Veterans day is getting more attention that it has for many years. Accordingly, I reoffer this 2003 column for my readers’ reflection.
November is a month for remembering days of valor, danger and death. When I was a boy, all activity ceased in our public school at the stroke of 11:00 AM, on the 11th day of the 11th month. We observed a minute of silence at the very hour the Armistice became effective, ending the Great War of 1914-’18 – what my grandmother and millions of others of her generation always called “The World War”, even after later events changed its label to World War I.
Of course, had we marked the actual hour of the Armistice correctly, we should have done so at 5:00 AM in eastern Pennsylvania, where I grew up. (The effective time of the Armistice was 11:00 AM on the Western Front, in France.) Nevertheless, the observance was a solemn moment, even for a boy of 10 who wasn’t really sure what it was all about.
The English observance is now called Remembrance Day. The anniversary of the Armistice is observed with two minutes of silence at precisely 10:00 AM, Greenwich Time – the exact hour when hostilities ended in France. My wife and I were visiting in London on Remembrance Day, 1984. We shall never forget the experience.
As it happened, we were touring Westminster Abbey late on the afternoon of November 10th. There we found that the cathedral green had been divided into many small plots, each perhaps 2 feet square. Every plot bore a small sign identifying some unit of British Arms – 9th Fusiliers, Kings Guards, 12th Air Wing, and so forth. Hundreds of units were represented. Inside each plot visitors had placed small matchstick crosses to which they had attached small slips of paper containing inscriptions – “Remembering our pal, Jim”, “The Old gang from Brighton”, “Ben – Always”, “Fred, we haven’t forgotten”, and thousands of others.
Tears sprang to our eyes as we walked among the plots, reading those notes. It was perhaps the most moving war memorial we had ever seen – its impact magnified because it was real. Those small crosses and notes had all been placed there by people for whom the searing blast of war was still fresh and terrible and intensely personal.
On the morning of November 11th, amid a moving Service in Westminster Abbey, the Queen placed a wreath on the grave of the Unknown Soldier – buried among the kings and queens of the realm. Old veterans wore campaign ribbons and poppies in their lapels. All commerce ceased for the two minutes of silence. People across the land of Kipling and Churchill and Victoria paused to remember the sacrifices of the million-plus who fell “for King and country” at Flanders, the Marne, Gallipoli, the Somme, Passchendaele, and the other grim killing fields of the Great War.
Celebrated writer Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) even memorialized the British Day of Remembrance in her mystery novel, “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club”. In the story, an old general had been found dead in his chair at the club on November 11, 1922. The absence of a poppy in his lapel becomes a pivotal clue to the time of his death (it was the night before), and whether it was by natural causes (it wasn’t). (A synopsis of Miss Sayers’ life can be found at http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/19.html )
In the USA, the Great War is remembered only by a few creaky centenarians living in nursing homes. The Armistice was signed 85 years ago, so not many are around who even remember the event. My mother-in-law, who died last year at 89, spoke of hearing the church bells ring to mark the war’s end, when she was a child of 5.
Young Americans, who think that “modern history” began in 1960, are vaguely aware that a war was going on somewhere, around 1918, but aren’t sure if it was the Civil War or World War II (or whatever). A New York City man-on-the-street poll would be instructive for finding how many people know that November 11 means anything except department store sales. (“It’s so, like, ancient, man…”)
British Troops at Passchendaele, October 1917.
Elsewhere, Armistice Day was an occasion for grief and bitterness, as the war’s stupendous sacrifices were toted up and measured against a cipher in the national ledger. Many German veterans became convinced that they were not defeated in the field, but had been “stabbed in the back” by the “November Criminals” – popularly depicted by provocateurs as traitorous Jews.
Soon, every post-war November 11th became an occasion to roil these waters and renew the bitterness of the German defeat. One veteran who became fixated on the November Criminals story was a young veteran who had been temporarily blinded by poison gas near the end of the war. His name was Adolph Hitler.
