During the late night hours of 9 November and the early morning hours of 10 November 1938, the Nazis in occupied Austria, the occupied border region of the Czech lands, and Germany murdered Jewish people and captured them for the concentration camps. A total of 267 synagogues were burned down or otherwise demolished, 7 500 Jewish apartments and shops were ransacked, 91 Jewish people were directly murdered during the pogrom, and 30 000 ended up in death camps.
This violent action was performed by Hitler’s adherents in the NSDAP at the instigation of his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. The pogrom was a predecessor to the so-called “Final Solution” – the mass murder of millions of Jewish people.
Kristallnacht anniversary has sad connotations today as well
The Nazis later called this horrible night the “crystal” one. Several decades after the war ended, it seemed that the memory of Kristallnacht and the other horrors committed by the Nazi regime would be a sufficient warning to subsequent generations not to repeat them.
Of course, as it turns out, based on today’s experience we see that enough people can be found who are incorrigible in this regard. At the start of the 21st century, young people are rediscovering the Nazi ideology more frequently and intensely under the banners of nationalism or neo-Nazism. These people are not captivated by some far-off history, but by the methods and solutions offered by the nationalists and neo-Nazis. Their fatal decisiveness and simplicity will evidently always hold a certain charm for some people.
The march through the Jewish Town that never happened
For this reason, we often witness “celebrations” (genuinely conceived as such) of individual Nazi leaders or well-known figures, such as Goebbels, Hesse, Hitler, various representatives of the SS units, and the invocation of their methods. Kristallnacht itself has been “celebrated” by Czech neo-Nazis twice so far in the 21st century, in 2003 and 2007.
In 2003, antisemites wanted to march through Prague’s “Jewish Town”, specifically, Maiselova street, carrying lit torches as their Nazi predecessors in Germany used to. They chose Saturday 11 January for this march. It was not prevented by either the city government or the police, but by people who stood up against the “freedom” to terrorize others and trample on their dignity. Members of the Jewish Community and other Jewish organizations in Prague went to the scene to block the neo-Nazi march, joined by many of their friends – people from academic circles, nonprofit human rights organizations, Anti-fascist Action, left-wing activists and anarchists.
The police were presented with two solutions: Either disperse the Jewish people and other opponents of neo-Nazis, or divert the neo-Nazi march. They chose the second option and the neo-Nazis were forced to head away from Prague’s Jewish Town.
Antisemitic action unsuccessful a second time
City hall did its best to prevent the next neo-Nazi action in Prague, announced on the anniversary of Kristallnacht on 10 November 2007. The Jewish Community in Prague convened a religious gathering in front of its Prague headquarters at the same time the march was to pass through Maiselova street. The Jewish Liberal Union (Židovská liberální unie – ŽLU) then organized an assembly a few doors down at the Old-New Synagogue (Staronová synagoga). These two events merged into one action attended by many people from various parts of society, including some politicians. The gathering was also attended by Čeněk Růžička of the Committee for the Redress of the Romani Holocaust (Výbor pro odškodnění romského holocaustu – VPORH). Catholic Cardinal Miloslav Vlk spoke there and Rabbi Karel Sidon led a prayer for the victims of the 1938 pogrom, followed by several hundred people in Maiselova street who then marched to the Old Town Square.
A commemorative gathering organized by the ŽLU began on the square. More than 2 000 people participated. The flag of Israel was flown in front of the podium and banners were carried reading “Stop neo-Nazism” and “Nazis, go back to your graves”. A prayer was heard from the podium for the 50 million victims of Nazi oppression, ending with the naming of the concentration camps, the communities burned down, and the sites of battles fought during WWII. Anarchists, anti-fascists and human rights defenders marched down Pařížská street.
Anti-racist times now over in the Czech Republic
The days when politicians stood up against neo-Nazism are now over. The racists have chosen an easier target, Romani people, and part of society has become their fans for that reason. A growing number of people are listening to neo-Nazi proposals for simple “solutions” to complex situations. This is manifesting itself in two ways.
First, some people are no longer ashamed to publicly march in line with ultra-right fanatics and to shout nationalist or racist slogans with them. Second, the number of people voting for the political wing of the neo-Nazis, the Workers’ Social Justice Party (Dělnická strana sociální spravedlnosti – DSSS) is also rising. In the Ústí Region, where anti-Romani unrest took place last year in the Šluknov foothills, this party gained 4.37 % of the vote in this year’s regional elections.
