Speech by Federal Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel at the central commemorative event marking the 80th anniversary of the Reichspogromnacht
President of the Bundestag,
President of the Bundesrat,
Esteemed colleagues from the Cabinet, Federal Government and Regional Parliaments,
Guests of honour,
Eighty years since the pogrom night – why, ladies and gentlemen, am I talking to you about this today? The first, obvious answer is the simple fact that this pogrom night took place 80 years ago today, and it is a matter of decorum for the Federal Chancellor also to reflect on these events on a day of remembrance. The events of the November pogroms in 1938 were an important watershed on the path towards the betrayal of all civilised values that was the Shoah. The consequence of this were six million murdered Jews and the unspeakable suffering of millions more people. There is no way to express all of this suffering. Words fail me here.
This is why I am speaking to you today primarily for another reason. I am speaking to you because these historical events – the betrayal of all civilised values that was the Shoah – were unique, singular, that is to say unprecedented in all of their abominable facets, culminating in – put in a cynical way – factories for industrialised mass murder or – put precisely – concentration camps and death camps. I would therefore like to use this day and this opportunity to think about three questions together with you: how did this happen? How did the majority of the population respond? What lessons can we learn from this?
Ladies and gentlemen, 9 November 1938 was one of a series of days and nights during which National Socialism showed its terrible face. Around 1400 synagogues, prayer rooms and Jewish meeting places were plundered, destroyed and set ablaze. Some 7500 shops were smashed and looted. Neighbours became perpetrators and criminals. Many people enriched themselves, welcomed the violence or engaged in violent acts themselves.
Anti-Semitism had been the order of the day since 1933. The new political conditions allowed many Germans to indulge long-held resentments, hatred and violence. This did not stop with the destruction of Jewish synagogues, shops and livelihoods. In November 1938, around 400 people were murdered or driven to commit suicide. Some 30,000 Jews were imprisoned in concentration camps; hundreds of them were murdered. The November pogroms were a milestone on the road to the Holocaust.
Ladies and gentlemen, we tend at important commemorative events to focus our minds exclusively on these days and all too easily overlook the fact that they usually do not happen in isolation, but are part of a wider process. And 9 November is no exception here. We all know what happened thereafter – namely the betrayal of all civilised values that was the Shoah. And yet the pogrom night of 9 November 1938 was preceded by something without which it would not have been possible. It is worth taking a look back at history in order to understand this. This can, of course, only be a very cursory glance in the context of such a speech.
Hatred for the Jews or anti-Semitism has existed in Europe since the Middle Ages. Until well into the 19th century, this hatred was primarily religious. At the end of the 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution, social issues became pressing and the secular nation states gained in importance. It was in this context that what was termed racially motivated anti-Semitism emerged, one bent on racist exclusion, expulsion and, ultimately, annihilation. In the Weimar Republic, Jews were, from 1919 onwards, allowed to assume the highest offices of state for the first time. Anti-Semitism nevertheless remained the order of the day – particularly among those who were hostile to democracy.
As early as 1920, the NSDAP published its so-called doctrines and principles of anti-Semitism, which intended to preclude Jews from becoming citizens. In the 1920s, when the NSDAP formulated these demands, many events were indicative of the rising tide of anti-Semitism – in both words and deeds – such as the murder of Reich Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau in 1922 and the attacks on Jews in Berlin’s Scheunenviertel in 1923.
Even from this brief historical summary, we can see that the evil of National Socialism did not come about overnight at all, but grew steadily. Ladies and gentlemen, why am I talking in such detail about all these things that happened before 9 November 1938, 85, 90 and 95 years ago?
I do so because I firmly believe that we can only learn the right lessons for us today and in the future if we consider the November pogroms of 1938 to be part of a process that was not only followed by the terrible chapter that was the Shoah, but also had a pre-history.
Because in this way we can see what the consequences are if – as under National Socialism – what was once punishable behaviour is first tolerated and then, ultimately, declared to be desirable behaviour. Prejudices that had previously or always been held could now give way to open violence with impunity. This was accompanied by a large majority of the German population looking the other way, remaining silent and indifferent and, above all, going with the flow.
The political conditions changed with the liberation of Germany in May 1945 and the new start that ensued. The normative delineation of racism and anti-Semitism was fundamental. However, racism, anti-Semitism and prejudice did not simply disappear.
If we today – 80 years after the November pogroms and almost 70 years after the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany – consider the situation today, then the picture is a mixed one. Germany is home once again to a flourishing Jewish community – an unexpected gift following the betrayal of all civilised values that was the Shoah. However, we are, at the same time, witnessing a worrying anti-Semitism that threatens Jewish life in our country and other places in the world that we believed to be safe. This anti-Semitism is, to an increasing degree, being openly unleashed in the form of at times uninhibited hate-speech on the internet, and in the public sphere in general.
Unfortunately, we have almost become accustomed to the fact that each and every Jewish institution – synagogues, schools, kindergartens, restaurants, cemeteries – must be guarded or afforded special protection by the police. We are also frightened by attacks on people who wear a kippah, and were aghast at the right-wing extremist attack on a Jewish restaurant in Chemnitz back in August. This is a form of anti-Semitic crime that evokes frightening memories of the beginning of the persecution of the Jews in the 1930s.
