It was 75 years ago today – February 11, 1945 – that the original “Big Three” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin – would meet together for the final time with the conclusion of the Yalta Conference, which was the second of three WWII wartime summits between the three heads of government of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union.
The key points on the agenda at Yalta were major questions related to military tactics in the Pacific War and post-war politics in Europe. The Soviets pledged to join the war against Japan three months after the end of the war in Europe, and Germany was to be divided into four occupation zones (which involved the French) and the establishment of a “United Nations” organization was also agreed upon.
Yet, the question of Poland and its borders would dominate much of the eight day summit, as it would five months later when the ‘new’ Big Three would arrive at Potsdam for their final wartime summit. At Yalta, Poland’s western frontier was left undefined, but it was agreed that it would receive “considerable” territorial compensation from Germany, while Stalin ‘pledged’ to permit free and democratic elections in Poland based on the Atlantic Charter that had been signed in 1941. Yet, as soon would become the case, massive intimidation, electoral fraud and a wave of persecution would be unleashed under communist cadres that had the protection of the occupying Red Army throughout Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. Historians claim that it was finally made obvious to Churchill at Yalta that nothing could change the reality that Stalin had conquered Poland and would thus decide its future, realizing that it wouldn’t be long before it was a fully pledged Soviet satellite state.
After the final pictures were taken, Churchill would say goodbye to his close friend, President Roosevelt, whom he had a very special bond with, for the final time, and leave Yalta deeply embittered, realizing that the cause for which Great Britain had entered the war – a free Poland – had been lost.
In short, the Yalta Conference divided Europe between those states that were under the rule of the Red Army and those that were to join the West in one association or another (de facto, not formally). It would also divide Germany ostensibly into occupation zones, but ultimately into separate states.
Thus, it’s largely accepted among historians that Yalta ignited the beginning of the Cold War that would last for the next half century.
Smyser, William R. (1999). From Yalta To Berlin: The Cold War Struggle Over Germany. New York: St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-06605-8
Saturday, April 3, 1948 at the White House in Washington D.C.
WWII had ended just over two years earlier and the winter of 1946-1947 had been the worst one in living memory. With mass starvation, chaos and the spread of communism riddling Western Europe since the end of the war, a comprehensive system of economic aid for Europe had now finally come to the fore.
Its official title was the European Recovery Program (ERP), but history and the world would better know it as the ‘Marshall Plan’, named after Secretary of State George C. Marshall – one of the most highly respected and most popular persons in the United States at that time.
What Secretary Marshall and President Truman were proposing was not military action, but an economic plan that would involve a delay in the withdrawal of American forces from Europe and a program of financial aid that would pump anywhere between $8-17 billion dollars into the economies of receptive countries. This money would then be used to buy food, resources and other goods from the United States in the hopes that it would help them combat mass starvation, rejuvenate their economies, rebuild utterly destroyed areas, and prevent their democracies from rapidly moving toward the Left – something that was seen as a real danger at the time.
Therefore, it was on this day 71 years ago that U.S. President Harry S. Truman signed the Marshall Plan, initially granting $13 billion dollars in economic assistance to 16 European nations. With this coming a little over a year after Greece and Turkey had been granted $400 million dollars in aid, no other president in U.S. history has ever approved so much money to aid people who weren’t Americans.
The success of the Plan has been criticized by modern historians who argue that some recipient nations had already been experiencing economic recovery, while others negatively argue that it strengthened American economic imperialism abroad. Yet, what’s important to keep in mind is that this stimulus came at a time when a psychological boost was badly needed as countries were still struggling to cope with the economic and human aftermath of WWII, as well as the terrible aforementioned winter.
In short, many people at that time – who were living history forward and not backward – understood the Marshall Plan as a compassionate program and found it to be a real badge of honor for the Truman administration.
“Some of the White House Staff suggested to President Truman that they didn’t much like the idea of General Marshall getting credit for it, but Truman was very firm on that: ‘The Congress will do anything that George Marshall wants. If my name is on it, it will probably become controversial. I don’t want it to become controversial. I want it to succeed. It will be called the Marshall Plan and we will have no more talk about changing the name.’”
– Administrative Assistant to the President, George M. Elsey, on President Truman
With the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State” (The Reichstag Fire Decree) only 22 days old and having served as the “legal” basis for the arrests of thousands of opponents of the Nazis up until that point, Hitler and the National Socialists were on the brink of fully recruiting the remaining nationalist parties in the Reichstag to pass a law that would turn over all government functions to Hitler himself.
Before this could happen, as far as Hitler was concerned, a ceremony that would underscore the National Socialists’ politics of propaganda and terror needed to be triumphantly held to illustrate a glorified connection between the traditional powers of the “old Reich” and Hitler’s “young” and “dynamic” Nazi movement.
Always the dramatist, Nazi propaganda head Josef Goebbels staged the inauguration of the new Reichstag (following the national election of 5 March) in the “Day of Potsdam” by convincing President Paul von Hindenburg to go to Potsdam and give his blessing to the new Nazi regime 86 years ago today. Even today’s date – March 21 – had symbolic significance to the “old Reich” for it was the date on which Otto von Bismarck had first opened the all-German Reichstag following the German Unification of 1871.
In addition to a motorcade parade through Potsdam, the main ceremony took place in the Garrison Church, located just blocks away from the Potsdam City Palace – which had served as the second official seat of the dynastic Princes of the Holy Roman Empire, Kings of Prussia, and German Emperors of the House of Hohenzollern for nearly three centuries. Moreover, the Garrison Church had been the final resting place of Hitler’s hero and one of the most influential monarchies in European history, Frederick the Great.
With the last Crown Prince of the Hohenzollern dynasty – along with his brothers – in attendance, the ceremony got underway just after noon local time. Hindenburg marched down the nave of the church while decked out in his gray field marshal’s uniform and carrying his spiked helmet in his left hand. Just before reaching the church’s Imperial Gallery, the old general paused and saluted the empty pew of the last Prussian King and German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Hindenburg then reached the altar, turned, and gave a brief homily that would consecrate the Nazi regime:
“May the old spirit of this celebrated shrine permeate the generation of today, may it liberate us from selfishness and party strife and bring us together in national self-consciousness to bless a proud and free Germany, united in herself.”
Hitler, who was wearing a black suit with striped pants (a far cry from his usual brown stormtrooper uniform and high boots), responded with:
“Neither the Kaiser nor the government nor the nation wanted the war. It was only the collapse of the nation which compelled a weakened race to take upon itself, against its most sacred convictions, the guilt for this war.”
Having gone to the altar himself, Hitler looked down on Hindenburg, who had taken a seat in the front pew near Goebbels and Reichstag President Hermann Goering. Hitler then looked at Hindenburg and addressed the “old Reich” directly:
“By a unique upheaval in the last few weeks, our national honor has been restored and, thanks to your understanding, Herr Generalfeldmarschall, the union between the symbols of the old greatness and the new strength has been celebrated. We pay you homage. A protective providence places you over the new forces of our nation.”
After uttering these words, Hitler stepped down from the altar, bowed to Hindenburg, and shook his hand – producing one of the most infamous photographs in modern history.
Yet at the end of the day, this melodrama inside the Garrison Church at Potsdam was more than a triumphant ceremony. This was the moment in which Hitler – the leader of the young and dynamic Nazi movement – proclaimed the creation of the “Thousand Year Reich” in the presence of the symbols of Germany’s glorified past.
A national mood of euphoria in this new “Volksgemeinschaft” (People’s Community) had been born and it unfortunately resonated with broad parts of German society throughout the country. Along with this wave of enthusiasm, the collective optimism of the German people – which hadn’t been felt since 1914 – began to blossom as well, with only limited opposition to this new national hysteria.
