Populism, tyranny, and the lessons of the past

Populism, tyranny, and the lessons of the past

In the opinion pages of this morning’s Guardian there’s an article by Timothy Garton-Ash on the worsening situation for free speech and human rights in Turkey as Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian regime tightens the screw. ‘To travel to Turkey today is to journey into darkness,’ writes Garton-Ash; ‘tens of thousands of state employees and thousands of academics dismissed, more journalists locked up than in any other country, and a chilly mist of fear.’

Erdoğan crops up in Jan-Werner Müller’s concise guide, What Is Populism? which I read recently. For the epigraph to his book Muller chose the words of Bertolt Brecht: ‘All power comes from the people. But where does it go?’  It’s a good question, and Muller provides a readable analysis of populism, a term that’s been bandied about a great deal post-Trump, post-Brexit, and in the context of fears of what might happen in Europe in 2017. Even more timely and urgent is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, a brand-new, slim volume by Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder. Continue reading “Populism, tyranny, and the lessons of the past”

‘In us all is a feeling of sickness, of alarm, of disaster, of disruption.’

‘In us all is a feeling of sickness, of alarm, of disaster, of disruption.’


I’ll admit: I felt deeply depressed after reading yesterday’s Guardian Long Read which portrayed how right-wing populist parties are advancing in all parts of Europe by appealing to the widespread and growing resentment of political and financial elites, co-opting the policies and rhetoric of the left, and polishing their public image by publicly breaking with the symbols of the fascist past.

Coming as the latest Hillary Clinton email revelations seem to have handed Donald Trump a last-minute advantage in the American presidential election, and after the spectacle of the clearance of the Calais refugee camp and the British government’s reluctance to do more than the bare minimum to protect vulnerable young residents of the camp, the current mood reminds me of Alexander Blok writing in 1908 of his sense an impending catastrophe: ‘In us all is a feeling of sickness, of alarm, of disaster, of disruption.’

The moment seems perilous indeed. Further warnings of dangers that might easily force their way from the past into the present were contained in a piece written by the Labour MP Richard Burden following his recent visit to Srebrenica, and in news of the death of one of the last survivors of the Nazi death camps who became one of the most active UK-based witnesses to the Holocaust. Continue reading “‘In us all is a feeling of sickness, of alarm, of disaster, of disruption.’”

Life and Fate: ‘If what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer’

<em>Life and Fate</em>: ‘If what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer’

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.
– Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman

It is difficult to know where to begin when responding to Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, such is the sweeping, panoramic vision contained within its covers. What I can say at the outset is that Life and Fate has to be the first place to go in order to understand the horrors of the 20th century. Here is a novel which ranges from the Stalinist purges and the Ukraine Famine during collectivisation in the 1930s to the siege of Stalingrad in 1942-3 and the lost souls of the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag; a novel whose characters debate good and evil, totalitarianism and individual freedom, and in which the author dares to take the reader beyond the sealed doors of the gas chamber. Written by a journalist who was witness to many of the events which form the backdrop to his characters’ lives, Life and Fate is utterly essential. Continue reading Life and Fate: ‘If what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer’”

Kristallnacht: the Nazi’s ‘aha! moment’

Kristallnacht: the Nazi’s ‘aha! moment’
A Jewish shop in Berlin on 11 November 1938, after the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht.
A Jewish shop in Berlin on 11 November 1938, after the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht

On this night 75 years ago, the Nazis unleashed a series of riots against Jews in Germany and Austria. In only a few hours, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed. For the first time, tens of thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps simply because they were Jewish. This event came to be called Kristallnacht or Night of the Broken Glass, a reference to the shattered glass from shop windows that carpeted the streets of German towns.

Kristallnacht was a crucial turning point in Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, and a significant stage in the evolution of the Holocaust. As Simon Schama crisply put in on BBC radio this week:

It’s incredibly important.  You can’t really overstate its importance: not because a thousand synagogues were burned or 90 people were killed or twenty thousand people taken off to what were then concentration camps – not killing centres, but places like Dachau and Belsen and Orianienburg – but because it was a theatre for the public.  And once people were humiliated and defiled, and their property was looted and synagogues were burned down and nothing happened except the sound of applause, there was a kind of aha! moment in the core of the Nazi party itself after which … the Final Solution.

shattered stained glass windows of the Zerrennerstrasse synagogue
The shattered stained glass windows of the synagogue in Pforzheim after its destruction on Kristallnacht

Officially, Kristallnacht was launched in retaliation for the assassination on 7 November of Ernst vom Rath, a German embassy official in Paris, by a young Jewish refugee named Herschel Grynszpan. That same night, Nazi regional Party leaders were gathered in Munich to commemorate the anniversary of Hitler’s (failed) attempt to take over the Bavarian Government in 1923.