However, such incidents must not only be a cause for concern for the survivors of the Shoah – they are terrible for all of us. But our horror and disbelief are not enough. The appointment of a Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti‑Semitism – as right and understandable as this is – is likewise not the end of the story. We must ask ourselves two pressing questions here. Firstly, what have we really learned from the betrayal of all civilised values that was the Shoa? Secondly – and related to the first question – are our democratic institutions strong enough to prevent anti-Semitism from continuing to gain traction, or even from becoming acceptable among the majority of the population in the future?
Perhaps we might pause for a moment and reflect what people from a distant future – maybe, shall we say, in the next century – might make of our world of today; a world that is at risk once again of losing sight of the common good because it excludes people, disputes their rights or threatens them on account of their faith, origin or otherness. How could our world of today, where the way in which we interact with one another is worsening at all levels once again, be regarded from the standpoint of a distant future? Probably with complete incomprehension; and perhaps also with a sense of pity for us today that we are still, and once again, at risk of repeating terrible mistakes and having to learn where the attempts of the few to divide us can lead.
Our Basic Law draws the conclusion from the horrors of National Socialism and the failure of the Weimar Republic when it states the following in Article 1, paragraph 1: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” This must be the immutable guiding principle of our actions; both politically and in society as a whole.
What does this mean in concrete terms?
Firstly, each and every person is unique. Groups must never be simply lumped together or our society subdivided into “us” and “them” or “us” and “the others”. Everyone has the right to be recognised and treated as an individual by state institutions.
Secondly, democracy is the very best of all conceivable social orders, even if it makes our lives complicated from time to time. Democracy is about more than winning majorities. It is about balance and achieving an equilibrium between majority and minority, government and opposition. It is about the separation of powers and requires the freedom of the press, opinion and art just as humans need air to breathe. Democracy protects minorities. This means the best possible participation in the life of society for everyone.
Thirdly, the state must take resolute and decisive action to oppose denigration, marginalisation, anti-Semitism, racism and right-wing extremism. The state must also undertake firm action when hatred of Jews or hatred of Israel is expressed verbally or non-verbally by people living in our country who have a different religious or cultural background. In concrete terms, just as there must never be a general suspicion against Muslim people when violence is committed in the name of their religion, it also follows that everyone who lives in our country must uphold the values of our Basic Law.
Fourthly, educational work must always place today’s anti-Semitic attacks and excesses in a wider historical context. Knowledge of history and a critical awareness of the past are indispensable to this end. Allow me to quote the historian Professor Norbert Frei: “This is not something that we have, but something that we must constantly develop anew.” With this in mind, each generation must strive anew to achieve a critically enlightened understanding of our past. Wherever this happens, Norbert Frei continues, historical remembrance will not be an empty ritual, but rather history will remain meaningful and new questions and perspectives may even emerge.
Fifthly, the work of remembrance has a fundamental role to play in this regard. At the award ceremony for this year’s Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the prize-winning scholars Jan and Aleida Assmann pointed to the importance of our cultural and national memory. They describe our nation as “a union of people who are also capable of remembering shameful episodes in their history and taking responsibility for the monstrous crimes committed in their name.”
It is for this reason that pausing to reflect and remember together on days such as these is important. It is also important to realise that remembrance needs places that tell of what happened, and places that commemorate the victims and clearly state who the perpetrators were – such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe at the heart of our capital city. Its underground Information Centre seeks to illustrate the dimensions of the Shoah. This is why many individual names are mentioned there in order, and I quote, “to dissolve the incomprehensible abstract number of six million murdered Jews and to release the victims from their anonymity”.
This is about people at the end of the day. Each and every one of them had a name, a unique dignity and identity. Calling to mind this identity and dignity helps us not to get bogged down in loss. It helps us not to decouple memory from our present-day lives, but to keep connecting with the past and, based on this, to shape the future – a future in which we recognise the human face in every person and in which we encounter one another as fellow members of one and the same human race.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are once again living at a time of profound change. Rapid technological upheavals are giving people cause for concern. Many people are feeling left behind by the accelerating pace of globalisation and digital progress. At times such as these, there is always a particularly great danger that those who respond to the difficulties and consequences of these upheavals with supposedly simple answers – simple answers that all too often go hand in hand with a brutalisation of language on the streets and the internet – gain in support. We must take a firm stand against the onset of such trends.
This is why we commemorate today with the promise that we will stand up to the attacks against our open and pluralist society with all due resolve. We commemorate in the knowledge that standing by and watching as red lines are crossed and crimes committed means, ultimately, that we are complicit. We commemorate in the belief that the democratic majority must continue to be watchful. We need to stake out normative boundaries. The rule of law must display no tolerance when people are attacked on account of their belief or the colour of their skin.
Ladies and gentlemen, reaching these conclusions is our task not only on such a day of remembrance. We should think about this each and every day. Let us all work each day with the insights we have today to ensure that events such as those that occurred 80 years ago never happen again. That is the message and the essence of our acts of commemoration today.
Thank you very much.