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Momentous moments

November 8, 2011

The date of November 9 occupies a unique and significant place in modern German history, from the gruesome pogrom of Kristallnacht to the joy of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Day calendar showing November 9
November 9 is a fateful day in German history

On November 9, one of the world's most significant events will be remembered for the 22nd time: the fall of the Berlin Wall. Less than a year after the wall fell, Germany was reunified after 41 years of separation.

With the fall of the second dictatorship on German soil, the end of the German Democratic Republic, the socialist experiment was quickly stricken from the political map of Europe. November 9, 1989 was a fateful day in the history of Germany and Europe.

End of the monarchy

In the German historical calendar, November 9 appears more than once as a significant date. In 1918, Philipp Scheidemann, Social Democrat politician and later chancellor of the Weimar Republic, proclaimed an end to the monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the beginning to a new democracy in a historic speech from a balcony of the Reichstag in Berlin.

Philipp Scheidemann from balcony of Reichstag
In 1918, Philipp Scheidemann declared Germany a republicImage: dpa

"Workers and soldiers, be aware of the historical meaning of this day. Something unprecedented has occurred," he said. "Great and incalculable tasks lie ahead of us. Everything for the people, everything by the people! Nothing may happen to bring dishonor on the labor movement. Be united, faithful and dutiful. The old and rotten, the monarchy, has collapsed. Long live the new, long live the German republic."

The young democracy in Germany had a difficult beginning. Both left- and right-wingers wanted to eliminate it immediately. And on November 9, 1923, the Nazis marched on Munich's Feldherrnhalle under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, who would take power 10 years later and bring about one of the world's greatest catastrophes ever: World War II.

Synagogues in flames

The disenfranchisement of Jews in Germany began long before they were systematically murdered beginning in 1942. Before World War II started, on November 9, 1938, synagogues across the German Reich were torched. Jewish-owned businesses were plundered.

A pedestrian looks at the wreckage of a Jewish shop in Berlin
Synagogues and Jewish-owned shops were burned on KristallnachtImage: AP

Around 100 Jews were murdered, and 26,000 were deported to concentration camps. The pogrom was cynically called Kristallnacht, or the "Night of Broken Glass." It was a sort of early general test for the Holocaust. Robert Ley, head of the Nazi trade union the German Labor Front, made no secret of that.

"Judah will, and must, be annihilated," he said. "That is our holy belief."

Open borders

In the list of fateful days in Germany, November 9, 1938 is the most gruesome. A bigger contrast to November 9, 1989, the day the Wall fell, is hardly imaginable. "Madness" was the word most often heard on that night when the GDR unexpectedly opened its borders to the West.

For months there had been protests against the governing politburo of the East German communist party. Thousands had already fled through Hungary and into West German embassies in eastern European countries.

People atop Berlin Wall near Brandenburg Gate
The joy at the fall of the Berlin Wall had no bordersImage: Landesarchiv Berlin

The pressure to ease travel restrictions for all GDR citizens grew by the day. And yet no one saw it coming: After the new travel regulations were announced at an international press conference in East Berlin and declared to be "immediately in effect," there was no turning back.

People stormed the inner-city border crossings in divided Berlin. The jubilation was, in the truest sense of the word, borderless.

A turning back to the old times could never have happened after that night. The first hole in the Berlin Wall brought the faltering system to a quick end. For the fourth time, November 9 went down in history - this time in absolute joy.

Author: Marcel Fürstenau / acb
Editor: Nancy Isenson