This day in history: Why is November 9 such a significant date in Germany?
November 9 is a significant date in German history - witness to so many momentous occasions that it has become known as the country’s “Day of Fate” (Schicksalstag). From the founding of the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch to the Fall of the Berlin Wall, we take a look at some of the country’s defining moments, which all happened to fall on this day in history.
Why is November 9 a significant date in German history?
November 9 is known in Germany as its Schicksalstag (Day of Fate) because five defining events in the country’s history have taken place on this exact date - sometimes by coincidence, and sometimes not.
Examining the events of these five days gives a poignant insight into the shaping of modern Germany: the struggles of freedom and democracy against the powers of fascism and tyranny; the sparks of hope against the moments of darkness.
Execution of Robert Blum, November 9, 1848
November 9 was first sealed as an important date in German history in 1848, when the left-liberal leader Robert Blum was arrested during the Vienna Revolts and executed, crushing a liberal revolution that had sought to secure basic freedoms for ordinary citizens.
The beginning of democracy in Germany
Growing civil unrest - driven by a poor harvest, worsening conditions for workers, and the birth of communist and socialist movements with the publication of Marx and Engels’ manifesto - sparked a series of revolts in 1848, in Paris, then in Vienna, and then in Berlin.
In Germany - which at that time was a collection of disparate duchies, kingdoms and states, rather than a single country - people demanded better working conditions, democracy, and the unification of German-speaking peoples. Rulers responded to their demands and formed a preliminary parliament in Frankfurt, which was tasked with writing a constitution for a unified Germany.
A native of Cologne and a former apprentice gardener, Robert Blum represented the Kingdom of Saxony at this parliament. He had fought his entire life for democracy and German unity, and was also outspoken on issues like gender equality and combatting anti-Semitism.
What happened on November 9, 1848?
When revolutionary fighting broke out in Vienna in October 1848, Blum went to join the fray and was arrested on November 4. Although his status in the Frankfurt parliament should have given him immunity, he was sentenced to death by military tribunal and executed on November 9, 1848. His last words were said to be: “Ich sterbe für Freiheit” (I die for freedom).
Image: Attributed to Carl Steffeck, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Blum’s death became a symbol of the failure of the 1848 revolutions to secure freedom and democracy for the masses. The Frankfurt Parliament ultimately failed in its attempts to implement a constitution or unify Germany, as the rulers of the disparate states would not accede to legislation that limited their powers. It was not until 1871 that these kingdoms were unified into a single German Empire, with King Wilhelm I as its Emperor.
Dethroning of Kaiser Wilhelm II and beginning of Weimar Republic, November 9, 1918
By a funny twist of fate, it was on another November 9 - a little under 50 years later - that this German Empire came crashing down. In 1918, as Germany’s military defeat in the First World War became inevitable, Emperor Wilhelm II abdicated, fleeing to the Netherlands and leaving his empire to collapse behind him.
What happened on November 9, 1918?
Although Wilhelm II was optimistic about his country’s chances of winning the war when it first broke out in 1914, by November 1918 his army was in retreat and it was increasingly clear that Germany had no hope of being victorious.
With public mood rapidly turning against him and a whisper of revolution in the wind, Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate on November 9, 1918. He boarded a train to the Netherlands the next day and so ended the German monarchy.
In the afternoon of November 9, the deputy chairman of the Social Democrats, Philipp Scheidemann, greeted crowds from the balcony of the Reichstag in Berlin and announced the birth of a new German republic - what would later become known as the Weimar Republic, after the city in Thuringia where its constitution was signed. A few hours later, a communist republic was also proclaimed. The founding of these competing twin republics set the stage for the following years of political turbulence.
Two days later, on November 11, 1918, Germany signed an armistice to end the Great War. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were so punitive and humiliating that they would later prove an important pain point for the spreading of seeds of discord and nationalism, ultimately paving the way towards World War II.
Beer Hall Putsch, November 8-9, 1923
The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the NSDAP or the Nazi Party) was formed in the early days of the Weimar Republic, against a tumultuous backdrop of hyperinflation, poverty, revolts and political turmoil. In November 1923, when the party was still relatively small, it staged a chaotic putsch to try to overthrow the government and seize power in Germany.
What happened on November 9, 1923?
Hitler - then the relatively unknown leader of a small agitator party in Bavaria - launched his attempted coup from a crowded beer hall on November 9, 1923. Having the previous night stormed a meeting of government officials and forced them at gunpoint to support his revolution, he stood before his supporters, fired a shot into the ceiling and declared the end of the “government of November criminals” - by which he meant those who had signed the 1918 surrender.
