Speech on the 75th Anniversary Commemoration of Kristallnacht
by Dr Tim Soutphommasane
Race Discrimination Commissioner
at The Great Synagogue, Sydney
On this night that we gather to remember, can I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to elders past and present.
A few weeks ago I had the honour to meet Gerty Jellinek. Gerty is one of the volunteer guides at the Sydney Jewish Museum. Every Friday, Gerty tells visitors of her story of survival. Now in her eighties, Gerty grew up in Vienna. She told me that for a number of years a man had boarded with her family in their home. On 13 March 1938, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, the boarder appeared in the corridor dressed in brown shirted, stormtrooper uniform. During the years he had lived in Gerty’s family home, the boarder had been a member of the SA.
It was only a few months later that Kristallnacht took place. We all know what began that night of 9 November. Across Germany and Austria, Jews became the targets of an orgy of violence. Families were attacked in their homes. Hundreds of synagogues were destroyed. Thousands of businesses were looted. Cemeteries were desecrated. Beginning on that night, thousands of Jewish men would be arrested and transferred to concentration camps.
What happened 75 years ago was fateful – the shattered glass across central Europe represented not just the destruction of Jewish life, but also the shattering of civilized society. One British correspondent in Berlin, Hugh Greene (who would later become Director-General of the BBC), observed the events with nauseous disbelief. As Greene put it,
Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete hold of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable middle-class mothers held up their babies to see the “fun”.
These were the scenes that a twelve-year-old Gerty saw in Vienna, where the pogrom against Jews was complete. Nearly all of Vienna’s 94 synagogues and prayer houses were destroyed. As Gerty recalled to me, Jewish women in Vienna were made to scrub the pavements on the city’s streets – a ritual of torment and humiliation.
Gerty is one of the living connections we have to the events that we remember tonight. Her testimony and her individual memory, as with others who have survived or escaped the Holocaust, contribute to form our collective memory.
There is, of course, a difference between a shared memory and a common memory. Those who were alive during the 1930s and 40s, and were witness to Kristallnacht and what followed, have a common memory. They remember something which they have each experienced individually.
A shared memory is different. As the philosopher Avishai Margalit has explained, shared memory is built on a division of mnemonic labour. That is to say, it requires communication, for the perspectives of those who remember the episode to be brought together into one version. A shared memory means that those who may not have been there at the time of an event may nonetheless be “plugged into the experience” of those who were. The currents of memory travel through “channels of description”, rather than through conduits of direct experience.
In traditional societies, shared memory would be transmitted through the priest, the rabbi, the storyteller. In modern societies, our channels of description include institutions such as schools and libraries, media and museums.
How memory functions in a modern society is the subject of considerable scholarly debate. That is because memory is so often tied up in history. And history, as we know, if often bound up with tradition.
It is in the form of tradition that shared memory is conveyed. Within communities, memories are part of a legacy that is passed on from generation to generation. Memory and tradition define the values and principles that come to mark a community. They sit are the core of who a people consider themselves to be.
There are some obvious questions that emerge. If memory may define a community, do some shared memories exist only for that given community? How are we to deal with something when we sit outside a community of memory?
I have long been preoccupied by such questions. I trace my own scholarship in matters of national identity and citizenship to an episode I had as a schoolboy, here in Sydney, listening to a fellow student on Anzac Day. I remember her saying, “Today, we pause to remember the sacrifices made by our forebears so that we can enjoy the Australian way of life.”
While they expressed noble sentiments, the words to me never sounded quite right. Because when I looked at my fellow student, I saw someone who looked like me – someone of southeast Asian extraction. Did it make sense for her to refer to us remembering our forebears?
There is, however, room for shared civic memory. People should be able to relate to the history of the communities in which they live. People should also be able to recognize the experiences of their fellow citizens. As citizens, we all inherit a certain civic tradition, even if it’s not by birth. And we all owe an obligation of solidarity with those who are our fellow members.
In any case, there are some things that require us to care and to remember. Members of a civilized society should not ignore crimes against humanity. They certainly should not revel in the lamentations of other human beings.
Shared memory can have a universal ring, too. Earlier this year, the Berliner Philharmoniker gave its first performance of A Child of Its Time, an oratorio of Michael Tippett’s. The composition of A Child of Its Time began in 1939. Tippett, an English composer and a committed pacifist, was deeply shaken by the violence against Jews on Kristallnacht and the trial of Herschel Grynspan – whose shooting of German diplomat Ernst von Rath was used by Nazis as a pretext for the pogrom.