When the news of the assassination came through, the Nazi Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, addressing the Nazi leaders, raged that ‘World Jewry’ had conspired to commit the assassination and announced that, ‘demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered’. Goebbels’ words were taken as a command for unleashing a pogrom. After his speech, the assembled regional Party leaders issued instructions to their local offices. Violence began to erupt across Germany and Austria through the late evening and early morning hours of November 9-10.

Ober Ramstadt, Germany. November 10, 1938
On the morning after Kristallnacht, local residents watch as the synagogue in Ober Ramstadt is destroyed by fire. The local fire department prevented the fire from spreading to a nearby home but did not try to limit the damage to the synagogue.

The shop windows of Jewish businesses were smashed, the stores looted, hundreds of synagogues and Jewish homes were burnt down and many Jews were physically assaulted. Around 30,000 Jews were arrested and deported to the concentration camps at Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald, where they were subjected to inhumane and brutal treatment and many died. During the pogrom itself, some 90 Jews were murdered.

flames pouring out of a synagogue in Siegen
A synagogue burns in Siegen during Kristallnacht. In the early 1930s, about two hundred Jews lived in Siegen, a small city 100 miles north of Frankfurt, Germany. Today there are none. In Siegen during Kristallnacht, the windows of Jewish homes were smashed and 11 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps. In May 1939, 41 Jews remained in Siegen. Four committed suicide shortly before the rest were deported to the death camps in 1942-43.

The rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland. Many synagogues burned throughout the night, in full view of the public and of local firefighters, who had received orders to intervene only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings. SA and Hitler Youth members across the country shattered the shop windows of an estimated 7,500 Jewish-owned commercial establishments, and looted their wares. Jewish cemeteries became a particular object of desecration in many regions.

A group of people stand outside a Jewish-owned shop in an unnamed German town on the morning after Kristallnacht.
A member of the SA posts a sign on a Jewish shop urging Germans not to buy from Jews.
Jews scrawled on the exterior wall of the destroyed synagogue in Buehl
‘Jews’ scrawled on the exterior wall of the destroyed synagogue in Buehl.
Residents in Graz, Austria, watch as the Jewish cemetery’s ceremonial hall burns
Residents in Graz, Austria, watch as the Jewish cemetery’s ceremonial hall burns on 10 November 1938.

In The Holocaust, Martin Gilbert writes:

The Jews who had been seized during the Kristallnacht, and sent to concentration camps, experienced a foretaste of what that vengeance might be. On November 23 the News Chronicle, a London newspaper, reported the arrival of sixty-two Jews, including two rabbis, at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Berlin. The arrested men had reached the camp gates under police escort from Berlin. At the gates, the police were made to hand them over to an SS unit. The sixty-two Jews were then forced to run a gauntlet of spades, clubs and whips. According to an eye-witness, the police, ‘unable to bear their cries, turned their backs’. As the Jews were beaten, they fell. As they fell they were beaten further. This ‘orgy’ of beating lasted half an hour. When it was over, ‘twelve of the sixty-two were dead, their skulls smashed. The others were all unconscious. The eyes of some had been knocked out, their faces flattened and shapeless.

A vandalized Jewish shop covered with anti-Semitic graffiti on 10 November 1938.

Simon Schama rightly refers to Kristallnacht as the ‘aha! moment’ for the Nazi party.  Historians have noted that after the pogrom, anti-Jewish policy was concentrated more and more concretely into the hands of the SS. Moreover, the passivity with which most German civilians responded to the violence signalled to the Nazi regime that the German public was willing to accept radical racist measures. The Nazi regime now intensified measures aimed at removing Jews entirely from German economic and social life, moving towards the policy of creating a Germany ‘clean of Jews’ (judenrein) by deportation of the Jewish population to the East and, ultimately, their annihilation.

Members of the SA march Jewish men through the streets after their arrest during Kristallnacht. Erlangen, Germany. November 10, 1938
Members of the SA march Jewish men through the streets of Erlangen after their arrest during Kristallnacht.

