Monday, November 9, 2009

November 9th in German history

Today is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the crucial events in German history. Most people don't realize that November 9th was already an important day in German history prior to 1989. On this day in 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated and the German republic was proclaimed. On this day in 1923, Hitler attempted a coup in Munich and was decisively defeated, the failed "Beer Hall Putsch." And on this day in 1938, Germans looted and burned Jewish stores and synagogues in what became known as Kristallnacht. Except for Kristallnacht, a pretty good day for Germany and Germans.

Of course, the significance of November 9th is coincidental. Many other major events in 20th century German history -- the outbreak of both world wars, Hitler's election, the Reichstag fire, the Berlin blockade, and the erection of the Berlin Wall -- happened on other days, and only Kaiser Wilhelm's abdication and the fall of the Berlin Wall would come up in importance to these other events (unless Kristallnacht is considered a crucial stage toward the Holocaust). Moreover, the date of the kaiser's abdication is fairly arbitrary, as it was just one stage in the process of creating a democratic government. The Allies would likely have given Germany some form of democracy anyway; and this government was not destined to last, so that it had to be rebuilt in 1945.

All the same, I love historical coincidences like this. It reminds me of my favourite of all time, also relating to German history: the Diet of Worms. It was during this meeting in 1521 that Martin Luther, prior to being condemned, issued his famous words: "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." There is nothing coincidental about the historical events, but the name "Diet of Worms" still makes me giggle inside whenever I hear it. The name "Worms" is a German corruption of a Latin corruption of a Celtic name, which has nothing to do with platyhelminthes, nematodes, or annelids. I once had a political theory professor (Dante Germino, author of an important textbook on political thought) who claimed that the name "Diet," as opposed to assembly, parliament, or some other term, was arbitrary, but I don't think he was right about that. An Imperial Diet is literally a Reichstag, or "Imperial Day," I presume from the fact that a particular day was designated for the Imperial estates to come together in a meeting; and "diet" comes from the Latin word for day, dies, recognizable in such terms as ante meridiem and diurnal. Therefore, nothing could be more natural than to call this assembly a diet; and nothing could be funnier than a Diet of Worms.

Even if the German events associated with November 9th are not as striking as they might at first appear, it is still a fascinating day for its other events, which include the Meiji Restoration, Napoleon's coup, Robert McNamara's appointment as the first president of Ford Motor Company not in the family, and Garry Kasparov's becoming the youngest world chapion in chess. Perhaps we will have more to say about this day next year.

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