Germany remembers a night it would rather forget
by Roger Cohen, The Hamilton Spectator, Tuesday, November 10, 1998
Germany marked the 60th anniversary yesterday of the Nazi rampage against the Jews known as
Kristallnacht with ceremonies that reflected a country divided over how to balance the duties of
memory with a new thirst to move beyond the shadow of the Holocaust.
The state's leading dignitaries, including the newly elected chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, attended a
ceremony in a Berlin synagogue at which the horror of the "Night of Broken Glass" was solemnly
recalled. But the gathering was unable to mask a growing tension over the place of remembrance in a
society now anxious to move forward.
Ignatz Bubis, the leader of Germany's small Jewish community, used the occasion and the presence
of Schroeder to attack what he called a "spreading intellectual nationalism" in Germany and to
question what lay behind the country's intense quest for a "normalcy" unburdened by history.
His extraordinarily vehement speech reflected the tensions that have grown in recent months as
Germany prepares to move its capital back to Berlin next year, more than a half-century after the
collapse of Hitler's Reich, and as a new postwar generation led by Schroeder has come to power.
A project for a large Holocaust memorial in Berlin has been questioned by members of Schroeder's
government, and the new chancellor has sought to mark his distance from the repetitive history
lessons of his predecessor, Helmut Kohl, by keeping his focus on the future of a society now two
generations distant from war.
In a statement reflecting this policy, Schroeder said that 60 years after Kristallnacht -- a night when
hundreds of synagogues were destroyed, Jewish businesses ransacked and at least 91 Jews killed --
"we look ahead without forgetting what happened."
The chancellor added that the German people had shown its "democratic maturity" by dissociating
itself from extremist right-wing slogans. "It is our task to fashion the present and the future so that the
past cannot repeat itself," Schroeder said.
Kristallnacht represents one of the darkest pages of that past, the night on which the last illusions of
German Jews were shattered. At least 7,500 Jewish stores were plundered and their windows
smashed, as close to 30,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to prison camps. In Berlin alone, nine of
the 12 synagogues were destroyed.
Germany has repeatedly confronted and sought to atone for these acts. Yesterday, President Roman
Herzog called them "one of the most horrible and shameful moments in German history."
But Bubis and other Jewish leaders focused relentlessly on what they portrayed as a new readiness to suppress memory. Clearly criticizing the
new chancellor, Bubis portrayed the neo-Nazi menace as a real one and devoted much of his speech
to a sharp attack on one of Germany's leading writers, Martin Walser, who was awarded the top prize
at the Frankfurt Book Fair last month.
In accepting the prize, Walser, a widely respected figure in Germany, suggested that a "routine
of accusations" against Germans had developed. He said that no serious person denied the Nazi
campaign to put millions of Jews to death at Auschwitz and other camps, but that "if the media
present this past every day, I feel in myself something that begins to resist the permanent
presentation of our shame."
The writer continued, "Auschwitz is not suited to becoming a routine threat, a tool of
intimidation that can be used any time, a moral stick or merely a compulsory exercise."
Criticizing the "exploitation of our disgrace for present purposes" -- an apparent reference to
financial claims by Jews and others who suffered under Nazi rule -- Walser also noted the suspicions
aroused if one dared declare that "Germans have become a normal people now, an ordinary society."
Asked recently about Walser's remarks, Schroeder declined to criticize or endorse them.
But Bubis embarked on a vehement denunciation of Walser yesterday, saying it was "moral
arson" for anyone to talk of the exploitation of Auschwitz or suggest that it had become a means to
Many letters to the German press in the last month have praised the writer for having the
courage to say what many German people silently felt, but Bubis characterized the remarks as
particularly dangerous because they had come from a respected figure with no attachment to the