Remembering History: The Night of Broken Glass

In the night, from 9-10 November 1938, the Reichskristallnacht – literally “crystal night”, or Night of Broken Glass – took place. Throughout several cities in Nazi Germany and Austria, angry mobs performed coordinated attacks on Jewish synagogues, shops and other establishments. Store windows were smashed, property was destroyed, the Star of David was painted on doors and walls. People were abused and even killed. Many had to wear hand-written signs labelling themselves as Jews, making them open targets for further violence. The Reichskristallnacht was one of the darkest nights in the history of the 20th century, with even darker ones to come.

Today, 75 years later, the November pogrom is remembered with what would be best described as uncertainty. In cities like Vienna, cobblestone-sized memorials reading the names of the victims of the Kristallnacht lace the side walks of major streets and avenues, Holocaust memorials are to be found at several corners. Speeches are held and flowers are put down each year, as school children visit Jewish museums and watch documentaries.

However, most people alive today have no recollection of the Night of Broken Glass, or the Holocaust. The events of nights like 9 November 1938 are so easily forgotten, or seems too far gone to still be true. Especially young people feel disconnected from history, wondering if all this still has anything to do with them.

However, antisemitism is very much alive, especially in France and Hungary. Jewish professors at the University of Budapest for instance are often harassed, even by students, and receive racist threats. Synagogues and cemeteries throughout Europe are to this day frequently destroyed in senseless hatred. Discrimination as well as physical and verbal violence have been experienced by almost half of the members of the Jewish community in Europe. Online discrimination is on the rise. A recent report published by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) shows that many assaults go unreported.

The FRA points out that while the Member States indeed have made sustained efforts to combat antisemitism, the phenomenon is still widespread. It’s distressing proof that prejudice can persist throughout centuries, and shows that history needs to be kept alive in our memory to keep it from repeating. Speeches, flowers, gestures by statesmen and visits to the museum are acts that keep us from forgetting, however small they may seem. Discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation or gender should have been made illegal by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but is still a working mechanism in our lives. Education is key to making young people understand that discrimination and racism, in whatever shape or form they may manifest in, concern us all. So maybe it’s time for a trip to the museum one of these weekends.