Looking to History and Recent Events, German Leaders Defend Democracy and Pluralism

Looking to History and Recent Events, German Leaders Defend Democracy and Pluralism

An exhibition at the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin shows a photograph of a burning synagogue during Kristallnacht in 1938.CreditCreditSean Gallup/Getty Images
  • Nov. 9, 2018

BERLIN — Amid a resurgence of xenophobia that has reshaped Germany’s political landscape, the nation’s leaders warned on Friday that Germans must defend democracy to ensure that hate crimes like Kristallnacht, the Nazi-led burning of synagogues and plundering of Jewish shops 80 years ago, “never again” take place.

On a day that commemorated both the centennial of the declaration of Germany’s first democratic republic and, just 20 years later, Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on Germans to embrace an “enlightened patriotism” that celebrates their democratic achievements while guarding them against the forces of hate that led to the country’s descent into the “breach of civilization,” the Holocaust.

The president’s address to Parliament was the first in a series of memorials marking a number of historic events that converge on Nov. 9, considered by Germans to be their “fateful day.” At a ceremony honoring the victims of Kristallnacht, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned against a resurgence of anti-Semitism. Later Friday, officials laid wreaths before a remnant of the Berlin Wall, which was breached under the pressure of peaceful East German protesters on this date in 1989, a year before the country was reunited.

Chancellor Angela Merkel at a ceremony on Friday at the Rykestrasse Synagogue in Berlin commemorating the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht.CreditFabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Recent events were clearly on the minds of leaders in Germany. Rising nationalism and populism have forced the country to look inward, struggling to find answers to violent protests against foreigners that have become commonplace in the former East Germany, and to a coarsening of political debate with the entrance of the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, or AfD, into Parliament.

“We can be proud of our tradition of freedom and democracy, without losing sight of the abyss that was the Shoah,” Mr. Steinmeier said, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.

“That is the essence of an enlightened patriotism,” the president said. “It is never loud and boastful, but is a patriotism of soft sounds and mixed feelings.”

The AfD was not invited by leaders of Germany’s Jewish community to a ceremony in Rykestrasse synagogue in Berlin, which was set alight in 1938, only to have the blaze extinguished relatively quickly to prevent neighboring houses from going up in flames. Thousands of Germans either took part or stood by as at least 91 people were killed, and 7,500 businesses were plundered.


A smashed Jewish shop window on the morning after Kristallnacht in Berlin in 1938.CreditHulton Archive/Getty Images

“Barely anyone protested,” said Josef Schuster, head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews. That, he said, sent a signal to the Nazis to continue their violence against Jews, culminating in the death camps.

“We are commemorating today with the promise that we will set ourselves strongly against attacks on our open and plural society,” Ms. Merkel said. “We are commemorating in the knowledge that watching as lines are crossed and crimes are committed ultimately means going along with them.”

Official statistics show the number of anti-Semitic criminal offenses committed last year rose to 1,504 from 1,468 committed in 2016. But those numbers include only criminal offenses, such as bodily injury or destruction of property, that are reported to the police.

Daily insults suffered by Jewish people or institutions, in person or online, which are not included in those statistics and often are not reported to police, have increased in Germany in recent years, according to groups that monitor hate speech and hate crimes. People wearing skullcaps or Star of David jewelry or tattoos have been harassed or assaulted on the street, especially in Berlin, the groups say.


Candles at the site of a former synagogue in Schwerin, Germany, this week during a commemoration of Kristallnacht.CreditBernd Wuestneck/DPA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The arrival of roughly 1 million refugees from mostly Muslim countries in 2015 has been blamed for the increase, although the attacks often come from far-right adherents rather than immigrants. Schools have struggled to find ways to teach the country’s dark history to young Germans, many of whom are recently arrived immigrants, or are the children of immigrants.

Ms. Merkel said that anyone living in Germany must respect the country’s values of equality, enshrined in the constitution, regardless of religion. “Just as all Muslims must never be under general suspicion, because some carry out violence in the name of their religion, at the same time it is clear that everyone who lives in our country must respect the values of our Constitution,” she said.

Opening the ceremony in the refurbished synagogue, Gideon Joffe, the head of Berlin’s Jewish community, noted that he was often asked whether Jewish life is still possible and welcome in Germany.

“My answer is yes,” he said. “Emphatically yes.”

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