Posted by Torben
If you visit the Invalidenfriedhof cemetery in central Berlin, you will find not the grave but the gravestone of the most famous fighter pilot of World War I, Manfred von Richthofen. The “Red Baron,” who was so memorably impersonated by Snoopy in Peanuts cartoons, is credited with more air combat victories than any other pilot of the war. Richthofen was killed in the spring of 1918 over France, where he was buried with full military honors by the British. After the war, he was reinterred at a military cemetery, also in France. His remains were brought to Berlin in 1925. The massive gravestone on which is written, laconically, only the name “Richthofen,” was placed at the gravesite in 1937 at the behest of Nazi Air Minister (and fellow World War I fighter pilot) Hermann Göring; the Nazis considered the original headstone to be too modest.
The cemetery was located on the border with West Berlin and the gravestone is set against a longish piece of the Berlin Wall. In the mid-1970s, the Communist East German authorities destroyed large parts of it as part of an effort to prevent escapes to the West. At that time, Richthofen's remains were exhumed and reburied in Wiesbaden in West Germany. The gravestone was brought to a West German air force base and only returned to its original location in 2017.
And so, standing in a cemetery for Prussian military elites (Prussia's Arlington) before the former gravesite of a famous World War I fighter pilot whose earthly remains were brought there from France during the Weimar Republic, you can look at the Nazi-sponsored headstone which, along with the grave, was moved to the West because the East Germans were increasing security at their Wall, only to be brought back, sans the human remains, in a reunified Germany: a cemetery plot as a prism of German history.
Dostoevsky famously said that you can judge the degree of civilization of a society by entering its prisons, but prisons generally aren't accessible to tourists (or, rather, accessing them is easy, it's leaving that's hard). And how a society cares for its dead is no less instructive than how it cares for its criminals. Walking through a cemetery, like walking through a museum, is a cultural experience. And unlike other attractions, cemeteries are green, free, and uncrowded, have long opening hours, plentiful park benches, and (often) free public restrooms.
Berlin doesn't have a cemetery listed among the top sights: there's no Père Lachaise, no Vienna Zentralfriedhof, and the city's Jewish cemeteries, perhaps wrongly, don't hold the cachet of Prague's. Still, venturing into any one of the city's many graveyards can be worth your while. You will learn how Germans care for, how they remember their dead; see some grand funerary monuments marking an architectural history otherwise devastated by war; gain insight into Germany's complicated history; and discover the importance of Berlin as a capital of art, literature, music, science, industry, and world politics in the last two centuries.
Foreign visitors to German cemeteries are often struck by how well-tended the burial plots are. You will generally find a stone marker with the name and years of birth and death of the deceased. Otherwise, the grave will be covered with flowers or plants. You will always find several water fountains along with watering cans and rakes to make it easy for the bereaved to care for the plants and remove errant leaves. That graves are looked after by the family is expected, and for my grandparents' generation, this often meant visiting the local cemetery several times a week: it was a source of embarrassment when weeds began to sprout or a grave was covered with dried leaves. For many Germans born after the war, cemeteries became more or less synonymous with a parochialism and conservatism they found offensive.
And so burial practices began to change. Like in the United States, family ties have loosened and the focus on the nuclear family has increased. Children more frequently move away from their hometowns. Religious identification, on the other hand, has withered. Many consider the notion that a visit to the cemetery is necessary to pay respects and to remember the dead to be antiquated. Women no longer stay home to tend to the hearth and bristle at the notion that they are solely responsible for domestic duties that include tending to the graves of family members. As a consequence, German cemeteries are increasingly characterized by grass fields where the cremated remains of the dead are interred anonymously (no more individual graves to take care of). Perhaps there is a little memorial in the middle of the field where loved ones can place flowers. In “forest cemeteries,” urns are buried underneath a tree with just the most inconspicuous marker. Leaving flowers or any other offering is prohibited.
And yet people do so anyway. In spite of the growing alienation from a Christian tradition that ritualized how we commune with the dead, many still feel the need to come to a grave to mourn and remember – perhaps even to light a candle. And some who have been vilified by the Church have chosen to appropriate at least some of the trappings of the Christian tradition: just a few feet from the grave of the Brothers Grimm in the district of Schöneberg, which has long had a strong LGBTQ community, a local organization has financed a memorial and burial place for gay men who died of AIDS. The organization assumed the sponsorship of a 19th century grave – these sponsorships are quite common and facilitate the preservation of old gravestones and mausoleums of (art) historical value – and turned it into a 21st century memorial. In Prenzlauer Berg, the first cemetery for women, called Sappho, was consecrated a few years ago; it is intended specifically as a burial place for Lesbian couples.
