By Deborah Kallman, MA Candidate, Department of History
Public History students in Professor Jon Olsen’s Introduction to Public History course recently curated an exhibit, Der Neunte Elfte, in conjunction with campus events commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall represented a celebratory moment in German history and heralded the end of the Cold War; but this date is shared with darker moments in German history. The students’ exhibit addresses the complex history behind this date, which has prevented its consideration as a day of national celebration. Instead, October 3, the date of German reunification became the national holiday after 1990.
Students Rose Gallenberger, Emily Jarmolowicz, Deborah Kallman, and Santo Mammone installed Der Neunte Elfte in conjunction with the November 12 screening of My ’89, six short films by students of director Helke Misselwitz. This screening is just one event in a semester-long series dedicated to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (the series is entitled “Wall Stories 25 Years and After”) and is part of a grant UMass received from the German Embassy in Washington DC. “Wall Stories” is a collaborative effort between German and Scandinavian Studies, the Department of History, and the DEFA Film Library. Members of the community are encouraged to read more about “Wall Stories” and attend upcoming events.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is understandably a moment of light in German history, but what other events also share the date of November 9? In 1918 Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate his throne. Wilhelm II had been Germany’s emperor since 1888 and, facing growing unrest and revolution, (the Imperial Navy had mutinied) he renounced his throne and went into exile in the Netherlands. In the wake of his abdication, two republics were declared: the Socialist Republic and the Democratic Republic. The Democratic Republic¾later known as the Weimar Republic¾survived but was weak and plagued by numerous revolts and hyperinflation. The Republic collapsed in 1933 with Adolf Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor.
In 1923, Adolf Hitler mounted his first attempt to take over the Republican government in a failed coup known as the Hitlerputsch or, as it is known in America, the Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler, General Erich Ludendorff, and 2,000 ill-armed putschists seized the military headquarters in Munich and took members of the city council as hostages. They marched to the Felderrnhalle, a monument to Bavarian army leaders, where they clashed with police. Sixteen putschists and four police officers died in the skirmish. Hitler was tried and convicted of high treason but given a lenient sentence. He served a mere eight months in prison during which time he wrote Mein Kampf, outlining his ideology and world view. Hitler learned from the failed putsch and he carefully reorganized and built the Nazi Party. His election in 1933 as Chancellor enabled him to fulfill the nationalist, anti-capitalist and anti-Semitic aims outlined in Mein Kampf.
1938 marked the darkest event that shares the date of November 9–Kristallnacht–or “Night of Broken Glass.” On this night, Germany’s streets erupted in violence as Nazi rioters destroyed Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues, and cemeteries. Dozens of Jews were killed and hundreds wounded. Tens of thousands of male Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. This violence marked a turning point in the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies and began a staggering escalation of radically anti-Semitic measures that ultimately culminated in the Nazis’ “Final Solution” and the Holocaust.
The culmination of a series of mass demonstrations throughout Germany during the previous year, the actual fall of the Wall on the evening of November 9, 1989 was somewhat serendipitous. A member of the government mistakenly announced that East Germans could travel to the West on the night of November 9, 1989. The announcement was meant to convey that the number of travel permits would be increased. In the immediate aftermath of Gunter Schabowski’s announcement, thousands of East Germans gathered at the seven major checkpoints. Unable to hold back the crowds, border patrol guards disobeyed standing orders and permitted East Berliners to cross into the West. Germany was reunited on October 3, 1990. Although the newly reunited government would face many cultural and economic challenges, the fall of the Wall heralded the end of Communist Eastern Germany and the Cold War.
This timely exhibit provided valuable experience for these aspiring public historians but more importantly it represented an important service for the community: a means of educating the public about these painful and sometimes overlooked dates in German history. As we celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty-five years later, we remember the other legacies and complex history associated with the date of November 9.