The Nazi policy towards the Jews was implemented by degrees. They were excluded from professions. Their shops were boycotted and attacked. They were stigmatised by vicious propaganda and forced to wear a yellow star. They were segregated. They were rounded up and deported in conditions of extreme cruelty. They were held in camps of unimaginable horror. And, in their millions, in a mechanised industrial form of killing, they – men, women and children – were systematically murdered.
– Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century

For the Nazi regime, the aha! moment of realization came to embrace not only the response of their fellow-Germans to Kristallnacht, but also the lack of any diplomatic response from beyond the borders of the expanding Reich – revealed in an exhibition of  previously unseen historical documents that has just opened at the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin. The exhibition, entitled From the Inside to the Outside: The 1938 November Pogroms in Diplomatic Reports from Germany, is important, as its curators argue, for what the documents reveal about the international response to Kristallnacht:

What is noteworthy about the documents is what they do not contain. In this respect, they point to the failure of the international community and its far-reaching consequences. The diplomats almost unanimously condemned the murders and acts of violence and destructions. The British described the pogrom as ‘Medieval barbarism’, the Brazilians called it a ‘disgusting spectacle’, and French diplomats wrote that the ‘scope of brutality’ was only ‘exceeded by the massacres of the Armenians’, referring to the Turkish genocide of 1915-1916.  Nevertheless, no country broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin or imposed sanctions, and only Washington recalled its ambassador. Most of all, however, the borders of almost all countries remained largely closed for the roughly 400,000 Jewish Germans.

German civilians watch as the furnishings of the Mosbach synagogue are burned in the town square
Germans watch as the furnishings of the Mosbach synagogue are burned in the town square.

The unwillingness of countries that were soon to go to war against Nazi Germany to open their borders to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution is picked up by Martin Gilbert in history of the Holocaust:

On December 2, the first train bound for Harwich with German Jewish children on board arrived from the Hook of Holland: two hundred children, all of them orphans, who had left Germany at twenty-four hours’ notice, each with two bags of clothing. In Britain they found sanctuary, as had more than fifty thousand German and Austrian refugees. But while tens of thousands found sanctuary, there were neither permits nor funds for the hundreds of thousands. ‘The first effort’, noted the provincial Council for German Jewry in Hull, ‘will be to save the children.’

The persecutions in Germany continued. The only possibility of bringing pressure to bear on the German Government, wrote one British official, Roger Makins, ‘is by retaliation, expulsion of German citizens, and by a clear indication that until persecution or spoliation of Jews ceases, the policy of appeasement is at an end’. But the policy of appeasement was not at an end. Nor were the gates of immigration to be opened by any country to the extent required.

A man cleans up on 10 November 1938 after the violence of Kristallnacht.

Kristallnacht reminds us … what happens when we don’t live by values of fairness, justice, welcome, hospitality, graciousness.
– Alexandra Wright, Senior Rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, BBC Radio 4

The Gunter Demnig stolperstein marking the Berlin address in the 1930s of Margot Bendheim.

For many years the German artist Gunter Demnig has been engaged in a remarkable act of witness and memory.  In towns and cities across Germany and other European countries he has created stolpersteineStolperstein (in the singular) is the German word for ‘stumbling block’. Demnig’s stolpersteine are small, cobblestone-sized brass memorials for the victims of the Nazi regime. Set into the pavement in front of the buildings where Jews once lived or worked, they call attention both to the individual victim and the scope of the Nazi war crimes. Over 40,000 stolpersteine have been placed in several countries in Europe, making the project the world’s largest memorial.

Cambridge historian Joseph Pearson writes:

It is not what is written [on the stolpersteine] which intrigues, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person. It is the emptiness, void, lack of information, the maw of the forgotten, which gives the monuments their power and lifts them from the banality of a statistic.

This week, the NPR website has the story of Margot Bendheim, whose Berlin address in the 1930s is marked by one of Demnig’s stolpersteine (above):

“I did not hear fire engines and we understood then that they didn’t come because they wanted the synagogues to burn,” she says. “We never thought that Germans would stand by, and not do something about it.”  Friedlander’s family knew then they had to leave Germany, but their attempts to emigrate failed until it was too late. Her father left without them, and her brother and mother were deported to Auschwitz, where all three eventually perished. Margot went into hiding in Berlin.  And it is because of those few courageous, gentile Germans who helped her that she felt able to return to Berlin three years ago.

Friedlander spends much of her time with young Germans, visiting schools and sharing her valuable testimony. She is adamant they should not feel guilt, but a sense of responsibility. And responsibility is something the German state takes very seriously.

The same article adds this:

Stefan Redlich, spokesman for the Berlin police, states, “The Berlin police protects all Jewish schools, all hospitals, all kindergartens and all synagogues in the city,” he says, noting that 250 policemen stand guard in front of Jewish properties throughout the city.  But German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said she is not proud of this fact: “I feel deep shame that there is not a single Jewish building in Germany without police protection because we still have to worry about anti-Semitic attacks.” Merkel’s concerns are justified. On last year’s Kristallnacht anniversary, vandals in the northeastern city of Greifswald removed a number of cobblestone memorials.

