Kristallnacht 75 years on: How strong is anti-Semitism in Germany?

By Stephen Evans
BBC News, Berlin

  • Published
Two Jewish men with a giant Menorah in front of the Brandenburg Gate

It's 75 years since the pogroms that became known as Kristallnacht - the night of broken glass. It was the outbreak of mass violence against Jews which was to end in their mass murder. As the anniversary is marked, how strong - or weak - is anti-Semitism in Germany today?

Ruth Recknagel remembers the feral looting. Even today, 75 years later, she recalls people swarming around the broken windows of Jewish shops in Berlin and then snatching what they could.

Ruth was born in 1930, so on 9 November 1938 she was only eight years old. She walked around the shattered glass at Potsdamer Platz with her Jewish father. What she witnessed remains imprinted on her mind.

"It was a decisive break," she says. "It was the start. From then on, everything got worse."

Others remembered the way the pogroms unfolded into an organised orgy of violence. There was unrestrained grabbing from shops as well as attacks on schools and even hospitals. The Daily Telegraph correspondent in Berlin at the time, Michael Bruce, recounted "one of the foulest exhibitions of bestiality" he had ever witnessed when rioters broke into a hospital for sick Jewish children.

Tiny children were being chased "over the broken glass, bare-footed and wearing nothing but their nightshirts," Bruce wrote. "The nurses, doctors, and attendants were being kicked and beaten by the mob leaders, most of whom were women."

The November pogroms marked the start of the Holocaust. After it, the gloves were truly off. Jews had been persecuted from 1933 - barred from ever more jobs, routinely insulted and attacked. But Kristallnacht was the step-change in escalation. Any pretence and restraint vanished. The shattered glass of Kristallnacht led to the death camps.

Media caption,

How Berlin remembers Kristallnacht

And that is not forgotten in Germany today. It is taught in schools and remembered from podiums occupied by the chancellor of Germany down. But how much anti-Semitism lingers despite the knowledge of what happened?

It is a complex picture. There is, for example, a growing Jewish population in Germany. It is small at less than 1% of the total population (and much smaller than the 5% of the population with a Turkish background, for example). But it is a community which is growing rapidly, and people don't tend to migrate to a more hostile environment than the one they left.

The Israeli embassy in Berlin estimates that there are about 10,000 Israelis in Berlin alone, many of them drawn by the cultural life. The city abounds with Israeli sculptors, painters and musicians who often say they have found a home conducive to artistic creation.

There is, though, sometimes resentment from other Jews. I've been in a meeting where a visiting American-Jewish author rounded on the Israelis there who had moved to Germany to live and work. How could they look at themselves in the mirror, the angry author taunted the Israeli immigrants to Germany.

Jews in Germany often say, though, that they find much more anti-Semitism when they go abroad. One person told the BBC she had experienced far worse prejudice in Britain than she had at home in Germany - in a Cambridge college, ham was sometimes placed in her postbox.

The widely accepted research into attitudes to race across Europe was done by the University of Bielefeld. It teased out deeper attitudes by asking indirect questions about, for example, whether respondents thought Jews "have too much influence" or "try to take advantage of past persecution".

The study, published in 2011, and based on thousands of interviews done in 2008, concluded: "The significantly strongest agreement with anti-Semitic prejudices is found in Poland and Hungary. In Portugal, followed closely by Germany, anti-Semitism is significantly more prominent than in the other western European countries. In Italy and France, anti-Semitic attitudes as a whole are less widespread than the European average, while the extent of anti-Semitism is least in Great Britain and the Netherlands".

Image caption,
After being assaulted last year, Rabbi Daniel Alter now covers his skullcap in parts of Berlin

In all the countries studied apart from Italy, a majority answered that "Jews enrich our culture". In Germany, nearly 70% said so, about the same as in Britain.

But nearly half of German respondents said that "Jews try to take advantage of having been victims during the Nazi era". That's compared to 22% for Britain, 32% for France, 40% for Italy, 68% for Hungary and 72% for Poland.

A separate study published by the German parliament in 2012 concluded that 20% of Germans held at least "latent anti-Semitism" - some sort of quiet, unspoken antipathy towards Jews.

Rabbis often praise the German government for its outspoken condemnation of anti-Semitism. "Germany is certainly doing a lot to fight anti-Semitism," says Prof Walter Homolka, the director of Abraham Geiger College at the University of Potsdam. "Whether it is ever going to be enough, that's a big question. We can only hope to keep this figure of 20% in check."

He says the public statements and the presence of people such as Chancellor Angela Merkel at big Jewish events is important as a signal to the rest of the population. Chancellor Merkel has said that an attack on Jews is an attack on everyone.

Remembering the Holocaust in Germany and Austria

Image caption,
Berlin's Deserted Room sculpture remembers the city's Jewish population
Image caption,
Berlin's Memorial To The Murdered Jews of Europe comprises 2,711 pillars
Image caption,
Vienna's Nameless Library memorial, by British sculptor Rachel Whiteread

What does seem to be clear is that anti-Semitism is rising in Germany.

"Anti-Semitism is acceptable again," says Anetta Kahane director of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which campaigns against racism. "It must be said clearly - those who say something anti-Semitic tacitly legitimise physical attacks on Jews."

The foundation has collated official figures which say that in 2011, there were 811 attacks on Jews. These were of various degrees of intimidation, from verbal attacks to physical assault, and included 16 violent attacks. In 2012, that rose to 865 attacks in total, with 27 of them being violent. In the first half of this year, the rise seems to have continued, with 409 attacks, 16 of them violent.

A year ago, Rabbi Daniel Alter was attacked by a group of youths of Middle Eastern appearance as he walked with his young daughter. "They made threats of violence against female members of my family, including my seven-year-old daughter who was by my side," he says.

One man confronted him very aggressively before striking him: "With his first hit he broke my cheek bone. There was another man hitting me from behind, hitting me either with his fist or something else on my head, and I fell to the floor. The next thing is I saw them running away."

It has made him change his life. Seventy-five years after Kristallnacht, he feels he can no longer wear his skullcap openly in some areas of Berlin, and covers it with a hat. And he has re-doubled his efforts to visit schools and talk to children - often alongside an Imam from a mosque.

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