At 4.45am on the morning of 1 September 1939, Nazi Germany attacked Poland. Just over an hour later, the German air force was bombing the Polish capital Warsaw. Two days later, the British gave the Germans an ultimatum at 9am: withdraw from Poland by 11am or a state of war will exist between Britain and Germany. France delivered a similar ultimatum at 3pm on the same day but by then London and Berlin had been at war for four hours.
The war that the Nazi-appeasing British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been desperately wriggling for years to avoid had come to pass. Its immediate cause was the unprovoked invasion of Poland, but its roots went back to the end of World War I and the reparations that the Treaty of Versailles had imposed on a defeated Germany. Paying back that enormous war debt led to dire social and economic conditions in Germany, and fierce resentment of what widely was held to be a national humiliation.
Impoverishment, inflation, hunger, battered national dignity: these and other factors paved the way for the classic, textbook rise of a nationalistic, chauvinistic, xenophobic fascist party created and led by Adolf Hitler. Racist and vengeful towards non-Aryans, the party soon came to be the country. The singular inciting incident that made programmed and sanctioned hatred towards others the norm was Kristallnacht (Night of Crystal in German; also known as Night of Broken Glass) on the evening of 9 November 1939 into the morning of 10 November.
On the ninth, Hitler was in Munich celebrating the anniversary of his failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch when news reached him of the killing of a German diplomat in Paris by a Polish-Jewish student two days earlier. Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels discussed the incident and then Goebbels whipped the crowd of old Storm Troopers into a frenzy, urging them to take revenge by “spontaneous demonstrations” against Jewish interests and Jews in Germany and Austria. In a grim forerunner to the killing directed by radio of the Rwandan genocide, orders were given by telephone for pogroms in the two countries.
At the end of Kristallnacht, 91 Jews were dead and hundreds injured; 177 synagogues were burnt, damaged or demolished; and more than 7 000 Jewish businesses destroyed. The night’s name in German was a vicious and celebratory metaphor for the broken windows of shopfronts and houses.
Parallels from 80 years ago
The 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II reminds us of the deadly effects of fascism, a programme of hatred and purging of difference and of the “Other”. It is a reminder doubly timely given the xenophobic horrors that South Africa is witnessing, with South Africans wreaking violence on migrants and making them scapegoats for longstanding economic and social problems that are of this country’s own making.
These attacks, hitherto sporadic, in the past few weeks have become instigated, organised and increasingly murderous in their rhetoric. If nothing is done to quell the waves of aggression and brutality directed towards migrants – but inevitably affecting many others, too – then South Africa risks embracing fascism. Take the following, a communique from something calling itself Operation Clean Up South Africa:
“Make sure all the foreigners are swept away. Make sure the streets of South Africa have no foreigners. Loot all the shops for foreign nationals, burn all the cars for foreign nationals, beat up all the people who are not South Africans … Go into taxis, shops and trains and sweep up … We are tired of them all foreigners MUST go. What happened in Jeppe today is nothing tomorrow we should be armed.”
The parallels between Kristallnach and this incited and premeditated violence towards migrants are clear. On the night of 1 September 2019, shops in Jeppestown in Johannesburg were looted. Over the next days and nights, xenophobic mobs struck in the Joburg central business district, Germiston and Alexandra.
South Africa, yet again, is on the brink of an internal war. This time, however, it will not have Africa on its side. It was Africa that supported the anti-apartheid struggle, Africa which gave succour and bases to the ANC and its operatives, Africa that stood in solidarity with millions of oppressed, disempowered and disenfranchised South Africans.
Now, South Africa is repaying Africa not in kind, but with cruelty. Once a global pariah because of apartheid, it is bidding to become the world’s skunk again.