November is a very interesting month. For a lot of the English speaking world 11 November is Armistice Day, Veteran’s Day, or Remembrance Day. These holidays remember and honor WWI and those who fought in that brutal, bloody war.
In Germany the 11th is not a holiday, but this week is still important for another couple of reasons, because of November 9th, often referred to as Schicksaltag or Day of Destiny or Fate. There are five major events in German history that happened on this day, but two of the most important are Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) and the Fall of the Berlin Wall. These two events, taken together are very interesting looks at Germany and its history.
Kristallnacht – Go ahead, click on that link, read the Wikipedia page about this, it’s very interesting. In 1938, Nazi soldiers marched into the Jewish quarters of the cities and smashed windows, ransacked and destroyed everything they saw. Almost a hundred were killed and thousands were gathered and shipped off to concentration camps. Synagogues were burned and completely destroyed. It was one of the single worst nights of the entire Nazi regime, from Wikipedia, “The Times of London wrote at the time: “No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenceless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.”
Such a tragedy it was, such a low point in German history, but a night not to be forgotten.
Mauerfall, the Fall of the Berlin Wall. This is an even that has always fascinated me about German history. I was four when it happened in 1989, but I don’t remember anything about it at the time. The first memory I have of the Berlin Wall is in middle school when a German teacher was talking about it, probably ten years after it happened. I have watched a lot of documentaries and news programs about this event, it really is impressive to look at how the Berlin Wall suddenly fell and lost all of its meaning.
In the months leading up to the November 9th opening of the wall, there were several large demonstrations and riots in East German cities, like Leipzig. Other East Germans fled to neighboring countries like Czechoslovakia and Hungary and found their way west from there. With all of this pressure from the people the East German government decided to make a few concessions. They decided to allow people to travel through the border crossings without the long, involved process that had previously been needed. Günter Schabowski, a spokesperson was given some information about this change in process and announced it on the 9th of November, but having not been involved in all of the discussions, he did not have all of the information. He announced that East Germans would now be allowed to travel to the west. A reporter asked the obvious question, When does this take effect? There is a video clip of this, and Günter Schabowski looks a little lost, reading through his notes and utters the infamous words, “As far as I know this takes effect immediately.”
Hearing that, thousands started for the border crossings, demanding to be let through, but the guards had not yet been informed. Some turned the people away, some let them through, having seen the same press conference. I have even seen one interview with a German guard who said, “What, should I shoot them all?” referring to all of the people gathering in the streets. People came from everywhere, East and West gathered at the wall and began chipping away at it, climbing over it, walking through it.
And West Germany had a wonderful plan – they gave every East German who came 100 West German Mark, their East German currency was almost worthless in the west, the exchange rate was 100 -> 12.5, falling to 100 ->9 throughout the day. This seems kinda crazy, to hand out $100 to everybody who asks for it? But most of that money was immediately spent by the East Germans on luxuries and some not so luxurious items that they could not get back home. In one documentary they had a clip of a man in a grocery store looking at the oranges and bananas, just admiring the fresh fruit.
I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be in Berlin that night. It wouldn’t matter which side of the wall you lived on, the city was finally coming together again after 28 years. I get emotional and weepy just watching clips of the celebrations. I feel drawn to this, to these people. Such a night of glorious jubilation. A night that Germans will never forget.
And so November in Germany is definitely a time to remember the past, to look to their history while at the same time planning for the future. They many not celebrate the same 11 November holidays marking the end of the first World War which they lost, but Germany does remember November as a month in which their country was reunited, reformed, rebuilt. This is a week in which I am proud to be German (or Germanic, or a Germanophile), I wear the Black, Red, and Gold proudly. I sing about Einigkeit, Recht, and Freiheit, and I imagine what it would have been like to be in Berlin on 9 November 1989.