Graves in Germany are not permanent. Typically, a grave “contract” will run 20 years, renewable for another 20. Then the burial plots are made available for the next person. This is an old tradition in Europe. The many charnel houses and bone chapels you find were essentially warehouses for the bones of those dead whose graves had expired. In the Catholic tradition, the expectation is that on Judgment Day, the bodies of the dead will be reconstituted to face Christ's verdict, a scene frequently depicted, often quite graphically, in paintings by the Old Masters. Thus, cremation was seen as a hindrance to the resurrection of the body and bones would not be thoughtlessly discarded, even after graves were dissolved.
The Freethinkers, a community of atheists and agnostics established in the 19th century, thought differently. Their cemetery in Prenzlauer Berg is now a park. You can sit down between the gravestones, read a book, sip your beer – and have your kids play in the cemetery's playground. Posted prominently in the graveyard is the slogan of the Freethinkers: "Make this life good and beautiful, there is no beyond, no resurrection."
Cemeteries are everywhere in Berlin. The city grew exponentially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A lot of people were dying. To accommodate them all, the massive Südwestkirchhof was established outside of the city in Stahnsdorf. It is still among the ten largest cemeteries in the world. A light rail line (now defunct) was built specifically to provide access to it. Nowadays, however, as fewer children are being born and people are living longer, not as many graveyards are needed. In Berlin, many are being shut down as the grave contracts expire. Instead, they are often returned to nature. Walking around the Plötzensee, a lake in northern Berlin, you might come across the odd remnant of a well or a sculpted cross hidden amid bushes – indications, along with the overgrown former house of the cemetery caretaker, that this, for a hundred years, was a burial place.
There is one segment of Berlin society, however, that requires more cemeteries. Germany, increasingly, is a multi-ethnic society. The city's Muslim community has grown dramatically in the last several decades. And more and more Berliners of third and fourth generation Turkish descent are choosing to be buried not in the land of their forbears, but in the country where they lived their lives. Berlin has had an Islamic cemetery since 1866, but more burial plots are needed. In contrast with the formality of the Christian tradition, Islamic cemeteries are characterized by lawn chairs on which family members can sit near the remains of their loved ones; a stark contrast to the formality typical of Christian churchyards.
In the Jewish tradition (as in the Islamic) graves are permanent. And yet the Jewish cemeteries in Berlin bear witness to the fact that the Jewish community is not unaffected by local habits. If you visit the Jewish cemetery in Weißensee, the largest in Europe, you will find (among the opulent late-19th century mausoleums so characteristic of Berlin's Christian cemeteries from that time), that many of the younger plots are covered with cut flowers – not at all in keeping with the Jewish tradition. At the same time, you find that many of the names on the grave markers are Russian and written in Cyrillic characters. The Jewish community in Germany has increased exponentially since the country's reunification in 1990, comprising mostly Jews from the former Soviet Union. It is often said that these recent immigrants are less in touch with their Jewish faith. Be that as it may, the cemetery in Weißensee had a greenhouse from the moment it opened in 1880.
The Weißensee cemetery is perhaps the most beautiful in Berlin. But others, too, are wonderful to walk through, and their appeal is not at all morbid. The aforementioned Südwestkirchhof in Stahnsdorf is a huge English garden, and designed as such. In others you may see the hives that beekeepers have set up, practically, amid the greenery. In addition to their natural beauty, cemeteries are rife with monuments of significant art historical value. Examples of art nouveau and expressionist architecture are few and far between in Berlin, but the city's cemeteries boast some surprises.
The costs for the upkeep of a big cemetery like the one in Stahnsdorf is considerable, not to mention the expense of preserving and protecting the mausoleums and gravestones. Sponsorship of graves is only one way of raising funds. Another is the organization of public events. Open air screenings of the silent movie classic Nosferatu have taken place in Stahnsdorf, where the great director F.W. Murnau is buried. Murnau's embalmed head, by the way, was stolen by grave robbers a few years ago. Security is an issue; often copper and other valuable metals are stolen from statues and mausoleums.
You can chase the big names, visit the graves of famous figures buried in Berlin (more on that below). But often it's the graves of the unknown and anonymous that catch the eye.
In the West Berlin district of Wedding there is a cemetery with an obscure memorial to the victims of the suppression of the workers' uprising in East Germany against the Communist regime of June 17th, 1953. Some of those shot by Soviet and East German authorities were brought to hospitals in West Berlin and buried there. The uprising was viewed by West Germans, wrongly, as an expression of the desire of East Germans for reunification, and June 17th became the West German national holiday. Werner Sendsitzky, a West Berliner who lived in the district of Wedding, was curious about the protests on the East side of town, and so he, along with others, climbed onto the roof of a so-called Behelfsheim near his home to get a better view of the goings-on across the border. (Behelfsheime were small, temporary shelters often built for individual families bombed out during the Second World War.) East German police with drawn pistols were trying to prevent West Berliners who supported the East German demonstrators from pushing across the border into the East. The police fired warning shots into the air, one of which killed Werner. It was his sixteenth birthday.
