Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Kristallnacht: Lessons for Early Atrocity Prevention in Burma

November 9, 2013 marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, or “crystal night,” in Germany. On this day in 1938, Nazis in Germany – and parts of Austria, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland – staged state-sanctioned, anti-Jewish riots that demolished windows of Jewish shops and burned down synagogues, hospitals, and cultural institutions. The resulting broken glass gave rise to the name Kristallnacht, an event that should have served as an early warning sign of the unthinkable atrocities that ensued.

Today’s anti-Muslim violence in Burma presents a hauntingly similar image of systematic economic and cultural destruction, much of which has been incited by the inflammatory language of extremist religious leaders and what has become known as the 969 movement.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum recently held a forum that explored parallels between past atrocities and present systematic anti-Muslim violence in Burma, focusing on the plight of Burma’s Rohingya ethnic minority. The recent outbreaks of violence in Burma directed at the country’s Muslim communities have displaced more than 140,000 people. Entire villages have been razed, with mosques targeted and destroyed. Physicians for Human Rights has documented atrocities against the Rohingya, as well as Muslims elsewhere in central Burma.

In Nazi Germany, attacks against Jews were incited by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ public announcement that “demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.” In Burma today, questions about who enables and supports the virulent 969 movement remain unanswered, and the sources of institutional support for popular campaigns of hatred in Burma have not properly been investigated. If Burma’s recent democratic reforms are to have long-term success, meaningful steps must be taken to halt such campaigns and prevent the spread of hate speech and violence.

The U.S. government has the capacity to investigate the financing behind the 969 campaign, which has spurred anti-Muslim violence in Burma. The World War II atrocities we commemorate today were accompanied by hate speech, institutional discrimination, and a climate of impunity for perpetrators – the same disturbing indicators we are now seeing in Burma. The international community must address these precursors of violence and keep history from repeating itself.

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