Mary Fulbrook is a professor of German history at University College London. Her most recent book is Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, which is a finalist for the Cundill History Prize.
Around this weekend we mark several anniversaries. Nov. 11, for instance, commemorates the end of hostilities in the First World War – originally Armistice Day, it is now Remembrance Day in Canada and other Commonwealth countries and Veterans Day in the United States.
Why do we mark historical anniversaries? Even when the ceremonies are routinized, the meanings can vary massively. The symbolic red poppies of Nov. 11 remind us of the fields in which so much blood was spilled, so many young lives lost. But sadness about the human impact of warfare does not necessarily lead to pacifism; commemorating soldiers as martyrs and celebrating veterans suggests a continuing commitment to legitimizing violence in service of a noble cause.
The plethora of anniversaries around this November weekend highlight the issues. In Germany, anniversaries cluster particularly around Nov. 9. This was the day in 1918 when revolution brought about the abdication of the Kaiser and the proclamation of a republic; and the day in 1923 when Adolf Hitler, leader of the fledgling and still insignificant NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the Nazi Party), launched the Beer Hall Putsch, intended as a “March on Berlin” – inspired by Benito Mussolini’s successful March on Rome, which had inaugurated Fascist rule in Italy the previous year. The Nazi putsch was rapidly suppressed, but the event and ensuing trial gave Hitler national publicity, as well as the leisure time to write Mein Kampf during the relatively comfortable months of detention that followed.
Nov. 9 was again significant in 1938 when, during the annual Nazi commemoration of this putsch, the go-ahead was given for a nationwide pogrom against Germany’s Jews – a night of state-sponsored violence in which Jews were humiliated, beaten up and murdered, synagogues were set on fire, sacred objects desecrated, Jewish stores ransacked and homes smashed up; a night that became known colloquially as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Over the following days, some 30,000 adult male Jews were marched off to concentration camps, and German Jews – already reduced to second-class subjects – were further robbed of their property, livelihood and freedom. In November, 1938, Nazi violence was visible to all. The myth that ordinary Germans “knew nothing about it,” effectively reducing Nazi inhumanity to the gas chambers of wartime extermination camps, was simply a cover-up for the failure to intervene actively, when there might still have been time to change the course of history.
A few Germans nevertheless did stand up to Nazism. On Nov. 8, 1939, a lone Swabian carpenter by the name of Georg Elser carried out a meticulously planned attempt on Hitler’s life, planting a time bomb in a carefully hollowed-out pillar of the beer hall where Hitler was due to speak on the regular anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch. All initially went according to plan, but the night was foggy, and Hitler cut short his speech and returned early to Berlin by overnight train rather than by plane; when the bomb detonated, Hitler had already left the hall and escaped becoming one of the dead and wounded. Elser was subsequently arrested and held in concentration camps before being put to death shortly before Hitler’s suicide in April, 1945.
And Nov. 9 gained further significance in 1989. If the previous dates had been, in some sense, intrinsically connected through the echoes of November, 1918, then the sequence of challenges to communist rule in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the breaching of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, was entirely different, the date pure coincidence. Even so, there was a wider web of connections: Hitler’s genocidal war of expansion had brought both the United States and the USSR into Central Europe, and the ensuing clash between ideologically opposed superpowers in the Cold War made its mark across the rest of the century. While West Germany enjoyed an economic miracle under democratic auspices, with a growing international reputation even while quietly rehabilitating former Nazis, East Germany suffered the economic and political constraints of an embattled dictatorship under Soviet hegemony. The collapse of communism in the “peaceful revolution” of 1989, and the reunification of Germany less than a year later, marked a dramatic historical turning point.
Why do we need anniversaries, and what uses do we put them to? The aforementioned dates are heavily freighted with symbolic and moral twists. We appeal to 1918 in the interests of peace and to honour those who died. We look to 1938 to commemorate innocent victims and to explore how a civilized society can become complicit in violence, with the eager participation and support of some, accompanied by the passivity and silent shame of the many. People such as Georg Elser, with his lone attempt on Hitler’s life in 1939, were in such a vanishingly tiny minority, easily overwhelmed by superior Nazi force. We draw on the lessons of 1989 to try to understand the conditions for the peaceful overthrow of dictatorships.
But we still find trouble understanding our present-day world, with the multiple threats of international terrorism, continuing warfare, mass migration and refugee crises, as well as the impact of climate change.
Anniversaries are useful in concentrating our minds on particular moments and issues. But simply wearing a poppy is not enough. We need a deeper understanding of historical processes if, as informed and engaged citizens, we genuinely want to make our world a better place.
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