Berlin's cemeteries often have fields where those killed at the very end of World War II, both military and civilian, were buried shortly after the fighting ended. While those who died in air raids were often interred in unmarked mass grave graves, these fields from the immediate postwar period do have headstones for the deceased. But there is a matter-of-factness about these markers that speaks to the fact that, for those who placed them there, death was nothing special. On the gravestone for Hermann Herzog, who died at age 20, his first name is abbreviated “Herm.;” there's no room for the rest. His grave is flanked by that of an “unknown woman” and that of a man who is “probably Borscheller.”
The Soviets, on the other hand, built impressive memorials to honor their war dead in Berlin. The one in Treptower Park is perhaps best known, but the memorial in Schönholz is no less imposing. These memorials, along with the one located in the Tiergarten, are, of course, also cemeteries. Tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers are buried there, anonymously, in mass graves, among them teenagers who, after walking across the length and breadth of Eastern and Central Europe, being shot at all the while, were killed in the last days before the final triumph over Nazi Germany. The grandness of the funereal architecture serves, perhaps, to distract from the anonymity of the vast majority of the millions of Soviet citizens who lost their lives in World War II.
Soldiers from Commonwealth countries -- mainly pilots and crew shot down over the city during bombing raids -- are buried in their own, more modest cemetery. Italian soldiers brought to the city as "military internees" (not as prisoners of war; Germany did not recognize the Italians, who had been allies until 1943, as such) suffered brutal treatment at the hands of the German military. The many that did not survive were eventually laid to rest in a field in the Waldfriedhof in Zehlendorf.
Before World War II, Germany had of course unabashadely celebrated its war dead. The clenched fist of the dead World War I soldier of the memorial in the Garnisonsfriedhof (which now connects with the Islamic cemetery, by the way) speaks volumes. The war, it makes clear, is not over. And the stone celebrating the few Germans killed during a colonial war that constituted a genocide against the Herero and Nama in German Southwest Africa (modern-day Namibia) would likely be forgotten were it not for the plaque the local government sought fit to place before it in recognition of the many victims of German imperialism.
Social democrats and Communists made the Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde their cemetery of choice. It fell to East Berlin after the Second World War. The Communists, long persecuted, were suddenly in power. The East German regime created a memorial at the cemetery to honor the great figures of German socialism. The ambivalence of that tradition is made clear when you see the likes of Wilhelm Liebknecht, a founder of the German social democratic party, Rosa Luxemburg, murdered by paramilitary reactionaries after the First World War, and Rudolf Breitscheid, a social democrat, not a Communist, who perished in Buchenwald concentration camp, honored alongside the likes of Walter Ulbricht and Otto Grotewohl, representatives of the Communist party dictatorship established in East Germany in 1949.
In light of all this, it may appear ironic that three Nobel peace prize laureates are buried in Berlin. But perhaps that's to be expected: the prize has often been awarded to people active in parts of the world where peace is to be aspired to, not where it already exists. Gustav Stresemann, Carl von Ossietzky, and Willy Brandt all found their last resting place in the city, as have many other figures of international renown. To seek out their graves is to be reminded of just how important the city was, not just for the political history of the 20th century, but for science, art, and culture as well.
It is striking that many of these famous figures had left or been forced to flee Germany after the Nazis came to power: Heinz Berggruen, Willy Brandt, Bertolt Brecht, Marlene Dietrich, John Heartfield, Heinrich Mann, Herbert Marcuse, Helmut Newton – to name just a few. That they should be buried here suggests that the city has some claim on them, even if in many cases they lived their lives someplace else.
Where you choose to be buried is, in a way, a prediction of what the future holds. Ignatz Bubis, the longtime head of the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, the most important organization representing the Jewish community in the country, famously chose to be buried in Israel. For one thing, he was afraid that his grave might be desecrated in Germany (it had happened to that of his predecessor, Heinz Galinski, who is buried in Berlin), But the decision likely reflects a broader disappointment with his inability, as he saw it, to make it clear to the broader public that to be Jewish doesn't mean you stand apart, that you can be both Jewish and German at the same time. Two decades on, Bubis' decision should still give us pause. That other men and women who contributed so much to our understanding of the world, to art and literature, have chosen to find their final resting place in Berlin even after they had to flee the city for their very lives, should give us, perhaps, just a little bit of hope.