The idea was for party members to march from Munich to Berlin, where they would forcibly take control of the government, but they were quickly crushed by police. 16 Nazi party members and four police officers were killed.
The NSDAP was banned and Hitler was sentenced to five years in prison, of which he served just nine months. He used his time behind bars to pen Mein Kampf, his notorious work that detailed his political beliefs and became the thought framework for Nazi rule.
Sowing the seeds of Nazi fascism and World War II
Far from being a coincidence, the historian Heinrich August Winkler has written that Hitler’s putsch was timed deliberately for November 9, exactly five years after the proclamation of the German republic - the kind of pseudo-mythological symbolism that would characterise Nazi propaganda and bombast in later years, and help the party secure a hold over German popular imagination.
The putsch also helped convince Hitler that the correct route to securing power (at least at first) was through democratic elections. After his release from prison, Hitler sought to rebrand his National Socialist party, wanting to transform its image from one of a gaggle of loutish agitators to a respectable party suited to the halls of power - and began to gain significant voter support from 1930, eventually winning the election of 1933.
Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), November 9, 1938
One of the darkest chapters of German history would follow a few years later on November 9, 1938, when Nazi thugs torched synagogues, smashed the windows of shops and rounded up scores of Jewish men during what became known as the “Night of Broken Glass” or Kristallnacht. On this night, any shred of hope that Jews would remain safe under Nazi rule evaporated.
What happened on November 9, 1938?
Once again, the date is not a coincidence. On the evening of November 9, 1938, senior Nazis like Joseph Goebbels honoured the failed 1923 putsch - which had been declared a day of remembrance under Hitler’s rule in honour of the Nazi lives lost - to rile up supporters who had been emboldened by three waves of anti-Semitic legislation.
During the horrific night of violence that followed, 267 synagogues were burned and destroyed, an estimated 7.500 German-Jewish shops were vandalised and ransacked, and at least 91 Jews were killed. The following day, more than 30.000 men were arrested and sent to concentration camps in Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen - marking the true beginning of state persecution and genocide.
Image: Center for Jewish History, NYC, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Historians have also suggested that Kristallnacht was deliberately timed for November 9: the manufactured chronology of the journey - from the 1918 November Revolution to the start of a new political force in 1923, to the implementation of new Nazi racial policies in 1938 - was exactly the kind of symmetry Hitler’s well-oiled propaganda machine liked and put to great effect.
Nowadays, people in Germany remember the Night of Broken Glass by polishing the Stolpersteine by their houses and laying flowers on November 9.
Fall of the Berlin Wall, November 8, 1989
Hitler’s defeat in 1945 led to the dividing of Germany into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the west and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the east. In 1961, following months of escalating tensions between the western allies and the Soviet Union, and the departure of droves of GDR citizens heading west, the GDR closed its borders and began building a wall. Berlin remained divided into west and east for 28 years before, on November 9, 1989, it finally came down in a joyous, peaceful revolution.
A bloodless revolution
With East Germany lagging behind the west economically, a huge disparity began to open up between the freedoms and standards of living enjoyed by people in the west and in the east. This served to fuel discontent with the East German government, and 1989 saw a huge increase in the number of demonstrations against the state.
Eventually, the government saw the writing on the wall and decided to partially yield to protestors’ demands and allow travel between East and West Germany.
What happened on November 9, 1989?
It was left to government spokesperson Günter Schabowski to announce this change and, at a press conference on November 9, 1989, he delivered the news. Reporters were surprised, and asked Schabowski when the change would come into effect. This was set for November 10, to give border guards time to prepare, but Schabowski had not been briefed on this, and so he improvised, giving the now famous reply: “Ab sofort” (immediately).
Those who saw the news rushed immediately to the border, where baffled and overwhelmed guards soon opened the barriers and allowed people to pass through. The night’s events sparked a chain reaction that soon saw the dismantling of the concrete wall, David Hasselhoff crooning from a crane, and the long-awaited reunification of Germany.
Day of fate: Why is November 9 not the national day of Germany?
When the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunified, there were some calls for November 9 to be made a national day in Germany - to many, it seemed a logical choice.
However, given the significance and harrowing nature of other events that took place on this day, it was eventually decided that November 9 was too emotive a date. For this reason, October 3 was eventually chosen as the date for German Unity Day, and is marked by a public holiday across Germany.
November 9 therefore remains a date for reflection, for people to consider the twisting - sometimes dark, sometimes light - road that has led Germany to the place it is today.
Thumb image credit: Sven Hansche / Shutterstock.com
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