Yesterday and today mark the 74th anniversary of Nazi Germany's state-instigated pogroms known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), a turning point in Hitler's anti-Jewish policy. For most scholars, it marks the beginning of the period we now define as the Holocaust.
Nazi militants destroyed thousands of stores and Jewish homes, desecrated cemeteries and burned down hundreds of synagogues. German Jewish citizens were arrested, systematically humiliated and abused in public in every city, town and village of Germany and in the recently annexed Austria. The majority of German citizens were bystanders to the pogrom and did not try to prevent the vandalism and destruction.
The events of Kristallnacht teach a valuable lesson. They show that a modern society can become numbed to the fate of its minorities. Since Hitler's rise to power in March 1933, Jews had been classified and categorized as "others." They were demonized, legally discriminated against and spatially segregated. Non-Jewish Germans were increasingly convinced that the treatment of Jews was justified and did not concern them.
Already in April 1935, the Berlin rabbi Joachim Prinz wrote in the German Jewish weekly newspaper Jüdische Rundschau: "It is outside that the ghetto exists for us. In the markets, in the streets, in restaurants. The ghetto exists in every place. It has a sign. That sign is: no neighbors."
A "successful" Kristallnacht was the precondition for Auschwitz. Subsequent anti-Jewish measures such as physical ghettoization and deportation to the forced labor and extermination camps in the East became possible. Response or resistance from within was no longer to be expected.
Ethnic cleansing and genocide can happen when a community of mutual acceptance has been destroyed. It requires only a systematic program of detachment and distantiation, a process that sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has defined as the "social production of indifference." Killing is only the last step.
Kristallnacht stands out as a warning of this lethal historical sequence, which always already lingers in an early seed called indifference.
Alejandro Baer is director and Stephen C. Feinstein Chair at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota.