'Kristallnacht' Remembered

History & Communal Responsibility

I am bound by history, duty, and by my personal journey to face again a very well-known subject. As with the stories of Passover, slavery and the ten plagues, and the liberation that followed forty years of purification in the desert-repeated and restudied every year in the Jewish tradition—so must we all acknowledge, remember, and learn from the past. Whether it is Kristallnacht (November 9), Auschwitz Liberation Day (January 27), or a specific time to reflect on slavery (February in the United States), we must use ritualized occasions to focus our shared memories and to draw lessons from them about collective guilt and how to deal with it.

By the scales of what was to follow, Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938) was a rather limited affair. Jewish store windows were broken and many shops were looted. Numerous synagogues were set on fire. Some 30,000 Jews were arrested, at least 91 were killed on the spot, and others were sent to already functioning but newly expanding concentration camps at Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen.

Kristallnacht was a nationwide organized act, in which orchestrated terror was unleashed and clearly focused on one scapegoat, the Jews, who were blamed for all of Germany’s problems. It was an expression of anti-Semitism as an organized political force, raised to a new level of mass hatred and hysteria. As it met little opposition, domestic or from the outside, Kristallnacht set the stage for the much more tragic, degrading horror of the Holocaust that would stain Germany, and through it, civilization forever: the murder of 6 million Jews, 200,000 gypsies, 70,000 handicapped and mental patients, 10,000 homosexuals, as well as political dissidents and other German critics of the regime. All were God’s children; we weep for them all.

Beyond merely killing millions of innocent civilians—solely because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disabilities, or political beliefs—gruesome atrocities were committed that make one wonder if there is a God in heaven, if there could be any deeper depths of human depravity. The mind cannot comprehend the Holocaust. The soul cannot grasp what happened. But Kristallnacht was an important threshold.

When preparing these reflections, I felt particularly inadequate—unable to convey the depth of feeling, loss, hurt, and anger evoked in me by the events I have just described in statistical terms and pale adjectives—to communicate the "feel" of these shattering events.

I was born the same year as Anne Frank, 1929, in Köln, Germany. I had a solid German name: Werner Falk (I later changed it to a Hebrew name, my current one). My first childhood memory is of being taken by my grandparents for a stroll in a forest near Frankfurt. It was 1935. We came upon a forest fire and watched from some distance. Suddenly two trucks full of Hitler Youth came to help fight the fire. My grandparents grew frantic and we ran away in terror. I understood little about what was going on, but their fear stayed with me for years to come.

My family was luckier than most. We escaped to Palestine the same year. There my father, who had been a successful executive in Germany, found himself on a rocky hill, trying to farm. Over the next twenty-one years he struggled to get a foothold in a strange climate and land, but he never quite succeeded. Desperate, he finally returned to Germany, only to die shortly thereafter. Clearly, I did better than most: I had a father, albeit one who was disoriented. And he did better than many: He saw his son grow up.

My grandma (on my mother’s side) lived with us in our home in Palestine. She lost her mind and opened her veins when she learned about members of the family who perished in the concentration camps: two sisters, their husbands and children. From my father’s side of the family, all the aunts and cousins, including twins who were deaf and mute. Altogether, twenty-five members of my extended family died in the concentration camps. There are no graves on which to lay flowers, to say kaddish, to bring closure to one’s grief.

Still, my parents were spared. As I said, I was one of the luckiest of them all. Now it is two generations later. Some people in Germany say it is time to close the books, to stop dwelling on the past. "We were too young to be guilty, but we certainly paid the bill. We had to rebuild a destroyed country and suffer being stigmatized; the accounts are squared and closed..." is the way Josef Joffe characterizes it (New York Review of Books, November 28, 1996). In contrast, Ruth Elias, Holocaust survivor and author of Triumph of Hope: From Theresienstadt and Auschwitz to Israel (John Wiley and Sons), feels that the Holocaust is a stain that all Germans are condemned forever to seek to remove but never to succeed.