It was exactly 100 years ago today that Adolf Hitler delivered the Nazi Party’s 25 Point Platform to around 2,000 people in Munich’s famous beerhall, the Hofbräuhaus. This event is often regarded as the founding of the Nazi Party.
The Nazi Party’s roots actually go back to March 7, 1918 when political factions with exotic names were popping up all over Germany at the end of WWI. One of these was called the “Free Labor Committee for a Good Peace,” which was founded by a Munich locksmith named Anton Drexler. The little party consisted of some forty railwaymen and different friends of Drexler who were all banded together in a spirit of fierce nationalism, anti-Semitism, and support for the war effort.
Following the German defeat in WWI, however, the “Free Labor Committee for a Good Peace” reinvented itself and became the “German Worker’s Party (DAP)”. It was on September 12, 1919, that Hitler stumbled upon Drexler’s party after his military superiors had sent him to investigate it to draw up a report on its activities.
He would eventually join the party and become its 55th party member on January 1, 1920.
Hitler quickly helped Drexler to realize that the party had to have a clear program (which it certainly didn’t have at the time) in order for it to have an effective voice. Together, the two men would sit down and write the 25 Points of their party’s program, which was completed on February 6. 1920.
Among preaching nationalism in its highest form, the 25 Points focused on calling on Germany to reject the Treaty of Versailles, that Germany take back its territories that had been lost after WWI, and that only those who have German blood can become citizens (which would exclude Jews).
A little over two weeks later, on this day, Hitler gave the first reading of the 25 Points to a Hofbräuhaus that was filled to capacity; and even included a large number of communists spoiling for a fight among the around 2,000 people in attendance.
From this point onward the party would be referred to as the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (the Nazi Party) or (NSDAP), whose acronym would become a byword for tyranny of the greatest form, synonymous with the perishing of millions of innocent lives, and a movement responsible for one of the largest catastrophes – of unprecedented proportions – in world history.
Monday, February 23, 1778 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
Two hundred and forty-two years ago today, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, better known as Baron von Steuben, arrived at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to help train Commander George Washington’s Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
Born just 90 miles southwest of Berlin, he joined the Prussian Army when he was 17 years old and served as second lieutenant during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). After earning the rank of captain in 1761, he would then serve as a secretary of the General Staff to Prussian King Frederick the Great. This experience would arm him with a wealth of knowledge and even give him the opportunity to take part in special courses of military instruction that were delivered by Frederick the Great himself.
In 1777 von Steuben met Benjamin Franklin during a visit to Paris. Franklin certainly realized the potential of having an officer with Prussian general staff training in the Continental Army, but he wasn’t in a position to offer von Steuben a position or salary at that time. It wouldn’t be until later that year that von Steuben was introduced to Commander in Chief George Washington by means of a letter from Franklin as “Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia’s Service,” an exaggeration of his actual credentials that most likely was a mistranslation of his service record. In any event, he was advanced travel funds and left Europe from Marseilles, arriving in New Hampshire in December 1777.
On this day – Monday, February 23, 1778 – he reported to the Continental Army’s famous encampment, Valley Forge, and reported for duty as a volunteer. According to a soldier’s impression of von Steuben (on display at the Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania today):
“The Baron was of the ancient fabled God of War…he seemed to me a perfect personification of Mars. The trappings of his horse, the enormous holsters of his pistols, his large size, and his strikingly martial aspect, all seemed to favor the idea. He turned the volunteers into a great army.”
He would soon serve as Inspector General and Major General of the Continental Army and is credited with being one of the fathers of the Continental Army in teaching them the essentials of military drills, tactics, and disciplines. Eventually, he would serve as Washington’s chief of staff in the final years of the war.