Stolpersteine in Berlin in memory of members of the Kroner family.
German Jews Pouring into this country Daily Mail, Saturday 20 August 1938
‘German Jews Pouring into this country’: Daily Mail, Saturday 20 August 1938 (from open Democracy)

In a letter in today’s Guardian a number of Kristallnacht witnesses, members of the British Jewish community, and other public figures write:

Many Jews left hurriedly to seek refuge in friendly countries, including Britain, but Britain was already in the grip of an “aliens scare”. Newspaper headlines declared: “Alien Jews pouring in”, and claimed that “Refugees get jobs, Britons get dole”. The media accused Jewish asylum seekers of “overrunning the country”. Despite wide public revulsion at the violence of Kristallnacht, powerful elements in British politics and business continued to admire Hitler and the Nazi regime.

Seventy-five years after Kristallnacht, racists and fascists inspired by the Nazis continue to attack minorities in Europe. In Hungary neo-fascists target Gypsies and Jews. In Greece Golden Dawn members and supporters brutally attack migrants and political opponents. Here in Britain, minority communities, especially Muslims, have been targeted in an atmosphere that is increasingly hostile towards migrants and refugees.

Mindful of this history, we are equally alarmed at continuing fascist violence and the toxic sentiments expressed by many politicians and much of the media against migrants, asylum seekers, Gypsies and Travellers. We stand shoulder to shoulder with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in their efforts to live here in freedom and safety, to contribute to society and be treated as equals. As Jews we stand together with all communities seeking to combat racism and fascism here and elsewhere.


See also

Comedy in a Minor Key

Recently I read Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, a short novel published in 1947, the same year as Anne Frank’s Diary and Primo Levi’s If This is a Man found publishers. Like them, it was written by someone who had experienced first-hand the exigencies of Jewish persecution by the Nazi regime, but there, I think, the similarities end.  This is not a work of ‘witness’ in the strict sense, nor do I think it has the stature of those books by Anne Frank and Primo Levi .

In that assessment, I’m setting myself at odds with the general critical acclaim that Keilson’s book received when it was first  published in English in 2010.  Leading that reaction was Francine Prose in the New York Times, who wrote:

For busy, harried or distractible readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I’ll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.

Born in Germany, Hans Keilson became a physician and was forced to flee to the Netherlands in 1936 after the Nuremberg Laws made it illegal for Jews to practice medicine in Germany. He was active in the Dutch resistance, before he was  forced into hiding from the Nazis. He wrote the first fifty pages of this book while he was in hiding, but this is far from being an autobiographical work.

Although the story concerns Nico, a Jew who is taken in by an ordinary Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, and although Comedy in a Minor Key is dedicated ‘to Leo and Suus, in Delft’, the couple who sheltered Keilson while he was hiding, the author’s purpose is not to tell the story of his time in hiding in realistic terms.  As Simon Kuper commented in his review in the Financial Times:

This novella, with its evocation of a random universe and its surprising humour, anticipates Samuel Beckett and the Theatre of the Absurd of the 1950s. And so a man who lost his parents to Auschwitz has written a ‘comedy’ about the Holocaust.

The comedy is this: Nico escapes the death in a concentration camp, only to die in hiding of an ordinary illness, leaving Wim and Marie to somehow dispose of the body without attracting the attention of the authorities. As Marie reflects: ‘It was like a comedy where you expect the hero to emerge onstage, bringing resolution, from the right. And out he comes from the left’.

Almost everything in Comedy in a Minor Key is ordinary, even banal, set ‘in a minor key’: the characters, their words, thoughts and daily routines. The couple are not committed members of the resistance: when a friend who is in the resistance asks Wim to do his ‘patriotic duty’ and shelter Nico, Marie laughs at the idea.  One of the most acute bits of psychological observation comes after Nico has died.  Marie is sad, but also a bit annoyed, feeling cheated of the triumph of showing him off to the neighbours after Liberation:

And then, too, there was a small, all too human disappointment left over: that he had died on them. You don’t get the chance to save someone every day. This unacknowledged thought had often helped them carry on when, a little depressed and full of doubt, they thought they couldn’t bear this complicated situation any longer and their courage failed them. . . . She had secretly imagined what it would be like on liberation day, the three of them arm in arm walking out of their house. . . . How the neighbors and everyone on the street would look when he suddenly walked out of their house and strolled up and down the street with them. It would give them a little sense of satisfaction, and everyone who makes a sacrifice needs a little sense of satisfaction. And then you’d feel that you, you personally, even if only just a little bit, had won the war. It all had gone up in smoke. It wasn’t even a dream anymore. None of the three of them had any luck. But really, him least of all. Poor Nico!

