Why November 9th is a fateful day in German history

So many momentous events happened in Germany on November 9th during the 20th century that it has become known as the country's "day of fate".

Why November 9th is a fateful day in German history
East and West Germans gather at the Wall on November 9th 1989. Photo: DPA

Here’s a look at four times history was made on November 9th – not always by coincidence.

1918: The last emperor

A staged photograph of Philipp Scheidemann leaning out of a window of the Reichstag. Photo: DPA

With Germany on the brink of defeat in World War I and a revolutionary mood sweeping the country, the unpopular emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate, ending Germany’s monarchy.

Word spread that the Communists, led by Karl Liebknecht, would soon pronounce a communist republic. To prevent this, on November 9th, 1918, the deputy chairman of the Social Democrats, Philipp Scheidemann rushed to the balcony of Berlin’s Reichstag parliament to announce the birth of what would become the Weimar Republic.

“Long live the German republic!” he shouted.

But a few hours later, Liebknecht also declared the birth of the ‘free socialist German republic’. Germany was in a state of instability and strife.

Two days later, Germany agreed to sign an armistice that ended the Great War against the Allied forces.

Eventually, the government relocated to Weimar in January 1919, where it was able to establish a parliamentary democracy. But serious problems and unrest still plagued the country.

The terms of Germany’s surrender were deemed so humiliating that historians believe they helped sow the seeds for World War II.

It became the basis of the Dolchstoßegende, or the “stab-in-the-back-myth”. Right-wing circles asserted the belief that the German forces had not actually lost the war, but that the country had been betrayed, or stabbed in the back, by civilians at home.

They wanted to blame the so-called “November Criminals”, the politicians involved in the armistice and the November Revolution.

In the following decades, the Dolchstoßlegende and the myth of the November Criminals became a core component of right-wing rhetoric.

1923: Hitler’s ‘beer hall’ putsch

SA paramilitary troops prepare for the Putsch in Munich on November 9th 1923. Photo: DPA

Adolf Hitler, the then relatively unknown Nazi Party leader, and his cronies tried to seize power with a coup that started in a crowded Munich beer hall on November 9th, 1923.

After climbing onto a chair and firing into the ceiling, Hitler proclaimed the end of “the government of the November criminals”, a term used by critics of the 1918 surrender.

But police and soldiers quickly crushed the attempted putsch, and Hitler was arrested.

He used his trial to gain notoriety and spread anti-Jewish hatred. He often went off track during questioning to rant about issues of race and economics. Sympathetic conservative judges at his trial did not try to prevent his polemic, and Hitler capitalized on this. Ultimately he spent barely nine months in prison.

It was in his cell that Hitler began writing “Mein Kampf”.

His experience of this episode also altered his view about affecting change in Germany: before he had relied on violence as his primary means of getting things done, but now looked to strictly legal means to win over the sympathies of the German people and gain power.

Within a decade of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler was Chancellor of Germany.

1938: Night of Broken Glass

A Jewish shop in Magdeburg on the morning after the progrom. Photo: Bundesarchiv / Wikimedia Commons

Nazi thugs torched synagogues, smashed Jewish-owned shops and rounded up Jewish men across Germany on November 9th, 1938, in what became known as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass”.

The timing was no coincidence – that evening senior Nazi figures like Joseph Goebbels had riled up crowds at events honouring Hitler’s 1923 coup bid.

At least 90 Jews were killed and 30,000 deported to concentration camps in the outbreak of violence, which historians say ushered in the start of the Nazis’ drive to wipe out Jews.

Today, Germans remember the Kristallnacht pogrom by polishing or placing flowers on “Stolpersteine”, small brass plaques on cobblestones commemorating Nazi victims.

In Berlin last year, 16 plaques were dug up and stolen just before the anniversary, fuelling alarm about a resurgence in anti-Semitism.

1989: Berlin Wall comes down

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Photo: DPA

The fall of the Berlin Wall in a bloodless revolution on November 9th, 1989 is a joyous milestone in German history, ending 28 years of Cold War separation.

But because of the dark chapters associated with the date in the past, it was considered an ill choice for a public holiday. Germans instead celebrate October 3rd, 1990, the official reunification of East and West Germany.

READ MORE: Talkin’ bout my generation – What unity means to eastern Germans

The wall came down almost by accident, after communist East German bureaucrat Guenter Schabowski was caught off guard during a live press conference on the question of when exactly new, more relaxed travel rights
would take effect.

“As far as I know… as of now,” he improvised, sending thousands of East Berliners streaming towards checkpoints where baffled guards eventually opened the barriers.

READ MORE: How and why was the Berlin wall built?

With additional reporting by Lucy Proudman

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‘Their experiences need to be understood’: What was life like for East Germans?

On our Germany in Focus podcast, The Local interviewed author and historian Katja Hoyer on her new book on how East Germans lived, and what the fall of the Berlin Wall meant to them.

'Their experiences need to be understood': What was life like for East Germans?

Hoyer’s forthcoming book “Beyond the Wall: East Germany 1949-1990” delves into how East Germans were affected by the Mauerfall on November 9th, 1989. Without following any ideological agenda, Hoyer said she wanted to shine a light on people’s lives and how they influenced broader German history.

“(In the GDR) people did develop different lifestyles, a different society,” Hoyer told The Local.

“These experiences need to be understood, rather than rejected or dismissed out of hand.”

READ ALSO: ‘Talking bout my generation’: What unity means to Germans

Just a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hoyer, who grew up in East Germany herself, recalled being assigned essays on “Why did Socialism fail?” at school.

She noted how much her own teachers grappled with the topic, “after asking virtually the opposite question 10 years ago,“ she said in an interview on The Local’s Germany in Focus podcast released on Friday November 11th.

‘Identity linked to the GDR’

After the fall of the Wall, many in Germany rejoiced at the Vaterland coming together again – far sooner than they had expected – many also felt left behind, unsure of what the very different future held, said Hoyer.

“A lot of people were also really concerned about their own personal future because they didn’t know what was going to happen to their jobs, what was going to happen to their livelihood and to their entire situation,” said Hoyer.

The East Germans who tended to be the most affected were those in public service roles, such as teachers and soldiers, and also “people who’s entire identity was linked to what the GDR did,” said Hoyer. 

Female factory workers or engineers, for example, had grown accustomed to reliable jobs and free childcare.

When the Wall fell, “that seemed to dissipate quite quickly and women in particular were hit quite hard with issues like high unemployment,” said Hoyer.

LISTEN: Munich rents, the €49 ticket and what was life like in East Germany?

READ ALSO: How locals think Berlin has changed since the fall of the Wall

Two different societies, one country

Hoyer’s book, which will be released in April 2023, also looks at sociological differences between the former East and West which are still at play. For example, women tended to have children earlier “which lead to completely different generational breaks and younger parents doing parenting differently”, she said.

Too often, the shared experiences of East Germans are cast aside as part of a darker chapter in German history. But Hoyer said that the way East Germans lived for four decades needs to be recognised as they still impact German society today.

She said: “I think that in 1990 people initially just assumed that East Germans would stop being East Germans and just rejoin everything that had happened in West German in the last 41 years kind of needlessly and seamlessly.”

READ ALSO: Why November 9th is a fateful day in German history?