'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,...

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About the Author

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.