Of Power and Words – On the Origins and Usage of the term ‘Kristallnacht’

The synagogue of Eberswalde burning on November 10, 1938.

Sebastian has a few thoughts on the usage of the term ‘Kristallnacht’ outside of his home country of Germany.

The wide-ranging, state-sanctioned violence that was spread by the Nazi party throughout the German Reich on the night of November 9, 1938, was one of the worst pogroms against German Jews in centuries. When the smoke from burning Jewish shops and houses of worship cleared, more than 400 Germans of Jewish descent were dead. About 30.000  were rounded up in the following days and deported to concentration camps under the excuse of putting them in ‘protective custody’. Almost every single synagogue in the Reich was destroyed that night, along with more than 7.200 shops and residences.

The pogroms were initiated by various arms of the NSDAP, the Nazi party, supposedly as public retaliation to the assassination of a Nazi party secretary in France at the hands of a Jewish man of Polish descent on November 7, 1938. The Deutsches Nachrichtenbuero, the press agency of the Third Reich, published an order to all German newspapers to run news of the assassination as their top headlines the following day, while also ordering the newspapers to demand “the gravest of consequences” for German Jews, held accountable as a collective. Members of the SA and SS, the NSDAP’s paramilitary forces, dressed as civilians began inciting public unrest against Jewish institutions. This was an effort to fan the flames of ethnic hatred and widespread violence by the German populace against their Jewish compatriots.

The event initially did not have an official name. The Nazis themselves referred to it initially as another ‘night of long knives’. It was in Berlin, a city still notorious for its anarchic, cynical and proletarian diction today, that the term ‘Kristallnacht’ was coined on the streets – by people opposing the regime. However, the bitter oppositional cynicism of anonymous Berliners was no match for the cruel, malignant and utterly inhumane cynicism of the Nazi Party, who quickly co-opted the term and used it to refer to the events of November 9 ever since. ‘Kristallnacht’ or ‘Reichskristallnacht’ – originally meant to lampoon Nazi nomenclature that added the prefix ‘Reichs-‘ to many terms – became the descriptor for the pogroms that were a large part of the effort of excising Jewish elements from the German general populace.

The cynicism inherent in the term is that ‘Kristallnacht’, in the Nazi co-option of the word, describes something positive. Something wonderful. In this view, the myriads of shards of glass from smashed windows of Jewish owned shops and houses of prayer, that lay strewn across streets all over the Reich, glistening in the flames of burning synagogues, were as beautiful as shining crystals. Crystals and diamonds for the celebration of destroying the Jewish presence in the midst of the German Volk. It was an expression that illustrates the abject cynicism of the Nazis inherent in so many of their actions, rivaled only by the motivational sayings immortalized in the iron gates of the concentration and extermination camps.

While the term is still in use colloquially in Germany today, it is not a turn of phrase that is used either lightly, or uncritically. Most German writers and scholars do their best to avoid it, lest they unwittingly reproduce the cynicism and belittlement of the victims of Nazism that the Nazis practiced themselves. The alternative terms used instead are ‘Pogromnacht’ (pogrom night) or simply ‘Novemberpogrome’ (November pogroms). If scholars use the term, it is usually put in quotation marks, and often prefixed by a ‘so-called’ to make sure any and all readers or listeners understand the distance the author or speaker is putting between themselves and this loaded term.

This approach, however, is unique to Germany. Outside the country, ‘Kristallnacht’ is still used in everyday and academic parlance alike when referring to the events of November 9, 1938. This presents German writers operating in an international environment with a conundrum. It is a term that is generally accepted to describe the events, however only few people growing up outside of postwar Germany are aware of the word’s origins, and of the more subtle, cynical implications the term is loaded with.

So while it seems unlikely that non-German scholars, writers, journalists, and historians would give up using the term, this makes it even more imperative to raise awareness of its origins, usage, and deeper meanings. By uncritically using terms groups like the Nazis coined, co-opted and perpetuated, by using them without pointing out the deeper implications or at least distancing ourselves from them, we unwittingly perpetuate Nazi propaganda, even if only at a very low level.

But, as we say in Germany today, “Kein Fussbreit dem Faschismus!” (“no ceding an inch of ground to fascism!”). Words and terms have meanings and power that we cannot, must not ignore, especially when it comes to fascism and Nazism. These ideologies were buried on the cemetery of ideas where they belong half a century ago. It is our duty to ensure they stay there, and not allow even the tiniest bit of their corrosive influence to seep out. Kein Fussbreit dem Faschismus! Not in deeds, not in thoughts, and not in words.

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