Our Own Kirstallnacht


Our Own Kristallnacht


By Steve Zolno

It is a historical pattern that nations – or factions within nations – that commit violence against others defend their actions by blaming their victims. But not since the Civil War have we seen in the United States the defense of violence by most members of a major political party. This is what has happened with the Republican stance on the January 6 insurrection.

On November 9, 1938, Nazi leaders unleashed a series of attacks against Jews. Joseph Goebbels suggested in a speech that “World Jewry has engaged in a conspiracy to commit the assassination” of a Nazi official. He told a crowd that if demonstrations against Jews erupt they are “not to be hampered.” Party leaders issued coordinated orders to attack the homes and businesses of Jews, leading to mass arrests, destruction of businesses, and hundreds of deaths. Legislation followed that outlawed Jews from employment and removed Jewish children from schools. The German people refused to raise an outcry, which empowered the Nazis to enact more draconian laws leading to the destruction of most of Europe’s Jews. [1]

On January 6, 2021, supporters of President Donald Trump attacked the US Capitol Building after his speech telling them “If you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore.” The result was extensive damage to the capital and five deaths. Members of Congress had to flee for their lives. Both Republicans and Democrats immediately condemned the attacks as well as the speech that inspired them. No one has claimed responsibility, although this clearly was an organized effort because insurrectionists participated from across the US. Compliant Republicans now excuse the attack as actions of “ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse” and condemn their prosecution.

When members of a major American political party legitimize an attack on democracy they make it clear that they no long support our Constitution or the rule of law. This is a step on the road to tyranny. In the book How Democracies Die, the authors state: “Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders – presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.” [2]

Supporting violence to challenge the legitimacy of a fair election that was certified by representatives of both political parties is the beginning of democracy’s undoing. As happened in Germany, encouraging violence threatens the respect for law and civil dialogue essential to making democracy work.

Violence by one group to violate the rights and lives of others for political gain has a long history that continues into the present. It usually starts as blame against a targeted group and then escalates into attacks and often into genocide. The 1915 genocide by Turks against Armenians in which two million were killed is one example. The Cambodian killing fields of the 1970s and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 are others. In our day, Saudi Arabia bombs civilians in Yemen, Buddhists kill Muslims in Burma, Hindus attack Muslims and Christians in India, Uyghurs in China face mass detention, and Israelis take land from Arabs for their own use. [3]

All of these abuses began by declaring members of a group less than valid human beings to justify making them targets. We are quick to condemn other groups and ignore what our own are doing. It is incumbent on all who believe in human rights to oppose these practices wherever they are found.

Perhaps there is a place in the human mind that identifies with our group as we challenge the legitimacy of those we consider not as valid – or even as human – as ourselves. But we can hope that there also is a place within each of us that takes the only view compatible with democracy: that all humans are equal beings whose rights  are to be respected.

Tribalism in the US has reached a point where no acts of violence can be ruled out because they have been legitimized by true believers who have sacrificed their moral compass and understanding of what is needed for democracy to succeed. We can hope that the more rational minds within that group and others – as well as in the general public – will prevail to keep democracy intact.

Steve Zolno has been leading groups on democracy since 2006. He is the author of four books, and his forthcoming book, Guide for Living in a Democracy, will be released this spring.



[1] Holocaust Encyclopedia of the United States by the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

[2] How Democracies Die by Steven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. Crown Publishers.

[3] Don’t Say We Didn’t Know by Amos Gvirtz. 2019. Independently Published.


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