Interest in Keilson as a writer was sparked after a translator, Damion Searls, stumbled across the original 1947 German edition of Comedy in a Minor Key in an Austrian bookshop. Struck by its qualities, he became determined to translate the novel:

It manages the seemingly impossible feat of showing the Nazi era and the Holocaust in a new light … after so many other books and movies.

But it didn’t really work for me – the minor key was too low key, the absurdist humour too understated.  In the end I had to accept that the novel had not moved me in any way whatsoever.  But I know that in holding this view I appear to be in a minority.

Hans Keilson


Iby Knill’s bracelet: an Untold Story on Holocaust Memorial Day

Iby Knill is 87.  On her wrist she wears a special bracelet. It’s a very strong chain made of links of heavy gold and is actually a watch chain which belonged to her father. Like many men of his generation, he kept his watch in his waistcoat pocket, attached to a chain to prevent it from being lost. Every time Iby touches the chain she remembers her father and feels strong links between them.

Iby was a teenager living in Bratislava in the former Czechoslovakia when the Nazis invaded her country in 1939.  As the Nazis introduced severe restrictions on Jewish people and Roma,  Iby escaped across the border into Hungary where she  joined the resistance.  She was arrested in 1942 and spent two years as a political prisoner, then on her release was rearrested and taken to Auschwitz.

We were in the last wagon taken to Auschwitz. I was taken on the day that was supposed to be my wedding day, 17 June. The wagons were opened, we were told to leave the sick, the old and the children. Five of us decided to stick together; we linked arms and sang the Hungarian anthem and walked up to Dr Mengele. He waved us in through the gate. We were stripped, shaved and registered.

There were 500 people in each hut and when you were lying down, you had to lie like spoons – there was no way of moving. The smell from the chimneys was all-pervading. Once a week you were taken to be showered and you never knew if it would be water or gas. We would line up to be counted and if someone shook or fell over, they were taken away. You didn’t think about yesterday, and tomorrow may not happen, it was only today that you had to cope with and you got through it as best you could.

I volunteered to go to a slave labour camp. When the Allies were approaching, the Nazis closed this camp and forced us to march to Bergen-Belsen. Those who couldn’t walk or fell behind were shot. We were liberated on the way by American soldiers.

In 1946, Iby went back to Bratislava and found out that her mother and brother had survived. Iby’s brother had found shelter in the Swedish Embassy, where Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, was sheltering Jews.  Iby’s brother slept in the bottom of a lift shaft and ran errands for Wallenberg.  He told Iby that he witnessed the actual arrest of
Wallenberg by two Russian soldiers.  Wallenberg disappeared and his fate remains a mystery to this day.

My brother had watched my father being marched off to the wagons that would take him to Auschwitz. He had said to my brother, ‘Go away and hide!’. My brother had been crying and my father threw him a handkerchief. When my brother opened it up, my father had hidden his gold watch chain in it. My brother gave it to me and I had it made into a bracelet. I have worn it every day since 1947. It’s a contact with the past, with my father and it is a part of me now.

Since 1946 Iby has always worn her father’s watch chain around her wrist.  It is her link to the father she loved and the happy family life they shared before the Holocaust.  She married a serving officer from UK forces and came to live in
England.  For forty years she never spoke about her own horrific experiences.

Untold Stories, like that of Iby, provide the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day today. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust that coordinates the day’s events explains that it can be difficult to appreciate the statistics of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides.  ‘The millions murdered under the Nazi regime of hatred aren’t a statistic. They were individuals. Somebody’s friend. A mother. A father. A child. A colleague. A neighbour’.

The aim of Untold Stories is to honour the memory of those affected by genocide – to listen and learn from them. It is vital to recognise the consequences of exclusion and persecution in order for us to learn the lessons of the past, states the Trust.

On Holocaust Memorial Day 2011, Iby hopes that, after hearing about her father’s watch chain, we will remember the value of human life.  She says:

Every human being has a value; is somebody.  We must learn this-differences in colour and religion don’t matter, under the skin we are all the same.

by Primo Levi

You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

The diaries of Victor Klemperer

Having posted recently about Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum, I should note that one of the most acclaimed memoirs of the Nazi period is I Shall Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years 1933-1941 by Victor Klemperer. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 Klemperer was a distinguished professor at the University of Dresden, honoured as a frontline veteran of World War One. By 1945 he was one of the few Dresden Jews to survive the war, thanks to his marriage to an Aryan. The second volume of his diaries, To the Bitter End: 1942-1945 provides highly detailed observations of the daily life of the Third Reich. Continue reading “The diaries of Victor Klemperer”