Welcome address of the president of the German Bundestag at the Ceremony of Remembrance on 9 November

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The ninth of November is the fateful day in German history.

This date seems to encapsulate our contemporary history – with its ambivalence, contradictions and contrasts. Tragedy and good fortune, failed attempts and successes, joy and guilt. All these things are linked. Inextricably. 

The major historical lines which can be drawn from this date begin in 1848, during the German Revolution. On the morning of 9 November 1848, Robert Blum was summarily executed in Vienna, with disregard to the immunity he should have been granted as a Member of the National Assembly housed in St Paul’s Church in Frankfurt. The fatal bullets fired were not aimed at him alone. They were aimed at the Revolution, at this determined attempt by the populace to bring about the unity and freedom of the nation.   

Robert Blum was shot because the rulers feared the Revolution – he died for freedom. Even today, people in many countries of the world still risk their lives for freedom. Every day. Robert Blum’s fate reminds us that something which we have long taken for granted was hard-fought in Germany too.  

Before his arrest he had written in a letter to his wife that, should the Revolution fail, “at least a deadly calm would descend on Germany for a while”. He was to be proved right.

The Germans and revolution – this is by no means an easy relationship. 1848 – 1918 – 1989: three attempts on the winding path to democracy – with very different outcomes. Yet all these three attempts are linked by one date: 9 November.

What a noteworthy date!

The revolution of 1848 displayed many of the traits which were later typical for the 20th century: the euphoria of new beginnings, the yearning for freedom and for national unity, but also marginalisation within society and isolationism, hate, violence and arbitrary state action. The anger of the subjects and courage of ordinary citizens. Even the words “We are the people” were originally coined during the 1848 Revolution. In 1989 in Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden and numerous other cities in the German Democratic Republic, this chant became the rallying call of the only successful revolution in German history. It was a peaceful revolution, with not a single shot fired, or a single death.

The fall of the Berlin Wall made 9 November 1989 the happiest day for the Germans – it changed our country, thus also changing Europe.

The fact that a number of key events in history should have fallen on one single date is mere coincidence – on the one hand. Neither the 1918 revolutionaries nor the 1989 citizens’ movement were planning their activities to coincide with particular dates in the calendar. 

And yet: a further key event in history also occurred on the same date in 1923! It was no coincidence that Hitler and Ludendorff’s march on the Feldherrnhalle in Munich took place on 9 November. The date was chosen deliberately. Their attempted coup against the fledgling Republic was a violent answer to the 1918 Revolution which they so detested. They wanted to rewrite the history books. They were aware of the great symbolic importance of this date, of the power of memory.

More than any other, the date of 9 November demonstrates a point often made by historians: that history is always also a battle to shape the historical narrative.

Democracy too must constantly re-affirm its traditions. These traditions in Germany go back further than the 20th Century, they even predate the 1848 Revolution. We are well advised to cultivate these traditions. For remembrance of the past provides us with direction and benchmarks for the present. Both of which we need – more than ever in this era of rapid change.  

The day after tomorrow, across Europe, we will commemorate the centenary of the end of World War I.

In 2014, Alfred Grosser spoke in this chamber on the impacts of this “great seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century”. His father, who served as a military physician on the front, was one of those patriotic Germans of Jewish faith who could never have imagined being excluded from the nation for which they had risked their lives. This fatal assumption was shared by many at the time – with terrible consequences.  

By the time when, on 9 November 1938, synagogues were ablaze across Germany, German-Jewish shops being looted by the thugs of the Sturmabteilung and people attacked, humiliated and murdered in plain view – if not before – it had become plain to everybody that our country was heading towards the abyss. This was a watershed. Remaining oblivious to the marginalisation of Jews in Germany was only possible by deliberately choosing to look the other way.

And this too is something for which 9 November stands: it reminds us how thin the veneer of civilization is!

So the fact that vibrant Jewish life today once again pulses at the heart of our society is a gift – one which endows us with a special responsibility. Particularly since recent attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions illustrate how necessary it is to protect them even now in the 21st century.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Albert Einstein was one of the German Jews who recognised the danger early on, immediately after the failure of the Weimar Republic. He had observed the beginnings of this Republic with optimism. On the papers from his lecture on the theory of relativity he noted on 9 November 1918: “cancelled due to revolution” – with a succinctness suited to a concise history of the world.

The Revolution was born on the coast, when sailors mutinied against continuing to risk their lives in a senseless war. In many places within the Reich, they were joined by workers and soldiers – until the Revolution reached Berlin on 9 November. A general strike brought public life to a standstill. From the morning onwards, people flocked into the centre of the city, including to the Reichstag.  

Shortly beforehand, the parliamentarians had passed a law transforming the authoritarian state run by the Kaiser into a parliamentary monarchy. Yet even such far-reaching reforms as these could no longer halt the Revolution. It was driven by the desire for peace – and peace was only possible without the Kaiser. Under pressure from the speed at which events were unfolding, Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann walked over to the window and proclaimed to the impatient crowd below the end of the monarchy. He finished his speech with the words: “Long live the German Republic!”

Various versions of this spontaneous address exist, including an audio recording taped by Scheidemann himself years later. In a minute, the actor Ulrich Matthes will read out the version which was published right after the event in 1919 in the Revolutions-Almanach. Historians believe that this text is the closest which exists to the true text of Scheidemann’s statement.

At that time, with the monarchies across Europe being swept away, the goal outlined by Robert Blum much earlier in 1848 when he spoke outside St Paul’s Church briefly seemed realistic–  the “joining in brotherhood of the free – or soon-to-be free – West”. To secure freedom and peace in Europe.  

History turned out differently, however, and it took decades to actually achieve this goal. Not until 1989 did this goal, formerly no more than a promise, finally become reality across the whole of Europe.   

Let us – never again – endanger freedom and peace. This is the enduring message of 9 November, this fateful day for all Germans.   

We will now hear the words of Philipp Scheidemann.