In 1911 the United States Congress presented the city of Potsdam with a memorial statue of von Steuben. Unfortunately, this was melted down after WWII, but it was replaced in the mid 1990s with a replica that now stands near the site of the original one in the heart of Potsdam’s Neuer Markt.
And on the third Saturday in September, the annual German-American Steuben Parade is held in New York City to honor von Steuben as one of the most influential German-Americans who profoundly contributed to America’s fight for independence, as well as for his training the thousands of young American soldiers who fought to achieve victory in the American Revolutionary War.
On a cold, February afternoon in Munich 77 years ago today, 21 year old Sophie Scholl, a pioneer and active member within the White Rose resistance group in Nazi Germany, was found guilty of high treason and beheaded by a guillotine in Munich for distributing anti-war leaflets at the University of Munich with her brother, Hans.
For decades, she’s been seen as a leading figure of the resistance movement against the policies of the Nazi government, having demonstrated a profound amount of courage and a great deal of social dissent in a controlled society of violent repression, censorship, and conformist pressure. At her trial she said the following:
“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”
The Nazi court allowed no testimony for Scholl and the other defendants; this quote was her only defense.
In 2003 the government of Bavaria placed her bust in the Walhalla Temple, something that would’ve been inconceivable when it opened in the 19th century (let alone during the Nazi period). Later that year, the German television network ZDF invited people from around Germany to participate in the so-called “Unsere Besten” (Our Best), a nationwide competition to choose the top ten most important Germans of all time. Young voters helped Scholl and her brother to finish in fourth place, above the likes of Einstein, Bach, Goethe, and Bismarck.
Else Gebel, who shared a cell with Scholl, recorded her last words before being taken away to be executed:
“How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause…? It is such a splendid sunny day, and I have to go. But how many have to die on the battlefield in these days, how many young, promising lives. What does my death matter if by our acts thousands are warned and alerted…”
Berlin, 11:30AM, January 30. 1933, Wilhelmstraße 73
Despite losing 2 million votes in the November national election of 1932 and thus losing 34 seats in the Reichstag in Berlin, the NSDAP still remained the largest and sadly the most popular political party at a time when economic and political instability riddled Germany’s young democracy.
And after Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher failed to secure parliamentary support at the beginning of 1933, the Catholic Center Party’s leader, Franz von Papen, and his cronies, led negotiations with President Paul von Hindenburg to appoint Adolf Hitler German chancellor, believing that they could tame him by dominating his cabinet with the old conservative elite.
And so #OTD 86 years ago at around 11:30 in the morning, arguably the biggest blow to Germany’s young democracy up until that point came when Hindenburg appointed Hitler as German Chancellor at the Presidential Palace on Wilhemstraße in Berlin.
While Herman Göring and Wilhelm Frick were the only two other cabinet members from the NSDAP, the new Vice-chancellor, von Papen, continued to assure all doubters that the vulgar, uneducated and inexperienced in government Nazis would be easy to control stating, “You are wrong. We’ve engaged him for ourselves…within two months, we will have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeak.”
That Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor was no ordinary change of government became immediately clear, as his Propaganda Minister, Josef Göbbels, organized a torchlit parade consisting of members of the SA, SS, and Steel Helmets that went through the Brandenburg Gate and through Berlin. One pro-Nazi newspaper enthusiastically estimated that 700,000 marchers took part in the parade, while less than amused papers put the number at just over 100,000, and the hostile sources put the number of uniformed marchers at no more than 20,000. Crowds of onlookers lined the streets to watch the marchers and the spectacle was typical of the kind of stage-management which German society could now expect from Göbbels’s propaganda machine.
Even the 86 year old Hindenburg, whose health was deteriorating fast and whose mind was becoming more senile by the day, took some interest in the parade. One of his entourage later told the British writer John Wheeler-Bennett: He had been standing stiffly at the window for a while when his attention began to slip and his mind to wander back to the glorious early days. “Ludendorff!”, the befuddled old man said, “How well your men are marching, and what a lot of prisoners they’ve taken!”
