Marking a date ringing in history not once but four times

 

LETTER FROM BERLIN: Germans remember November 9th as both a day of pride and a day of shame, says DEREK SCALLY

ON A grey day yesterday, Germany experienced its annual total eclipse of history.

Exactly four times in the last century, fate has chosen November 9th for events that changed Germany forever.

Remembering these four anniversaries on one day is an emotionally draining business. For Germans, November 9th is simultaneously a day of pride and shame. It's a day of joy for what is, of sadness for what might have been, and of anger at what will never be.

The anniversary omnibus began in Berlin 90 years ago yesterday, on a similarly grey and gloomy day. The Great War was clearly lost and a mutinous mood was spreading among German soldiers, sailors and workers.

After they all joined forces to march on Berlin, the alarmed imperial chancellor Max von Baden realised there was only one way to prevent another Bolshevik revolution, this time on German soil: to bring down the monarchy.

At noon on November 9th, 1918, he released a short statement beginning: "The Kaiser . . . has decided to renounce the throne."

Some time later, a telegram from von Baden reached Kaiser Wilhelm II at his army headquarters in the Belgian town of Spa. After 503 years of rule by the Hohenzollern family, his services were no longer required.

Thus began some of the most extraordinary hours in German history. At 2pm, the Social Democrat (SPD) Philipp Scheidemann announced from a window of the Reichstag the birth of a new German republic.

A short time later, Karl Liebknecht, co-founder of the left-wing Marxist revolutionary Spartacist League, leaned from a window of the kaiser's palace to declare a "free socialist republic" and call for "world revolution".

Liebknecht was too late. The swift abdication and hurried transition to what became the Weimar Republic resulted in one of the great "what-ifs" of German history - what if the kaiser had survived in a limited role? Would it have prevented the Germans, squeezed by dizzying reparations in the vacuum of the vanished monarchy, from projecting their dreams and ambitions onto a failed Austrian painter?

It was just five years after the kaiser's abdication when Adolf Hitler picked November 9th to launch a putsch against the Bavarian state government.

In the hope of starting a Mussolini-style "march on Berlin", Hitler launched a march to Munich's Feldherrenhalle. The revolution ended in a riot, the so-called Beer Hall Putsch, with the death of 14 demonstrators, three police and the imprisonment of Hitler.

A short 15 years later, again on November 9th, Nazi officials, police and firemen looked on passively as mobs launched "spontaneous", co-ordinated attacks around the country, destroying and plundering 7,500 Jewish shops and razing 200 synagogues to the ground.

Some 91 German Jews lost their lives in the so-called "Night of Broken Glass" or Kristallnacht; 30,000 Jewish men were put in concentration camps. The night of terror ended with a cynical fine of one million Reichsmarks being imposed on German Jews for the damage caused.

"My father told me in 1945 that, with Kristallnacht, the Nazis wanted to test the public to see how far they could go with their Jewish persecution," said Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Central Committee of Jews in Germany, who experienced Kristallnacht as a child. "And when no resistance was felt, a direct line could be drawn from the pogrom to Auschwitz."

Another line between the two emerged yesterday with the publication of what are believed to be the original blueprints for the most notorious Nazi death camp.

The Bildtabloid published yellowing plans of Auschwitz from 1941, purporting to bear the signature of Heinrich Himmler, commander of the Gestapo. Most significantly, the plans clearly show a room attached to dressing rooms labelled "Gas Chamber".

Bildsaid the documents, which have yet to be officially verified, "refute once and for all claims by those who deny the Holocaust even took place".

Yesterday's 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht meant more muted remembrance of Germany's most recent November 9th anniversary. It was on a grey evening in 1989, in an airless East Berlin press room, that the sweating politburo member Günter Schabowski announced that "permission for private trips would now be provided at short notice" to East German citizens.

Asked by Italian journalist Ricardo Ehrmann about when the new provision would apply, Schabowski replied: "As far as I know, immediately." Within hours, East Germans were storming the checkpoints and, after 28 years, the hated Berlin Wall was toppled and quickly removed. A year before the 20th anniversary, Germans now realise something is missing.

With every other November 9th event granted memorials and plaques, there is growing consensus that the ordinary Germans who pushed through the peaceful revolution of 1989 should be honoured with a memorial, too. Perhaps such a memorial will help restore an emotional equilibrium to November 9th, Germany's annual total eclipse of history.