Between these two extreme positions lie many more nuanced ones. One widely shared view is that one cannot walk away from the past. Those who do are doomed to repeat it. As Hannah Arendt observed, "insofar as it is even possible to overcome the past, this can only be done by recounting what has occurred." We cannot understand Germany’s present foreign relations, several key laws—such as those that ban certain forms of speech and political organization—or much else without a frank examination of the past.

As I see it, while the story of the Holocaust and the preceding events and after-effects must be retold, its meaning must be carved out by each generation. The Germany of today is profoundly different, not only from that of 1938, but also from 1948 and 1968. The question we face, two generations after Kristallnacht, is what is the proper response of this generation, of this age, to the Holocaust? I speak not of the relatively small number of Germans today who were adults sixty years ago, whether they were involved themselves, or simply knew about the events and did nothing to stop them, or chose not to know. I speak of their children, and their children, a rapidly growing proportion of the German people. Can one, in justice, blame them, hold them accountable for what happened?

One of the first to address this question of guilt was Karl Jaspers, whose book Die Schuldfrage is still a touchstone for numerous examinations of the issue. Writing immediately after the war, he distinguished among various kinds of guilt. One is criminal guilt, that of the perpetrators, so judged by the courts; it does not apply to those who were not yet born or who were children at the time. No one should hold the child of a convicted felon criminally responsible.

Another is political guilt, "the deeds of statesmen and of the citizenry of the state," Jaspers writes, that result "in my having to bear the consequences of the deeds of the state whose power governs me and under whose order I live. Everybody is co-responsible for the way he is governed." This sense—of political guilt—comes about because, as Jaspers states, "politically everyone acts in the modern state, at least by voting, or failing to vote, in elections." As the scholar Jean-François Lyotard has noted, "the notion of an apolitical individual no longer makes sense." I will later return to the question of whether ordinary citizens might have been able to act against the Nazis, but in any case, this type of political guilt does not hold for the present generation either. Whether or not their parents or grandparents should or could have voted differently, taken to the streets to demonstrate, or even laid their bodies before the tanks—as was done later in Tiananmen Square, the Philippines, and around the Russian Parliament—this has no bearing on most Germans today. They were not present, and hence could not have been politically involved.

A third form of guilt for Jaspers is moral guilt. "I who cannot act otherwise than as an individual," remarked Jaspers, "am morally responsible for all my deeds, including the execution of political and military orders. It is never simply true that ’orders are orders.’ Rather...every deed remains subject to moral judgment. Jurisdiction rests with my conscience...." This form of guilt, as the other two, applies only to those directly involved in the events before 1945. None appertains to later generations. In this sense, what Jaspers called the process of "purification," Reinigung, has been completed. It is time to move on.

Whatever conclusions one reaches concerning historical guilt, one must not confuse—as is too often done—collective guilt with hereditary guilt. I owe the distinction to Jeffrey Olick of Columbia University. "Collective guilt," when it applies, extends to all members of the involved generation. But even such guilt does not justify imputing "hereditary guilt" to unborn, future generations, particularly ones reared and active in a later, profoundly restructured society. I see no reason to accept the notion, for example, that there is something in German genes, history, or culture that will prevent Germany from continuing to be a reconstructed, democratic nation that fully respects human rights. Nor do I agree with those who argue that Germany must be melted into Europe if one is to avoid a future Holocaust.

And yet, the lid refuses to be closed, the door to be shut. Many German colleagues and friends—and I myself—have a strong moral intuition that there is still something that must be treated, wounds that still need to be dressed and issues addressed. On examination, these concerns are best met by what I call the communitarian concept of communal responsibility.