Needless to say, the person directly responsible for appointing Hitler as Chancellor of Germany earlier in the day was confused. But many people who took part in that evening’s celebration weren’t. Hindenburg was presented by the National press as the central figure in the jubilation, helping several people – who had felt nothing but shame and disgrace for the previous 14 years since the end of WWI – feel a revival of the spirit of 1914 that was felt at the outbreak of the Great War. These would all be sentiments with which every Nationalist could agree.
Unfortunately, von Papen’s and his cronies’ careless dismissal of Hitler and the NSDAP – as well as Hindenburg’s infamous appointment – can be seen as some of the vital roots to what would later become a world tragedy of unprecedented proportions.
The Berlin Guides Association is comprised of professional, expert guides working in Berlin, throughout Germany and across Europe. Our passion is sharing our knowledge of German history and culture with visitors to Berlin and from around the world. We are Berlin’s official tour guide association.
Evans, Richard J. (2003). The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin Group ISBN 1-59420-004-1
With the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and thus the collapse of the German Empire at the end of WWI, revolution broke out everywhere and political movements on both the left and right erupted like a stick of dynamite throughout Germany.
Amid the chaos, violence, power struggles and the possibility of new opportunities, one of the key democratic institutions of the German Revolution of 1918-1919 was the establishment of the council – which had been popular organizations first invented in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Like Germany at the onset of January 1919, the councils were a sign of desperate conditions and a search for new forms of political representation in the age of high industrialization and total war. There would be sailors councils, workers councils, workers and soldiers councils, and even councils organized by artists and by agricultural workers.
Their activities were often confused and chaotic – their politics rudimentary – but they were everywhere, and they were a grassroots form of democracy that allowed a wider range of political participation that was addressed in a broader range of issues that had ever existed in Germany before.
And out of this fray of dramatic change and political uncertainty rose the voices of Social Democratic Party leader Philipp Scheidemann, and famed radical socialist antiwar activist, Karl Liebknecht, as well as his co-leader, Rosa Luxemburg.
Scheidemann, acting on behalf of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), had proclaimed a German republic from the window of Berlin’s Reichstag building at the end of WWI, which would establish democracy for the first time in Germany’s history with the founding of the so-called Weimar Republic. Meanwhile, just just blocks away, Liebknecht proclaimed a socialist republic from the window of the Berlin city palace, which had just been the dynastic seat of the Prince Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, Prussian kings and German emperors of the House of Hohenzollern for centuries.
Luxemburg and Liebknecht had previously founded and led the Spartacist League – a Marxist revolutionary movement established toward the end of WWI which would lay the roots of the establishment of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) on January 1, 1919.
Luxemburg’s and Liebknecht’s chief aim was simple: They believed that power and wealth should be shared equally among the population. The KPD would quickly refuse to participate in the parliamentary elections, preferring instead to place its faith in the workers’ councils, as expressed in the former Spartacist manifesto:
The question today is not democracy or dictatorship. The question that history has put on the agenda reads: Bourgeois democracy or socialist democracy? For the dictatorship of the proletariat is democracy in the socialist sense of the word. Dictatorship of the proletariat does not mean bombs, putsches, riots and anarchy, as the agents of capitalist profits deliberately and falsely claim. Rather, it means using all instruments of political power to achieve socialism, to expropriate – dispossess of property – the capitalist class through and in accordance with the will of the revolutionary majority of the proletariat.
In short, Germany’s post-war revolution fostered two perceivable paths forward: Social democracy or a council republic – with the latter being similar to the one which had been established by the Bolsheviks in Russia.
In the first week of January in 1919, Liebknecht and Luxemburg decided that the SPD led, young republic was tenuous and vulnerable enough to challenge, so they launched an armed rising in Berlin with the the aim of overthrowing the provisional government and creating a soviet republic.
