Today is the 70th anniversary of the infamous Kristallnacht, the pogrom that history remembers as the opening salvo of the Holocaust. It was a gargantuan riot that killed 91, hauled 30,000 into concentration camps, and left thousands of synagogues and Jewish-owned buildings damaged or destroyed. To my surprise, Germany is commemorating Kristallnacht with a sobering day of reflection. Maybe they do this every year; maybe it’s only on the ten-year anniversary cycles.
In Germany, as in much of the world, they write the dates in a sensible chronological order: 9 November 2008. Day, then month, then year, units of time going smaller to larger. Sometimes they shorten the dates to all numbers: 9/11/08.
Kristallnacht was the original 9/11.
Kristallnacht was 63 years (less a couple months) before 9/11/01, what we traditionally call “9/11”. Thanksgiving was declared in 1863, in November, by a wartime President who’d suspended habeas corpus and declared half the nation as enemy combatants. Sure, there had been a couple original Days of Thanksgiving to start the tradition, under Washington and Adams, but the idea didn’t annually stick until Lincoln got it going with these words:
In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.
Maybe the principles of our Presidents have never changed. Maybe the issue of change is especially pertinent as we have another tall eloquent Illinois politician coming to power in a time of war, fear, and the threat of dissolution.
And maybe it’s time to change Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving has changed plenty already… the declaration of President Lincoln goes on to make clear that this is not a secular holiday (“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”) And yet it’s become overtly secular despite such a foundation. The day has also, though initially seemingly mostly about the Civil War, become integrally about one of our founding self-perceptions and America’s own opening salvo with its own genocide.
This salvo began on 12/11/20 (1620), when Europeans landed on Plymouth Rock. They nearly starved to death, but 91 (yes, 91) Native Americans came to live with them and teach them how to survive in the New World. As the story goes, they celebrated their first winter of survival with a great feast of thanksgiving in 1621. And the rest of the Native Americans were history, all but completely wiped out in a three-century span of deliberate and conscious ethnic extermination.
To say that Thanksgiving (the apocryphal “First Thanksgiving”) is Kristallnacht for the North American Holocaust is perhaps slightly exaggerative. But the symbolism and parallels are evident. Kristallnacht at least served as a clear warning for all those who remained in Germany that it was time to leave. Thanksgiving deceived those who were hosting into believing they’d always have reason to stay.
One of the people who didn’t leave Germany was Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become the current standing Pope. Instead of leaving, he joined the Hitler Youth. No joke – read the article linked above. While much has been made lately of whether the Holocaust-era Pope collaborated with the Nazis, turned a blind eye to them, or secretly worked against them, there can be no doubt about Benedict’s stance. He signed up.
And yet in just two more days, the US will honor another day set aside for those who also just signed up in feeling of solidarity with their country, right or wrong. People who signed up to exterminate Native Americans, people who signed up to kill Nazis, people who signed up to wipe out enemy combatant Americans. People who chose to go where they were assigned instead of standing, resisting, refusing, running. 11/11, no nines about it. Ninety years ago on Tuesday, the war to end all wars. Twenty years later (less two days), Kristallnacht.
Those of you still reading at this point may find this post a lithely macabre version of one of those e-mail chains that went around in the early days of e-mail (the late ’90’s) about the links between Lincoln and Kennedy. Assassins leaving warehouses and being caught in theaters, secretaries named each other and such. Maybe so, maybe so. But it seems, for all my talk about October, that there is something charged and malignant about November, especially (perhaps) Novembers ending in 8’s. After all, November 1918 led to the Treaty of Versailles which, in most historians’ opinion, led directly to Kristallnacht. There’s only so much debt and guilt one can heap upon a people before they find a scapegoat and start massacring people. Maybe.
As I talked about last year, I love the idea of Thanksgiving and despise its origins. I adore the idea of setting aside time where everyone humbly admits that they don’t deserve the incredible blessings granted them, that they are in debt (a real debt, of gratitude and not money) to others for their standing and situation, however meager it may be. The origins, however, are a little like a hypothetically victorious Nazi Germany setting aside today to celebrate what riches they were able to steal from the Jews before slaughtering them wholesale. Think about it. Think about the land on which you live, the territory you occupy, the buildings and the society and the continuous peaceful transfer of power from one regime to the next manifestation thereof. Think.
