Among my less annoying habits and fascinations is noting odd quirks of historical coincidence. Like today, November 9. Let’s take a brief wander across the arc of history as it unfolded on this date.
November 9, 1918: Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates, ending the Hohenzollern dynasty in Prussia and the experiment of Imperial Germany. The empire was less than 50 years old. Just by way of comparison, the U.S. turned 50 in 1826. Yes, I’m aware the constitution was quite a bit younger, but the U.S. as a single polity was in fact created by the Declaration of Independence, by which the now former colonies declared themselves to be free and united. In 1826 we were just getting into the second generation of dominant statesmen after the founders had passed from the scene. Clay, Calhoun, and Webster were just over a decade into Congressional careers that would last until 1850 or later. Jackson, the first president elected from outside the original states, was two years away from his first election. So by the 50 year point the U.S. had both fundamentally changed its form of government, peacefully, and had successfully made the peaceful transition from the founding generation and its aspirations to the first generation which didn’t really have any adult recollections of anything other the United States.
November 9, 1923. The Beer Hall Putsch is suppressed, with gunfire. Weimar Germany had already weathered the Kapp Putsch in 1920, just barely. It, too, involved drawn weapons. While it survived both, each of the two left the nation weaker, not stronger. The sentences handed out to Hitler and his henchmen were laughable, and served only to give notice that the state was unwilling to fight to preserve itself. If the state will not so fight, why should the citizens fight for it?
November 9, 1938. The nightmare truly begins to assume concrete outline. Some second-tier functionary of the German embassy is shot and killed in Paris, and by nightfall the Nazi party apparatus has been mobilized to take to the streets in a “spontaneous demonstration” of outrage against the Jews. Thousands of Jewish shops and homes are looted and burned. Many thousands are beaten, many are killed. The synagogues go up in flames. The streets in the cities are so coated in shattered glass the next morning that the evening’s doings have gone down as Kristallnacht (“crystal night”). Oh sure, the scenes in Austria in March, 1938 have been horrible enough, with Jewish noblewomen forced to crawl on their hands and knees, scrubbing the pavement with their toothbrushes, and politically undesirable people vanishing. But Europe could kid itself that such scenes can’t always be helped when one nation is swallowed by another. There will be aches and pains, in other words. And of course in Munich back in September all that happened was all those Sudeten Germans were finally allowed to go “heim ins Reich,” as they’d so loudly demanded. But Kristallnacht was different. It was a government not merely failing to protect an entire segment of its populace; it was that government taking the lead in organizing the attacks on that populace.
November 9, 1940. Neville Chamberlain dies. The last man with a clear shot at stopping Hitler in his tracks, who lied and smarmed his country into a position of almost helpless exposure to the Germans, lives long enough to see himself revealed as one of history’s greatest fools and suckers. The only reason Great Britain survived the pickle Chamberlain left it in was the geographic accident of the English Channel. We now know that if Chamberlain had stood firm in September, 1938 the generals would have taken Hitler out. In fact, they would have Taken Hitler Out; the plotters were staged in an apartment building a few blocks from the government headquarters, each with his assignment and armed to the teeth. The plot was to take Hitler out directly he was caught and shoot him. But when Chamberlain caved in he jerked the rug from beneath their feet. Who will flock to support a bunch of renegade officers whose forces were just spared the effort of fighting by the brilliant political machinations of the Führer? I would observe that, like all the modern American “news” organizations which have diligently squelched any story, any angle, which might reflect poorly on their own chosen Dear Leader, so also Geoffrey Dawson of The Times repeated killed stories filed by his foreign correspondents in Germany, describing in great and very accurate detail exactly what the Nazis were up to, both in terms of rearmament and in terms of political repression. Dawson killed the stories for the express reason that he didn’t want to annoy or upset “Herr Hitler.” He decided there were some truths which Britons were just not entitled to know. His ideological heirs populate the U.S. media industry today.
November 9, 1989. For the first time since August, 1961, the borders from East to West Germany are opened. Security at the checkpoints is abandoned, and with it the 45-year monstrosity that was the German Democratic Republic, with its Stasi torture chambers, prisons, and camps, its SED, and all its odious apparatus. The Germans don’t celebrate the event on the day, though; they won’t give the remaining neo-Nazis the gratification of surreptitiously celebrating the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Odd coincidence, isn’t it, that so much pertinent to a single theme should have come to pass on the same day?