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Tom Perkins Says He’s Sorry, Sort of, for ‘Kristallnacht’ Remark

| January 28, 2014
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Thomas Perkins, the pioneering Silicon Valley financier who triggered an avalanche of criticism by likening protests against wealth inequity with the Nazi pogroms against Jews in late 1930s Germany, is sorry he said that. But he’s unapologetic about his message that the rich are being persecuted for no other reason than their wealth.

‘It’s absurd to demonize the rich for being rich and doing what the rich do, which is get richer by creating opportunity for others.’
Thomas Perkins

Perkins unleashed a storm last week with a 186-word letter to the Wall Street Journal. “I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews,” he wrote, “to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the rich.’”

He went on to blast the San Francisco Chronicle for its “demonization of the rich … embedded in virtually every word.” He decried anger over Google buses in San Francisco. He decried the discontent over soaring rents driven largely by tech-sector workers. He decried mean remarks in the local media about his former wife, wealthy novelist Danielle Steel. And he concluded: “This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?”

(If you’re not familiar with Kristallnacht, one of the most notorious episodes in Nazi Germany’s campaign of terror and murder against Jews, here’s a primer from the U.S. Holocast Memorial Museum: Kristallnacht: A Nationwide Pogrom.)

Perkins, 81, is a founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, a legendary Sand Hill Road venture capital firm. And the firm was one of the first in the technology world to disown Perkins’ remarks. Here’s the tweet:

Marc Andreessen, a VC who made his first fortune as co-inventor of the Mosaic web browser and cofounder of Netscape, had a more pointed observation:

Monday, Perkins went on Bloomberg TV to talk about the commotion his letter stirred. He complained that Kleiner Perkins had thrown him under the bus and that Andreessen’s comment was not very nice. (He’s right.) He said he’s sent an apology to Abe Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League, to dispel any notion he was being anti-Semitic when he used the word “Kristallnacht” in his critique of “the progressive war on the American 1 percent.”

“It was a terrible word to have chosen,” Perkins told interviewer Emily Chang. “I, like many, have tried to understand the 20th century, and the incomprehensible evil of the Holocaust. It can’t be explained, even to try to explain it is questionable. It’s wrong. It’s evil.”

Did you catch that? That’s the apology part, Perkins saying he’s sorry for comparing Kristallnacht and, by implication, the murder of millions to … what exactly?

Perkins again:

I used the word because during the Occupy of San Francisco by the Occupy Wall Street crowd, they broke the windows of the Wells Fargo Bank, they marched up to our automobile strip on Van Ness Avenue and broke all the windows in all the luxury car dealerships. And I saw that and I remember that the police just stood by, frozen, and I thought, ‘Well, this is how Kristallnacht began,’ so that word was in my mind.

So, just for the sake of those keeping score at home, Perkins sees the Occupy movement in 2011-12 as the modern equivalent to 1938 Germany’s fascist ruling party turning loose its paramilitaries and thugs to wreak havoc on a community that had been under increasing government-sponsored attacks for more than five years.

He later expanded on his Occupy Wall Street/Nazi Germany parallel:

The Jews were only 1 percent of the German population, most Germans had never met a Jew, yet Hitler was able to demonize the Jews, and Kristallnacht was one of the earlier manifestations, but there’d been others before it, and then of course we know about the evil of the Holocaust. I guess my point was that when you start to use hatred against a minority, it can get out of control. I think that was my thought. And now that as the messenger I’ve been thoroughly killed by everybody, at least read the message.

Perkins went on to say that public figures he considers friends, including Al Gore and Gov. Jerry Brown, have told him that inequality is the No. 1 issue facing the United States. “But the 1 percent are not causing the inequality,” Perkins said. “They are the job creators. … It’s absurd to demonize the rich for being rich and doing what the rich do, which is get richer by creating opportunity for others.”

And the wealthy are under threat, he said. “I think we’re beginning to engage in class warfare. I think the rich as a class are threatened through higher taxes, higher regulation and so forth. And that’s my message.”

Perkins acknowledged the 99 percent, where he says he started out, are suffering. He said the inequality besetting the nation is due to over-regulation and “higher costs caused by more government than we need.”

“I think the solution is less interference, lower taxes, let the rich do what the rich do, which is get richer, but along the way they bring everyone else with them when the system is working,” Perkins said.

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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