Kristallnacht, ISIS and today’s crisis in Syria

I am not an expert on the Holocaust, but I have spent time among many Yazidi survivors of ISIS and its crimes.

A girl from the Yazidi sect fleeing the violence in Sinjar rests at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk province, in 2014 (photo credit: YOUSSEF BOUDLAL / REUTERS)
A girl from the Yazidi sect fleeing the violence in Sinjar rests at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk province, in 2014
I never understood the extent of Kristallnacht until I saw a map posted this morning at Numbers don’t really bring home the horror of what happened on November 9, 1938. Hundreds of synagogues were burned. Tens of thousands of Jews were arrested and others killed. This was a systematic attack on the Jewish community in Germany and Austria and in the Sudetenland of what had been Czechoslovakia.
It’s interesting to see a map because otherwise it’s not easy to know the extent of the attacks across all these German-speaking places. What made them possible? The riots were directed at the Jewish community and the attacks did not spare anything. They attacked cemeteries, shops, stores and places of worship. The authorities collaborated, having instigated the attacks. They then took tens of thousands of Jews to concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald and elsewhere.
I am not an expert on the Holocaust, but I have spent time among many Yazidi survivors of ISIS and its crimes. In 2014, ISIS conquered parts of Iraq and Syria, culminating in the taking of Mosul in June 2014. It began a systematic campaign of murder and violence against minorities. The Islamic State slaughtered 1,500 Shi’ite Iraqi cadets at Camp Speicher. It expelled Christians. Then in August it attacked the Yazidi minority, capturing more than 10,000 people. It shot the men, buried them in mass graves, and sold the women and children into slavery.
We were treated to horrid stories about these crimes, but for the most part we do not ask key questions about them. ISIS wasn’t just some shadowy regime. Like the Nazis, it was rooted in a community and collaborators within that community. In Germany, it was the Germans who provided a pool of extremist recruits. For ISIS, it was primarily from among Sunni Arabs from where extremists came, and then a wider community of volunteers from places like Libya, Tunisia, and even far away in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Some 5,000 citizens of EU countries joined ISIS. The European Union citizens were no less cruel. They were no less involved in slavery and rape. They had been conditioned to believe rape and murder of “infidels” was acceptable. They heard Yazidis described as kuffar, a term like the Nazi use of untermensch to describe sub-humans. Indeed, Nazism and ISIS use the same terminology to excuse genocide. And these terms were used in wider society which is why when yazidis were sold into slavery or Jews were put on the trains most people shrugged and didn’t care. They had been conditioned – from Iraq to Germany and elsewhere – to accept hatred like a daily dose of milk.
IT MAY not be a coincidence that there is a new Netflix series about John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian accused of being a guard at Nazi extermination camps. Without getting into the Demjanjuk story, which is quite complex, the reality is that the extermination and concentration camps employed other non-Germans who signed up to murder Jews. There was no shortage of volunteers to help the Nazis kill. There was no shortage of men who ran to join ISIS.
When we think back to Kristallnacht, we see how a community was conditioned to hate Jews, and when the government gave the go-ahead, people ran to attack Jews and their places of worship and business. It wasn’t as if most people said they would not participate.
Similarly, when ISIS began rounding up minorities to kill, most people accepted it. Some enthusiastically embraced the chance to own slaves and rape. We are often told that the extremism which leads to people support ISIS is driven by “root causes” such as poverty or being disenfranchised. We hear that they are people who are “radicalized” and that they have an “austere” sense of Islamist extremism.
If it were true that the main motivation of joining ISIS or the Nazis was alienation or some far-right conservative values that morph into militancy, then why the zeal in the thuggish violence, rape and torture? Somewhere in the explanation for the rise of ISIS there is a missing kernel. Why this lust for slavery and rape? Those targeted for rape and slavery were members of a poor and vulnerable community. If it’s true that being disenfranchised leads people to commit genocide, then why do they only commit genocide against the weak and disenfranchised?
Maybe it is the opposite. Maybe what leads people to genocide is not that they suffered, but that they are the privileged and strong who lust for making others suffer. The rise of Nazism was supposedly due to Germany being made poor by the First World War. But what really drove Nazism and ISIS was a sense of past superiority. It wasn’t that the supporters were poor, it was that they had an image of themselves as superior beings on top, made temporarily poor by world events, and seeking a return to power through the oppression of others.
GENOCIDE DOES not come from poverty, but from being on top and then being pushed aside a bit. The KKK didn’t come from a white class of people suppressed for generations. The KKK came directly out of a white supremacist belief of their proper place in society being on top, and that having been eroded in 1865 with defeat at the hands of the Union. Why did ISIS target Shi’ites in Camp Speicher? Because they were supposed to be the underclass, the ones Saddam had kept down. They were “uppity.” Similar views of Jews and African-Americans underpin the evils visited upon them by supremacists.
Kristallnacht didn’t end in November of 1938. How did the Nazis get into Czechslovakia? The great powers of Europe – at the time France, Great Britain and Germany – agreed to allow the Nazis to take over the Sudetenland. How did Hitler get Europe to agree? He said it was his last territorial claim. He also claimed that Germans in western Czechslovakia needed autonomy and self-determination. And he accused the Czech government of suppressing Germans and seeking to “exterminate” them. It’s interesting how Nazis, ISIS and their fellow travelers always pretend to be the victims, being “exterminated” when they are the ones exterminating.
It is no surprise that in eastern Syria the minority Kurdish and Christian community has now been sold out in a similar way as Czechslovakia was sacrificed. Under claims that the Kurds are “terrorists” and “suppressing” others, an invasion has been launched against them. NATO has accepted it.
History did not learn from Kristallnacht. It happens again and again. The lack of learning is tied to our lack of understanding of what underpins genocide and the march toward genocide. The march begins with the impunity given by the international community. It begins by ignoring how people are joining extremist groups and becoming more extreme over time, dehumanizing others and laying the groundwork for killing them. The victims tend to be the poor and weak. And then, when it is all over, the perpetrators often go free or go back to work as if nothing had happened. The victims, Jews in DP camps, Yazidis or Kurds in IDP camps today, are left by the side of the road to fend for themselves, while the international community moves on.
It is not clear that the lessons have been learned because it was with ease that ISIS carried out its extermination. It was on social media that ISIS murdered people in 2014, and done openly, as if the Nazis had a live-feed of Auschwitz. People were sold on messaging apps. People joined via Facebook.