On November 9, 1938, in the Tyrolian city of Innsbruck, Richard Berger, president of the local Jewish community, was snatched from his home and beaten to death with rocks and rifle butts, his body deposited in a nearby river. On the same evening, in an apartment building on Gänsbacherstrasse, Karl Bauer, of whom little is known besides his religious affiliation and his activities on behalf of Innsbruck's Jewish community, was beaten to death by plainclothes members of the SS. The vulturine horde moved swiftly upstairs, where they found the Volksfeind Richard Graubart, also Jewish. He was stabbed to death as his wife and daughter looked on.
This is a small window into the wanton brutality that was Reichskristallnacht—often called the "Night of Broken Glass"—in a medium-sized Austrian city. A contemporaneous report compiled in Berlin and presided over by the gruesome SS butcher Reinhard Heydrich estimated that 36 Jews were killed across the German Reich. It was, as historian Saul Friedländer has observed, a rather conservative guess: "Apart from the 267 synagogues destroyed and the 7,500 businessees vandalized, some ninety one Jews had been killed all over Germany and hundreds more had committed suicide or died as a result of mistreatment in the camps."
Would you be surprised to learn that a similar spasm of violence was recently visited upon African-American politicians in Washington, D.C.? Well, credulous reader, The New York Times recently told us that the shock troops of the Tea Party movement engaged in a "small-scale mimicry of Kristallnacht" while protesting the passage of a treasury-busting health care bill.
This bizarre invocation of genocide was to be found on the op-ed page, from the hysterical ex-theater critic and Tea Party obsessive Frank Rich. Whether or not Rich is aware of it—and when one ascends to the position of New York Times columnist, ignorance is an unconvincing excuse—it is to mass killings that the reader's mind wanders when the 20th century's most famous pogrom is invoked. In a book of essays analyzing the events of 1938, the scholar Walter H. Pehle's chosen title lays down the marker: The Jewish Pogrom: From Kristallnacht to Genocide (Der Judenpogrom: Von der "Reichskristallnacht" zum Völkermord). The anti-Semitic attacks, "spontaneously" carried out "in reaction" to the murder of a Nazi diplomat, were the beginnings of a program of systematic genocide. Surely Rich, a professional writer his entire adult life, understands that the English language is abundant enough to allow for nuance and precision.
No one was stabbed this March, no limp bodies dumped into the Anacostia River, no buildings burned. A few lunkheads broke windows (and if this is enough to provoke comparisons to Kristallnacht, the anti-globalization crowd must be the protest equivalent of the Einsatzgruppen) and one unidentified protester called Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) a "faggot," for which he was rebuked by fellow protesters. Despite gleeful recitation by the media, claims of racial taunts directed at African-American congressmen have yet to be substantiated—but more on that in a moment.
One stray columnist comparing the rowdy Tea Party crowds to German genocidaires could perhaps be explained away. An inattentive editor, a moment of regretful anger seeping into the prose. But to Rich's colleague Paul Krugman, the hyperpartisan economist and Nobel Prize winner, the Nazi comparison was a useful one, although it did demand subtlety. "What has been really striking," Krugman wrote after the health care bill passed, "has been the eliminationist rhetoric of the G.O.P., coming not from some radical fringe but from the party's leaders" (emphasis added).
If your dictionary is unfamiliar with the word eliminationist, that's because of the term's recent vintage, coined in 1996 by Harvard political scientist Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. In his book Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Goldhagen argued that far from being bullied and terrorized into allowing its government to commit genocide in their name, most Germans were imbued with an eliminationist hatred of Jews—i.e., a desire that Jews be eliminated from Aryan society—which transitioned smoothly into an exterminationist orgy of violence.
Of the 40 references to "eliminationism" in the Times archive, all but one refer to the destruction of European Jewry. The sole standout is Krugman, who, as we have seen, is referencing the Republican Party's opposition to health care legislation. (Though in fairness to Krugman, this is something of a requirement for those anointed by the Nobel Committee. Nobelist Harold Pinter said that the only comparison one could make to Bush-era America was to that of Nazi Germany.)
Moving downmarket to the New York Daily News, one finds a column by sports columnist Mike Lupica declaring that the crowds of health care protesters are "no longer about political dissent. It is about storm trooper sound bites, and hate." It is unclear what a "storm trooper soundbite" is (or why this would be incompatible with "political dissent," no matter how noxious), though Lupica is unambiguously guiding readers towards the Nazi image; towards the brown-shirted tough rounding up dissidents, cracking jaws, and kicking teeth.
Examining the Tea Party protesters, Washington Post columnist Colbert King saw faces whose very visual cues betrayed direct lineage to overt racists from a half-century before. "Those same jeering faces," King wrote, "could be seen gathered around the Arkansas National Guard troopers who blocked nine black children from entering Little Rock's Central High School in 1957." If the examples of Alabama and Mississippi in the 1950s were too distant, King told readers that he had also seen those very faces in the 1990s, at a rally in support of neo-Nazi agitator David Duke.
It is depressing that, for quick political gain, people like King will debase the legacy of the civil rights movement by comparing peaceful (and often misguided) protesters with the thuggery of Bull Connor and the racist Birmingham police department. But just when it looked like we had scraped the bottom of the hyperbole barrel, the always vapid Jesse Jackson told the breast-obsessed readers of Huffington Post that the Tea Partiers reminded him of an era when some Americans responded to social change "with terror, bombed churches, and killed freedom marchers."
Many referenced the claim that Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was, in Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) description, met with a "chorus," of racist taunts, though no evidence has materialized to substantiate these accusations—and the alleged chorus occurred in an area with a higher video camera density than a Paris Hilton birthday party. Indeed, claims the Cleaver was spat upon were debunked when video surfaced of a spittle-flecked protester shouted "kill the bill" as the congressman passed, but not deliberately hocking a loogie on him.
So if the events on Capital Hill were indeed the moral equivalent of a "mini-Kristallnacht," then questioning this tale of racism is a David Irving-like act, right? Those who wondered about the contradicting claims surrounding the Lewis charge were, naturally, themselves derided as racist. But if the country's largest newspapers can accuse those assembled to "kill the bill" of being motivated by racial animus, "eliminationism," Nazism, or old Dixie nostalgia, is it so unfair to ask for verifiable proof?
It isn't unreasonable to think that amongst the Tea Party protesters one can find the ignorant and hateful. Many of the protesters seem to believe that the president of the United States of America is a communist, demonstrating that they have a level of historical understanding on par with Frank Rich. But that critique is something rather different than imputing a racist motivation to anyone deeply concerned about an enormously expensive health care bill.
Some of this is the problem of now, of rendering apocalyptic judgments about events that are only just unfolding. In the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter declared solemnly and with regret that irony had vanished in the smoke and embers of the demolished World Trade Center, a judgment that seemed plausible at the time. Rereading some of the commentary produced in the aftermath of the attacks is like looking at old high school yearbook photos—good god, what were we thinking? Likewise, a journalist who chased Bill Clinton scandals for a conservative magazine in the 1990s recently told me how silly it all seemed with the clarifying benefit of hindsight. At the time, he said, it all seemed so reasonable.
And while we are on the topic of 9/11, how quickly we forget that in the editorial rooms and bar rooms of the Bush era, the vapid phrase on the lips of my liberal-minded comrades, repeated like a Maharishi mantra, was that "dissent is patriotic." Now dissent has become the first indication of incipient fascism and subterranean racism. If Rich sees in the current debate the seeds of pogrom, if Krugman sees the rhetoric of "eliminationism," forget national heath care—we need a national history lesson.
Michael Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine