On the nights of 9 and 10 November 1938, a series of coordinated attacks across Nazi Germany and Austria took place against the Jewish community. If you need to find a starting point for what would ultimately become the Final Solution and the death of tens of millions in Nazi concentration camps, then #Kristallnacht is probably it.
The “Night of Broken Glass” – for all the shattered windows of Jewish-run businesses and synagogues – has haunted me since I discovered it when I was a teenager. The unspeakable horror of these unprovoked, unjustifiable attacks on innocent people whose only “crime” was being Jewish was just as perturbing to me as the fact that all the other people who stood by and said nothing. Like the kids at school when someone else was being bullied.
It was 1980s Apartheid South Africa. The comparison to the everyday horrors of apartheid I could see all around me where clear and obvious.
Just as I was becoming an adult and understanding the horrors of the racist country I was born into, I discovered the horrors of the holocaust. I had glimpsed an image before, when I saw footage of a concentration camp in that excellent documentary The World At War. But it wasn’t until my teens that I understood the slow, poisonous way anti-Semitism had been used by Hitler to get himself into power. It took years to build up to a tipping point where outright inhumanity took over.
I first read that immortal warning around then: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out. Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out. Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out. Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
As if those teenage years weren’t filled with enough angst.
But here is the terrifying thing: As British historian and Holocaust expert Martin Gilbert said: “no event in the history of German Jews between 1933 and 1945 was so widely reported as it was happening, and the accounts from the foreign journalists working in Germany sent shock waves around the world” according to Wikipedia.
And yet, the world did. And it continues to be outraged, then returns to its disinterestedness. In South Africa alone, the world saw #Sharpeville and turned it’s back. It happened again in 1976 when the death of #HectorPeterson sparked the beginnings of outright revolution.
Sadly, there is a new and terrifying parallel to it after the unspeakable horrors of another Kristallnacht-like epiphany last week in Paris.
In one brutal, inexplicable and savage attack last week the world is suddenly united against fundamentalism, arguably in a way that it hasn’t been before.
The incongruous French and English hashtag #JeSuisCharlie has become a rallying cry for freedom of speech, of unity against zealots and murderers.
Last week was a seminal moment in the world’s way of communicating. There have been other tipping points – the Arab Spring and #BringBackOurGirls – but there was something that changed last week. It was the assassination of journalists, and the strike into freedom of expression that is signified, that has struck such a nerve.
It was as if the whole world watched the horror of Krystalnacht unfolding. Social media truly came of age in this god-forsaken time. Twitter became more than “the front page of news” as its often referred to now. It was as much of an online sharing hub as Facebook. The black avatar of “Je Suis Charlie” became as commonplace as flags during the world cup.
What we need is the same outpouring of shock, horror and disgust to unify humanity around the other, equally shocking travesties that happen everyday in the world. From the millions of children who go to bed hungry each day, right across the spectrum to the wholesale corruption of the Zuma administration, which is having a destructive effect on our economy and ultimately our own people. The latest Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria is so profoundly terrible that no one can quite count how many people were killed.
First they came for the cartoonists…