In “A Tale of War and Forgetting,” his meditation in this issue on the centenary of World War I, Neil Shea stands on the battlefield of Verdun, a place that saw 700,000 casualties over 10 months in 1916. People were so stunned by the loss of life there and all along the Western Front that they believed this could not happen again. The League of Nations, which grew out of their moral outrage, would make this the war to end all wars. Werner Gundersheimer, in another essay here, “Frankfurt, Farewell,” recounts the story of his parents, Jews who stayed in Germany even after the Gestapo searched their apartment on the very day the newborn Werner came home from the hospital. Why stay? In part because Werner’s father’s “knowledge of German history led him to believe that occasional paroxysms of anti-Semitism over the centuries tended to run their course,” so he “continued to hope it might all blow over.” As a result, they were still in Frankfurt 18 months later on Kristallnacht, “the biggest, most effectively coordinated, and most deliberately staged pogrom in the long sweep of Jewish history,” as Gundersheimer puts it. Werner slept; his parents “sat terrified as the mobs rampaged through the streets, rounding up, beating, and humiliating Jews, burning, pillaging, and looting their shops, offices, institutions, and places of worship.”
It’s hard to read these pieces and feel not just sadness and anger, but also the same sort of delusory optimism of Werner’s father or those who survived the Great War. These terrible, terrible events in a century that is best forgotten are well behind us, aren’t they? Haven’t we learned, as President Obama might put it, to be “better than that”? Yet the news as I write this is of the videotaped beheading of an American journalist by ISIS, a group that has for many months been on a depraved, Kristallnacht-like rampage of execution, rape, cultural destruction, and religious desecration. But that was in another country, we might say, another country like the past. And yet today’s other news, from Ferguson, Missouri, is not reassuring in this regard. Whatever the facts in the case of Michael Brown’s death turn out to be, the denseness or worse of the police and prosecutor, and the opportunism of those who would, yes, burn, pillage, and loot, leave little room to hope that human progress unavailable in the Levant has settled into the American heartland.
The distance between Kristallnacht and Ferguson is far greater than the chronological, of course. And November 9, 1938, was prelude to a horror that even ISIS cannot have in mind—or can it? If the capacity of our species for brutality is undiminished in a century’s time, perhaps we can take some small comfort in knowing that our capacity for moral outrage is equally undiminished.
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