“Today we can seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all. Nay, more; not merely are we today in a position to perform this task, nor merely is its performance a duty toward the proletariat, but our solution offers the only means of saving human society from destruction” – Rosa Luxemburg
On 5 January, their movement occupied public buildings, called for a general strike and formed a revolutionary committee. They denounced the SPD led provisional government and the forthcoming elections. A few days of savage street fighting took place as workers with rifles haphazardly swarmed the streets of Berlin.
With the model of Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution in Russia happening before their eyes, the mainstream Social Democrats feared that the revolutionaries might institute the kind of ‘red terror’ that was now taking place in Russia. According to historian Richard J. Evans:
“Afraid for their lives, and conscious of the need to prevent the country from falling into complete anarchy, the SPD sanctioned the recruitment of heavily armed paramilitary bands consisting of a mixture of younger men, and known as the Free Corps (Freikorps), to put down any further revolutionary uprisings.”
Significantly outnumbering the Spartacists and having the backing of the republic, the Free Corps came storming into to Berlin to suppress the uprising.
Liebknecht and Luxemburg retreated for their lives and escaped to an inconspicuous neighborhood apartment building at Mannheimerstraße 43 (today Mannheimerstraße 27) in the heart of Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district.
After laying low for a couple days, it was on this day – January 15, 1919 – that Wilmersdorfer Bürgerwehr (vigilance committee) members Bruno Lindner and Wilhlem Moering – along with three others – arrived at Mannheimerstraße 43 just after 8:00PM. They rang the Marcusson family’s door bell, where the two had been seeking refuge, forced their way into the building and up to the apartment where Liebknecht and Luxemburg were.
The men had been tipped off and the source of where they’d gotten their information of Liebknecht’s and Luxemburg’s whereabouts is still uncertain today.
Before the two Spartacus leaders were arrested and eventually taken to the famous Eden Hotel for further questioning, (Liebknecht was first taken to a nearby school in order to determine his identity), Luxemburg had quickly borrowed a pair of wool socks from Mrs. Marcusson before venturing out into the cold January night in Berlin.
After hours of torture and interrogation while in police custody, Liebknecht’s and Luxemburg’s lives would be brutally brought to an end at the hands of the Free Corps who had been egged on by the mainstream Social Democrats looking to protect the young republic from the leftist movement; revolutionaries in a number of other German cities were also put down or summarily murdered to eliminate any future threat to the new republic.
While being transported to Moabit Prison, Liebknecht was shot in the back after the car he’d been riding in had pulled over to the side of the road not far from the Eden Hotel. His body was then taken away.
After being gruesomely beaten with a rifle butt and shot in the head, Luxemburg was flung into Berlin’s Landwehrkanal (a canal running east to west immediately south of the city center). Four and a half months later, after the canal’s ice had thawed, Luxemburg’s body was found and Mrs. Marcusson of Wilmersdorf would immediately recognize her stockings and other items of clothing on the corpse when pictures of the body surfaced.
These events would ultimately create a very troubled atmosphere for the next few months and they’d also leave a permanent legacy of bitterness and hatred on the political left for the next several years. Moreover, they would decidedly doom any kind of cooperation between Social Democrats and Communists in Germany’s new republic.
Mutual fear, mutual recriminations and mutual hatred between these two parties became their only common ground with one another from that point onward. And when it came time to combat the rise of National Socialism in the national government years later, representatives of the Social Democrats and Communists still weren’t able to put their differences aside.
Evans, Richard J. (2003). The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin Group ISBN 1-59420-004-1
Uwe Soukup, “Luxemburg und Liebknecht: Das letzte Versteck,” Der Tagesspiegel, January 11, 2010
Weitz, Eric D. (2007). Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press ISBN 978-0-691-01695-5
As part of our commitment to furthering and enhancing our education as ambassadors of German history, the Berlin Guides Association took its monthly excursion to the city of Weimar last month to explore all its rich history and to learn more about the city’s reputation as a center of art and culture.
