björn Höcke said in 2017 that the country needed a, “180-degree reversal on the politics of remembrance.” He also referred to Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial as a “monument of shame,” criticizing its place in the country’s ethos.
The AfD is part of a swell of far-right politics in Europe, but their influence in Germany pales in comparison with other governments like the newly-elected Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and the Brothers of Italy, which has roots in the country’s neo-fascist party, the Italian Social Movement (MSI). In Sweden, the far-right party Sweden Democrats won 20% of parliamentary seats this year, (a three percent jump from the country’s 2018 election and an eight percent jump from 2014).
American antisemitism has been spotlit recently as well. Last month, Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, tweeted a series of remarks including that he is going to go “death con 3 on Jewish people.” He later evoked antisemitic notions of Jewish control and greed in an interview with Chris Cuomo when he said that he believes in a “Jewish underground media mafia,” where “Black musicians signed to Jewish record labels and those Jewish record labels take ownership.”
According to the New York Times, Ye’s tweets have garnered attention from antisemites across the country, like a group who hung a banner that read, “Kanye is right about the Jews” over an interstate in Los Angeles. The same message was suspended over an interstate and projected on the video board at a football stadium in Jacksonville, Florida.
Growing up, I couldn’t leave the house without being reminded of the Holocaust. Berlin’s cobblestone sidewalks are interspersed with golden “Stolpersteine” (stumbling stones) engraved with the names, deportation dates, and dates and locations of death of the Jewish people that lived in the area. The main train station in my neighborhood was a major deportation center during WWII and has a large sign with a list of the concentration camps it transported people to at its entrance. I could never escape the weight of my country’s history.
Others, including neo-fascist groups around the world, have held on to that history to fuel their hatred. They draw inspiration from the Nazi Party’s rhetoric, appearance, and beliefs. Antisemitism is most threatening when we choose to believe it is a thing of the past. On this Kristallnacht, we need to keep history at the forefront of our minds to confront modern attacks on Jewish culture.