The 9th of November.
No other date holds such significance and notoriety in modern German history. It encapsulates the shifts in Germany’s political and cultural identity in the 20th century like no other.
In late 1918 – at the close of the most devastating conflict the world had ever seen – revolutionary fervour was sweeping Germany. Sailors in Kiel had mutineed, unwilling to throw themselves into one last suicidal battle with Britain’s Royal Navy. Violent rebellions spread like wildfire and on the 9th of November, Wilhelm II, emperor of Germany and King of Prussia, was forced to abdicate his throne and flee the country. That same day Social Democrat Phillip Scheidemann from a balcony of the Reichstag, proclaimed Germany as a republic.
The fledgling democracy was beleaguered from the off. Left wing radicals, inspired by the rise of Bolshevism in Russia, saw their chance to seize power in Germany. The government, with no fighting force of their own to rely on, collaborated with right-wing paramilitaries – the Freikorps – to suppress the uprising. Savage street fighting ensued. The government was forced to flee Berlin, and ratify the republic’s new constitution in Weimar – two hours south of Berlin, the city of Goethe and Schiller. Hence post WWI Germany would become known as the Weimar Republic.
Weimar Germany would lurch from disaster to disaster in its early years – weathering uprisings from both the extreme left and right, and then the devastating hyperinflation of the early 1920s – before blooming into a bastion of western culture. It was the Germany of jazz, of Fritz Lang, of Thomas Mann, and of Bauhaus. It could not, however, survive the economic and political upheaval triggered by the Great Depression and met its death in 1933 at the hands of a man who had burst onto the national stage of German politics a decade earlier.
After WWI, ex-corporal Adolf Hitler was agitating against left-wing radicals in Munich. He swiftly became the de facto leader of the hard right in Bavaria thanks to his organisational and rhetorical talents. Inspired by Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922, Hitler and ex-general Erich Ludendorff – who had effectively ruled Germany under military dictatorship in the latter stages of WWI – led a far-right rabble, 2000 strong, on a march from Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller to seize power in the Bavarian capital on the 9th November 1923.
The marchers were confronted by police and a gunfight ensued. 16 Stormtroopers and four police officers were killed, and the Putsch collapsed. It had been a disaster, and should have been the end of Hitler. He was arrested for treason and put on trial, but used the process against him as a platform to outline his anti-semitic and nationalist views. The media coverage catapulted Hitler to national fame and a sympathetic judge gave him a flimsy sentence of Festhungshaft (fortress imprisonment – the equivalent of modern-day protective custody) in Landsberg Prison. He was released after only nine months, now solidified as the figurehead of Germany’s far right and instantly recognisable face country-wide.
15 years later, with Germany firmly under his bootheel, Hitler could act with impunity to attack those who he had defined in Mein Kampf (dictated to fellow prisoners Rudolf Hess and Emil Maurice at Landsberg Prison) as enemies to the Fatherland: Jews.
Following the assassination of a German embassy official in Paris, perpetrated by a teenage Polish jew, a vicious pogrom was unleashed against Germany and Austria’s jewish communities on the 9th November 1938. Mobs of civilians, Stormtroopers and plain-clothed SS men rampaged through the streets of German cities in an orgy of violence. Jewish-owned businesses were ransacked (the shattered glass in the streets inspired the name of the pogroms: Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass), synagogues were burned to the ground, and jewish men and boys were rounded up and deported to concentration camps in their thousands – to be ransomed back to their families later. Around 100 jews were murdered in the attacks.
Nazi methods of repression against jews in Germany and Europe would grow exponentially harsher, culminating in the horror of the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Chełmno, Sobibor, Bełżec, and Majdanek. By the end of World War II, around 6 million jews had been murdered under National-Socialism.
Defeated Germany was then occupied by the victorious powers. She was to be denazified and democratized, nullified as a threat to peace in Europe henceforth. Instead she became a proxy battleground in a new war, a Cold War, between the two emergent world superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union.
In 1949 two Germanies were created, an East and a West. A hard border was erected between them in 1952 to prevent East Germans fleeing to the west. The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to close off the last loophole in the Iron Curtain – the western zones of the city, surrounded entirely by the GDR, through which East Germans were continuing to flee. The city remained physically divided for 28 years.
Then, on the 9th of November – when else? – 1989, the Wall fell.
East Germany was failing. The state was bankrupt, mass protests were beyond control, Gorbachev’s Soviet Union had washed their hands of the whole mess. Erich Honecker, the hardline head of the East German state since 1971, was removed from power. To placate protestors the East German state announced the introduction of new border controls that would allow citizens of the GDR limited travel to the west. In a press conference, state spokesman Günter Schabowski hurriedly announced, when challenged, that the new border controls would be ‘effective immediately’. The Western media pounced, encouraging the East Germans out onto the streets en masse.
In the confusion that followed East Berliners were able to peacefully force open the inner-city border crossing points along the Berlin Wall, flooding into West Berlin safely for the first time in nearly 30 years. The border police, utterly unprepared, could only watch. The Wall, metaphorically at least, had fallen, and the way was paved for German reunification.
One date saw a monarchy fall, and a republic rise; the entrance of history’s most despicable tyrant onto the national political stage, and the descent of a nation into the moral abyss; the fall of a barrier that had rent a city for decades, and the triumph of individual freedom over a state apparatus based on collective repression.
The 9th of November. A day for commemoration, reflection, and celebration.