Around 20 of our members took a tour of the city and followed the traces of its classicist and post-classicist past, as well as the traditions of its modern movement – which included the city’s famous Bauhaus history.
Furthermore, our guides visited the Weimar Theater which was the birthplace of the so-called Weimar Republic – Germany’s first attempt at democracy which lasted from 1919-1933. This was the venue where the 423 delegates of the first ever democratically elected National Assembly of the Republic convened from 6 February – 30 September 1919.
Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial
Thursday, December 6, 2018
The following day our members ventured just a little over 6 miles northwest of Weimar to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial site where they received a private tour from one of the camp’s guides.
In operation from 1937-1945, this camp was first established by Heinrich Himmler’s SS to detain political opponents of the NSDAP, persecute Jews, Sinti and Roma, and imprison the so-called “enemies of the state” – such as, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, ex-convicts, and various other people deemed “unfit” for German society in the Third Reich.
After the onset of WWII, Buchenwald became an important place for so-called “undesirables” from all across Europe to be sent to. Around 280,000 were imprisoned at Buchenwald and its 139 sub camps and more than 56,000 would perish there as the result of torture, medical experiments, exhaustion, and murder.
When the Americans reached Buchenwald in April 1945, Allied Supreme Commander, Dwight Eisenhower recorded: “Nothing has ever shocked me as much as that sight.”
Our guide did a fantastic job uncovering the realities of life and death in the camp while also unraveling the complex history of not only the Holocaust itself, but also how the Soviets turned Buchenwald (located in their occupation zone after the signing of the Nazi unconditional surrender) into a so-called “Special Camp” for their own enemies, political dissidents and others whom they felt necessary to imprison.
If you travel to Germany in the future, a visit to Weimar and or the Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial is definitely worth considering. From Berlin, it takes roughly 2 1/2 hours to reach by train; and from Munich, a train journey will take just under 3 hours.
(A special thank you to Berlin Guides Association member, Maria Bergman, for providing the pictures for this blog post).
When it comes to German history, November 9 is a date like no other.
It’s a day packed with four colossal events from the twentieth century that have gotten people to refer to today as Germany’s “day of fate.”
In with the new and out with old: Saturday, November 9, 1918
With the German Imperial Army on the brink of defeat at the end of WWI – and with political and social revolutionary forces sweeping through the country, Prussian King and German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II, was advised and urged to abdicate from his throne. In part, this was largely a symbolic gesture of compliance to show the Allied nations that Germany was fully committed to setting up a democratic system – as outlined in US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points – in the hope that the country would receive a fair treatment at the forthcoming peace conference at Versailles.
With the German Empire shaking apart and monarchies crumbling by the day, word got out that communist leader Karl Liebknecht was going to pronounce a communist republic. To prevent this, the Social Democratic leader, Phillip Scheidemann, made his way to the west windows of the Reichstag in Berlin and announced the birth of a democratic republic by shouting, “Long live the German republic!”
The seeds of what would become known as the Weimar Republic – Germany’s first attempt at a democracy – had just been planted, and centuries of history of numerous German monarchies had come to an end.
Arguably human history’s most evil villain steps onto the world stage: Friday, November 9, 1923
With economic instability and political chaos riddling Germany’s young democracy, Adolf Hitler and his cronies from the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP or Nazis) – along with the respected WWI General Erich Ludendorff – staged a putsch in Munich on the night of November 8, 1923. Inspired by Benito Mussolini’s successful march on Rome in 1922, the idea was to seize control of the Bavarian government and make a march on Berlin to establish an authoritarian dictatorship under Hitler and the Nazis.
Unfortunately for Hitler, the putsch was haphazardly planned as he’d failed to guarantee the support of the police and the army before it began; and to add insult to injury, the stubborn old Ludendorff was late in turning up for the putsch, which allowed the Bavarian Minister President Gustav Ritter von Kahr to eventually make a quick phone call to Bavaria’s reserve army to confront the Nazis.
