ome years ago, on what must have been a 9th of November, I watched in amazement as a newscaster, totally oblivious to recent history, observed about the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall what a triumph this was for Ronald Reagan. While historians might debate the extent of his responsibility for the event, no one could deny that it happened during his administration.
Well, of course I was reminded of the exchange between Albert Alligator and a firefly during an expedition deep into the swamp in search of lost friends. Albert has taken charge, and the firefly demands that Albert do something leaderful. “There! Looky! It stopped rainin’ … How’s that?” says Albert. “You can’t take credit for that!” the firefly protests. “Why not?” Albert demands. “It happened durin’ my administration din’t it?”
Well, us gotta be fair, as Pogo Possum observed, but this one was both wrong on the law and wrong on the facts. Merely because something happened while somebody was in office doesn’t make it that person’s responsibility, for good or ill, regardless of the Alligator Principle. And in fact Ronald Reagan wasn’t president when the wall fell—it was during the administration of his successor, George Bush I.
I mentioned the absurdity of the newscaster’s remark to several people, and was surprised to find that they all agreed with the newscaster against me—of course it happened on Reagan’s watch. I remembered quite clearly the events of the end of the cold war, and I was quite sure of my facts—but I looked them up anyway. (Like the Golux, I sometimes make things up.) But it is a fact, the Berlin wall fell on 9 November 1989, ten months into Bush’s regime.
I suppose this is a matter of what you choose to believe. If you wish to believe that the almighty Reagan huffed and puffed and blew down the entire Soviet Empire with some wimpy speech, well, there’s nothing to stop you. Mere facts are powerless against such an iron dream. I guess it could be one of his legendary third-term achievements.
But 9 November does mark the end of the hated Berlin wall, no matter what political spin you might care to put on it, and you can easily see why the Germans might want to celebrate it. Except, well, they don’t, exactly. 9 November comes with cultural baggage. It was 9 November in 1932 that Nazi thugs decided to launch their anti-Semitic campaign by smashing windows of Jewish-owned stores and burning down synagogues. If 9 November were a German holiday, you can bet what Erik Kartmann would be celebrating.
Interestingly, Joseph Goebbels announced the opening shots of the Holocaust at a celebration of another Nazi milestone—no, not the foundation of the SS—it was the anniversary of Hitler’s failed coup attempt against the Bavarian government nine years before, the almost-comic beer-hall putsch. Four police officers did lose their lives defending the republic against some two thousand right-wing gangbangers, but Hitler’s utter incompetence guaranteed its failure right from the start. After Hitler’s triumph at the ballot-box years later the whole event was romanticized, and Germans celebrated it as Reichstrauertag, a day of mourning.
Hitler’s attempted coup occurred five years to the day after Philipp Scheidemann had unilaterally proclaimed the monarchy ended and a republic established by shouting that information out the window to a crowd below. Okay, the reality was a little more complicated, but that moment endured in popular memory, and the ill-fated Weimar Republic was launched. Crippled by debt and deliberately undermined by cultural conservatives, it would eventually more or less vote itself out of existence, going out with neither a bang nor a whimper, but while it lasted it was a brief cultural oasis in the Reich’s otherwise grim history.
The republic, in many ways, attempted to embody the tolerant and open ways envisioned in the brief awakening of 1848. Robert Blum was one of the voices of this movement—poet, publisher, politician—and on 9 November (the day before his 41st birthday) he became a martyr to it, when after being illegally arrested a few days before he was summarily executed. The spirit of 1848 was quickly flushed down the sinkhole of history as the various nations affected reverted to their primitive ways, but the day was remembered on the new calendar of progressive saints, as medieval writers used to recall the gruesome deaths of Christian propagandists on their various anniversaries.
The Germans now call it Schicksalstag, the fateful day. It is certainly a day of many failures—the failed revolution of 1848, the failed republic of 1918, the failed coup of 1923, the failed attempt to eradicate the Jewish people, the failed attempt to build a German socialist state. American presidents from George Bush I to Barack Obama have been annually declaring 9 November World Freedom Day for the past quarter century, but as far as I can tell it has never caught on except with right-wingers, who use it to buff up the shine on their St. Ronald icons. I’d leave it alone, personally. I’d hate to think that the cause of world freedom will end up just another goddamn failure.