It’s the last day of what I consider the gloomiest month of the year, at least for us in northern Europe where fog, rain and damp characterize these thirty days. It’s a month that seduces one to thoughts of death as the year approaches its own. It’s a period of mourning before people in many places across various hemispheres mentally start gearing up for Christmas and the preparations for that annual festival of lights and giving, and ringing cash registers (well, in the old days they used to ring).
In several countries November 11 is Remembrance Day (in Britain) or Veterans Day (in the US). As most of you know, the date harks back to the armistice that ended the hostilities of World War I. But now it is observed as a day to remember those who have served their country and made the ultimate sacrifice in the course of all wars that have been fought.
In contrast, for Germans November 11 is the beginning of the annual Carnival/Fasching/Fastnacht celebrations – the fifth season of the year which doesn’t reach its frenzied zenith until Rosenmontag and Faschings Tuesday (Mardi Gras), in the week of Ash Wednesday. The “season of fools” running between November and Lent is littered with all sorts of entertaining variety show type productions that are held in villages, towns and cities, mainly in communities situated along the River Rhine. They specialize in local social and political satire and men dressing up in ballet tutus to perform dance routines. The formal address of “Sie” is dropped and you are allowed to say the familiar “du” to everyone. A lot of alcohol is required to stimulate all this joviality and it culminates in dozens of parades in the final days of the festival. On Ash Wednesday all good Christians (with their heads in slings) then proceed to church to get an ash cross drawn on their foreheads. Lent begins and those who chose to do so start fasting in some form or other.
The manner in which November 11 is observed appears a huge contradiction – some countries honor the fallen of terrible conflicts, while in Germany, considered to be the instigator of both World Wars, the party season begins. But it’s necessary to take a closer look at the calendar.
You’ll find two Sundays that are dedicated to honoring the dead. The Volkstrauertag (people’s day of mourning) is a public holiday in Germany on the second from last Sunday before the first day of the Advent season. It commemorates all those who died in armed conflicts or as the victims of violent oppression. It was first observed in its modern form in 1952, although it was initially observed in 1922 and underwent various incarnations during the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. The fourth Sunday of November is Totensonntag, a day for families to visit cemeteries and remember deceased loved ones. Thus the Germans do bow their heads to remember; only the dates differ.
A further incongruity in Germany’s November calendar is the ninth. In 1989 an event occurred on that date that many had yearned for, even fought for, but never expected to see happen in their lifetimes. I remember it so well, watching developments as they unfolded in the DDR (German Democratic Republic) on television, and not believing our ears and eyes when the Berlin Wall was declared open. Although we had no relatives in the east, no vested interest in the events that ensued, the days that followed were truly dream-like with people hacking away at the wall and making it physical come down. Berliners climbed atop it, danced and drank Sekt. They couldn’t believe what was happening – and they were there! We watched from our living room, mesmerized by the images. We knew we were experiencing history with a capital H. It was a revolution without a single shot being fired.
Strangely, that same day in 1938 signaled the beginning of what would become the worst pogroms against the Jews in modern times. In the Reichskristalnacht, the night of broken glass, SA paramilitary forces and civilians attacked Jewish property while the German authorities looked on without intervening, without sending in police or firefighters. The attacks left the streets littered with broken glass from the windows of Jewish-owned stores and buildings. Synagogues were looted and burned.
On one and the same day in November, Germany celebrates the fall of the Berlin Wall which led to the reunion of its east and west halves. But it does not neglect remembering the victims of the pogroms and the insanity that followed. We must never forget or history will repeat itself.
Evening has closed in hard on the last day of November.