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Alfred Grosser
Grosser has been criticized for his views on IsraelImage: picture-alliance / dpa-Zentralbild

Remembering Kristallnacht

November 8, 2010

Every year on November 9, St Paul's Church in Frankfurt commemorates the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938. Deutsche Welle spoke to the controversial writer Alfred Grosser who has been chosen to give the keynote speech.


On November 9 the author Alfred Grosser is to give a speech in remembrance of the Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, pogrom against Jews in Germany carried out under the Nazis in 1938. The choice of speaker has caused controversy with historians and Germany's Central Council of Jews questioning Grosser's credentials.

Grosser comes from a Jewish family and emigrated to France with them in 1933. The political academic and author of numerous books and essays is seen as an important pioneer in post-war Franco-German understanding. In recent years he has become increasingly interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

His 2009 book "Von Auschwitz nach Jerusalem" ("From Auschwitz to Jerusalem") caused controversy as he dealt with the question of how much it is permissible to question the policies of Israel.

Germany's Central Council of Jews is not happy, and has written to the Mayor of Frankfurt to complain that Grosser is an inappropriate choice of speaker.

Deutsche Welle: Alfred Grosser, you're French with German and Jewish roots. You were born in 1925 in Frankfurt and fled from there to France in 1933. Now you are to give a speech in the place of your birth at the November 9 memorial. Regardless of the criticism, what were your thoughts and feelings about doing this?

Archive photo of a pedestrian looking at the wreckage of a Jewish shop
Hundreds of synagogues and businesses were attacked during KristallnachtImage: AP

Alfred Grosser: First of all, there is a need to remember this particular day. Since August 1944 in Marseille, when I heard that part of my family had been transported to Auschwitz, I have been sure that there is no collective German guilt and yet that I also share some responsibility for the future of liberal democracy in Germany. This was my starting point for the speech.

How exactly does one qualify to make such a speech? Is it for instance through a certain behaviour or membership of some kind of official Jewish organisation. Is only a "real" Jew allowed to give such a speech? You have been accused of distancing yourself from Judaism. That is, at least, what the German historian Michael Wolffsohn asserts.

What does that have to do with my speech? A non-Jew could also be chosen make the speech because the speech should also be for all German people. There is an enormous volume published by Raphael Gross that documents all the terrible things that happened. In contrast, there is also the fact that hundreds of non-Jewish Germans helped Jewish Germans. That is something that is always downplayed. I will also speak about this. There is no collective guilt.

How, in 2010, should November 9 be remembered? Is there a way of doing it, so that it is not simply a ritual repeating the maxim "never again"?

Perhaps I was invited so that it would not become a pure ritual.

But it now seems that a lot of people in Germany are upset.

Prize winner David Grossman
Israeli author David Grossman won the 2010 German Book Trade peace prizeImage: picture alliance/dpa

There are not that many people, let's not exaggerate. Yes, the general secretary of the Jewish organization - he was very upset. But, David Grossman, who this year won the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade is someone who constantly criticizes Israeli policy and yet, he won that prize. So, what's the problem?

The problem seems to be that you, it is said, have distanced yourself from Judaism and have lived in France for a long time. It is said that someone like Grossman, who comes from Israel is on more of a position to criticize, even if he does meet with criticism himself in Israel for his opinions.

Yes, but it is possible to speak freely in Israel. In Germany the Central Council of Jews would like it if there were only one single truth. The American historian Fritz Stern and the former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt both said that they are amazed that, from organizations here in Germany you only hear a case of "right or wrong – my Israel."

During the German Book Trade presentation ceremony, I was very moved by what Joachim Gauck, correctly, said. "My country right or wrong – if it is right, let it keep it right, If it is wrong, let it set it right." That means that we should judge each Israeli policy accordingly.

You criticize the policies of Israel – for example the policy of occupation and the separation wall between Israelis and Palestinians. From a French point of view, why do you think such criticism always leads to such strong reactions from Jewish organisations in Germany?

Prize winner David Grossman (l.) and Joachim Gauck (r.) embrace
Grosser praised comments made by Joachim Gauck (r.) at the German Book PrizeImage: picture alliance/dpa

It's exactly the same in France. One of the people I admire most, the former concentration camp inmate and French ambassador Stephane Estell - who also worked on the international declaration of human rights - has now travelled to Gaza from Egypt to see what the situation is like there. Immediately there were complaints, worse than I have had in Germany – that he had not really been in the concentration camp, that he had in fact been a spy and so on... Yes, we do have those reactions as well, at least from a few.

But it is a sensitive issue. Here in Germany, of course, political correctness obviously plays a certain role.

I don't know. I would cite the former president Koehler who in his speech to the Israeli Knesset - without referring to the Palestinians - said that, as a result of its past, Germany has the duty to defend human rights across the world. That is something that is crucial for me and something that we should explain to young people who increasingly distance themselves and ask why they should bear any responsibility. The responsibility is to learn from the past to defend so that we can defend human rights around the world, including Germany.

What sort of reaction are you expecting on November 9 in Frankfurt?

It's difficult to say. I think that when I say the word Israel, some of the listeners will listen more attentively while others will leave the room. I have always found that it never comes to a debate.

I constantly try to debate the issues. For example, at the launch of my last book "Von Auschwitz nach Jerusalem" (“From Auschwitz to Jerusalem”), about Germany and Israel, I insisted upon inviting Jewish congregations in several German cities, but they did not come. They do not want to debate because they do not want to have to always prove that they are right.

Interview: Cornelia Rabitz (rc)
Editor: Rob Turner

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