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.