As we observe the aftermath of a vitriolic election campaign we are well-advised not to ignore the impact that deep social divisiveness had in other countries. What a historical coincidence that Donald Trump became president-elect of the United States on November 9th, a day that signifies all the ups and downs of a divisive German history in the 20th century. Four major events standing for democratization and unification, but also for the rise of Nazi totalitarianism and the prelude to mass destruction, all occurred on that very day.
President Ronald Reagan's words to Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, "Tear down this wall!" uttered during his visit to West Berlin in June 1987, still reverberated when the Berlin Wall crumbled two years later. Jubilant masses marched through the streets of Berlin to celebrate the end of the Cold War, and in the minds of many, the end of history. The date: November 9th, 1989. When the two Germanies officially reunified one year later, the date of the Fall of the Wall was suggested as the most obvious choice for Germany's new national holiday - and dropped soon after. November 9th was already marked in German history as a unique day of remembrance: It was Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.
During this night in 1938, German Jews recognized that, over five years after Adolf Hitler's rise to power and after several stages of anti-Jewish measures and violence, this was a turning point for them. The damage done was irreversible: Most of Germany's 1,400 synagogues were burned to the ground or utterly demolished. More than 7,000 stores and many apartments owned by German Jews - and in a few cases by Christians friendly to Jews - were damaged, their windows were broken. All major streets were full of glass, giving rise to the term Kristallnacht, a terrible euphemism that does not reflect the tragedy of this night, in which many hundreds of Jews were killed or driven to commit suicide, and tens of thousands were forced into concentration camps.
After the violent scenes of this night, which occurred in basically every German town, nobody could claim not to know what was going on. Not everyone knew of details from the death camps, but during this night, every German had seen enough in order to understand the true intentions of the regime. Throughout the next weeks, German Jews' valuables were confiscated; theaters, cinemas, museums, and sports facilities were closed to them, their drivers' licenses were taken away, and they could no longer visit libraries. They had to close their businesses. There was even a special decree prohibiting them to own carrier pigeons. The last Jewish children still attending German schools were expelled from them. The ghettoization of German Jews was completed by the end of 1938, and they were deprived of any economic basis. To add insult to injury, the Jews were punished for the damage done to their own property with the enormous amount of 1 billion Reichsmark.
It was exactly 15 years earlier that the fledgling Nazi party staged its first attempt to come to power in the ill-fated beer hall putsch of Munich. On the evening of November 8th, 1923, Hitler arrived with his supporters at a patriotic rally held by the leading conservative Bavarian politicians in the Bürgerbräu beer cellar. After ordering beer (for 1 billion Mark per stein at the heigth of inflation), they surrounded the beer hall with pistols in their hand, Hitler shot in the ceiling and declared: "The German Revolution has begun!" Later the beer hall sent a bill to the Nazi party charging immense amounts of beer, but also 143 broken steins, 80 glasses, 98 chairs and 148 cutleries.
At the same time in another beer hall, the Löwenbräu cellar, Hitler's supporters soon marched to the heart of Munich. They met with resistance of the Bavarian police who stopped them. Altogether 13 Nazis were shot alongside with one waiter who was on his way home, and four policemen. The New York Times reported on the next day that this most certainly marked the end of the Hitler movement. The movement, however, was just about to rise and had found its first martyrs - and its first day of memorial. It was during the 15th memorial celebration in 1938 in Munich's old city hall that the party leaders, now in charge of the country, gave the starting signal to Kristallnacht.
Finally, there is yet another November 9th. It was the hour of birth of the Weimar Republic, Germany's first democratic state. The German Emperor, Wilhelm II., was forced to resign as a consequence of Germany's defeat, and on November 9th, 1918, the German republic was declared. The Weimar Republic, built as a model democracy, lasted less than 14 years, and was split between the growing camps of left-wing and right-wing extremists.
Now that America has its own November 9th, half of the country is as jubilant as when the Berlin Wall came down, while the other half is scared and might be reminded of the darker sides of German history. While the United States are much more deeply rooted in democratic structures than Weimar Germany ever was, the fragility of democracies should not be ignored. The date of this election may be a warning sign for all of us.
Michael Brenner is Director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University in Washington DC and Professor of Jewish History and Culture at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.