Posted by Torben
In August of 1850, a 21 year old political fugitive arrived in Berlin and moved into an apartment not far from Gendarmenmarkt in the center of town. He was carrying false papers identifying him as Heribert Jüssen. His goal was to stage a prison break. His friend and mentor Gottfried Kinkel was serving a life sentence for treason in Spandau Prison.
Jüssen himself had narrowly escaped arrest and court martial. As a student in Bonn he had been caught up in the revolutionary fervor of 1848 that, originating in France, had spread to his native Rhineland, which, much to the inhabitants' dismay, had become a part of Prussia after Napoleon's defeat in 1815. The goal was national unification and an end to the reactionary, monarchical regimes ruling over the myriad small and middling principalities that comprised Germany at the time (Prussia, with its capital Berlin, was the largest and most powerful of these states). What exactly a unified Germany should look like, how it should be governed, was hotly contested, however. Jüssen himself was an unabashed democrat who advocated for his ideas in the newspaper Bonner Zeitung, published by Kinkel. (Jüssen eschewed the more radical ideas expressed in the rival Neue Rheinische Zeitung, published by Karl Marx.) There were high expectations for Germany's future.
But the euphoria of revolution soon gave way to disappointment, as the old elites succeeded in circling the wagons and reestablishing control. Prussian troops descended on the Rhineland, quashing the rebellion. Along with Kinkel, a Protestant theologian turned art historian (marrying a Catholic divorcée had put the kibosh on his career teaching church history at the university of Bonn), Jüssen traveled south to the principality of Baden where the revolutionaries were making a last stand. They proved to be no match for the Prussian troops who, coming to the aid of the duke of Baden, took the fortress of Rastatt where Kinkel and Jüssen were stationed, arresting the former. Jüssen, as a subject of the Prussian king fighting against Prussian troops, had to fear execution as a traitor if captured. With much luck he was able to escape the fortress through the sewer system, then managed to sneak across the border into France, whence he continued on to Switzerland.
It was there that he received a letter from Kinkel's wife requesting his aid in liberating her husband. Kinkel had been spared the death sentence, scant comfort as he instead faced the prospect of lifelong imprisonment in a Prussian penitentiary where he spent his days spinning wool from morning to night. Jüssen promised to help and headed back to Germany.
Upon his arrival in Berlin, Jüssen contacted fellow democrats who might aid him in his endeavor. Specifically, he hoped to acquire information on the jailers at Spandau Prison (not, by the way, the same facility where Nazi war criminals like Rudolf Heß would be incarcerated). Spandau, today the western-most district of Berlin, was at the time an independent garrison town. His contacts put Jüssen in touch with the prison guard they deemed most amenable to helping the imprisoned revolutionary. Jüssen first established that the guard was sympathetic to Kinkel, then asked him if he would sneak a message and some food into the prisoner's cell. Only after the man demonstrated a willingness to run these errands did Jüssen circumspectly broach the subject of a jail break. The guard balked.
Jüssen approached another guard, then a third. Both turned him down, prompting Jüssen to leave Berlin for a time in case any of the jailers had informed on him to their superiors. He returned at the end of September, moving into an apartment in the district of Moabit. Another guard was approached in vain. Then Jüssen met Georg Brune. Here was a man who was not shy about articulating his anger at Kinkel's imprisonment. After Jüssen had established Brune's bona fides, he asked if he would consider breaking Kinkel out of jail. Brune asked for three days to think about it. Then he agreed.
The plan they came up with required Brune to be on duty on the floor where Kinkel was being held. This would be the case on the night of November 5th. In the meantime, Jüssen would travel north toward the Baltic Sea, contacting allies along the way who could provide horses and carriages to take them all the way to the port city of Rostock. Jüssen's friends, with the aid of a wax mold provided by Brune, would procure a copy of the key to the infirmary where the key to Kinkel's cell was kept. A copy of the key to the visitors' entrance to the prison courtyard would also be made and given to Jüssen. On the appointed night, Brune was to enter the infirmary, grab the key to the cell, free the prisoner, and bring him down to the courtyard where Jüssen would be waiting to spirit him to a nearby guesthouse run by a man sympathetic to the cause.
The night of November 5th arrived. Jüssen unlocked the gate to the prison courtyard and waited. The time agreed upon for Kinkel's escape came and went. Half an hour later Brune appeared. Alone. The key to Kinkel's cell had not been where it was supposed to be. The escape attempt had failed.
The next day Brune apprised Jüssen of what had happened. An absentminded guard had accidentally taken the key to Kinkel's cell home with him. But Brune was eager to try again. He had managed to be assigned to Kinkel's floor again that evening. The key to the cell would certainly not be removed from the infirmary two days running. The problem was that bringing Kinkel down to the courtyard required taking him past another guard. Brune did not trust the man on duty that night. So Brune suggested a different plan. He could bring Kinkel to the attic without running into any colleagues. From an attic window, Kinkel could rappel down to the street using a rope.
