Kristallnacht and the Rise of Antisemitism in Trump-era America
Commemorating the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht, author and University of Arizona ethics instructor, Stuart H. Brody observes how Trump’s racialization of American culture echoes Nazi tactics in pre World War II Germany.
Drawing from Timothy Snyder's analysis of the killing power of the “political resource,” or “big lie,” Brody describes how antisemitism is the germ of bondage for American Jews.
Brody urges a reawakening to the risks of anti-Jewish fervor in America, and a revival of the will to resist it.
This speech was delivered to the Tucson Jewish Museum and Holocaust Center on November 11, 2022.
Below is a transcript of the speech. You can also listen to an audio recording of the speech here.
Good morning. Two days ago, we commemorated the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht. In moments of silence around the world, both Jew and Gentile remembered an event that has become synonymous with the terror of Nazi Germany.
It is said that if we offer a minute of silence for every victim of the Holocaust, we would be silent for 11 years. But we must speak and not be silent.
I've been invited here because of the op-ed piece I wrote for the Arizona Daily Star about my visit to Auschwitz this past summer.In that piece, I was asking questions about how to make sense of the Holocaust, but I found that in asking you may discover answers.
Today, I'll be asking more questions about the meaning of the Holocaust, but also providing context for understanding what's been evolving in America in recent years, including the election just a few days ago.
Raoul Hillberg, the great Holocaust scholar, said he was afraid to address the big questions of the Holocaust for fear of giving small answers. I think a big question is how do we make the Holocaust accessible when its magnitude is so incomprehensible.
So I'd like to tell a story, a small story that may help access the big questions.
In 1973, in the immediate aftermath of the Yom Kipper War,I dropped out of law school to serve at Tel Yitzhak, a kibbutz north of TelAviv near Netanya. At the time, they were collecting funds to build a Holocaust memorial. I went back 49 years later, this past summer, and saw that it had evolved into a magnificent structure for the study of the Holocaust. It is now second only to Yad Vashem in Israel as a Holocaust memorial, museum, and research center.
In the museum, I was attracted to the picture of a young woman holding a two-year-old son, and I wanted to know more, so I studied what little they had there, and then I went to Yad Vashem and learned more.
Esther Frankel was a Polish refugee, who had moved toParis with her husband, also Polish, and she and her little son, Richard, were arrested in the famous round up known as the Velodrome D’hiver in the summer of1942, the largest French mass deportation of the Holocaust. She was subsequently separated from Richard and transported to Auschwitz on August 11,1942, and murdered the same day. Richard was put in a cattle car with strangers, arriving in Auschwitz a month later and murdered there.
When I got back to Tucson on August 11th, I lit a Yahrzeit candle for Esther, and I had this sense that I might be the only person in the world remembering her that day.
A million and a half Jewish children were murdered in theHolocaust. A million and a half Jews were murdered whose names we don't evenknow. But it was the remembrance of Esther and her son that brought home the hugeness of the Holocaust to me.
Now, let's spend a few minutes on how antisemitism became politically legitimate in Europe. According to scholars, in pre 20th centuryEurope, there were antisemitic outbursts of course, but generally they were held in check by political authorities. For instance, in 1879, Jews were the target of a huge movement to eliminate their civil rights. Hundreds of thousands of signatures were gathered and submitted to Bismarck, the chancellor, and he vetoed it.
The petitions were part of a familiar and ancient tradition of blaming Jews for the misfortunes befalling society, but these movements were held in check by political authorities, until those authorities decided to harness the energy of prejudice and exploit it. The most famous example is the Dreyfus affair.
In late 19th century and early 20th century Europe, Jews were making these incredible strides as immigrants from the Pale, and succeeding in a ferociously capitalist environment in the great cities ofEurope, much like our parents and grandparents who came to the United States and succeeded here. We are the beneficiaries of that success.
One measure of the success and the visibility of Jews was the predominance of their enrollment in universities in Budapest, Prague,Vienna, and Berlin, comprising sometimes 25% of the university population. Albert Einstein was asked about this: “How do you explain why Jews are so predominant in these universities?” He said, “well, we've been preparing for our entrance examinations for 2000 years.”
So the significance of this is that despite our prosperity and our visibility, overt state-sponsored antisemitism was not widespread inWestern Europe. But that all changed with Hitler in a progression so often repeated. It scarcely needs repetition here, but a summary of his political philosophy is worthy of restatement.
I'm going to paraphrase Timothy Snyder, the eminentHolocaust scholar. The political backbone of Hitler's strategy was that humans are principally characterized as members of races doomed to a bloody struggle for finite resources. Hitler denied that any religious, philosophical, or political movement justified seeing another human being as oneself. Ethics toHitler were a Jewish invention. He managed to convince the German people that they were in a life and death struggle against the Jews and placed In motion what is still the most virulent form of discrimination in the modern world?Race.
Hitler racialized German culture. Prior to 1941 every Jew had some exposure to antisemitism, but nothing in the experience of millions ofJews over thousands of years prepared Jews for what happened beginning in 1941.
The view of Snyder and others is that it was not antisemitism that brought Hitler to power. It was the perceived collusion ofGerman leaders in the humiliating defeat of World War I, the harsh imposition of reparations, and the depression that followed. Germans felt lied to and deceived.
But even this overwhelming sentiment of futility is just the engine of the political machine. An engine needs fuel. What was the fuel?The fuel is what Snyder calls the “political resource.”
According to Snyder, the Nazi conviction that Jews were subhuman could not alone provide a technique or a rationale to destroy them.Only through deployment of the political resource could people be brought to eliminate large numbers of Jews in a very brief period of time.
The political resource is a rationale, a myth, a big lie if you will, that replaces shame with self-esteem. It stokes the fervor of the people into actions that are both unprecedented and unimaginable. It's like the carbon rod in a nuclear reactor. As long as the rod is in place, the chain reaction is controlled. As soon as you pull it up, it's unleashed.
For Hitler, the political resource was the “Judeo Bolshevik myth.” The Judeo Bolshevik myth was the equation of Jews with communism. So think about that: it equated a military colossus with a defenseless racial minority. Germans were defeating the communist enemy by killing Jews!!!
The Judeo Bolshevik myth is critical to understanding how the Nazis managed to kill 1.6 million Jews on Soviet lands and then keep killing them even after they were losing on the battlefield.
They did this by enlisting local populations in the killing. The Judeo-Bolshevik myth enabled populations like Ukrainians,Byelorussians, and Poles under Soviet control to pretend that they never had anything to do with the excesses of communism or the deportations that were underway in the Soviet Union. It provided a kind of amnesty for the guilt ofSoviet citizens who had participated in those activities.
It also provided Germans with a motivation to kill Jews before the communists--who were the same as Jews in this myth--could advance toGerman soil and kill the German people.
Hitler's thinking was that if he won the war, he could defeat the Jews. If he lost the war, he could characterize the struggle as a planetary conflict with the Jews and win the war by killing Jews. So kill he did.
On any given day in late 1941, 1942, the Germans and their collaborators on Soviet lands killed more Jews than in the entire history ofRussian pogroms. Such was the power of the political resource.
So now let's look at the political resource that has been deployed in our country.
This is how I would define the political resource that has captivated large numbers of our countrymen over the last six years. The political resource, the big lie, the myth is: that our greatness as a nation has been robbed by the stranger, the immigrant, the foreigner, the person among us of differing beliefs, people of different national origins, different cultural and religious beliefs, or sexual orientation.
The myth is that the cultural and ethnic diversity that made the United States insurmountable in the world is our most vulnerable point.
We are not a nation defeated in war as in Germany, but we are in decline--so the myth goes--because of the evil intention of others, both within our country and outside, including our allies in NATO. The myth portrays the strongest country in the world as weak and exploited, and desperately in need of being made great again to regain the self-esteem robbed by others.
In 2016, one man came to lead this movement and perfected the political resource. When he addressed the Republican convention, he declared that he was the only person who could fix America. “I alone can fix this,” the candidate proclaimed from the podium in Cleveland.
As his presidency unfolded, he departed from our time-honored fidelity to the rule of law and democratic institutions, and instead placed the emphasis on his power as the strongman who alone could solve problems.
He deployed terms like “deep state” to cast doubt on the institutions of government that he was sworn to serve and protect; most notable was his repudiation of the intelligence agencies that had concluded that Russia interfered with the 2016 election. But he rejected that and substituted his own unstated logic for the expertise of these agencies.
He declared also that he was the source of news in our country and everything else was fake. This, in a country where freedom of the press was enshrined not only in our law, as in the First Amendment, but in lore. The early stories of John Peter Zenger and the free press have captured the imagination of many schoolboys and schoolgirls in America and throughout the world in every democracy.
But nowhere was the political resource more perfectly invoked or the pathway to demagoguery more widely forged than in the aftermath of Charlottesville where neo-Nazis and white supremacists were declared “good people.” The president's embrace of the racist message of Charlottesville resembled the Nazi tactic of inciting and empowering the most resentful to direct their hatred against the most vulnerable. I am going to repeat this because it is central to the tactics of the Nazis and to an understanding of the president’s use of Charlottesville: “inciting and empowering the most resentful to direct their hatred against the most vulnerable.”
After Charlottesville, the president had a phone call withSpeaker of the House Paul Ryan in which Ryan tried to persuade him to condemn the right-wing agitators, the neo-Nazis and the white supremacists, and thePresident responded, “these are my people.” Ryan persisted, but so did the president. “You don't understand Paul. These are my people.”
Ryan did not break with the president. No one in that party did. Instead, they gave him oxygen and legitimacy just as they did at the outset. Do you remember when Trump was running? Republican leaders tried to stop him, but their effort was halfhearted. They convinced themselves that they could control him, just as the political elite in Germany persuaded Hindenburg to appoint Hitler because they thought they could control him or that he would moderate his extremism.
As Jews, nothing can worry us more than the outward embrace of racism, Nazism, and white supremacy by the head of a government. AndI suggest one would be hard pressed to think of any leader of any Western democracy since World War II who has done so.
Donald Trump racialized our culture to a degree never before seen, and in the process perpetuated antisemitic tropes. “Any Jew who doesn't vote for me is disloyal.” AtJewish functions, he would refer to Netanyahu as “your prime minister.” He saidJewish people who live in the United States don't love Israel enough. And the subtext was that we don't love the United States enough either. That we are incapable of loyalty.
In 2016, Donald Trump tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton with the terms “most corrupt candidate ever.” This verbiage was inside a Jewish star and written in bold red. He later deleted the tweet, but his initial vigorous defense of an antisemitic image was a turning point for many Jews.
There are many Americans who found Trump distasteful but also found solace in his political views: his tax cuts, the renegotiation of trade agreements, deregulation, military re-armament, making a show of force with NATO, and even for us, the Abrahamic accords, or the move of the embassy to Jerusalem.
But for Jews, there can be only one thing, and that is the temperature of antisemitism and the racialization of culture in general. When the temperature of antisemitism rises, not the rise in the stock market norFrance’s share of NATO's budget, that’s what counts the most.
Now these are my views, and many of you may view this differently. Some of you may protest, with good reason, that at the current time Jews enjoy state protection in the form of vibrant law enforcement, aJustice Department focused on hate crimes, and the general belief among our countrymen that it is wrong to harbor prejudice.
So, I would simply introduce a note of skepticism: Look how fast events transpired in Austria in March of 1938 after theAnschluss. Have you seen those photos ofJews being hauled from the synagogues and from their homes to scrub the streets while their fellow Austrians mocked them? When did that happen? The day after the Anschluss. That's how fast it can happen.
Look how fast Elon Musk, when he took over Twitter, reversed the exclusion of hate speech, reopening the floodgates to Kanye West and his 38 million followers; 5,000 tweets an hour is West’s response rate. And soon we can expectDonald Trump to take his place on Twitter among the purveyors of hate, and if he runs again, to reveal himself fully as the anti-Semite he is.
And of course, look how quickly the rule of law, the ultimate law, the hallmark of our country, the orderly succession of power, was challenged by one man and has spread because of him.
If you want to understand how Hitler spread his venom, just look at the avalanche of election deniers, all of them, the creation of the egoism of one man, spawning a lie and attracting hundreds of candidates including four in our state. Here we are in Arizona, watching four statewide close races in which all four Republicans are election deniers. They have embraced the big lie. All four have made troubling antisemitic references. And one of them, Mark Finchem intersperses his antisemitic comments which are overt and blatant, with a profession of love for the Jews. “I love the Jews,” he says.
Thirty five percent of our fellow Arizonans believe that the election was stolen despite the absence of anything remotely resembling proof commensurate with the severity of that charge. These people did not makeup that belief. They embraced the demagoguery of one man.
You see, democracy is fragile. In a democracy, the power of a noble narrative is what keeps the crazies at bay. That narrative is that we are a unique nation because of our orderly means of power succession. But when that orderly succession fails, then democracy turns on itself and the narrative deflates.
I think everyone in this room would agree that America is exceptional in many ways, but when truth is lost, there is a void. And that void gives way to ideology, which is usually founded on blame. And we as Jews are usually among the first to be blamed.
I would suggest that the very term exceptionalism that many insist is applicable to the United States, is a dangerous political resource in itself, because it leads to contempt for the well-being of non-Americans; even more seriously, it induces complacency as our noble values, our exceptional practices, evaporate. Most dangerously, it leads us to ignore our own history.