Communal responsibility is based on the fact that each of us is born into a community and shares its history, memories, identity, achievements, and failures. We are not simply individual human beings who can retreat behind a Rawlsian "veil of ignorance," secure in our universal rights and historical innocence. We are also members of specific families and communities. We cannot help but share their burdens, just as we share their treasures, their responsibilities as well as their privileges. Thus, an American inherits both the proud memory of the Boston Tea Party and the agony of slavery, the marvelous work of the Framers of the Constitution and the slaughter of Native Americans, the vigilant protection of freedom—from Greece to Korea—and the murder of innocent civilians in My Lai. The memory of slavery is particularly telling. Abolished some 134 years ago, before the ancestors of most contemporary Americans had even immigrated, slavery is still part of the American past: We cannot erase or ignore it. Most important, our aggrieved past commands us all to act, not merely the sons and daughters of plantation owners. We are all coresponsible for that which our community has perpetrated and condoned, for both past sins of commission and omission.

In the same sense, just being a German means being part of both a great culture that gave the world Goethe, Kant, Bach, Schiller, Heine—and the Nazis. I am not saying that the brighter moments of our histories all shine to the same extent, nor that the darker ones are equally troubling. But I am pointing out that we are all members of a community, and as such, bearers of its burdens. Like others, I prefer the notion of responsibility to that of guilt, particularly when it concerns people who personally could not have been involved in the crimes committed. I do not hold that guilt is always harmful or inappropriate or a poor source of motivation for positive social and moral deeds. But it can generate negative feelings, and sometimes debilitating consequences. I know a fair number of younger Germans who are obsessed with Germany’s past, who rather than drawing lessons from it, wallow in its wrongs. They turn morose and depressed, and are forever defensive and apologetic about their country. Unfortunately, like digging into an old wound, their pain does not lead them to make affirmative commitments. In contrast, the concept of communal responsibility calls attention to the fact that whether one is guilty or not in a personal sense, one has a responsibility to build on the particular past of one’s community, drawing on its assets and learning from its liabilities.

What, then, does communal responsibility entail? What specific obligations does it impose?

First, it cautions not to look for easy scapegoats. While not denying or diminishing their importance, one can never blame select power elites ("the Nazis did it, not the Germans"), objective conditions ("it happened because of runaway inflation, massive unemployment"), or even third parties ("Hitler was caused by the humiliating armistice imposed on Germany at the end of World War I") for the dark moments in one’s communal past. I am not suggesting that external forces and objective conditions did not and do not play a role in a nation’s history; but they do not exempt one from sharing the responsibility for one’s community and its course of action. '

Second, remember the past. Each generation of parents is obligated to recount the formative events of the past to its children. In the United States, we still mourn the circumstances, savagery, and massive bloodshed of the Civil War. Without drawing any parallels, it is a credit to Germany that as a community—albeit not every single German—it has learned to do the same concerning the history of the Nazi era.

Third, being completely private is not a virtue. While the first two communal responsibilities cited have often been articulated, the next one is less frequently stated: a good person cannot ever be completely private. A major lesson of Kristallnacht is that a good person must also be an active citizen. I have an obligation to follow public events and to act on them within my capacity. Given the limits of each individual, I have an obligation to search for and find like-minded people with whom to join in expressing my concerns: to vote, to organize, if need be to demonstrate peacefully, and even to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience. When skinheads terrorize immigrants, when there is genocide in Rwanda, or ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, when innocent civilians are slaughtered in Chechnya—it is our "business."

Fourth, act early. The lesson of history, especially of Kristallnacht, is that one must act before a regime of terror takes root. When I discuss the Holocaust with my German colleagues, some say that 1938 was already much too late. Others say that 1933 was too late, as tens of thousands of Communists, Social Democrats, and other critics of the regime had already been arrested or disappeared. But, they argue, 1932 was too early; people could not possibly have foreseen what was to follow, although the fact that Hindenburg was assured that Hitler "could be controlled" suggests that some key people understood there was a problem (after all, this was years after Hitler had written Mein Kampf, and his thugs were already roaming the streets).