The oratorio has been described as “something Handel might have written had he lived in the age of Auschwitz”. Its themes closely track what happened on Kristallnacht, and the role of Grynspan in its eruption. Tippett’s piece tells the story of a “general state of oppression in our time” and a “young man’s attempt to seek justice [with] catastrophic consequences”. Reflecting later on his oratorio, Tippett would write that “the growing violence springing out of divisions of nation, race, religion, status, colour, or even just rich and poor is possibly the deepest present threat to the social fabric of all human society”. For Tippett, there was clearly a universal import to the Night of Broken Glass.
3. Universal Lessons
Many scholars have addressed the question of whether it is possible to draw a universal lesson from the Holocaust – a genocide that has been described by some as “uniquely unique”, an event of singularity. On the intricacies of this, I confess I am not well qualified.
Yet the historical significance of Kristallnacht cannot be doubted. It marked the escalation of Nazi hatred of Jews into systematic violence. It illustrated the power of words in the mounting anti-Semitism of the time. It demonstrated what can happen when authorities give people permission to conduct violence. It was the opening act of the Holocaust.
The chronology of events shows that Kristallnacht occurred after Grynspan’s shooting of von Rath in Paris. Nazi Germany would use it as an excuse to call for demonstrations against Jews in retribution. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels declared that “insofar as they erupt spontaneously”, such demonstrations “are not to be hampered”.
What resulted was orchestrated violence across Germany and Austria. Such a pattern of authorization would be repeated in other episodes of genocide during the twentieth century. In Cambodia, it was Pol Pot’s call for class hatred against educated officials, businessmen, teachers and city-dwellers that preceded the murder of 25 per cent of the Cambodian national population. In Rwanda, the butchering of 800 000 people began when a radio station incited Hutus to wage a final war of extermination against the Tutsi. Genocide doesn’t begin with violence – it indeed begins with words.
And it also begins with indifference. What was perhaps most consequential with Kristallnacht was that it was met with such little opposition, both inside Germany and Austria, and from outside. The event confirmed that passivity emboldens the perpetrators of evil: it gives licence to hate; it desensitizes people to the further degradation of others.
This needn’t mean that indifference transforms otherwise upright or good people into menacing agents of evil. Over the decades, prompted by the arguments of Hannah Arendt, we have come to accept that evil may assume much more banal forms. As Arendt reminds us, “the sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never made their minds up to be or do evil at all”. When it comes to the worst of crimes against humanity, the problem is that normal people commit them.
We can take from all of this the following. Context and circumstance matter. Moral judgements seldom appear in absolute form. And none of us is ever exempt from human deficiency.
The evidence supports this. Experiments in social psychology reveal how small changes in situational context can affect our moral responses.
In one famous experiment, the psychologist Philip Zimbardo took a group of healthy young men to a makeshift prison in the basement of a university laboratory. He assigned one half to act as prisoners and the other half to act as guards. Zimbardo appointed himself prison superintendent. He gave the guards instructions that they should refrain from physical torture.
Within two days, the student guards had set about inflicting upon prisoners punishments: verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, hours spent in stress positions. Prisoners were forced to repeat physical and mental exercises. Within even this controlled, benign prison environment, the guards grew sadistic. Some prisoners broke into hysteria; others broke into hives. A cycle of degradation had been unleashed.
Here is Zimbardo’s conclusion:
Any deed that any human being has ever committed, however horrible, is possible for any of us – under the right or wrong situational circumstances. That knowledge does not excuse evil; rather, it democratises it, sharing its blame among ordinary actors rather than declaring it the province only of deviants and despots – of Them but not Us.
4. Racial Discrimination and Vilification
It is a dangerous thing, then, to throw around the language of evil. To call someone evil, after all, is to cast a judgment upon someone’s soul. But calling someone’s actions evil is another thing. This may be one way to avoid moral laziness: focus on the action rather than the agent.
Such matters bear upon the question of race in contemporary Australia. We see regularly from our public debates that leveling the charge of racism isn’t to be done lightly. Frequently, those who are alleged to have said or done something will respond – or someone will respond on their behalf – with indignation. To be called racist, they will say, involves a condemnation of moral character that goes well beyond censuring any ignorance.
