For America and its allies, Nov. 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. Events across Europe and around the world will commemorate this solemn day.
In Germany, however, the importance of Nov. 11 is overshadowed by a date two days earlier: Nov. 9, 1918, when a widespread anti-government revolution reached Berlin, forcing Kaiser Wilhelm II to abdicate his throne and go into exile. Just hours after the monarchy was overthrown, Philipp Scheidemann and Karl Liebknecht, politicians from rival Social Democratic parties, separately announced the birth of a German republic.
The political chaos of Nov. 9 helped bring the war to an end two days later, but also laid a fragile foundation for the first German democracy, one that would be brought down by the Nazis 15 years later.
Until a wave of books, articles and television programs appeared in Germany to mark the centenary of the start of World War I in 2014, Germany’s public memory of the Great War had been obscured by the long shadow of World War II. The launch of the German republic is now remembered as only the first of four important historic events to have taken place in Germany on Nov. 9, events that shaped the 20th century and are in danger of being forgotten.
On Nov. 9, 1923, Adolf Hitler and 2,000 compatriots attempted unsuccessfully to overthrow the weak German democracy by staging a coup in Munich. The action earned Hitler five years in prison, where he dictated the first volume of his infamous manifesto, “Mein Kampf.”
Fifteen years later, on Nov. 9, 1938, the Nazis staged the horrific Reichspogromnacht, euphemistically labeled Kristallnacht or “Night of Broken Glass.” Over the course of that night, one of the darkest in German history, thousands of Jewish businesses across the country were vandalized and looted, 1,200 synagogues were burned, 97 German Jews were killed and 30,000 were deported to concentration camps.
By sheer coincidence, the Berlin Wall fell on that same fateful date, Nov. 9, 1989. The East German government had for months been under pressure from protesters seeking democratic rights and freedoms. When, on the afternoon of Nov. 9, a spokesman for the East German Socialist Unity Party improvised an announcement that East Germany would lift travel restrictions to the West, no one could have guessed that the Berlin Wall would fall by evening’s end. Once the two Germanys were reunited, however, the terrible associations of the Nazis with Nov. 9 made it impossible for that date to serve as a new national holiday.
The “Day of German Unity” is celebrated instead on Oct. 3, when East and West Germany officially became one nation. Most Germans agree that Oct. 3 is a strange holiday, devoid of common traditions and associations. Nov. 9, on the other hand, is emotionally freighted for the Germans, filled with tragedy and uplift, guilt and joy, shame and pride.
The framing of 20th-century German history around Nov. 9, from the final days of World War I through the Third Reich to the end of the Cold War, reminds us of how the German people have continually grappled with their nation’s past. Germany’s ongoing efforts at Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “coming to terms with the past,” have been held up as a model for other countries confronting their own sins of the past, including the United States.
In recent years, however, a new attitude among Germans toward their nation’s past and its responsibility to remember has taken hold. The far-right political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has steadily gained popular support since the refugee crisis that brought 1 million migrants to Germany in 2015. This development parallels the rise of Trumpism in the United States. Just as Trump provoked outrage with his claim in the wake of the 2017 Charlottesville rally that there were “very fine people on both sides,” leaders of Alternative for Germany have sparked controversy by suggesting that it might be time to put an end to Germany’s so-called Schuldkult, its “cult of guilt.”
In January 2017, Björn Höcke, an AfD party leader, drew sharp criticism from opponents in the German parliament and in the media when he described the enormous and moving Holocaust memorial in Berlin as a Denkmal der Schande, or “monument of disgrace.” In a September poll, 16 percent of Germans expressed support for the Alternative for Germany, a new high, and the AfD is now the most popular party in the five states that once comprised East Germany.
This Nov. 9, the lessons of Germany’s 20th century seem at risk of being lost. The Weimar constitution established after the fall of the German monarchy on Nov. 9, 1918 guaranteed for the first time unprecedented democratic rights and freedoms to the German people. The people then stood by as Hitler and the Nazis subverted that constitution and suspended civil liberties for Jews and other so-called “enemies of the state.” Over the past decades, Germany has insisted on taking responsibility for its crimes of the past, including those committed on Nov. 9, 1938. With the right to human dignity and personal honor now enshrined in its Grundgesetz (Basic Law), Germany has refused to tolerate any form of hate speech. Its commitment to democratic rights and freedoms has been unshakable. While AfD sympathizers may prefer those lessons be forgotten, their importance remains clear and should not be scrubbed from history.
Armistice Day, or Veterans Day, remains a date for solemn reflection worldwide. But let’s not look ahead too soon, and overlook equally important lessons from Nov. 9.