There was no time to requisition any horses along the route up to Rostock. A rope was procured and some friends of Jüssen's appointed as lookouts (Spandau still had a nightwatchman). Jüssen, carrying a change of clothing for Kinkel, waited in a doorway across the street from the prison. A flash of light from an attic window was to signal Kinkel's impending escape. The flash came, the rope was lowered, and Jüssen could observe Kinkel rappeling down the facade of the prison to the street – much too quickly as it turned out; the rope had burned and cut his hands. Still, they made it to the guesthouse without being seen. From there, the guesthouse owner sought to get the two fugitives across the border into Mecklenburg as quickly as possible. His horses were driven so hard that one had to be put down, but the next morning – it was already broad daylight, November 7th, 1850 – Jüssen and Kinkel arrived in Neustrelitz in Mecklenburg. From there, supporters helped them make their way to Rostock, where they were received by a well-to-do merchant who owned a grain ship that was scheduled to sail for England in just over a week's time. They were given quarters on the ship and, after a stormy voyage that took them well off course, arrived safely in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Brune, meanwhile, was arrested and would be sentenced to four years in prison. The money Jüssen had given him, in advance, for his help – Kinkel had many generous benefactors and Jüssen had control over the funds – was not discovered.) The escape had proved successful and Jüssen could give up his fake identity and again use his given name: Carl Schurz, future senator and secretary of the interior of the United States of America.
News of Kinkel's escape and of Schurz's role in it spread across Europe. Schurz became something of a celebrity. From London he moved to Paris, renewing his work as a journalist, but he was forced to return to England after Napoleon III cracked down on foreigners in France. Schurz found the atmosphere among the German émigrés in London to be dispiriting. The second German revolution they were plotting, it was becoming increasingly clear, amounted to nothing more than a pipe dream. And so, in 1852, Schurz decided to emigrate to the United States. He settled in Watertown, Wisconsin (a German community), bought a farm, and trained to work as a lawyer. His wife, Margarethe, established the first kindergarten in the United States. It was German-speaking. (Kinkel, to tie up a loose end, would become a professor of art history in Zurich.)
Schurz's interest in politics hadn't left him, and he ably managed to translate his celebrity into political influence within the German-American community. His belief that slavery was an abomination caused him to gravitate to the Republican party, which put him at odds with most German immigrants. The latter combined a fear of the nativist tendencies within the Republican party with a healthy skepticism of temperance laws. Although historians today would dispute it, it was widely believed at the time that Schurz's advocacy for the Republicans among the German electorate delivered Wisconsin to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election. Schurz was rewarded with the post of ambassador to the court of Madrid. After the start of the Civil War, however, Schurz desperately wanted to fight. He returned to the States, was made a brigadier, later a major general, and though his performance as an officer was controversial, he eagerly served the Union side.
After Lincoln's assassination Schurz tried to remain politically relevant. He lobbied Andrew Johnson and managed to be sent on a mission to study the postwar South. The clear-eyed report that was the result of his trip emphasized the unwillingness of the old Southern elites to accept the reality of their defeat and the consequences of the war. Unfortunately, Johnson, who continued to pursue a (failing) policy of conciliation with the South, didn't care very much.
Schurz pursued a career in journalism while remaining active in politics; he was elected to the Senate by the Missouri state legislature in 1871 and appointed secretary of the interior by Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877. He was an advocate for civil service reform and a vocal critic of American imperialism. Schurz was recognized as the spokesman of German-Americans, a powerful voting force in the US, throughout his political career. He died in 1906.
I received my primary and secondary education almost entirely on Long Island. In history class I learned that Reconstruction was all scalawags and carpetbaggers. I learned that Betsy Ross was a woman that girls could look up to because she sewed the first American flag. She sewed a flag. I learned that Crispus Attucks, shot dead in the Boston Massacre, was a role model for African Americans. By heroically managing to be the first man killed, he had demonstrated that the American Revolution was not just for white people, but for blacks and Indians as well. Attucks, fortuitously (although it didn't help him any), was half black and half Native American (two birds with one musket). The fact that the revolution would lead, after numerous twists and turns, to the promulgation of a constitution that (though a remarkable and lasting document to be sure) would enshrine the enslavement of Americans of African descent for generations, was not discussed in this context, nor was the subsequent decimation of Native American communities across the continent.