In my view, it is important that we not be sheepish about condemning bad behaviour when we see it. Something needn’t be violent or maliciously directed in order to count as racism. Racism, as we know, begins with words. And it needn’t be about a doctrinal belief in racial superiority. More often than, it is about the prejudice born of ethnic stereotypes.
But while acts of racism may sometimes be unintentional, they always have consequences. Racism is as much about impact as it is about intention; it is about the impact of actions on the standing that someone enjoys as a member of society.
In Australia, it is the federal Racial Discrimination Act, which writes into our laws that everyone can participate in the life of the nation as an equal. But the Act is more than just an instrument for guaranteeing equal opportunity. It is also a statement about racial tolerance in a multicultural society – that we regard civility as a cardinal value, and social cohesion as an absolute necessity.
Since 1995, the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act have included protections against racial vilification, through sections 18C and 18D. Section 18C makes it unlawful for someone to do an act that is reasonably likely “to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone on the grounds of their race or ethnicity. Reflecting the fundamental importance of freedom of speech, section 18D ensures that artistic works, scientific debate, and fair comment on a matter of public interest are exempt from being in breach of the Act – provided that something is said or done reasonably and in good faith.
As many of you know, the Federal Government has said that it wishes to change the racial vilification provisions of the Act. Namely, it wishes that the Act no longer makes it unlawful to offend or insult someone on the grounds of race.
There will be debate about this issue in the coming months. That is how it should be. As citizens in a liberal democracy, we should be able to conduct robust discussions and arguments. If there are to be limits on what we can say, they should have good justifications.
But free speech has never been an absolute value. In practice, free speech has never been entirely unrestricted. We have many laws that limit our freedom of speech: for example, laws concerning defamation, laws concerning advertising, laws concerning obscenity, laws concerning fraud, laws concerning public order, laws concerning national security.
We should ask a number of questions. Would a change to the law leave people with adequate protections against racial vilification? Would a change have the effect of encouraging people to think that they can harass and vilify others on the grounds of race with impunity? What would be the overall impact on our human rights and freedoms?
Any debate should also pay attention to the manner in which the current racial vilification provisions actually operate. Often it is forgotten that section 18D explicitly protects the fundamental value of free speech. Often it is thought that the operation of section 18C serves only to protect hurt feelings and personal sensitivities.
Yet the courts have interpreted the law during the past two decades in a consistent manner. Section 18C consists of an objective test: unlawful acts are those that are proven reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to cause harm. It doesn’t apply to “mere slights” but only to acts that involve “profound and serious effects.” Where people have fallen foul of section 18C in the courts, it has involved racial vilification of a standard that goes well beyond trivial name-calling.
Certainly, in the complaints that reach the Australian Human Rights Commission, it is clear that the current legislation provides redress to people who have been subjected to withering and degrading racial abuse. In what follows, I should warn you that I will be using actual language used in our complaints that may offend.
In recent times, the Commission has conciliated a complaint made about a police officer who was alleged to have called Aboriginal bus passengers “you f***ing hairy monkeys”. Another complaint involved a website inciting people to yell at Asians, “You Gook F**k Off to China”, and encouraging people “to express their anger physically by laying the Gooks out”. Another case involved a man of Jewish ethnic origin putting forward a complaint about a video sharing site on the internet: the website included content in the form of people offering money to kill Jewish people.
These are just some examples of the ugliness that the law in practice serves to combat. Indeed, the Racial Discrimination Act provides important protections against racial hatred. The apparent anti-Semitic attack in Bondi just over two weeks ago provides a sad reminder of why sections 18C and 18D were introduced to the Act during the 1990s. As many of you know, there was determination at the time that stopping racial violence required legislative action against racial vilification – it required action aimed at the roots of racial violence.
As we commemorate 75 years after Kristallnacht, we naturally reflect on what it may tell us today. For members of Sydney’s Jewish community, as for members of Jewish communities everywhere, the Night of Broken Glass is an episode of common and shared memory. It is part of the story of what is your community of memory.
It is also important, I believe, that Kristallnacht be the subject of shared memory for all of us. The reason is simple: a crime against humanity anywhere is a crime against humanity everywhere. And the lessons of Kristallnacht are profound and universal. Let us never be complacent about human frailty. Let us never underestimate our capacity to do evil. Let us never license hatred, for we can never know its bounds.