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Kristallnacht 70 years on

Seventy years after the terror and cruelty of Kristallnacht, the event should not be simply consigne

Can you imagine your neighbours being attacked and dragged away – and you doing nothing? Seeing their houses looted and torched – and you saying nothing?

Seventy years ago on Sunday 9th November the Nazi government sanctioned widespread destruction of property and wanton terror and violence against the Jewish communities of Germany and Austria. In the space of a few hours more than 1000 synagogues were torched, tens and thousands of Jewish businesses and homes ransacked and destroyed, 91 people murdered and more than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
The name given to this night of terror was Kristallnacht or Night of Broken Glass in reference to the shattered glass that carpeted the streets – a testimony – even a trophy to the perpetrators ‘achievement’ in causing widespread destruction.

In the years that followed Kristallnacht, it came to mean so much more than mere broken glass. Kristallnacht came to represent broken lives, broken families, the collapse of civilisation and humanity. It signalled the prelude to the annihilation of six million Jewish people and millions of others, including from the Roma and gay community, disabled people and political opponents. It signalled the prelude to the Holocaust.

Dr Arthur Flehinger, a German eyewitness to Kristallnacht claimed that during that night of state-sponsored violence, many people privately wept behind their curtains at the destruction – full of sorrow at the tide of racial violence, but powerless to stop it. Indeed this was not dissimilar to the world’s reaction to what was the most publicised event at the time in the history of the fate of European Jewry. If this glimpse into the future horrified so many people worldwide, why was their outrage not translated into action?

If we are to learn anything from Kristallnacht it is a reminder to us all of where unchecked racism and intolerance can lead and underscores our responsibility as human beings to ensure that such evil is always confronted whenever and wherever it occurs. The Holocaust did not begin with the gas chambers at Auschwitz, it did not even begin with Kristallnacht – it began with words and was reacted to with silence. The extermination of European Jewry took place at the end of a long road, a long history marked by centuries of age-old antisemitism and prejudice dating back to the middle ages and most significantly it was a long road marked by indifference. Nor was the Holocaust a mere symptom of the time; the era. As we have seen repeatedly in the years that have followed the Holocaust genocide and atrocities have plagued every corner of the globe and continue to do so.

We cannot and must not consign the terror and cruelty of that night to our history books or fool ourselves into believing that it was a history belonging to a different era. To remove ourselves in this way is to remove our own responsibility in fighting racism and intolerance today.

This year, many of us have no doubt felt helpless as far-right parties continue to gain a foothold in local councils, and even in the London Assembly – the body representing one of the most diverse cities in the world. And make no mistake about it - these are politicians who exploit community divisions, and whose ideology is based on the same racism and prejudice exhibited during the Holocaust.

But we do have the ability to halt racism in its tracks. This is a belief that goes right to the heart of our work at the Holocaust Educational Trust. Founded by Lord Greville Janner and the late Lord Merlyn Rees in 1988, we work in schools and local communities across the UK to ensure the Holocaust is not only learnt for its own sake, but also that its vital lessons for today are learnt, disseminated and acted upon. We believe that if we are to ever achieve a future free from antisemitism, racism and discrimination, if we are to say ‘never again’ and actually mean it – we must ensure that future generations are equipped with the knowledge and confidence to face such evils head on.

Through our piloted Think Equal Project which we plan to take nationwide we have reached disaffected young people in communities which are experiencing problems of racial tensions and which are also being targeted by the far-right . By working within the Citizenship Curriculum and helping them to understand the importance of their role in society, and the responsibility that they have as citizens to actively oppose hatred and prejudice they literally become ambassadors for conveying the lessons of the past; ambassadors for a better future. Not bystanders but agents of change.

This Sunday – seventy years since that night of brutality; that night where millions of lives were forever changed and soon to be wiped out, let us not shed tears behind drawn curtains but instead let us all become agents of change. Let us commit ourselves to ensuring that no one anywhere should ever face the fear or discrimination experienced by those during Kristallnacht; let us commit ourselves to ensuring we stop the far-right from gaining a foothold in our political system before it is too late; let us commit ourselves to ensuring a future we can be proud of free from genocide and crimes against humanity.

Karen Pollock is the Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust. More information about the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust is available at

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David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide