For in truth these November anniversaries are an accident of history, nothing more than that. History itself, of course, is no accident but instead the documentation of humankind’s dignity and humankind’s savagery, and testimony of the ability of humankind to lift up the world or to plunge it into suffering.
Only at this distance, a century and a half from Lincoln, three-quarters of a century from Hitler, do we see that the genius of the one serves to underline the perversion of the other. And at this distance, too, we see the power of words -- to inspire hope and idealism on the one hand, to foment hate and violence on the other. Lincoln’s remarks were but whispers on a battlefield, itself the site of savage combat only four months before. Hitler harnessed the power of the radio and of mass rallies to create a frenzy of brutality.
The next several weeks will bring forward a flood of retrospectives and reassessments of the speech at Gettysburg, and this week people around the world will look again at Kristallnacht. An exhibit called “Fire! 75 Years After Kristallnacht” opens in a few days in Berlin. A group of cultural organizations in Central Florida this fall undertakes a long examination of Kristallnacht. Choirs of 22 Jewish groups in the Washington area are to gather next Sunday for a musical “Voices of the Holocaust” performance intended to mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
The terrible train of events in Germany in 1938 promoted expressions of horror from the United States and Britain, throwing Hitler into a rage. “Hatred of the Jews was perhaps the most sincere emotion of which he was capable,” British historian Alan Bullock wrote in a classic biography of the fuehrer. “To his resentments against Britain was added the fury that the British should dare to express concern for the fate of German Jews.”