Today is November 9th, and if you know anything about German history, you know this is a monumental day for Deutschland. The evening of November 9th, 1938 has come to be known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, and in many ways, it is considered to be the actual beginning of the Holocaust. On the nights of November 9 and 10 , gangs of Nazi youth roamed through Jewish neighborhoods breaking windows of Jewish businesses and homes, burning synagogues and looting. All in all, 101 synagogues were destroyed and almost 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed. 26,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps, Jews were physically attacked and beaten and 91 died.
Kristallnacht turned out to be a crucial turning point in German policy regarding the Jews, for the following reasons: it had become clear to Hitler and his top advisers that forced immigration of Jews out of the Reich would not be a feasible option; Hitler already was considering the invasion of Poland; numerous concentration camps and forced labor camps already were in operation; the Nuremberg Laws were in place; and, finally, the passivity of the German people in the face of the events of Kristallnacht made it clear that the Nazis would encounter little opposition, even from the German churches.
This is not the only thing that happened on Nov. 9th, however. 51 years later, on November 9th, 1989, the East German government announced that all its citizens could cross the Berlin Wall and visit West Germany [and West Berlin] freely. There was, understandably, a crush of people that swarmed across; and citizens on both sides celebrated the first free-flow of Germans across the whole country since the end of WWII. People began chipping away at the Wall themselves immediately, with hammers and screwdrivers; and the official demolition of the Wall began in the summer of 1990. German reunification finally occurred on October 3rd, 1990. Thus, November 9th, is considered the beginning of the end of the Wall, and the first birth-pangs of a reunified Germany.
So, how does a nation commemorate those two events simultaneously, one such a cause for sorrow and repentance; the other such a cause for celebration and rejoicing?
I don’t have a good answer to that, of course, but somehow, I think the challenge is a good one for a country to have–maybe every country should have such a paradoxical day on its calendar. All countries have a tendency to fall into triumphal jingoism, exaggerating its historical moments of valor and victory, and glossing over [or even ignoring] its historical moments of cruelty and inhumanity. We want to hold up the best image of ourselves, and we will jury-rig history in whatever ways we can to support it. The problem is, of course, is that we always run into trouble when we start to tell lies about who we have been–both as individuals and as a nation; and there is no way to avoid the tragedies of the past if we refuse to tell the truth about them in the present.
You can’t base a fruitful, rich future on a shoddy foundation of past lies and half-truths; and in order to be the people God is calling us to be [the nation we seek to be], we have to be willing to face who we have been in the past. That is a lesson Germany has learned well, I think: there is a reason why it led the charge to receive migrants from Syria and other countries in this most recent crisis. Germany remembers who it was in those dark days of WWII, and it actively works not to become that nation again.
We in the United States would do well to take the German example to heart; and remember our own shameful past, like our terrible history of racism, for example: the lynching of African Americans; the forced marches of Native Americans; and the internment camps of Japanese Americans. To be the nation we hope to be in the 21st century, we cannot forget that history.
Lutheran theology [along with others!] teaches that sin is always a part of who we are, so pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away. However, because we believe in forgiveness and new life, too, sin doesn’t have to define us, either. Brokenness doesn’t necessarily make us weaker; instead, it makes us more vulnerable, more compassionate, and more humble, I think. Those are all characteristics a strong nation, in particular, desperately needs.
I think we need more November 9ths on the calendar.