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Is this how it starts?

September 13, 2010

I wonder, if 80 some years ago, a hard working, respectable German citizen happened to read a story in his newspaper about a rally to support renewed patriotism and nationalism.  He may not have paid much attention to the rally because he considered it a fringe event that would fade away.  He would have agreed that the hyperinflation following the great depression was certainly causing economic uncertainty for everyone.  But he also recognized that economies had always had their ebbs and flows and were only marginally influenced by man and he was hopeful that the current economic crisis would pass.  But at the moment the economy was the talk of the community.

The fact that the liberal Weimar Republic had difficulty governing also caused him concern but being a rational person he assumed that the government would eventually find a solution to their problems.  He really thought nothing of the small news article describing the rally and dismissed it as a curiosity.

A few weeks later he may have seen another small story.  This time about how the Jews were causing problems and how they were “not like us”.  He had never seen a story like this before and thought it a bit odd.  He had friends in town who were Jews and they were fine people.  He found it odd that some of his neighbors who had seen their savings disappear had a different attitude about the rally and the Jews.  He found their thoughts about Jews to be irrational and their hyper nationalism to be misguided.  However, He said nothing because even though they were his neighbors they had an emotional, almost  rabid quality in their voices when they spoke and he k they would not listen to his questions let alone answer them.

He was growing concerned because the level of anger in his community was growing daily.  He thought it was because of the bad economy and the liberal government but he was beginning to sense it was more.  Newspaper headlines from around the country continued to reinforce that the small rally he had read of a few months ago was not an aberration.  It was gaining momentum as a political movement.

People who were experiences economic hard times were flocking to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei  party hoping to restore Germany’s power and respect in the world. He saw that traditional German values were being supplanted by flag waving, saber-rattling and extreme nationalism.  It was when our friend saw a picture of a mass book burning at Berlin’s Opera Square in 1933 that he knew the extreme nationalism had reached dangerous new heights.

Scene during the book burning in Berlin's Opera Square. Berlin, Germany, May 10, 1933.

He did not agree with them but they had the political momentum that would be difficult to stop.  He only wished he had paid attention to those harmless rallies a few years earlier or maybe said something to his neighbors.  He saw him self as a true German, honest and ethical.  He didn’t know why this movement had become so popular.  He realized that he was helpless to do anything, he had missed his chance because he thought something like this could never happen here.  He tried to cling to that thought but seeing his friends wearing the yellow judenstern made that impossible.

Yellow badge Star of David called "Judenstern". Part of the exhibition in the Jewish Museum Westphalia, Dorsten, Germany.

The Jews had become the scapegoat for all things wrong with Germany.  He knew that was not true but the politicians were so effective in their lies and innuendo that many of his friends chose not to think for themselves but to believe what they were being told. For our hypothetical friend the nights of November 9 and November 10, 1938 were more than enough evidence that Germany’s die had been cast.  Kristallnacht or crystal night has its name because of the shards of glass covering the streets after the windows of Jewish shopkeepers were shattered during two nights of rampage.  In all, 7500 shops were attached and hundreds of synagogues burned.  The German mob had found an outlet for their anger by attacking the Jewish minority.

November 1938, aftermath of Kkristallnacht

Today?

As for me, I thank God nothing like that can ever happen here.  I just absolutely know it.  This is America after all.  Sure our economy is only growing slowly, unemployment is high, our liberal dominated government is sputtering, and we have our Muslim and Hispanic scapegoats to blame for our problems.  I suppose we should not forget the  “pastor” that has the media in a rear naked hold by threatening to burn a  Quran.  Neither  should we forget the cab driver who was stabbed for being Muslim or the Muslim children who are tormented in school.  Then there is the outcry about building an Islamic cultural center three blocks from ground zero and the number of people who actually believe is right and constitutional to force them to not construct a building.

Pastor Terry Jones threatens to hold a "burn quran day" on 9/11 anniversary

NYC cab drive stabbed after saying he was a Muslim

As much as I understand that parallels between contemporary America and The Weimar Republic are too discongruent to be relevant, I still recognize that there were small cracks in the glass years before Kristallnacht.   Just like a super saturated salt solution, there is always a critical nucleus that starts the rapid crystallization process.  I suspect it is analogous in society that anger and intolerance build to a super saturated level and somewhere there is a critical nucleus that precipitates that anger into something more ominous.

I find myself wondering how some future historian will look back on these times and how we are behaving and be able to identify our critical nucleus.

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