9 November is widely regarded as a kind of “day of destiny” for the Germans. For the younger generation, this date is primarily associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A recent nationwide survey revealed that more than half of today's population of the Federal Republic of Germany considers the date on which the Berlin Wall came down to be a more appropriate national holiday than the current public holiday marking German reunification on 3 October 1990. In some East German federal states, more than 70 percent of those questioned were in favour of switching to 9 November.
I must admit to having some sympathy with this idea. However, to my mind, a November holiday would be less about celebration, which is what the Day of German Unity represents, and more about remembrance and quiet contemplation of German history in all its contradictions, its hopeful and its terrible moments, in order to learn lessons from the past for the future.
Looking back, 9 November 1989 is often viewed as the culmination of the peaceful uprising in the German Democratic Republic against authoritarian rule. But as I see it, the date we should really remember is 9 October 1989, when more than 70,000 people defied the regime’s massive attempts at intimidation and took part in the first major Monday demonstration in Leipzig, demanding that the GDR’s leaders resign. The peaceful revolution began that day, not a month later. The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November marked rather the beginning of the end of the GDR as an independent state, but it could also be said to mark the end of the division of Germany and Europe. More about that later.
In today’s culture of remembrance, however, other significant events that took place on 9 November are often overlooked. It is important to consider these events too, in order to gain a more nuanced understanding of the international image of us Germans but also of our own self-image, and thus to put German history, present and future, into a holistic perspective.
There are two further years in recent history when 9 November was particularly noteworthy: 1918 and 1938.
On 9 November 1918, after the four terrible years of the First World War, the sailors’ uprising brought the German Empire to an end and marked the revolutionary birth of the Weimar Republic soon afterwards.
On 9 November 1938, during Kristallnacht (or the Night of Broken Glass in English), synagogues and countless Jewish-owned shops throughout Germany and Austria were set alight by fanatical Nazis, cheered on by many “ordinary” Germans.
Despite all the differences between these three events, their common feature is that they each represented a pivotal moment in their respective eras. Each was a response to recent history, and their full implications did not become clear until much later.
The short-lived Weimar Republic was a reaction to the imperial war policy of the German Empire. Due to the young republic's lack of resilience at a time of economic crisis and social decline, its failure to withstand the later seizure of power by the National Socialists was preordained. The Nazi regime, in turn, was rooted in a nationalistic fascist ideology directed primarily against Jews – an ideology, which had experienced a surge in popularity from the late 1920s onwards. Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938 brought the nation a step closer to the Holocaust, which began with the burning of buildings and later engulfed the people who had been forcibly expelled from them.
Fortunately, such terrible events are not associated with 9 November 1989. Nevertheless, the memory of the fall of the Berlin Wall three decades later is not entirely unalloyed either. I find three aspects particularly worrying:
1. Growing polarisation and radicalisation in democratic societies: Does the decline in the electoral fortunes of former mainstream parties in several EU member states indicate that democracy as we know it is endangered, not only from the margins but increasingly also from the centre of society? When exclusion and hostility displace constructive political debate, the character of society also starts to change. Certainly, the German history does not have to repeat itself, but when it comes to the continued existence of democracy, we should be aware that nothing, not even democratic freedoms, are guaranteed.
2. The return of the Cold War: The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the division of Europe awakened hopes of lasting security for Europe. These hopes were severely dented by the Balkan wars in the early 1990s. Today, the sober fact is that those who overcame the division of Europe have failed in the task of creating a sustainable peace community across the continent. Relations between Russia, its neighbours and its Western partners are in deep crisis. Once again, the danger of European wars is real – and has already become reality in Ukraine.
3. The steady loss of confidence in institutions and law: The pillars of the European order have become porous, partly even broken. Arms control treaties such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty were revoked or, like the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, are practically obsolete. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe is weak, whilst the European Union is facing deep rifts. Overriding national interests hinder efforts to reach consensus on issues of key concern for Europe, present and future. Just 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a permanently peaceful future for Europe no longer seems certain.
If the hopes that were awakened on 9 November 1989 are not to be completely shattered, resolute action is needed with urgency. Anyone who willingly cedes their ability to shape politics constructively, without putting up any resistance, can expect a harsh awakening.
We Germans have been blessed by recent history, and that is something for which we should be thankful – especially in view of the dreadful suffering that Germany inflicted on others in the past. However, this means that we have a particular responsibility to stand up for peace and security beyond our own borders. This does not mean adding our voices to the growing chorus of geopolitics, which – at least for Germany – has always ended in national disaster.
Autumn 1989 taught us that through trustful cooperation between democratically minded actors, much can be achieved. By taking this as our yardstick, we would give the anniversary on 9 November 2019 greater significance than can be achieved by merely remembering one specific day.