I couldn’t be there in person, so I followed last weekend’s Berlin celebrations on television. I enjoyed revisiting the iconic photos of people waving and dancing on the Wall, men and women hammering away at what had been one of the most fortified borders in the world. And I liked the new images, the line of white (biodegradable) balloons marking the border that once divided the city, all of them released into the sky on the final day of festivities.
Watching the public spectacle, I sensed a subtext: relief. Finally, thanks to the East German people, all Germans have an historic event they can commemorate without shame and guilt.
Since the Third Reich, German atrocities have sidled up right next to music, literature and philosophy. Think: Beethoven and Eichmann; Goethe and Goebbels; Hegel and Himmler - two sides of the same coin that is German history. Hitler, as we know, loved Wagner operas.
As a German, it’s hard to feel proud.
November 9 is a case in point. This is not just the day the Wall opened, but also the day of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Crystal.” Such a misnomer - if you didn’t know better, the term might conjure up bubbling champagne flutes and sparkling chandeliers. But November 9, 1938, was a pogrom. On that night, Germans gathered to destroy Synagogues and Jewish businesses in cities and towns. Kristallnacht signaled clearly the Nazi’s intention to eliminate Jews with force and violence.
I imagine German children peeking through drawn curtains, witnessing adults – maybe their uncles and neighbors – smashing the windows of the corner grocery, the pharmacy, the bookstore. Maybe the children saw shop owners running for cover, crying, falling on the shattered glass. Maybe they saw beatings, killings. Once the windows were smashed, the looting began. The same people who wrought destruction filled their pockets with Jewish property. This is one of the seldom talked about open secrets of the Nazi era: the massive redistribution of wealth that resulted from the persecution and murder of Jews. (But that’s another topic.)
Maybe the parents shooed their kids to bed, muttering vaguely and shaking their heads. And on their way to school the next morning, these children felt glass crunch underfoot and saw the street sweepers clear away glittering shards along with the autumn leaves. Restoring order. Except of course, within that order, hell was breaking loose.
Turn back the clock twenty more years, to November 9, 1918, just two days before Germany surrendered and World War I ended. It was a time of political upheaval with right wing Socialists battling left wing Socialists in parliament and in the streets. On November 9, 1918, the Kaiser abdicated. Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann declared the Weimar Republic at the Berlin Reichstag. Two hours later, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the Free Socialist Republic from the steps of the Imperial Palace. (I wonder if anyone has traced the possibility that the duality of the Weimar Republic was reflected, years later, in the differences between East and West Germany.)
If Germany’s first parliamentary Republic had not been born in strife on November 9, maybe the Führer would not have been able to gather the following to attempt a coup five years later. On November 9, 1923 Hitler and his supporters marched to the center of Munich in an effort to take over the Bavarian government in the notorious Biergarten Putsch. Police managed to contain what was supposed to be the first step of the Nazi “March on Berlin” - but we know how things ultimately unfolded.
I’m not saying that the opening of the Wall shouldn’t be celebrated. I was in Berlin on that historic day and I’ll never forget the euphoric feeling of liberation. When my East Berlin friend appeared at my West Berlin doorstep in the early morning hours of November 10, I thought I was dreaming. Together, we joined the ecstatic crowd at the Wall. Carrying my baby in a snuggli, I helped my two-year old daughter hammer a chip from the concrete.
Still, I hope that in the midst of celebration, Germans remember that long before the Wall opened, November 9 was a day when ransacking Germans consolidated a regime that took millions of lives and forever left its mark on the world.
If you only remember one date in Germany’s history, let it be November 9. The date stands for both sides of history. It invites discussions about contradictions, what ifs, and the long shadows cast by war, genocide and the Wall. It also offers an opportunity to consider the long-term unfolding of historical events: Germany would not have been divided by the Allies in 1945 if there’d been no strife in the Weimar Republic, no Hitler, no World War Two, and no Kristallnacht.