In the tempestuous environment of post-war Bavarian politics – fueled by nightly sessions of political speechifying and copious tankards of beer – Hitler rose to prominence as an articulate spokesman for the fledgling National Socialist German Workers Party, a.k.a. the Nazis.
After months of plotting and table-pounding, the Nazis – now led by Hitler – hatched a plan to overthrow the democratic government of Bavaria. Their ultimate goal was to reach Berlin and overthrow the Weimar Republic. They enlisted the cooperation of the war hero, General Erich Ludendorf, for an assault upon the Munich government on November 8, 1923. Their “revolution” was meant to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the infamous Armistice.
Pundits after the fact described the “Beer Hall Putsch” as a Gilbert and Sullivan Revolt, although the bullets that flew were lethal enough. On the morning of November 9, Ludendorf, Hitler, and Herman Goering led an armed mob – no other word describes it adequately – of 3,000 Nazi activists and street toughs through Munich in an attempt to join forces with Ernst Roehm and his stormtroopers. Roehm had already seized the War Ministry. Police and regular army soldiers blocking their way fired into the ground ahead of the marchers. The Nazis returned fire. In a few minutes, twenty-one people were killed and over 100 wounded, including Herman Goering.
Although they outnumbered the police forces, Hitler and the Nazis broke and ran when the shooting started. Only Ludendorf continued marching straight through police lines. (So great was his reputation that, literally, not a hand was laid on him.) Injured by a fall during the melee, Hitler hid for several days at a friend’s house. Eventually he was arrested and prosecuted for treason.
For his part in the revolt, Hitler could have received the death penalty. But Nazi sympathizers in the Bavarian government made sure he got off lightly. He was allowed to use the trial as a platform for Nazi propagandizing and national recognition. Sentenced to five years in prison, he served less than two years in gemütlich style at Landsberg fortress – living in commodious rooms, entertaining visitors, and writing his magnum opus, Mein Kampf. (Rudolph Hess was his secretary.) Other Nazis also received light sentences. General Ludendorf was acquitted.
After the Nazis came to power in 1933, every November 9th became a lavish occasion for Nazi speechifying and maudlin remembrance of the Alte Kameraden who fell at the Odensplatz in the abortive 1923 coup. (Hitler dedicated Mein Kampf to these “heroes” of the National Socialist Revolution.) With much ersatz pomp, wreath-laying and tears, the deaths of sixteen rioters against the legitimate government completely eclipsed the sacrifices of nearly two million German soldiers who had died for the Fatherland and its people. November 11th became a footnote of history during the Nazi era.
These annual orgies of Nazi ceremoniousness reached a macabre zenith on the night of November 9, 1938, in a kind of national “temper tantrum”. Mobs of Nazi thugs ranged through Jewish communities, smashing and looting. Synagogues were burned; 30,000 people were arrested and deported; and tens of thousands of shop windows were shattered across the country. At least 100 people were killed. Police more or less stood by as the reign of terror continued throughout Krystallnacht – the Night of the Broken Glass. (Even the Nazis referred to it thus.)
It was the beginning of the end for Jews in Germany. Although some fled the country soon after the Nazis took power, many others had stayed on, hoping earlier rhetoric and excesses would fade. But the events of Krystallnacht clarified the grim future. After the glass was swept up, every Jew in Germany tried to get out. The Holocaust that ensued justified their worst fears.
Today, the bloodstained banners of the Beer Hall Putsch are relegated to the Dustbin of History. Grotesque Nazi “celebrations” of rioters who died on a Munich street are forgotten. Instead, Jews everywhere have appropriated November 9th as their own solemn Day of Remembrance. The anniversary of Krystallnacht has become a day of grieving for the persecution of a whole people. And it marks the day when the soul of a great nation died.
November – a month of bare trees and leaden skies. And days of remembering.
Legacy of November 9th – Polish children at Auschwitz. July 1944
(Photograph courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives)