One of the advantages of a weekly journal is the opportunity for reflection. Events often need perspective. Great moments in the human experience sometimes come in clusters. Not everything can be slotted neatly into a ten-second sound bite or a twenty-four hour news cycle. The past week was such a time.
While we are still in Veterans’ Week, this past Sunday, Nov.11, was Remembrance Day. A sacred day in and of itself made all the more poignant this year with the centenary of the end of World War I. Remembrance Day was preceeded by two other heart-wrenching hallmarks of history. Nov.9th was the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And the night of Nov.9-10 was the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht — the ‘night of broken glass’ when most of Germany’s synagogues were burnt and thousands of Jews killed in 1938.
These three days reflect the horrors of what the politics of hate and the propogation of fear lead to, and celebrate the courage of individuals and nations in defeating the perpetrators and assuring the failure of those evils.
Despite Hitler’s overt anti-Semitism, Kristallnacht did not occur by simple fiat. It was part of Hitler’s planned “final solution” to the “Jewish question” with most historians dating it as the commencement of The Holocaust. Hitler had ratcheted up his anti-Semitic propaganda machine before that night. Most telling were the words. He ordered the “cleansing” of Germany from the “foreign body” of the Jews. He warned of Jews being a “foreign virus” infecting the purity of German society. The demonization of the “other” was almost complete. By the end of that brutal night in 1938 some 1,000 synagogues had been destroyed and almost 30,000 Jews were rounded up, killed or sent to concentration camps. Among the soldiers we honour on Remembrance Day are those of the “greatest generation” who destroyed the terror of hellish Hitlerian tyranny.
Germany was divided after the war with the Soviet Union finalizing its control over its puppet state of East Germany in 1948. Not content with enslaving minds and brutalizing bodies, the Soviet tyrants decided in 1961 to physically imprison Berliners with the construction of the Berlin Wall dividing that city into East and West. It was to be the symbol for all that had gone wrong with the Communist experiment. Despite the fear the Soviets tried to instill, hundreds of Berliners died in the Wall’s first several years trying to escape over it or under it. They became symbols of free people everywhere. They inspired the young American President, John F. Kennedy, to go to Berlin in 1963, laud it as a modern bulwark of freedom as Bastogne had been against the Nazis, and declare, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” By 1989 the Soviet empire had clearly been weakened by the arms race and Western economic sanctions. Mikhail Gorbachev was overtly signaling a period of “perestroika” – reconstruction. Yet Soviet might was still in frighful evidence in the streets of East Berlin. But despite the fear, East Berliners mounted weeks of courageous civil unrest in the fall of that year. And on Nov.9, 1989, the East German government – with Soviet acquiescence — capitulated and announced that East German citizens could cross over and visit West Berlin and West Germany. Thousands of East Berliners stormed the Wall and destroyed great parts of it. Courage had triumphed over fear as it had over hate a generation earlier.
So what are our lessons for today from this awesome week? No, they aren’t killing Jews today as they did in Germany. Although there are national leaders threatening a second Holocaust against Israel while denying the first ever happened. No city is imprisoned by a Wall, yet hundreds of millions lead imprisoned lives either as subjects of theocratic tyrannies or as slave labour of collectivist regimes. And we have seen enough modern genocides from Rwanda to Darfur. The sonorous drumbeat of history goes on. But so does the strength of our courage and the depth of our resolve. The best of our young people still answer the call to champion freedom. They do not hesitate to serve and sacrifice. They are the hope. They represent our courage and resolve that are the only true antidotes to hate and to fear.
But each of us has the moral obligation of Individual vigilance whenever we see the ugly face of intolerance and exclusiveness, for all fear and hate start with that. The lasting message from this week comes to us from the echoes of our own history. The words of a crusading editor named Jean-Charles Harvey who on May 9, 1945 – VE Day – spoke to the Canadian Democratic Institute in Montreal and said the following, “Freedom cannot accommodate state dictate of what to think and how to think. And a civilized society is not measured by its accomplishments in the arts or sciences, but by its moral authority that frees its people from fear.” This is the right week and the right time in our own history to read these words again and reflect. For the price of defeating the politics of hate is always dear, and history can always bring down its odious verdict of “Too late.”