High school students’ elections: 10 % for DSSS
According to the “high school students’ regional elections” held by the NGO People in Need this September, 10 % of today’s high school students would vote for the DSSS. This school year a total of 428 000 high school students are enrolled, and roughly 22 000 students from 170 schools participated in these elections. A total of 77 college preparatory schools, 98 technical high schools and 18 vocational schools participated (some schools provide more than one type of education at the same facility). The elections were voluntary for both the schools and the students.
Certainly, it cannot be said on the basis of these mock elections that students will really vote for the DSSS once they get the opportunity to actually do so (and I believe most of them will not). However, these results tell us something about the seductiveness of populism wedded with racism against Romani people. The DSSS not only holds anti-Romani demonstrations and marches, it has also campaigned under the name DSSS – STOP INADAPTABLES! (DSSS-STOP NEPŘIZPŮSOBIVÝM!).
Other populists are also growing in popularity. Staying with the Ústí Region, we can see that while the Sovereignty (Suverenita) party of the populist Jana Bobošíková got only 1.22 % of the vote, the populist racists from the “NorthBohemians.Cz” (Severočeši.cz) group got 12.02 % of the vote.
In other words, an anti-humane mood is growing in society. At the same time, antigypsyism (anti-Romani racism) is increasing and the popularity of its proponents – those who espouse hatred against Romani people, whether covertly or overtly – is growing.
Racists do exist
The opinion is also spreading that racists basically do not exist, but that some of us are just bothered by Romani people because they are unable to adapt to the society around them. This view is disseminated online primarily by racists themselves.
These people skillfully hide the fact that their racist fanaticism is primary for them. If Romani people didn’t exist, someone else would bear the brunt of their passion. Proof of this is the fact that neo-Nazis and other racists have tried this against Jewish people and migrants, but resistance to those attempts by part of society, or the lesser response to their actions produced by those focusing on those targets, means they are focusing primarily on Romani people today – for the time being!
Intolerance growing exponentially
To keep things in context, I must add that this phenomenon does not just concern the Czech Republic. Unadulterated neo-Nazis are seated in the Greek Parliament, in two state legislatures in Germany, and nationalist, racist populists are in Parliament in Hungary. In Russia, thanks to Putin’s regime, the nationalists and neo-Nazis de facto enjoy free rein and the populist Zhirinovskiy is already a fixture of the Duma.
The French Government behaves in a populist manner toward Romani immigrants irrespective of whether the left or the right is in power. I could continue in this vein with other examples. In Europe, the populists are multiplying in direct proportion to the rate at which tensions are rising between majority and minority populations. Only a few European politicians are able to clearly and credibly say what German President Joachim Gauck did to the neo-Nazis recently: “Your hatred is our motivation. We will not leave our country in the lurch. We will not give her to you. You belong to the past, our democracy will live.”
The crisis and its resolution
One cause of the growth in preference for right-wing extremism and its support among the people is the protracted economic/financial crisis, or rather, the resolution of its effects. The current Czech Government is passing off as “reforms” blindly managed cuts to the state budget and an asocial policy targeted first and foremost against the poorest of the poor. The increase in indirect taxes (VAT) is impacting a rising number of inhabitants. The direct impact of these tax hikes is due to persistently high inflation, which means people are no longer able to afford to pay for energy, food and rent. There are also indirect impacts in the form of the protracted concern over this deteriorating social situation and the loss of prospects for many.
In the Czech Republic, this lack of finances in the state budget was greatly facilitated by, among other things, the previous massive looting, tunneling and enormous corruption committed during the privatization processes of the 1990s. Even today, the ongoing losses take the form of dozens of billions of crowns of corruption annually. Tensions are rising in society, accompanied by an historically familiar phenomenon: The seeking of the enemy within, those who “are to blame for everything”. Romani people (and in other countries, migrants) are the easiest target.
A Europe-wide problem
This is a Europe-wide problem. The same politicians who have contributed to this problem in no small measure through their own policies are also the ones who are supposed to address it now. If the force of civil society does not manage to solve this, there is no doubt that sooner or later the times will return in which a pogrom against others because of their difference will be a commonly accepted matter, just like Kristallnacht was in 1938.