November 9 is a difficult day. On the one hand it’s a day of joy because East Germany opened its borders on November 9 – the wall came down, as we say, and as far as I’m concerned that’s the best thing ever to happen in this country. On the other hand, it was also one of the darkest days in Germany, when the disgusting nationwide progrom against the Jews took place in 1938. And those are not the only historic events taking place in Germany on November 9. Let us travel back…
November 9, 1848 – Revolution!
The year is 1848. In the US the gold rush begins, Karl Marx writes his Communist Manifesto, women forced their hair into sausage curls, houses were lit with oil lamps, people were increasingly traveling by train, Dickens’ Dombey and Son was published and Germany consisted of 39 states, some monarchies, some dukedoms or independent cities, some of them ruled by foreign kings. The whole thing was called Deutscher Bund and was a loose federation artificially created in 1815 after Europe has successfully gotten rid of Napoleon, who had turned Europe upside down and had created plenty of unwanted uncertainty.
So, everyone should have been happy – Napoleon done with, art flourishing, cities growing and beautiful furniture (the Biedermeier style was all the rage) to buy. It wasn’t quite that easy. Those in power weren’t all that crazy about change and innovation, on the contrary. Now that the French troublemaker was gone, they wanted to return to tradition. After all, if it works, don’t fix it. The only problem was that it didn’t work. All these different states of the Deutsche Bund weren’t exactly best buddies and they weren’t overly successful in making united decisions and improving life for the population. Political censorship, famine, low wages and suppression didn’t go down all that well with the German population. Still, Germans are not the “let’s go out and start a revolution” kind of people. There were some attempts, mainly by younger people, but the majority decided to just withdraw into private life.
Then, the French started yet another revolution and you can imagine how annoyed German rulers were with that, because this time, the Germans decided to do a bit of uncertainty embracing. They went onto the streets, mainly in Vienna (Austria was part of the German Bund) and Berlin. Berlin saw violent fights between the revolutionists and the king’s army and finally a first step was made towards democracy – a national assembly of elected representatives from all states of the Deutsche Bund met in the Frankfurt Paulskirche (Paul’s church) on May 18, 1848, in order to formulate a constitution. One of the leading spokesmen there was Robert Blum. In October 1848, he travelled to Vienna to join the revolutionary forces there. He wrote to his wife that the people conducted the revolution “cosily, but thoroughly”. No unorganized running around and beheading people in German revolutions.
However, it got less cosy for Blum, because he was arrested – in spite of his diplomatic immunity – and, as he was labeled a dangerous anarchist, was sentenced to death and shot on November 9, 1848. His last words were “I die for liberty.” He became a famous revolution victim, was widely admired to the extent that a whole cult revolved around him. Many consider his death the beginning of the turning point for the revolution, which ultimately failed.
November 9, 1918 – Republic
In 1918, Europe was in the stranglehood of war. Emperor Wilhelm II hadn’t covered himself with glory and the power had already gone to the military. The German Empire was clearly losing the war, and at home the people were dying of hunger. Old Wilhelm II, who wasn’t even considered important enough to be fully updated on the development of the war anymore, kept dreaming of victory. He wasn’t exactly flavour of the month (or even the year) in Germany. This was fueled by the Americans when President Wilson hinted that he would be willing to discuss an armistice only if Wilhelm II abdicated. Wilhelm understandably wasn’t too keen on the idea.The Germans weren’t too keen on keeping him.
The beginning of November 1918 saw strikes and riots that soon spread over the whole country to quickly develop into a full-blown revolution. The people demanded the Emperor’s resignation and eventually he had no choice. On November 9, he abdicated. Thorough as we Germans are, the Republic was proclaimed not only once but twice: Philipp Scheidemann of the SPD heard that Karl Liebknecht of the Spartacist League was planning to declare a Socialist Republic, and so Scheidemann rushed out on the Reichstag balcony and announced the German Republic. He wasn’t authorized to do so, which caused a bit of a tiff with Friedrich Ebert because after all we’re in Germany and being in a revolution is no reason to go all wild. Still, he had ensured that Germany did not become a Socialist Republic, which shows you that efficiency can be helpful.