I think it's important to point out that our history during the 1930s in dealing with the refugee issue is anything but exceptional.In 1938, two thirds of Americans felt that what was happening in Germany was partly or entirely the Jews fault. 1938! Charles Lindbergh was saying out loud what a lot of Americans were thinking privately and Roosevelt knew it. Empathy for and aid to Jewish refugees was forced underground and was therefore pitifully limited.
Otto Frank had done everything, including lining up wealthy sponsors in the United States, to gain admission to the United States, and he was within the quota, but he was rejected. Anne Frank, had she made it to the United States with her family, would be a 93 year old Jewish lady today.
Between 1945 and 1953, the United States was no more open to homeless and destitute Jewish refugees than between 1933 and 1939. Think about that for a moment. As dismal as our record was in offering a home to the beleaguered Jews of Europe prior to the war, we were no more generous after the war when we knew the atrocities that had occurred.
Refugees from communism gained more access to the UnitedStates than Jews.
So the question is, are we willing as Americans to look at who we are through the lens of cold, hard discernment? Are we strong enough to look at that history?
I teach ethics at the University of Arizona, as you know, and what any ethicist will tell you, or any of my students, is that we like to think we possess an unerring moral instinct, that we will show up in the big moments armed with the training of our youth, the precepts of law, Scripture, and the instinct for right action.
Yet in every study, people overestimate their capacity to recognize and contest evil. The truth of the matter is that we suffer from unconscious motives, blind spots, overt self-interest, inherent bias that encumbers discernment and timidity that impedes resistance.
I'm asking you to consider whether the easy willingness of our countrymen to embrace lies compels us to question the contentment that we as Jews often assume about our security.
I wonder if we need to rethink our assessment of the magnitude of the threat of antisemitism and to fashion more vigorous ways to resist it. It's not easy. We depend on the basic idea of democratic sovereignty to protect us, and that's not a futile hope, but the truth is, when threatened enough people will collapse into their sense of stress and turn on their best intentions.
We've seen how easily people can be manipulated by the fervor of the demagogue. Such fervor is the germ of moral collapse and ultimately of bondage. And these are the warnings to sharpen our discernment and our will to resist.
Before I close, I want to share a few insights about the rescuers.
One of the reasons we study Holocaust rescuers is that they represent a high form of moral achievement. There are different theories about rescuers: that they were ordinary people who differed greatly from one another and had nothing in common.
But this is a minority view. The predominant view by PeterHayes and other Holocaust scholars is that rescuers came from families that emphasized empathy and the common good. Their altruistic inclinations did not spring up spontaneously, but were the result of a long gestating process of habituation, training, and practice, exactly as Aristotle said 2,300 years ago was the foundation of virtue.
Is there an answer to the question of what to do as Jews, how best to discern the threat and resist it?
Well, I'll turn to you shortly to discuss that. But one clue I think, is putting time and energy into helping people at risk, other victims of racial prejudice as well as ourselves.
Martin Luther King Jr. said that the arc of history bends toward justice. So we must strive to do something to contribute to justice in the world. But he also said that the fight for civil rights begins anew with each generation. That was the practical dimension of the realist Dr. King.
If we are to take up the struggle, we need to hone the tools of discernment and resistance. We need to be levelheaded but defiant, compassionate yet resistant, and patient, but engaged.
Are we actively engaged in standing up to the world'soldest hate? I must ask myself that every day. Am I standing up? Am I committedto change? And frankly, I often find myself wanting and I must reshape my day,wresting from it the self-satisfaction that I'm doing enough. Each day I must ask myself how can I resistantisemitism and change the world?
All of us, Jew and gentile, must ask ourselves the same question. History surely offers more than enough evidence of where our lack of readiness for this struggle leads. And more than ample proof of the drastic consequences awaiting us if we fail.
Thank you very much.
Stuart H. Brody is Adjunct Instructor in the School of Government and Public Policy of the University of Arizona, and Senior Scholar at the Institute for Ethics in Public Life at the State University of New York. He is the author of The Law of Small Things: Creating a Habit of Integrity in a Culture of Mistrust and author of the forthcoming, Humphrey and Me (Santa Monica Press, September 2023) a work of historical fiction portraying the challenge of political courage in a time of war.
The speaker wishes to acknowledge the scholarship of Timothy Snyder and Peter Hayes for the depth of their insights that contributed greatly to the historical background used in this presentation.