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Memphis Flyer A Barrier in Berlin

One wall needed to come down; another should stay up.

By Jackson Baker

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  Last week's calendar included an important anniversary. On November 9, 1989, it was duly noted, the wall began to come down.

This was, of course, the Berlin Wall, which had divided the Cold War's capital city into two zones, one linked to the Western world and one that served as an outpost über alles for the Soviet bloc.

Mikhail Gorbachev was in Berlin last week for 10th anniversary celebrations, and so was George Bush, and various other statesmen from that transitional time which ended with Germany, which lost the Second World War, united and the Soviet Union, which won it, split apart.

That was one irony associated with the date. Another was that November 9th had a prior claim upon German -- and Western -- memory.

More than one, really: It was on November 9, 1918, as the First World War came to an end, that Kaiser Wilhelm, the architect of the Second German Empire's overreach, was forced to abdicate. And it was on November 9, 1938, 20 years later to the day, that the Third German Empire -- better known to history as the Third Reich -- committed an act of officialdom that was to characterize that regime as much as any of its later acts.

This was Krystallnacht, a day and night of governmentally sanctioned looting and terror against Germany's Jewish community -- the pretext for which was the shooting, in Paris, of a German diplomat by a Jewish youth whose family had been forced to emigrate.

Krystallnacht -- so called because the shattering of windows in Jewish-owned storefronts left so many glimmering glass fragments strewn along the sidewalks of German cities -- preceded by almost a year the formal beginning of World War II, but it declared the premises of that conflict clearly enough, and it marked the beginning of a mad crusade against the Jews of Europe and, indeed, of the world.

The story of the Holocaust is familiar enough and has withstood attempts to debunk it by shadowy special pleaders and by a few dubiously credentialed "historians." The evidence for the crimes of Hitler is, after all, abundant -- but there has been another form of obfuscation more well intentioned and somewhat harder to dispel.

Yes, some tut-tut, it all happened and it was a shame, but we have seen its like before, during, and since -- in the mayhem of the French Revolution and the American Civil War, in the massacre of the Armenians by the Turks and of the landowning Kulaks by Stalin, in the laying waste of Tibetans by the Chinese and in the killing fields of Cambodia.

Except that it isn't so. Every one of those other decimations -- however horrific, however enormous the waste in lives -- was based on some pretense of real purpose. The slain peoples were either armed enemies or class antagonists or ancient adversaries or rivals for power or living space.

The Jews of Europe, the six million pointlessly slain, were none of this. They had nursed no grudge against, competed for nothing with, wanted nothing from their persecutors. If, in their sheer ordinariness, they had offended, it was by seeming to represent, paradoxically, both a demanding theology of the past and various secular realities that no doubt seemed exotic or futuristic or even threatening. They were, in a word, scapegoats: the turned cheek upon which an insane -- and suicidal -- aggression turned out its pointless rage.

If there is a lesson to the Holocaust, it is not the trite one that people can be beastly to those whom they hate. It is that they can hate without meaning or purpose. And that they can kill and destroy without anything to be gained from it.

Last week's anniversary reminded us that a wall fell that once stood between two competing social systems. It should also have reminded us that a different wall once fell that stood between reason and insanity, between humanity and the abyss. And that's one wall that needs some shoring up.

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