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.
They were separated by 75 years and — incongruously, incompatibly, discordantly — we mark important anniversaries of them both this very month.
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 was 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 the 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 torn or burned.
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 insisting that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
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 the Pogroms in November 1938” 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.”
Seventy-five years earlier, Lincoln delivered a speech that the historian David Donald said was designed to “remind his listeners — and, beyond them, the thousands who would read his words — that theirs was a nation pledged not merely to constitutional liberty but to human equality.”
In two countries where diverse heritages were stitched together — Lincoln’s a patchwork of immigrants and sectional rivalries that survived only seven decades before being rent by civil war, Hitler’s a hand-woven quilt of principalities, states and pocket kingdoms ruled separately not even a century earlier — both men spoke mystically about the power and character of their people, Hitler invoking the “volk” and Lincoln employing the word “nation” five times in his short address.
The difference, however, is that Lincoln’s speech laid the groundwork for what was arguably a new nation, one that reaffirmed the principle that all men were created equal, though that promise even now has not been fully realized.
Miami University historian Martin P. Johnson argues in his “Writing the Gettysburg Address,” published earlier this year, that it was “when standing before the living and the dead that Abraham Lincoln, in the inspiration of that Gettysburg moment, created the words and image of an enduring and authentic myth that across the generations has been vital for elevating our vision and clarifying our purposes.”
But what Lincoln did was more than simply clarify our purposes by transforming the Civil War from a struggle over the fate of the Union into a struggle to end slavery. He brought moral clarity to the war, and to the country that would emerge from it — one of many reasons that President Barack Obama’s inexplicable decision to skip the sesquicentennial of the speech is a monumental missed opportunity.
The only false note in the brief speech that transformed the war and the country was Lincoln’s mysterious self-effacing aside that the world would little note nor long remember what he said there, at Gettysburg. That was a digression, but the remainder of the speech was anything but. It was a clear statement of American values — a mission statement for a missionary nation.
Today, Kristallnacht is remembered dimly and employed occasionally as a metaphor; just last month Jewish leaders in Gdansk, Poland, deplored the torching of a mosque and compared it to Kristallnacht. Today, the Gettysburg Address, carved into the wall of the Lincoln Memorial and in the hearts of all Americans, many of whom were asked to memorize it as schoolchildren, is regarded as perhaps the purest distillation of our national idealism and intent.
Long may Kristallnacht chill us, and long may the Gettysburg Address give us chills.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).