Monday, November 9, 2009

Other Novembers: History From Another Europe (Fixed For Donka Ufman)


The Berliner Vorwarts (Forward), November 9, 1918
(Photo: Getty Images)

I'm forward-looking, as much as the next person, but I am also just another American, and when it comes to the European Calendar Of Historical Events I'm not not as in tune with important dates as I might be.

Still, it's hard to have missed remembering Germany's other anniversaries today, which may end up getting missed in celebrating the beginning of the collapse of the Evil Empire. The fact that I didn't recall any of them (this, after years of studying for two degrees in Modern European History) is embarrassing.

The first is November 9, 1918: Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor, King of Prussia and the head of the House Of Hohenzollern, abdicates the throne and leaves Germany forever for Doorn, Holland, where he lived until his death in 1941 in a villa owned by the Baron Bentinck (whose great-grandson I served with subpoenas, twice).

Germany -- which had only become a unified country in 1871, and has always had one form of Royal rule or another -- suddenly became a Republic, and nearly a year of civil war, and the Weimarzeit (followed by the Hitlerzeit) was about to begin.

Two days later, on November 11th, Matthias Erzburger (prominent Catholic Party Centrist in Germany's Reichstag) signed the Armistice which ended the killing on the Western Front. In 1921, Erzburger was murdered by the 'Organization Consul', a right-wing extremist group with ties to the nazis; his murderers weren't brought to trial until after World War II.


Holocaust Memorial In Berlin, 2008.

The second anniversary is November 9, 1938: Kristallnacht. Earlier in the year, the nazi government had ordered that residence permits for foreigners were being canceled and would have to be renewed. This included German-born Jews of foreign origin. On October 28, 1938, more than 12,000 Polish-born Jews were expelled from Germany on Hitler's orders.

Ordered to leave their homes in a single night, allowed only one suitcase per person, the people were sent by train across the border into Poland -- which (Ah, the Poles), didn't want them either. 8,000 could not find anywhere to stay and were kept in detention at a camp near the border, behind barbed wire. Conditions there were bad enough that some even tried to sneak across the border, back into Germany, and were shot. The possessions of the deportees, left behind, were seized as booty by both the nazi authorities and by their neighbors.

In Paris on November 7th, Herschel Grynszpan, son of Polish Jews who had emigrated to Germany in 1911 and settled in Hannover, was attending university. Deeply angry at what had just happened to his parents, and no longer having a home to return to, Grynazpan went to the German Embassy in Paris, asked to speak with an official, Ernst vom Rath, and pulled a revolver out of his coat.

Vom Rath was not an innocent bystander, someone who just drew the wrong appointment that day. He had studied law at Bonn, Munich, and Königsberg until 1932, when he joined the nazi party. In April, 1933 he became a member of the SA, a Brownshirt, and went to work for the Foreign Ministry. To work at the Embassy in Paris was a plum assignment; vom Rath must have had some favors owed.

(There is some evidence that Grynszpan and vom Rath knew each other in Paris, and that, according to Grynszpan's statement to French police, they may have been more than, uh, friends. If so, this puts an additional subtext to the events of that long-ago November. However, Goebbels was concerned enough about public revelation of vom Rath's secret gay life to quash any attempt to extradite Grynszpan from France and try him in Germany. After France surrendered in 1940, Grynszpan was transferred to a series of concentration camps, and died in the East in 1944 or 45.

Ultimately, none of that matters; vom Rath was a well-connected nazi Climber, and Grynszpan's family had just been thrown out of their home of 27 years with little more than the clothes on their backs and tossed into a field at the border, surrounded by barbed wire -- all for no other reason than their religion. If I'd been Grynszpan, I'd have shot Rath, too.)

Grynszpan shot vom Rath three times. He made no attempt to escape and allowed himself to be led away by French police, with a postcard in his pocket: "May God forgive me... I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do."

vom Rath died on November 9th; Hitler was informed while celebrating another November 9th anniversary -- that of the infamous nazi 'Beer Hall Putsch' in Munich, in 1923.

That same evening, a series of orchestrated Pogroms occurred in every major German city. It was nationwide, done between dusk and dawn in a single night. Previously, actions against Jews in Germany had been largely hidden; but Kristallnacht was the first organized and overtly public act of violence. It was a line which, having been crossed, emboldened the nazis to go further.

There has been discussion among scholars that one nazi character (Goebbels) wanted the acts of that night as violent and inhumane as possible, while others (Heydrich, Goering) tried to temper the orders. My own opinion is, this is searching for some way to exculpate the conspirators, if not all of Germany (Hey! We demanded they loot and kill in a humane way!); and, it's hard to see Heydrich being moderate about anything. But the historical record is clear: Hitler ordered it, and his cohorts enthusiastically carried it out.

Another question that's asked is, what might have happened if there had been some public opposition to the violence on that November night? Would it have stopped the progression of events, possibly derailed the Holocaust? Earlier in the Thirties, when the nazis pressed a campaign to murder euthanize persons who were 'profoundly' mentally retarded, it drew enough serious criticism from Catholic Bishops and Protestant ministers that the nazis abandoned their plan.

Years later in 1943, when a group of 1,700 Berlin Jews married to non-Jewish wives were rounded up to be transported 'East', the wives gathered in the street outside the building where the Gestapo was holding them -- the now-famous 'Rosenstrasse' incident, named after the street where the men were being held. Wives, and family members, gathered and demanded their husbands' release, chanting, singing -- and this went on, in public, for nearly a week.

Goebbels, the nazi party official in charge of Berlin, was well aware of the situation. It was a public demonstration that made public what most Germans already knew -- that the nazi government's official policy was to round up, deport, and murder Jews; for Goebbels, a serious embarrassment. After almost seven days, he issued an order for the Gestapo to release the men -- and, unbelievably, 35 men who had already been transported to Auschwitz were put on a passenger train back to Berlin and reunited with their families.

Did these shows of defiance stop the nazi machine? Not really; later, when the Holocaust was in swing, the mentally challenged were dispatched, too. Most of the men rounded up in 1944 in that Berlin group were hidden and survived the war -- most.

I don't think anything short of a coup d'etat before 1938 would have prevented the nazis from attempting to exterminate every Jew they could put their hands on; but faced with actual evil, it's important to do something. Even the memory of a gesture of defiance has echoes; and sometimes, the act has a real effect, in the moment, as it did on the Rosenstrasse.

Kristallnacht was (some commentators say) the actual beginning of the Holocaust. On November 12th, Hermann Goering, speaking to a roomful of party functionaries, said, "I have received a letter written on the Führer's orders requesting that the Jewish question be now, once and for all, coordinated and solved one way or another..." Life for Jews in Germany, Austria (though the Austrians needed little prompting, as their behavior after the Anschluss had shown), and the former Czechoslovakia became progressively harder and more terrifying from November of 1938 -- and the image of their world becoming progressively darker, more constricted, avenues of escape closed one by one, has remained; ultimately it became the central concept of the 2006 Holocaust memorial in central Berlin.

It was built with public money, and the arguments in support of it's construction, a stone's throw from the Brandenburg gate, and those critical of it were a gauge of just how far Germany has come in grappling with the facts of its own past, or how much farther it has yet to go.

Sorry to Harsh Your Buzz, there, Angela, but there it is.