This year November 9 marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But November 9 is a peculiar date in recent German history. It symbolizes the long struggle for freedom, sovereignty and democracy in the last 200 years. On this date high hopes are intertwined with harsh setbacks and the abyss of tyranny and dictatorship.
1848: The March Revolution and the Murder of Robert Blum
The first historic turning point of this kind took place in 1848. It was the year of the March Revolution, the first uprising in the German territories (a Germany did not exist before 1871) demanding democracy and national unity. This revolution was the climax of a broader social conflict situation that existed at least since the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. Since then, the German states had been searching for their way to modernity. At the centre of this conflict was the question of the sovereign’s legitimacy. Napoleon’s campaigns through Europe shook the old order. But the beginning of the 19th century was a restoration period in the German territories, with the upper classes consolidating their power once again. But the upcoming middle classes emancipated themselves and demanded universal rights, what eventually led to the uprising in March 1848 with the constituent national assembly in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt.
Robert Blum was a member of this assembly. He was an exception among all the wealthy middle-class academics. Blum descended from a poor family and had to work hard all his life to gain some wealth, which made him particularly popular among lower middle classes.
In October 1848 he travelled with a delegation to Vienna, where the revolution was about to gain some momentum. But he did not just deliver the resolution from the Frankfurt assembly but participated in the barricades fighting. He was wounded, captured and despite his parliamentary immunity sentenced to death. In the early morning of November 9 he was shot. This was a severe affront against the newly emerging parliamentarism and a clear challenge from Vienna.
Blum’s execution and the suppression of the uprising in Vienna meant victory for the revolution’s opponents in Austria. The assemblymen in Frankfurt had no choice but to place their last hope in Prussia. But it became clear that those opposing the Revolution would fight back eagerly. The Revolution’s momentum was gone. The conflict escalated further with radicalising revolutionaries and the authorities pushing back violently. Soon the revolutionaries were conducting only rear-guard battles.
Despite some decent results, like the declaration of fundamental rights and the finalization of the Frankfurt Constitution in spring 1849, the representatives of the old order regained the upper hand. The Revolution failed and the Frankfurt Constitution never became law. But still, all this was the first major step to modernity for the German middle classes and the Frankfurt Constitution became very influential in the German constitutional tradition with direct links to the Weimar Constitution and the current Grundgesetz. On November 9, 1848, Robert Blum became a martyr and a tragic symbol for the idealistic and fearless fight for freedom and democracy.
1918: The Proclamation of the first Republic
This fight had to rest in the aftermath of the failed Revolution, until on November 9, 1918, under heavy contractions, the first German democracy was born. The social democrat Philip Scheidemann declared from the balcony of the Reichstag building in Berlin: “The old and the frail, the monarchy has collapsed! Long live the new! Long live the German Republic!”
The old, the old order of the European monarchies, became frail, not only because of the Great War that had brought so much distress over Germany and all of Europe. This war was already lost for Germany in the fall of 1918, when the German fleet was ordered to leave the harbour to fight the vastly superior British fleet. The sailors rejected the command. The following Kiel mutiny was the prelude to the November Revolution that struck the entire country. When chancellor Max von Baden announced the abdication of the Kaiser on November 9, several actors seized the moment.
Only a few hours after Scheidemann, the communist Karl Liebknecht, seeing himself on a world revolutionary mission, declared a socialist republic. On this November 9 in 1918, two opposing ideas for post-war Germany faced each other directly: a civic-parliamentary democracy and a socialist democracy following the role model of the Soviet Union. The following weeks were a tough, civil war-like struggle for Germany’s future with the advocates of a parliamentary democracy as victors. Thereby, Scheidemann’s proclamation of the republic became the start of the Weimar Republic, founded in 1919, as the first German democracy. 70 years after the murder of Robert Blum, the old order was overcome.
1923: Hitler’s attempted coup
But the communists were by no means the only ones fighting the despised bourgeois democracy of the Weimar Republic. On November 9, 1923, Adolf Hitler instigated a “march on Berlin”, inspired by Italy’s Mussolini. But his “national revolution” was stopped by the Bavarian police in Munich. The national socialist party was banned and Hitler was thrown into jail, where he wrote “Mein Kampf”.
The coup failed, but the Nazis demonstrated the ruthlessness with which they would strive for power. From then on, they were a serious actor in German politics. Only ten years later they won the general elections and Hitler became the German chancellor. Therefore, November 9, 1923, marks the beginning of the national socialist movement’s ascent under Adolf Hitler, foreshadowing the demise of the liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic.
1938: November Pogrom
Since then, the Nazi party leadership met every year on November 9 commemorating the failed coup. So they did in 1938. Shortly before that, on November 7, the polish Jew Herschel Grynszpan shot a German diplomat in desperation, because his entire family had been deported. The news of the attempted assassination led to some antisemitic riots in Germany. On the following day the Nazi newspapers reported with the utmost sensation-mongering to fuel the hatred. On the evening of November 8 the first synagogue was set on fire with the first casualties. On November 9 the wounded diplomat died. That night Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda, gave a sensational speech to the gathered Nazi leaders in Munich, blaming “the Jewish world conspiracy”. He applauded the pogroms, already taking place. He was careful in stating that it should not appear as if the Nazi party was the initiator of the pogroms. But the attending party officials understood very well that they were expected to organize further action, which they did by giving commands to the local groups. What seemed to be “spontaneous public anger” was well organised by the Nazis. They started to harvest their antisemitic sowing. In the night of November 9 countless synagogues were burned down, thousands of shops and apartments were destroyed. In almost all German cities ordinary citizens participated in the pogroms, others cheered and howled. As an immediate result of that night more than 1.300 Jews were killed. In the following days more than 30.000 Jews were deported to concentration camps.