I don't want to sound too cynical. The stories of Ross and Attucks, perhaps, serve to perpetuate ideas we may no longer be comfortable with, but that the Revolutionary War, at least in our historical imagination, features such a heterogeneous cast of characters speaks to the success the United States has had in defining national identity without recourse to ethnicity. No matter your origins, it is made clear, you can be American. (In Germany we still struggle to understand and accept that you can be German even if your grandparents weren't.) Every subgroup in the US has its war hero. French-Americans have Lafayette, the Poles have Casimir Pulaski, and the Germans Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben who, having served in the armies of King Frederick the Great of Prussia and the margrave of Baden, left Germany for North America (perhaps to avoid an indictment for sodomy) and took a leading role in whipping the Continental Army into shape before its triumph at Yorktown.
There is a statue of Steuben in downtown Potsdam, just outside of Berlin. The original was cast from the same mold as the Steuben statue in the garden of the White House and was a gift of the Congress of the United States in 1911. In 1950 the East German authorities ordered it melted down along with statues of Prussian royals. In 1994 the lost statue was replaced by a copy. I sometimes take groups there, American college students mostly. None of them ever know who Steuben was.
I doubt any of them would have heard of Pulaski, either, but the fact that Steuben is not or no longer a household name (even though the Chicago Steuben Parade features prominently in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) is perhaps in part a symptom of the decline of German-American culture and identity in the 20th century, despite the fact that more Americans claim German ancestry than any other. Germans, representing the largest immigrant population of the US in the mid-19th century, created a formidable cultural infrastructure comprising newspapers, theaters, music clubs, etc. (Joseph Pulitzer got his start in the newspaper business writing for the German language Westliche Post in St. Louis of which Schurz was both co-publisher and editor.) German-American culture was decimated by the First World War. Germany was not just the enemy but also the aggressor, and was thus quite naturally cast in a negative light. The Creel Committee, the government agency established to bolster support for the war and whose efforts can fairly be classified as propaganda, did its part to make an identification with German culture appear imprudent. American manufacturers of sauerkraut decided to market their product as “liberty cabbage,” fearing a drop in sales. German-Americans stopped speaking the language of the old country and insisted that their children only speak English. What remained of a German identity in the United States took another hit in World War II – who in their right mind would want to identify with the Nazis? Today, it seems that German-American culture survives in the various Oktoberfests held across the midwest. Beer and sausages, that's more or less what it amounts to.
Carl Schurz, I think, is better remembered in Germany than in the United States. I attended the Carl-Schurz-Schule in Frankfurt in ninth grade. Carl Schurz postage stamps have been issued by the German postal service, streets have been named for him, several popular biographies published. In the US there's Carl Schurz Park in Manhattan, also a statue in Morningside Park. That's about it.
Schurz in many ways is an ambivalent figure. Increasingly, he became a critic of Congressional Reconstruction and supported amnesty for Southern whites. He also supported Horace Greeley's embarrassing presidential campaign in 1872. He believed that economic science proved that paper money was an evil. Notwithstanding a sincere regard for the Native Americans he was responsible for as secretary of the interior, he believed that, to avoid destruction, their only recourse was assimilation, a cruelty in its own right. His anti-imperialism was colored by racism; he opposed the annexation of Santo Domingo, today's Dominican Republic, suggesting that the local population was incapable of rising to the level of civilization achieved by the US. From a position of undoubted personal rectitude, he was eager to dish out advice to all and sundry, particularly American presidents. He was, in the words of his biographer, a “scold.”
Still, Schurz personifies a German-American world that is, perhaps a little unjustly, forgotten. He was a German revolutionary who fought bravely for democracy; an immigrant to the United States who became a proud American; a man who rose from political fugitive to statesman and who dedicated his political life to the abolition of slavery. It's not as simple as all that, of course, but if we decide that we want to people our historical imagination with personalities we can identify with, we could do worse. Certainly there's more here than beer and sausages.
Posted by Carlos
‘The 9th of November represents the bright and simultaneously the dark sides of German history’, Berlin’s Governing Mayor Michael Müller declared a year ago. He was referring to two dates inextricably linked with Germany’s recent past: The nationwide pogrom of 1938, often referred to as Kristallnacht, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The two events seem as disparate as they are incisive. While one marked a shameful chapter of one dictatorship, the other brought about the end of another half a century later. However, these are but two of five significant and related November dates that shed light on Germany’s twentieth century.
The first of these took place in 1918. Amidst imminent defeat in the First World War, revolution broke out across Germany. As Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate, the Social Democratic politician Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the new German Republic from the balcony of the Reichstag in Berlin. (This was just hours before the Communist Karl Liebknecht, who would be murdered a few months later, proclaimed the Free Socialist Republic from the City Palace.) Scheidemann’s action symbolised the beginning of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s first twentieth-century democracy was named after the city to which the founding fathers of the new constitution had adjourned before returning to Berlin the following summer.
