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Published: Sunday, 11/3/2013 - Updated: 2 years ago

Lincoln, Hitler: Best and worst of the human experience

David M. Shribman. David M. Shribman.

One displayed the breathtaking depth of human charity, the other the horrifying depth of human barbarity.

One was a surpassing expression of decency, the other an ominous expression of depravity.

One was a symbol of transcending humanity, the other a symbol of transforming inhumanity.

They were separated by 75 years and — incongruously, incompatibly, discordantly — we mark important anniversaries of both this month.

In the great march of human history, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered 150 years ago Nov. 19, and Adolph Hitler’s Kristallnacht pogrom, prosecuted 75 years ago Nov. 9, have nothing in common — except of course for changing the world.

One redeemed a promise set forth in America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence. The other signaled the determination to keep the promise set forth in the Nazi Party’s founding treatise, Mein Kampf.

President Lincoln’s remarks expanded the contours of human possibility and was a ringing pronouncement of liberty. Hitler’s pogrom restricted the liberties of the Third Reich’s Jews and was a menacing declaration of repression.

A young man with a broom prepares to clean away broken window glass from a Jewish shop in Berlin the day after Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938. A young man with a broom prepares to clean away broken window glass from a Jewish shop in Berlin the day after Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938.

President Lincoln’s brief speech foreshadowed a great expansion of human rights, Hitler’s brief night of terror known as the “night of the broken glass” foreshadowed a great reign of persecution.

Mr. Lincoln promised liberation and a new burst of freedom; Hitler, slavery and a campaign of death.

President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address consisted of 272 words, many with Biblical echoes. Hitler’s Kristallnacht consisted of an orchestrated burst of violence that destroyed 250 German synagogues, smashed 7,000 Jewish businesses, rained ruin on countless Jewish hospitals, schools, and cemeteries, and left sacred Hebrew texts torn or burned.

These November anniversaries are an accident of history, nothing more. Only at this distance, a century and a half from Mr. Lincoln, three-quarters of a century from Hitler, do we see that the genius of the one serves to underline the perversion of the other. And at this distance, we see the power of words — to inspire hope and idealism on the one hand, to foment hatred and violence on the other.

The next several weeks will bring forward a flood of retrospectives and reassessments of the speech at Gettysburg. This week, people around the world will look again at Kristallnacht. An exhibit called “Fire! 75 Years After Kristallnacht” opens in Berlin. A group of cultural organizations in central Florida undertakes a long examination of Kristallnacht.

Kristallnacht is remembered dimly and employed occasionally as a metaphor. The Gettysburg Address, carved into the wall of the Lincoln Memorial and in the hearts of all Americans, many of whom were asked to memorize it as schoolchildren, is regarded as perhaps the purest distillation of our national idealism and intent.

Long may Kristallnacht chill us, and long may the Gettysburg Address give us chills.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com

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