Visiting Professor Mario Kessler Traces Eastern German Approaches to Holocaust Commemoration

Students and faculty members packed the Honors Lounge on November 6 to hear from Dr. Mario Kessler, a visiting professor of history from the University of Potsdam in Germany. The topic of the lecture, “Reflecting on Kristallnacht,” coincided within a few days of Kristallnacht’s 75th anniversary on November 9. The lecture focused primarily on understanding Eastern German memories and perceptions of the day.

Dr. Kessler

Dr. Mario Kessler addresses students.

Kessler opened his lecture by listing a series of important events that occurred on November 9 over the course of German history. “The ninth of November is a multi-faceted date in German history,” he began.

“On this date in 1849, the radical-democratic revolutionary Robert Blum was executed in Vienna. On the ninth of November 1918, the German Emperor Wilhelm the Second abdicated during the revolution that led to the democratic Weimar Republic. On the ninth of November 1923, Hitler’s first attempt to power by a coup d’etat failed in Munich. The ninth of November 1989 was the day the Berlin Wall fell. The ninth of November 1938 was, above all other events, the ‘night of the broken glass,’ or Kristallnacht.”

Kessler’s lecture focused primarily on works by East German historians and articles written in Neues Deutschland, the principal newspaper of East Germany.

Kessler, who himself grew up in East Germany, described the early East German responses to Holocaust commemoration as secondary to the Soviet denouncement of fascism. Under Soviet control, communism and government censorship delayed progress on understanding Nazi anti-Semitism. Instead of seeing the Holocaust as integral to understanding Nazism, the early German Democratic Republic saw the Jewish victims of the Holocaust as mere “victims of fascism.” This miscategorization, Kessler argued, eventually led to a variety of complications in the way Eastern Germans discussed the Holocaust.

“The 9th anniversary of Kristallnacht focused more on the economic dimension of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews, and on the affinity between capitalist big business and the Nazi elite,” Kessler said.

It appears that it wasn’t until writers Stefan Heymann and Siegbert Kahn that Nazi anti-Semitism was seriously examined in East Germany. “Heymann and Kahn emphasized the connections between anti-Semitism, militarism, and imperialism. They also defined radical anti-Semitism as the central component of the Nazi ideology; a recognition that was later to be abandoned in favor of concentration on the anti-Communist component of Nazism.”

Kessler went on to trace the East German approaches to Kristallnacht and the Holocaust up until 1989. Despite earlier hesitations about the treatment of the Holocaust in East Germany, the 30th anniversary of Kristallnacht actually led to a series of commemorations in in both East and West Germany. And towards the end of Soviet control, East Germany made significant strides in interpreting Nazi anti-Semitism, eventually seeing it as integral to understanding Nazism as a whole.

Kessler ended with a surprising quote attributed to Leon Trotsky following Kristallnacht, which appeared banned from printing in East Germany until 1989. In that quote, Trotsky ominously predicts many of the horrific results of Nazi anti-Semitism. “But even without war, the next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews,” he wrote in 1938.

Aryeh Younger is a senior at Yeshiva College majoring in English. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post and The Jerusalem Post.