Until this week, I couldn’t have told you why November 9 is a kay date in German development. But it marks a turning point in German history not once, but twice. Kristallnacht, or Night of the Broken Glass, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, both monumental turning points in German history, happened not just in the same month, but on the same day—51 years apart.
I always think knowing the history of where you live is important—especially when you live in Germany. I was thinking the other night that, unlike many other major cities around the world, Berlin somehow doesn’t feel that impressive. I don’t feel astounded by Berlin, I thought, picturing the endless New York City blocks and Rio’s plunging mountains. And then it hit me—it’s not the skyline or natural beauty that makes Berlin astounding. It’s how history comes alive.
November 9: A Turning Point in Germany History
Fifty-one years separate these turning points in German history, but both mark the start of new eras in Germany. If your contemporary history needs a bit of a jog, here’s why both are important.
Turning Point One: Kristallnacht
Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass, is largely seen as a gateway event to the monstrosities of Holocaust. The Nazi party claimed the pogrom was a “retaliatory” measure for the assassination of a Nazi German diplomat by a Polish-Jewish man. Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, even when so far as to say that though the attacks were not state sanctioned, that they “would not be hampered.”
From the evening of November 9 through November 10, the Nazi party paramilitary, along with German citizens, attacked and ransacked Jewish business and homes throughout the city. They burned stores and home. They beat and raped and tormented and killed Jews who lived and worked there. Over 30,000 German Jewish men in Berlin alone were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
This alone should mark this date significance—but what also bears remembering is the city’s reaction, which was, on the whole, impartial. While firefighters worked to keep the fires from spreading, many non-Jewish Berliners stood on the street and watched—neither harming nor helping their Jewish neighbors. While people might not have supported the actions on the street, the collective dis-action set the stage for the further atrocities to come.
They came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Whenever I think of this indifference in action, I remember a poem—a confession, rather—that hung in one of my high school classrooms:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Written by a Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller, it speaks about the collective cowardice of the German people—himself included.
How does Germany honor Kristallnacht?
When I lived in Hamburg, there wasn’t much to mark the occasion. But I started my job in Berlin a week before the anniversary of Kristallnacht. As I walked home that night, I noticed small candles placed along the streets. Curious, I stopped. Each candle (and in some cases, flowers) was placed next to a Stolperstein, a square bronze plaque laid into the sidewalks in front of buildings where Berlin’s Jews and other Holocaust victims once lived. Translating into “Stumbling block”, each square represents one person, and includes their name, birth date, deportation, and death date (if known). Designed to be a decentralized, ever-present memorial throughout Europe, the bronze plates had stopped me before—but the presence of candles on this occasion shone literal additional light on them. All up and down the street I saw people stopping to read.
Turning Point Two: The Fall of the Wall
If Kristallnacht marked the opening of an era of an atrocious era of German history, the fall of the Wall is markedly opposite. Where Kristallnacht is all about violence, hate, and inaction, the fall of the Wall was brought about by peaceful rebellion and communal action.
It started with a mistake. On November 9th, 1989, Günther Schabowski, leader of the party in East Germany, was introducing a set of more relaxed travel restrictions at a press conference. Notably, these travel restrictions did not open the borders between East and West Germany, but did allow permanent immigration from East to West for the first time…for approved citizens. But Schabowski bungled the delivery. And when a reporter pressed for when the new measures should begin, he further muddied the waters with his answer: “Immediately.”
As soon as East Germans heard that, they began amassing at the six checkpoints, demanding the checkpoints be opened. The guards couldn’t get a clear answer from the East German party, who were scrambling to regain some control. With massive crowds forming, the guards could think of nothing else to do but open the border.
It was like a football victory—it might not have been our city team, but we all won.
While Berliners of course felt the fall of the Wall most deeply, it was a pivotal moment for Germany as a whole. We were visiting Tim’s family this weekend, and I asked his dad about what he remembered. “You don’t think it would affect such a sleepy little village so far away,” he said. “But when the news came, we all ran immediately to the bar. It was like a football victory—it might not have been our city team, but we all won.”
How does Germany honor the fall of the Wall?
The Wall fell in my lifetime. Because it is so recent, there’s special reverence for the date—an acknowledgement not to take reunification for granted. Though typical the celebrations are quieter, this year marked the 30-Year Anniversary of the Mauerfall. The city marked the occasion with large-scale public art installations, community-building activities, parties, and remembrances.
The fall of the Wall is called Die Wende, which translates to “the turning point”, but I’d see November 9th to be twice a turning point in German history. One derailed the country. The other put them back on track.