November 9th

1. November 9, 1918

By November 7, all major cities in Germany were in the hands of revolutionaries. On that day a delegation had been sent from Spa, the German army headquarters in Belgium, to an unknown place in France to negotiate an armistice.

On November 9, in Berlin, Karl Liebknecht’s far-left Spartakusbund, afraid that the social democrat Friedrich Ebert and his moderates would swamp them and perhaps even join forces with non-Marxist parties, planned a general strike for eleven o’clock. There was reason to believe Liebknecht would also call for a nation-wide revolution on the soviet model for Monday, November 11, only thirteen months after the October Revolution in St. Petersburg.

Around two in the afternoon, the news spread that Liebknecht would seize the initiative right away and proclaim a soviet republic. So, Ebert’s colleague, Philipp Scheidemann, stepped on the balcony of the Reichstag, without knowing precisely what he was going to say. Swayed by the crowd below, he made a rousing speech and ended it by shouting Long live the free German republic! Liebknecht’s proclamation, two hours later, of a free socialist republic from the balcony of the Schloss was an anticlimax.

The next day, on November 10, the Kaiser abdicated and fled to Holland.

2. November 9, 1923

The French had occupied the Ruhr to enforce the payment of reparations. Thanks to the hyper-inflation one dollar was worth four trillion marks. Saxony and Thuringia were threatening to separate from Germany.

In a beer hall in Munich, on the evening of November 8, Adolf Hitler, in league with the war hero Erich Ludendorff, proclaimed a national revolution and forced the Big Three (who controlled the army and the police in Bavaria) to support him and to march to Berlin with him.

Next day, November 9, the revolution unraveled. The Big Three issued a statement declaring that their declaration of loyalty to Hitler was invalid because it had been extracted from them at gun-point. All the barracks, except the one at the War Ministry, had refused to go along with the revolution.

Throughout the night, bands of stormtroopers were roaming the city. In the morning Ludendorff suggested to the frantic Hitler to take over the city by marching to the centre, the Odeonsplatz, to the Feldherrnhalle, with a cadre of armed stormtroopers, and force a showdown. This was attempted – with disastrous results. Several stormtroopers and a few policemen were killed, in less than five minutes of gunfire.

Ludendorff was livid when Hitler ordered his men to surrender, which they didn’t. Hitler suffered a dislocated shoulder when a man he had locked arms with was shot. He crawled along a sidewalk out of the line of fire and scooted away to a waiting car. Ludendorff faced the bullets, confident that no one would dare to shoot him. No one did. He walked straight into the police ranks and was duly arrested.

Hitler declared he would commit suicide.

November 9, 1938

Herschel Grynszpan was the seventeen-year-old son of Polish Jews who had lived in Germany since 1911 and were expelled with others, penniless, to the Polish border. He was living in Paris with an uncle. Enraged when he heard what was happening to his parents, he went to the German embassy and shot the minor official Ernst vom Rath.

The news of his death reached Hitler in the evening of November 9 while he attended a dinner commemorating the martyrs of the Beer Hall Putsch.

The Kristallnacht, the burning of hundreds of synagogues and mass arrests, followed.

One of those arrested was the Jewish bass singer Hans Erl, of the Frankfurt Opera – until 1933. He was taken by truck to the Exhibition Ground to join others who had already been ordered to scrub the floor. A SS man asked him what his profession was. He said he was a singer. Well then, the SS man said, sing something.

Erl thought for a few seconds and then proceeded to sing in a majestic voice this aria from the Magic Flute:

In these hallowed halls
One does not know revenge

And should a man have fallen

Then he wanders, holding the hand of a friend,
Cheerfully and happy into a better land.

Captors and captives stopped in their tracks, mesmerized. The SS man whispered to Erl, “You’ve sung well – run!”

Erl went home.

Four years later he was murdered in Auschwitz.

Today, a plaque in the Frankfurt Opera honours him.

November 9, 1989

Once again, an improvised announcement triggered a momentous chain of events. In East Berlin, Günther Schabowski, a Communist party leader who told this story again on German television this past weekend, surprised everyone by saying in the evening of November 9 at a televised news conference that a new visa procedure would enable East Germans to visit the West. When asked when, he said immediately. No one had authorized him to say that.

That opened the floodgate. The border guards, trained to shoot, allowed the people to cross Checkpoint Charlie freely. In the preceding five days fifty thousand East Germans had already left for West Germany via Czechoslovakia.

The dismantling of the Wall, and of the East German régime generally, proceeded in a peaceful, good-natured manner, much aided by the generous consumption of alcohol. Hundreds of thousands of deliriously happy people participated in the celebrations, amazed by the speed of events that few people had anticipated and very much aware of making history. A revolution had taken place without a shot being fired. A precedent had been set.

Since then German pacifism has been a source of considerable concern to some Western leaders.


5 responses to “November 9th

  1. A helluva day. I was reluctant to respond on Nov 9 before it was over. Let’s hope that the Ft. Hood incident doesn’t become another such day.

  2. You mean nothing happened in German history till November 9, 1918 ? All this happened in my lifetime, thus is barely history. What would have happened if the Soviet Republic (Raterepublik) had been proclaimed ? An interesting but pointless speculation. Like saying that Prince Louis Ferdinand should have been proclaimed German Emperor in 1934. It came close to that too. RK

    • If a Soviet Republic had been proclaimed in November 1918 it would have been overthrown, as it was in Bavaria.

      My historical adviser tells me the Russians nearly beat Frederic the Great and nearly occupied Berlin. Could that be true?

  3. An excellent narrative that provides context. Thanks, Eric.