What the Nazi propaganda called “Kristallnacht” (Night of Broken Glass) was a brutal turning point. The discrimination against Jews that took place in Germany on a daily basis since 1933 turned to blatant terror. November 9, 1938, was the beginning of the industrial mass murder of the Holocaust.
1989: The Peaceful Revolution
Germany lost the war and was divided by the victors. In 1949 the two German states were founded that formed the first front line during the Cold War. Until 1961 more than four million citizens had already left socialist East Germany for the West. At the beginning of the 60s the number grew more and more every week. This was a massive challenge for the socialist regime. The construction of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961, put a sudden end to this development. The citizens of the socialist East were kept as property of the ruling elite – with no respect for their self-determination and dignity. But the situation in East Germany did not improve.
The economy was miserable and got worse over the years. There was a rent cap, freezing the prices at the level of 1936. As a result, the housing situation in East Germany was unbearable for many at the end of the 80s. A quarter of all houses were ripe for demolition, only half of all houses had a central heating system. Furthermore, people had to wait for years to be assigned to an apartment. This was particularly frustrating for young adults who had to continue living in the rooms of their childhood with their parents in the meantime – even when they already had children of their own. Medical care was in critical condition, lacking equipment, medicine and physicians. Not to mention the environmental disaster socialism caused in East Germany, with dead rivers and lakes and at many places toxic air to breathe. Everywhere the socialist economy of scarcity caused distress.
At the same time the regime became ever more authoritarian. The apparatus of the Stasi, the socialist secret service, became the biggest in the world with ca. 91,000 full-time officers and more than 200,000 so called “informal employees”, informants who spied on their family, colleagues and friends. The system became ever more rigid for intellectual dissidents, political opposition and simply anybody who dared to think about leaving the country. Whoever tried to leave East Germany was declared a public enemy, was captured, tortured and most probably imprisoned for years. Those who tried to cross the border without authorisation were shot in the back or torn into pieces by landmines and spring-guns. 270 incidents are validated, where people were murdered while trying to leave East Germany. Many more died because of accidents or committed suicide after they failed.
The economic and moral bankruptcy of socialism led to an atmosphere of general discontent at the end of the 80s. The fall of 1989 was the first time since the suppression of the uprising on June 17, 1953, that people came together for mass demonstrations in East Germany. The courage of those citizens cannot be praised enough. As said above, those who dared to criticise the socialist party were usually persecuted and incarcerated. There was not a lot to hope for. It was a well-established socialist tradition to crush any kind of uprising. Not only in East Germany in 1953, but also in Hungary 1956 and even in the summer of 1989 the communist party of China massacred those peacefully protesting in Tiananmen Square.
It was sheer despair that motivated the protesters in the East German cities of Dresden, Leipzig and East-Berlin. But when Gorbachev in Moscow promised reforms, the socialist regime in Germany began to stagger. It is only thanks to the linkage of highly improbable events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.
That evening, a draft for a new travel statute was decided in less than 20 minutes by the socialist party and handed to the press spokesman, Günter Schabowsky. He read it at the press conference without particular care for the specific formulations. This statute allowed “private journeys to foreign countries” “without any preconditions“. The journalists were perplexed and asked when this was supposed to become effective. Schabowski did not think long and said “as far as I know, this is effective immediately”. Nobody was able to fully grasp what was going on. At first, citizens were curious and went to the border stations in East Berlin. But the soldiers did not know anything and refused to let anybody cross the border. When the evening news began to report on it, more and more people went to the border. Soon it was thousands, demanding peacefully to cross the border to West Berlin. But nobody had given any special commands to the soldiers. They still were ordered to prevent any unauthorised border crossing – with deadly force if necessary. Eventually they could not handle the masses anymore and thankfully simply opened the border between East and West Berlin. From then there was no holding back. Thousands crossed the border to West Berlin, only to come back the same night since their children were still sleeping and they had to work the next day. But the destiny of the socialist regime in East Germany was determined. Only one year later it was gone, and Germany was peacefully reunited in liberty. Nobody would have dared to dream of this for decades.
November 9 today
For Germans, November 9 is equally a day of celebrations and of mourning. This date intertwines the high hopes and deep consternations that represent the long struggle for freedom and democracy in Germany. This date symbolises those experiences that became the liberal core of German society – be it as directly distinct from authoritarian and totalitarian dictatorships or as the general pursuit of liberty, republicanism and democracy.
In this year of the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall we especially remember the desire for freedom and the bold fight against injustice that can succeed against all odds. But the full meaning of this date becomes apparent only when we accept its ambivalences; when we dare to face the abyss; when we empathise with those who had the courage to take on overwhelming powers.
The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of socialism and the reunification of Germany remain a stroke of luck. As somebody who was born in the summer of 1990 in East Berlin, I know that nothing of this can be taken for granted. What stopped the East German socialists from following the Chinese “role model” of Tiananmen Square? China was on the edge in 1989, too. Today the communist party is still in power. In some German state parliaments the direct successor of the East German socialist party recently became the strongest faction. And a right-wing populist party that belittles the holocaust as “bird shit” came second. So, even today our liberties are anything but self-evident. And when it is only one month ago that a heavily armed neo-Nazi tries to massacre Jews in a synagogue on Yom Kippur, we have to realise that it is not sufficient to pay lip service at anniversaries.