Politicians of the Weimar Republic were among the ‘November criminals’ derided by a hitherto little known Austrian demagogue in Bavaria. With the cunning and, at the time, innovative use of propaganda, Adolf Hitler and his coterie of gangsters began to exploit the susceptibility resulting from the inability to accept the loss of the war. Seeing their troops on French and Belgian soil, news of defeat came as a shock to many Germans. This allowed for the spread of the so-called Dolchstoßlegende (stab-in-the-back legend). Future president Paul von Hindenburg had given currency to this legend, unwilling to assume responsibility for the peace he and General Erich Ludendorff had sued for while in charge of military operations. It maintained that German soldiers had not been defeated in battle but betrayed by the home front instead. Scapegoats were found easily: Pacifists, activists on the political left and Jews.
The early years of the Weimar Republic were marked by a crisis that Hitler knew (almost) all too well to exploit. Struggling to pay monies, or reparations, demanded under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, Germany saw erstwhile enemy troops from France and Belgium occupy the industrial Ruhr area in 1923 while hyperinflation reached its climax that same year. Inspired by the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini, who had staged his infamous March on Rome the previous year, Hitler believed he could seize power in Bavaria and launch his own ‘March on Berlin’. On 8th November, Hitler and his SA troops (brown shirts) stormed into a meeting of right-wing politicians in Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller beer hall. Supported by Ludendorff, Hitler declared the end of the Bavarian and national governments and himself to be the new Chancellor; however, the authorities intercepted the demonstration they led the following morning. 4 policemen and 16 people later depicted as martyrs in National Socialist, or Nazi, propaganda were killed in the confrontation.
The failed coup, or Beer Hall Putsch, of 9th November 1923 marked both an end and a beginning. While it was the last notable political coup attempt of the post-war years, it gave Hitler a unique opportunity to promote himself. Tried before a sympathetic judge, he skilfully used the trial as a platform to make his name known beyond the borders of Bavaria. Given a remarkably light sentence of five years, which he never served in full, Hitler used his time in prison to write his autobiography, Mein Kampf. He had learned that the way to power was not by means of a coup, but by working within the political system. As he dedicated himself to reorganising the party and giving it the appearance of respectability after his release from prison, Hitler appointed the gifted propagandist Joseph Goebbels Gauleiter (district leader) in Berlin in 1926. Within a few years, Goebbels became a member of the Reichstag and took control of National Socialist propaganda across the country. These combined efforts finally bore fruit in 1933, when President Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor.
The most infamous 9th November took place in 1938. Defined as a so-called ‘race’ and degraded to second class citizens by the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, Jewish citizens now experienced physical targeting as a group. Fearing that Poland would cancel the citizenship of tens of thousands Polish Jews residing in Germany, the National Socialists had deported at least 12,000 and perhaps as many as 18,000 people to Poland at the end of October 1938. This included the parents of a young man of 17 years, Herschel Grynszpan, who lived in Paris at the time. On 7th November, he went to the German Embassy and shot the diplomat Ernst vom Rath, who died of his wounds two days later. Grynszpan had been arrested by the French authorities, but Joseph Goebbels, now Propaganda Minister, used this event as a pretext to step up the persecution of Jews. Hundreds of synagogues were damaged or burned to the ground, thousands of Jewish shops were looted and about 30,000 male Jews were sent to the concentration camps as a clear sign that there would be no future for Jews in Germany and to accelerate the process of emigration. It certainly was not too difficult to find a mob willing to do Goebbels’ dirty work for him – plenty of good National Socialists had been commemorating the 15th anniversary of the failed Beer Hall Putsch and its ‘martyrs’.
This commemoration almost saw Hitler become an unwitting ‘martyr’ a year later. A cabinet maker from southern Germany, Georg Elser, had come to the conclusion that Hitler was taking the country to war and needed to be stopped. Working in a stone quarry near Munich, Elser managed to obtain dynamite and explosives in order to construct a bomb with a timer. Elser was in attendance in the Bürgerbräukeller when Hitler gave his annual speech on the anniversary of the putsch attempt in 1938 and chose this location to strike against the popular dictator. Anticipating the speech of the following year, Elser dined in the beer hall, hid in a closet until its closure and then, under the cover of night, hollowed out a space in the column beside where Hitler would speak. Elser placed the timer inside the column and planned to lay low in Switzerland for a few days. Everything might have gone according to plan, had it not been for the outbreak of the Second World War. Hitler needed to return to Berlin swiftly and bad weather made it unfeasible to use an aeroplane, necessitating a change in schedule. The timer was set irrevocably at 21:20. Hitler left the building at 21:07. Eight people were killed and 63 were injured.