And yet Thanksgiving has an element of forgiveness. In an irony nearly as equal to the foundational irony, Thanksgiving’s major event with the President each year involves pardoning a turkey. The irony being that Americans slaughter 45,000,000 turkeys while one (or apparently, more recently, two named) turkey(s) is(/are) pardoned. Those are worse odds than a Jew or Native American surviving their respective genocides.
But what role forgiveness, mercy, looking past the sins of the past? Forgiveness remains the triumphal (and perhaps only) virtue that is widely espoused to which I simply cannot relate. It’s not that I don’t believe those wronged by others should refrain from acts of revenge and violence. This belief is foundational to my perception of the world. But forgiveness is something far greater than refraining from acts – it is a deep-down, soul-clenching release of ill will for past wrongs. I don’t get it. I don’t think I’ve ever felt it, not for a wrong that really felt injurious. It remains widely perceived by others as my glaring moral blindspot.
And yet I may not be alone – Ehud Olmert discussing Kristallnacht last week, addressing his Cabinet: “We will never forgive or forget.”
And perhaps it’s the implicit link between forgiveness and forgetting that I cannot stand, that blinds me to any possible merits of forgiveness conceptually. For forgetting, it can widely be acknowledged, is never the solution. Jumbling the old numbers, burning the history books, shoveling heaps of smoke and ash and mirrors on the past is simply not the answer. Surely we need fresh thinking and fresh beginnings, but only if they are informed by our past mistakes can we truly hope to make something new and viable for next time.
And even America, amnesiac of the world, realizes this. It’s why we do commemorate 11/11/18 and 9/11/01 and even 12/7/41. It’s why I wouldn’t have to explain any of those dates to you even if I hadn’t referenced them earlier in this post. If you’re an American, you know them. You feel them. You do not forgive.
But what of 8/6/45? Or 2/13/45? Or yes, even 12/21/20? The United States of America does not embark on the somber reflection of Angela Merkel’s Germany, even now. We do not apologize. It is hard to imagine that Barack Obama will not finally break the Presidential streak on refusing to apologize for slavery. But what bizarre symbolism would that moment be, someone who is African American and yet not descended from slaves, someone whose generational lineage includes Cherokee, being the one who will stand up and say America was wrong. It is easy to imagine Obama apologizing for a great many number of ills, turning America’s arrogance on its head in a wave of sobering regret. It is also easy to imagine Obama labeling such actions as dwelling in a mired past, as a waste of time, as something that he is (perhaps arrogantly) different enough to not have to own. Such is the reality of having elected what one CNN anchor on election night aptly called “The National Rorschach Test”: everyone looks at him and sees what they want to see, what they see in the back of their own troubled mind.
President Obama is related to both George Bush and Dick Cheney. And yet he is also a first generation American on his father’s side. These are the paradoxes and quandaries of a man who embodies contradiction and potential. The real excitement of the election is not a week past on the eve of the decision (which was a foregone conclusion), the real excitement is two months hence, when we discover with each pronouncement and policy, which side this man favors. Which way he goes. Which chances he takes. The odds, of course, are best that he does both and all and is awash in compromise.
But President Obama, I call on you this year, before you’ve made any official plans, to think about next Thanksgiving. November 2009 is dreamily impossible for me to imagine… something akin to imagining 2008 from the perspective of 1938, or maybe even from 1620. It is hard to contemplate what will have transpired and changed, what kind of America we’ll be facing, if indeed there is really an America left at all. Mr. Obama, consider proclaiming a change in the way we handle Thanksgiving. It doesn’t have to be a day of mourning, it doesn’t have to be exactly like today in Germany. But this quote, from Angela Merkel, seems to have a ring to it: “We must not be silent.”
It’s because forgetting is connected to forgiving, and vice versa. It’s because those who have had the most courage are always the ones who are willing to buck the trends of their own nation, to point the accusing finger in the mirror or across the street. Not to sign up for the Hitler Youth, not to register with the SS (Selective Service). Not to sign up for a credit card or a draft card or to sew the yellow star on your clothing or march toward the reservation. To resist, to buck, to stand against.
America may be newly in love with itself, so proud to be able to elect someone of mixed skin tone. President Obama, it is up to you to remind us that we have much more to be ashamed for. And that this shame compels us to change everything.