„I´ll write about Sankt Martin“, Francesca said when we talked about special days in November. „I´m probably the only German who didn´t attend any St. Martins events in childhood“, I said. Church and our neighbors were too far away. Therefore, I´ll tell you about November 9th , the German „Schicksals-Tag“.
November in Germany is grey and nondescript. Autumn has just gone, winter hasn´t come yet. As if to fill the void nature left, history threw in a lot of events, most of them on November 9th. The most important ones are the end of World War One in 1918, the burning of the synagogues by the Nazi in 1938, and the fall of the Wall in 1989.
Some of you might argue that the First World War ended on 11. November 1918. Right. This was the day the German government signed the armistice. For Germans, the war ended two days earlier, when after a general strike, mutinies in army and marine, and mass protests on the streets of Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. abdicated and Germany became a Republic. Two days later, the Social Democrats, now in power, signed the armistice treaty.
There still are heated debates if this treaty helped the Nazis come to power. In their propaganda they invented the „Dolchstoßlegende“, the myth that Germany would have won the war had not the government changed from Kaiserreich to Republik. Fact is that the Nazis started their first act of what should later become the Holocaust on November 9th 1938, when their gangs burnt synagogues and mass-deported Jewish men to concentration camps.
51 years later, on November 9th 1989, the Wall in Berlin came down. In a way, this day ended World War II as well, as a 45-year outstanding peace-treaty was finally signed and sealed with the Potsdam Protocol of 1990.
For me, this day started completely inconspicuous. I happened to be in Berlin with an international group of students. The day before we had made the mandatory tour of the Wall—my first. When I came of age, Berlin hardly existed for young West-Germans. A trip to Berlin was unpleasant, because we had to pass the strict border controls of the German Democratic Republic. As we couldn’t hitchhike on East German motorways, it was expensive to get there. And above all, there was no reason to go there anyway. Berlin, in our perception, was provincial and dull. Why go to Berlin, if I could see Paris, Rome and Amsterdam in less time and for less money?
Even the Wall, when I did see it at last on November 8th, wasn’t impressive at all. A fragile-looking band of concrete slabs with a row of barbed wire on top, built in 1961 and never renovated since; it didn’t look like anything serious. Sometimes fences in a German neighborhood were higher than this.
On the evening of November 9th, I went out to see some friends. At 12 o’clock at night, I hurried to catch the last U-Bahn to my Hotel in the center of Berlin. When the train arrived I hardly could get in. Masses of excited people filled the cars. Everybody said „Wahnsinn“—„Amazing”, laughed, and behaved completely un-German. „These Berliners really are strange people,” I thought. Had there been a soccer game and their club won? But there were a lot of women in the U-Bahn and nobody wore scarves in club colors.
„Is there anything special happening tonight?” I asked the man standing beside me. He looked at me and then at the people surrounding us. Suddenly, he started to laugh.
„She doesn’t know. Can you imagine, she doesn´t know“. Everybody joined in.
„Why should I know about a stupid soccer game?”, I retorted.
„But the wall came down! We are from East Berlin!”
While they proceeded west to see the Kurfürstendamm, the glamorous West German shopping mile, I headed east. I saw people sitting on the wall, laughing, the East German police still standing at attention, in “Habachtstellung”, to protect the wall, but not daring to do anything. Men, women and children just passed. Already there were big gaps in the wall. Each minute, more and more people arrived. During the night, an armada of cars came to Berlin, filled with people who wanted to be part of this historical day.
For the next two days, the whole population of the former GDR seemed to fill the streets of West Berlin. As a west German law stipulated that every citizen of the GDR got 100 Deutsche Mark „Begrüßungsgeld“ – „Welcome money“ when he came to West Germany, people queued at the bank tellers first and then at the counters of the “Kaufhaus des Westens” or KaDeWe, the famous department store. Everything was sold out. Even to get a „Bratwurst“, the basic fast food in Germany, became impossible. Starved, I decided to go east again.
There, I found the peace and quiet I was longing for, a city emptied of its people. For most of the time, I could hear my steps hitting the cobblestones. At Berlin Alexanderplatz, in a state owned restaurant, I finally found my „Bratwurst“. Today, McDonald´s sells their hamburgers in these very rooms.
But this is another story.