November 9, 1923 – Putsch
On August 11, 1919, Germany’s new constitution was announced. As it had been formulated in the small town of Weimar, the new republic was named Weimarer Republik. The constitution was motivated by the best intentions, but in the following years it proved incapable of providing a basis for a stable government. The Weimarer Republik soon suffered innumerous riots, assassinations, and constant changes of governments. In 1922, the German currency lost its value and by 1923 Germany was in the middle of a massive inflation, which led to the introduction of a new currency, the Rentenmark. The German people possessed bills with astronomical numbers printed on them which were worthless. Right-wing groups, who didn’t care for a republic under the Social Democratic Party, organized several coup d’états, the most famous of which were the Kapp-Putsch of 1920 and the Hitler-Putsch (also called Beer Hall Putsch) of 1923. The German government had just decided to pay the reparations demanded in the Treaty of Versailles, realizing that cooperation was the only way to free Germany from its isolation. For right-wing groups this was an admission of Germany’s guilt in having started the war and they wanted to have none of that. So, it was decided to overthrow the government with a putsch.
Why is it also called Beer Hall Putsch? Because its starting point was a beer hall in Munich. It was there that failed painter Hitler, who had become the leader of the Nazi party, called out a revolution and started a march on November 9, 1923, with the intention to take over the most important buildings in Munich. 3,000 men marched with him, but they didn’t get far. The police blocked off the road and when the marching men refused to stop, the poice started firing. It took just a few minutes and the attempted putsch was over. Hitler was arrested, tried to commit suicide (and unfortunately didn’t succeed) and – just as the other putsch leaders – got only a light sentence.
So, one could think that it was just one of many upraisings during the Weimar Republic years, conducted by a hardly known right-wing group, also one of many. Still, it had grave consequences: the attempted putsch put the Nazis on the map, gave Hitler plenty occasions to voice his motives and goals in public (for example during his trial) and made him re-evaluate his strategy to gain power.
November 9, 1938 – Shame
Everyone knows about Germany’s darkest years and the abominable persecution of the Jews. By 1938, Jews could not work as public officials, physicians, in cultural professions or as lawyers. Schools were separated, passports had a big red “J” stamped into them. Jews and non-Jews were not allowed to marry or to have intercourse. Jews were stripped of all civil rights. In October 1938, about 12,000 Jews of Polish origin were expelled from Germany more or less over night. They were brought to the Polish border, but Poland didn’t care to take them in and so they wandered around in the German-Polish border area under the most miserable circumstances. Among the expulsed was the family Grynszpan, who sent a message to their seventeen-year-old son Herschel, who was living in Paris with his uncle. The message told him about the horrible events and asked for help. Herschel Grynszpan went to the German embassy and shot German diplomat Ernst von Rath, who later died of his injuries. For Herschel, it was a desparate attempt to be heard – “I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do.”
For the Nazis, it was the perfect occasion to initiate a “spontaneous” riot of “angry citizens”, which was in fact a progrom carried out by SA and SS men in civilian clothing provided with detailed instructions. It was a disgusting, shameful outburst of violence.
November 9, 1989 – Freedom
By 1989, we were used to there being two German states – the Federal German Republic in the West and the so-called German Democratic Republic in the East. If you read my blog entry about the German Reunification, you know that while reunification was a main state goal of the West German constitution, nobody believed that it would happen anytime soon (or at all). Still, 1989 brought promising changes. Under the reign of Michail Gorbatchev, a new spirit of freedom drifted through Russia and the Eastern European States. Whereas the East German head of state, Erich Honecker, proclaimed that the Berlin Wall would stand another hundred years, peaceful demonstrations in East Germany demanded freedom and democracy and the rest of Eastern Europe got ready to open up. Hungary was first, the border fence to Austria was cut open in summer of 1989 and countless East Germans who had been vacationing in Hungary took the opportunity of freedom and crossed the newly opened border.
On November 9, 1989, a small mistake opens the border, makes the wall fall and paves the road to freedom. SED (the East German governing party) spokesman Günter Schabowski holds a press conference. It’s rather unremarkable, but then Schabowski remembers a small note that was handed to him before the conference and that he was supposed to read out. So he does and announces that East Germans are granted the right to travel and to leave the country via all East / West German border crossing points. Schabowski speaks a bit hesitantly, with severals “ums” in between. When asked whether this applies also to West Berlin, he shrugs, looks at his notes and says “Yes”. It’s obivous that he isn’t quite sure what’s going on. This is not surprising, as he wasn’t informed well. Which is not surprising either because it wasn’t a fully discussed decision. There had been plenty of discussions among East German government officials that some kind of concession had to be made towards the liberty of leaving East Germany, but there was no agreement on the exact framework. The note that Schabowski read out wasn’t supposed to become public yet, but nobody had told him and he hadn’t seen the blocking period noted on page 2 of the note.
So, when he is asked when this new regulation will take effect, he puts on his reading glasses and says “Well, Genossen (comrades), I was told that this information has been made public today. (…) As far as I know this takes effect immediately.” He looks at his paper with a frown and history takes its course. West and East Germans flood to the border. The guards are not sure what to do. Eventually the borders open, never to be closed again.