I cannot determine exactly when it was the right time to first act. But a lesson of the Holocaust is that it is never too early. Like the broken window theory in fighting crime—which suggests that ignoring smaller crimes invites larger ones—once a community looks away it signals that it will tolerate more serious, larger-scale organized crime. It defines deviance down, to use Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase. In contrast, if one speaks up, organizes to protest the desecration of even one grave, the first swastika on a synagogue, or the bombing of a refugee home, one demonstrates that the community will not tolerate such evils.

The need for such protestations holds true not only domestically but internationally. We have known for years, for example, that the Serbs would carry their ethnic cleansing to Kosovo. Whatever one thinks about the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, we should have had international observers, peacekeeping forces, and mediators on the ground long before the first shots were fired. And there is strong evidence that we could have stopped or limited the genocide in Rwanda, in which up to a million people were killed, by speaking up and acting early.

Fifth, build civic societies. A major element in developing and sustaining democracy is the creation of a civic culture in fledgling democracies, including the former Soviet republics and numerous third-world countries. I draw an example from the society I know best, the United States. In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy arose. He was a demagogue who spouted hatred and conspiracy theories, scaring many people into acquiescence, hounding others out of jobs and elected office, even driving some to suicide. But when he passed an invisible line, long before he became a serious threat to the stability of American democracy, he ran up against strong civic opposition. Major media figures, especially Edward R. Murrow, took him on and activated public concern. Joseph Welch, a lawyer, turned on him during televised Senate hearings, addressing the badgering McCarthy: "Have you no sense of decency, Sir?" This gesture resonated widely with the sense of fair play already deeply instilled in American civic culture. Once public opposition to McCarthy was aroused, politicians joined it, further mobilizing opposition, and McCarthy was deflated.

While Britain developed its civic society over a considerable period of centuries, Germany has shown that, drawing on some preexisting foundations, a strong civic society can be built within one generation. In the post-Soviet era, when numerous states are looking to the West to help them develop such a civic society, Germany can serve as an example of how a nation can change its civic culture with dispatch. In particular, Germany can teach the world about "working through the past" (Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit), a kind of civic education that has become an integral part of German schooling. Thus in recent years, when fire bombs were thrown into refugee homes, foreigners harassed, or skinheads marched, large numbers of Germans responded quickly and vigorously in public.

Sixth, share the goods with others. Countries like Canada, with its frequent contributions to international peacekeeping forces, the United States in its mediation of conflicts in Ireland and elsewhere, and Norway in its diplomatic and economic efforts, have all shown that a given nation, by its involvement, can draw much pride from making the world community better. The purpose of such acts is not to make up for some parts of a particular nation’s past, but to give expression to the fact that not to do evil is simply not good enough. Germany has made numerous efforts to share its wealth with the third world by underwriting and staffing development programs abroad. But it should also, in keeping with the terrible lessons learned from its own history, do better than settle for "normal politics." Germany can do more than simply support a strong euro, lead the European bank, or point to its own economic miracle. Rather, Germany should be a major force in creating and financing an international corps of volunteers, perhaps a genocide-prevention corps, that could be sent anywhere in the world at the first sign of the mass killing of innocent civilians. It would be a Gandhi-like force, trained in nonviolent techniques, but backed by an armed UN peacekeeping force. Through such efforts at preventing further genocides, memories of Germany’s own bitter past could be gradually overcome, although its memories of the Holocaust will never, and should never, be erased.

Some scholars have argued that the Holocaust was the ultimate expression of our unwillingness to accept differences among people. German President Richard von Weizsaecker has warned: "Do not let yourself be driven to enmity and hatred against other people, against Russians or Americans, against Jews or Turks... against black or white.... Learn to live with each other, not against each other." We may be different in appearance, in manners, even in culture and particular bonds and obligations, but beneath them all, we are equal human beings: members of one ultimate community, the human race. This is our past. It is also the promise of our future.


This article is based on a speech delivered at Saint Paul’s Church in Frankfurt, Germany, on the sixtieth anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Published in the 1999-02-12 issue: 

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at George Washington University and the author of The New Golden Rule, The Moral Dimension, and The Active Society.

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