One displayed the breathtaking depth of human charity, the other the horrifying depth of human barbarity. One was a surpassing expression of decency, the other an ominous expression of depravity. One was a symbol of transcending humanity, the other a symbol of transforming inhumanity.
In the great march of human history, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered 150 years ago Nov. 19, and Adolph Hitler’s Kristallnacht pogrom, prosecuted 75 years ago Saturday, have nothing in common, except of course for changing the world. One redeemed a promise set forth in America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence. The other signaled the determination to keep the promise set forth in the Nazi Party’s founding treatise, Mein Kampf.
Lincoln’s remarks expanded the contours of human possibility and were a ringing pronouncement of liberty. Hitler’s pogrom restricted the liberties of the Third Reich’s Jews and was a menacing declaration of repression. Lincoln’s brief speech foreshadowed a great expansion of human rights; Hitler’s brief night of terror known as the “night of broken glass” foreshadowed a great reign of persecution. Lincoln promised liberation and a new burst of freedom, Hitler slavery and a campaign of death.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address consisted of 272 words, many with Biblical echoes. Hitler’s Kristallnacht consisted of an orchestrated burst of violence that destroyed 250 German synagogues, smashed 7,000 Jewish businesses, rained ruin on countless Jewish hospitals, schools and cemeteries, and left sacred Hebrew texts completely and utterly destroyed.
Coupling the Gettysburg Address and Kristallnacht is a columnist’s construct, admittedly contrived and forced. Nowhere is there the merest historical suggestion that Hitler paused in the crowded year of 1938 -- the high point of appeasement at Munich, the division of Czechoslovakia, the pogrom of Kristallnacht -- to reflect that he was creating his policies during the 75th anniversary of Lincoln’s speech, which insisted that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”