While the UK celebrates Remembrance Day on November 11th, for many parts of Germany the date (and the time 11:11am) marks the start of carnival celebrations, with red noses, clowns costumes, beer and noisy fun. Remembrance happens two days earlier, on November 9th, a date marked in German history as a day of fate, a “Schicksalstag”.
The most recent Day of Fate happened on November 9th, 1989, when the border between the two German nations opened abruptly due to a mistake made by Günther Schabowski, spokesman of the East German government. He triggered an unprecedented night in which the Berlin wall got torn down and the formerly feared East German border force did not only idly stand by, but even joined the celebration … simply by answering the question “When will the rules for travelling change for East Germans?” with an insecure “for all I know… immediately… I think.”
The madness of 20th century history
This could have gone terribly wrong, had even one East German official insisted on a bureaucratic stance and tried to stop people crossing the border that had up to this day been brutally defended. But it didn’t, bringing winds of change and a powerful new meaning to a date that had up to then been remembered for being the “Reichskristallnacht”; the infamous Night of Broken Glass, in which Nazi Germany’s government triggered and empowered a massive pogrom against Jewish Germans all over the country. Synagogues, businesses and private residences were stormed and plundered, Jewish citizens were attacked, sometimes murdered or driven to suicide. The Kristallnacht is a constant reminder of how persecution can turn openly violent, and how a whole society can witness the attacks on minorities, yet still keeping their heads firmly in the sand, not delivering any opposition.
Popular German band BAP remembers the night of broken glass in their song “Kristallnaach” in Cologne dialect.
Whenever the far right raises its ugly head in Germany, pictures of the Night of Broken Glass serve as a strong reminder of the power of propaganda and prejudice. The date wasn’t a coincidence, it was a revenge. 15 years earlier, on November 9th 1923, Hitler had made his first attempt to seize power in a part of Germany by initiating a coup in Munich, the capital of Bavaria. This pathetic “Beer Hall Putsch” was ill organized and weak, it got smashed by the Bavarian police, but it started Hitler’s rise to power. He gained media attention and a five-year-imprisonment of which he only had to serve meagre 9 months. His movement only gained traction, with him being presented as a martyr. He wrote his book “Mein Kampf” during his imprisonment, outlining his political philosophy.
A campaign not unlike the “Free Tommy Robinson” movement was widely covered in the German media, owned in huge parts by billionaire Alfred Hugenberg who banged the drums for the Nazi leader. If you feel that this resembles any current events, welcome to the club.
This right wing coup was preceded by a centrist/leftist coup five years before. The German Empire ended on November 9th, 1918 with the declaration of the first German republic, later known as the “Weimar Republic”. This event actually ended World War I, making the Armistice possible, and it was of course much messier than this description suggests: Following mutinies in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven in October, Emperor William II had to appoint a new chancellor, Prince Maximilian of Baden, who integrated the Social Democrats, led by Philipp Scheidemann, into government. The chancellor published the official abdication of the Kaiser before he had agreed to it, while at the same time Scheidemann declared the new republic, aiming to be faster than the socialist leader Karl Liebknecht, who did the same, naming Germany a “Free Socialist Republic” just two hours later. The ensuing chaos must have been unspeakable, with the population of Germany now facing not only a war, but also a headless, faltering state.
Bavaria, the location of Hitler’s coup, split off the new German republic twice in the following months: Socialist Kurt Eisner had declared the “People’s State of Bavaria” a day before on November 8th, and in April 1919 it was taken over by another socialist experiment, the “Bavarian Soviet Republic”, before the former Kingdom of Bavaria finally became the “Free State of Bavaria”, a status it kept throughout the Nazi times until today.
If this all seems confusing, imagine how it must have felt for the people of Germany at the time. During the time of the Weimar Republic the events of this fateful November were propagandized as “Dolchstoßlegende”, the Stab-in-the-Back-Myth. Hitler himself embarked on this conspiracy theory: That Germany could have won the war, but it was the revolution at home that stabbed the glorious empire in the back, leading to the “dictate of Versailles”, which made Germany a crippled nation dominated by its neighbours. Today we might classify this interpretation of real events as “alternative facts”.
And that’s still not all of it…
While the 20th century seems to be a weird, dangerous and crazy part of human history, it’s easy to overlook how absolutely mindboggling strange the 19th century was. In 1848 revolutions all over Europe led to massive change – in Germany, it was ironically nationalism that was progressive and liberal, trying to free the German population from the confusion and pressure of being split in multiple small kingdoms, dominated by the Austrian Emperor and his powerful German chancellor Klemens von Metternich. The idea of a pan-German nation state was accompanied by a Republican philosophy, demanding freedom of speech, the right to vote and last not least a Parliament. German republicans used an own flag to oppose the imperial banners of the time: Black, red and gold were their colours. After World War 2 these colours became the new German national flag.
The revolution of 1848/49 brought changes, but ultimately failed. The symbol of this failure is the execution of Robert Blum, one of the leaders of the republican and democratic movement and one of the presidents of the Frankfurt Parliament. While supporting the revolutionary movement in Austria, he got arrested and sentenced to death by hanging, later mercifully being shot instead – on 9th November 1848.
To not end this article on such a bloody topic: Another famous German, Albert Einstein, received a Nobel Price for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect on 9th November 1923 – an interesting foot note to German history, given that this notable German mind was Jewish.