It was Elser who became the martyr instead. He was apprehended near the border with Switzerland and eventually interned as a special prisoner at the concentration camp Sachsenhausen, just north of Berlin. Since the National Socialist leadership could not believe that a single person could come within minutes of assassinating Hitler without detection, they interrogated Elser extensively. They initially suspected that Elser was working for British intelligence and even propagated this notion in the press. Their plan was to use Elser for a show trial after the war had been won. In lieu of this victory, Elser was brought to Dachau, the concentration camp near Munich, and murdered there in 1945.
Elser is commemorated today for the courage most others lacked. A monument bearing the profile of his face now adorns Berlin’s Wilhelmstraße, the same street where Hitler was given power. Given his solitary nature, it is hard to place Elser in a general category, save for one: Elser was German. This simple truth tells us something very important: If as humble a German as a cabinet maker with no economic privilege, no formal education beyond eighth grade, no social connections of note and with no political clout managed to see through the regime’s propaganda and come within just minutes of assassinating Hitler and other leading National Socialists, was it not possible, at the very least, for any German to say ‘no’?
Five decades later, the ability to say collectively ‘no’ characterised the East German protestors whose courage helped bring about the fall of the Berlin Wall. The division of Germany and Berlin was the result of the war Hitler had ignited, as the European Advisory Commission had agreed to this step in 1944. The ensuing differences between the Allies allowed for the creation of two states within the German nation, each a project to create a Germany fundamentally different from the one preceding it. Having built an extremely costly and ineffective wall on the boundary with West Germany in 1952, Communist East Germany finally sealed off the remaining borders with West Berlin in August 1961. The generation that witnessed the Berlin Wall come up never believed it would live to see it come down again.
The events of 1989 took the world by surprise. Four years previously, Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power in the Kremlin. Realising that Moscow could not prop up the Eastern Bloc on its own, he pursued a policy of glasnost (transparency) and perestroika (reform). Central and East European states were now encouraged to implement political and economic change on their own initiative, if they had not done so already. This would haunt the East German state under the ageing (and ill) Erich Honecker. In the spring, a reformist government in Hungary had opened its border with Austria, putting a crack in the iron curtain. East Germans wishing to leave their country without getting shot now tried to leave under the pretext of going on vacation. Many sought refuge in West German and other embassies in Budapest, Warsaw and Prague. Many of those who remained behind did so on their own terms. They protested peacefully for freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and, above all, freedom to travel. By autumn, it had become clear that the protestors, now numbering hundreds of thousands participating in peaceful demonstrations, had the upper hand.
9th November 1989 saw a remarkably peaceful and swift end to the Berlin Wall. Honecker had been forced to step down by members of his own government. His erstwhile protégé, Egon Krenz, tried to present himself as a reformer. The Krenz government decided to give matters the semblance of control by allowing East German citizens to leave their country. Visas were to be obtained without difficulty. This was a departure from previous practice, which saw requests to leave processed for years, often with a negative outcome. This decision was made on 9th November and was not meant to be disclosed until the next day; however, an international press conference was scheduled for 9th November. Not accustomed to the questions of critical foreign journalists, the government official chairing the conference, Günter Schabowski, was grilled on the easing of travel restrictions. Having confirmed that East Germans should be able to cross into West Berlin and confronted with the question when this would go into effect, Schabowski said the magic words sofort, unverzüglich (immediately, without delay). Overnight, tens of thousands crossed into West Berlin. What could have ended as a bloodbath became the peaceful overthrow of the greatest symbol of German division.
In a certain sense, this event marked the final stage of the end of the Second World War for Germans. In the months following 9th November 1989, the two German states increasingly wanted to reunite politically; however, this was not a matter for Germans to decide. This decision was in the hands of the four occupying powers of the war: The United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union. Eventually, the ‘Two Plus Four Agreement’ paved the way for German Unity on 3rd October 1990, when the East German state legally dissolved itself and joined the West German state, that is, the Federal Republic of Germany. The following year, Germany obtained full national sovereignty, for the first time since 1945. The lesson had been a tough one: It was easy to start a war, whose horrors were unimaginable, but much harder to end one, as it took almost half a century to come full circle.
Owing to 9th November, 1918-1923-1938-1939-1989 form a chain vital to understanding Germany’s present. The Weimar Republic of 1918 inspired Germany’s current democracy profoundly, but not without the shadow cast by the man who did so much to undermine it. Celebrations of Hitler’s coup attempt of 1923 were accompanied by a pogrom in 1938 and an attempt on his life in 1939. Fifty years later, the divisions wrought by the war Hitler had caused were contested by citizens brave enough to challenge the dictatorship that governed them. 9th November therefore is not just a day of either commemoration or celebration, but one of reflection on Germany’s, and by extension Europe’s, dark and shameful twentieth century. And on what we can learn from it today.