It has long been the most delicate day in the German calendar, 9 November. It brings a balancing act of remembrance for the state-sanctioned murderous devastation of the Nazi pogroms across the country in 1938, and, 51 years later, the overnight collapse of the most famous barrier in the world, the Berlin Wall.
Both had international repercussions which are still felt today. The former dominates the nation’s collective memory.
Marking the date has never been easy. For good reason 9 November was not chosen in 1990 as unified Germany’s national holiday.
Historians and commentators have long referred to it as Schicksalstag (day of fate), though that, say critics, suggests something done to the German nation, rather than something in which the people played a role and had a say.
“November 9 marks not only the brutal prelude to National Socialist crimes but reminds us that the persecution and attempted annihilation of European Jews began in full view, in town and city centres, under the gaze of neighbours, colleagues, friends, fellow players, whether from the orchestra or the sport club,” Petra Bahr, the protestant bishop of Hanover and a member of the German Ethics Council, wrote in a commentary for Die Zeit.
On Thursday, the 85th anniversary of what is sometimes referred to as Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass – the emphasis, especially in light of the outbreak of war in the Middle East, is not so much on remembering a historical event as on reflecting on its enduring influence on the present day.
Across Germany, on sites of destroyed synagogues as well as inside those that have been reconstructed in recent years, politicians, mayors and other Germans will gather with Jewish leaders for memorial ceremonies, speeches, concerts, candle-lit processions and readings.
The chancellor, Olaf Scholz, will hold a speech in a central Berlin synagogue in which he will stress Germany’s commitment to ensuring history never repeats itself.
Ceremonies will recall how Kristallnacht marked the start of state-sanctioned race hate, paving the way for the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were murdered. For many thousands of German Jews it was the catalyst that forced them to flee.
The organised gangs of thugs destroyed about 7,500 Jewish businesses and more than 1,200 synagogues. Between 1,000 and 2,000 German Jews were murdered, some committed suicide, a further 30,000 were abducted.
George Shefi, 92, one of the few remaining witnesses, travelled from Israel for this year’s commemoration, returning to his childhood home which he was forced to flee after the pogrom.
He shared with the BBC his memory when, as a six-year-old, he watched a group of people jeer as a Jewish shopkeeper tried to scrub antisemitic graffiti off the pavement in front of a destroyed Jewish-owned hat shop near his home. “I see still the picture in my mind, all the hats and the glass, as if it was yesterday,” he said.
This week, visiting his Berlin school, which was burned down in the pogrom, Shefi, who escaped via Kindertransport to the UK, was presented by pupils with a small box containing a fragment of tile salvaged from the ruins.
The Holocaust education charity which organised his trip, March of the Living UK, hoped it showed the importance of taking responsibility and “standing up to all forms of hatred”.
Just how Germans should take responsibility has been the focus of heated debate ever since the 7 October attacks on Israelis, in which 1,400 people were killed and 240 taken hostage, and the ensuing retaliatory attacks by Israel on the Gaza Strip which have killed thousands of Palestinian civilians.
“Since the events of 7 October, [the date of] 9 November can no longer remain how it has been,” wrote Bahr.
The war has prompted some to call into question Germany’s stance towards Israel. Its postwar foreign policy following the murderous era of the Nazi regime has widely been focused on regaining the respect of the international community.
That has included forging close ties with Israel, and declaring it part of Germany’s Staatsraison – the state’s raison d’être – to protect the country.
Across the political spectrum, criticising Israel has been considered highly contentious and socially unacceptable.
While civil rights groups have condemned the police and government for what they see as heavy-handedness and censorship in banning a spate of pro-Palestinian protests, others have insisted there has not been a strong enough clampdown.
Amid a flurry of antisemitic attacks over the past month, the federal interior minister, Nancy Faeser, warned of a possible escalation around the anniversary. She said assurances needed to be given to Jews living in Germany “that 2023 is not 1938”.
On Thursday, politicians, including Scholz, who was the first foreign leader to go to Israel after the attacks in October this year, will meet in central Berlin’s Beth Zion synagogue for a ceremony at 11am, which will be broadcast live on television.
The synagogue, completed in 2014 on the site of the 19th synagogue of the same name destroyed by the Nazis, was attacked with molotov cocktails last month by two masked men, and reported on in the Jewish Press under the headline: “Firebombed just in time for Kristallnacht’s anniversary.”