80 years after Kristallnacht: on Pittsburgh and populism

When I think of Kristallnacht, I think about my grandmother.

She once showed me a letter that she’d kept, informing her of her dismissal from work. It simply stated that, as a Jew, she could no longer be employed by the company. I don’t recall the exact date of the letter, but it would have been sometime in the months after 12th March 1938. That was the date of the Anschluss, when German tanks crossed the border, Austria formally surrendered its independence and became a province of the Third Reich.

Some 300,000 Jews lived in Austria in 1938. Those with the prescience, courage and means to do so, made plans to emigrate following the Nazi annexation.My grandmother would eventually join the exodus, escaping to Britain with her two sisters in 1939 at the age of 23. Her parents stayed behind, and would be among the 65,000 Austrian victims of the Holocaust.

80 years ago, any lingering doubts about what the future held for Austria’s Jews were dispelled. 9th November 1938. Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass. A mass pogrom swept through Germany and Austria; mobs of thousands attacked Jews and their property, with police either standing by or joining in the destruction. In Vienna, 42 synagogues were set alight and over 5000 shops belonging to Jewish owners were looted and destroyed. Fire trucks were sent, but only to ensure that the flames engulfing the synagogues did not spread to neighboring buildings. The Nazi state had declared war on its Jewish citizens, and this would be but a prelude to what even then would have been unimaginable.

The 80th anniversary yesterday of this night of antisemitic terror, came a matter of days after the 11 victims of antisemitic terror in Pittsburgh were laid to rest. A lot has been written in response, including some excellent pieces about antisemitism itself, and what makes it unlike other forms of prejudice. Without wanting to detract from that thesis, (which I have written in support of), with Kristallnacht in mind, we should note the power of populism, and be suitably repelled by leaders who deliberately incite fear, hatred and social division.

First the required caveat: I am not saying Trump is Hitler. Such obvious hyperbole is both offensive to the victims of Nazism and obstructs reasoned and reasonable critique. What we can and should do however, is use the most extreme case of racial scapegoating and demagoguery as a warning against anything that smells remotely the same.

Antisemitism was prevalent in Austria long before the Anschluss, but Kristallnacht needed more than just willing participants. It needed the green light of political leaders; ordinary Germans and Austrians needed to know that their rulers endorsed – or at least would not object to – their barbarism.

No one can say that Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life synagogue with lethal intent because Donald Trump was President. In fact, we know from his social media postings that Bowers derided Trump as a Jewish-controlled puppet. But Bowers was part of a movement, a loose network connected by social media and neo-Nazi websites, given a new lease of life by Trump’s rhetoric.When white supremacists marched in Charlottesville last year, chanting “Jews will not replace us”, they had good reason to assume that now they had a President who would not unequivocally condemn them. (Though even they might have been surprised by his sickening response that their group of fascists included some “very fine people”.) They would have witnessed his obfuscation when confronted with former Klan leader David Duke’s support for his candidacy, pretending not to know who Duke was and refusing to disavow the KKK before he had “looked into” who they were.

Others have followed Trump’s lead in appealing to this far-right fringe.  The National Rifle Association recently accused three Jewish billionaires of funding gun control campaigns. Now either there are simply no non-Jewish liberal billionaires in the United States, or the NRA are aping the final Trump campaign ad before the 2016 election, featuring three prominent Jewish bankers secretly pulling the “levers of power in Washington”.

Similarly, a number of Jewish Democratic candidates in this week’s midterm elections were depicted holding fistfuls of cash in local Republican Party attack ads. These were nothing to do with the White House or national Republican Party leadership, but this is unprecedented antisemitism in modern American politics, and inconceivable without Trump’s example.

Supporters of Trump will counter all of this by pointing out that the most prolific perpetrators of violence against Jews today are not white nationalists but Islamists. And they’ll get no argument from me. But it is crazy to claim that Trump and Steve Bannon, or European demagogues like Viktor Orban in Hungary, are the answer to the problem of radical Islam. White nationalism and Islamist fascism are both cancers. The fact that one is more likely to kill you does not mean you should welcome the other.

There is also a patent absurdity in the claim that these authoritarian populists are “defending the West”.  They make little secret of their disdain for western values such as free expression and minority rights. Trump’s description of the media as “the enemies of the people” is classic authoritarian language. In Hungary, a far less entrenched democracy than the US, Orban is swiftly and effectively curtailing press freedom.

The wave of authoritarian nationalism in western democracies should concern us as Jews beyond antisemitism. Jewish history – the events of 80 years ago and what would follow above all – tells us that the enemies of democracy and its attendant values of equality, liberty and the rule of law will be the enemies of the Jewish people. And a great many Jews instinctively understand that. It is surely not a coincidence that a wildly disproportionate number of the prominent anti-Trump American conservatives are Jews – including those like William Kristol, Bret Stephens and the late Charles Krauthammer, who are highly literate in Jewish history.

Another anti-Trump Jew (though not a conservative) is Yascha Mounk, the author of an acclaimed book on this new wave of authoritarianism in the West. Yesterday he tweeted this:

“It has been eighty years since Kristallnacht.

Never in my life has it felt as though its lessons were as urgent, and as widely ignored, as today.

Where might this end? No one can honestly claim to have the answer. But if we do see streets filled, once again, with baying mobs and broken glass, no one can honestly claim they did not see it coming.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.
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