As soon as Hitler’s forces finally began marching through the streets in the early morning hours of November 9, 1923, Bavaria’s reserve army squashed the uprising in a matter of minutes. Hitler was quickly arrested two days later and charged with high treason against the German government.
At his trial a few months later, Hitler took advantage of exploiting this opportunity as a propaganda platform – and was astonishingly allowed by a group of sympathetic conservative judges – to use his inexplicably gifted oratory skills to turn his trial into a political showcase. Among his rambling, he would ultimately highlight his desire to take back what had been taken from Germany after WWI and make it clear that his ultimate (racial) goal was to protect and defend the purity of the German people.
Despite the fact that the judges found him guilty – issuing a 5 year prison sentence – they also awarded him the possibility of parole after 9 months, which he was easily granted just before Christmas of 1924.
This so-called “Beer Hall Putsch” of November 8/9 1923 did two things for Hitler. First, it taught him an important lesson: One cannot take control of government by force; rather, he needs to democratically come into power and then he can destroy through politics. Second, the political circus and eloquent ranting at his trial got his name in newspapers outside the borders of Munich which permeated from the Bavarian capital all the way up to the shores of the Baltic and North seas.
Alas, within a decade of the Beer Hall Putsch, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany.
The National Socialist ideology radicalizes: Wednesday, November 9, 1938
Ever since the Nazis came to power in 1933, Jews throughout Germany had been made to feel like second class citizens.
First it began with an increasing amount of verbal harassment and physical violence.
This culminated into a boycott of Jewish goods and businesses, as the harassment and violence continued.
Pretty soon, Jews were stripped of their German citizenship and their assets were seized.
In short, the Nazis were hoping that Germany’s Jews would just simply ‘take a hint’ and leave Germany.
Finally, the bottom fell out on November 9, 1938 when Nazi thugs torched over 4,500 synagogues throughout Germany, and destructively vandalized Jewish owned shops and businesses in what became known as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass” or “November Pogrom in Germany.”
Moreover, around an estimated 30,000 Jews were viciously rounded up and sent off to concentration camps, with around a 100 alone being murdered on that infamous night.
On this tragic day – 80 years ago today – Nazi anti-Semitism transitions from ‘legal’ persecution to a continual wave of violent attacks and deportations; and it would only be a matter of time before it resulted in a murderous conclusion on a scale of unprecedented proportions.
An innocuous blunder: Thursday, November 9, 1989
The times were changing in East Germany in the fall of 1989.
The East German people themselves had been courageously putting an enormous amount of pressure on the East German government to relax its travel restrictions and the leaders of the regime knew that some sort of change was quickly needed.
At a live press conference that included the attendance of journalists from around the world, on the evening of Thursday, November 9, 1989 an East German bureaucrat and spokesman named Guenter Schabowski read the minutes of a high profile meeting that took place earlier in the day.
Towards the end of his minutes in hand, Schabowski read out loud that there had been extensive discussion in that morning’s meeting that would allow East Germans to leave East Germany on visa.
Suddenly he was asked when this would take effect.
Given the fact that he wasn’t at that morning’s meeting – thus having no idea when exactly it would – he just hastily paged through his notes and quickly said, “Ab sofort” (immediately).
Through the help of the West Berlin media playing this blunder over and over on the radio waves shortly thereafter, word spread like a wild fire and it ultimately resulted in sending thousands of East Germans towards the East Berlin and West Berlin crossing points, where baffled guards eventually let them through and thus culminating into the “Fall of the Berlin Wall.” Yet, celebrations on November 9 have long been shunned due to the troublesome events that are mentioned above.
The “day of fate” or “Schicksalstag” as it’s said here in Germany is indeed a tumultuous date in the country’s history with events that have directly or indirectly affected the lives of millions of people throughout the world.