November in German Culture and History

November: The Mourning Month and Its Fateful Dates

The first two days of November are significant in the Christian religious calendar. November 1 is All Saints Day (Allerheiligen). November 2 is All Souls Day (Allerseelen). In Germany, most of Europe, and all over the world where the western Christian church is dominant, these two days are devoted to remembering and praying for the “faithful departed.” Indeed, the Latin (Roman Catholic) name for this day is In Commemoratione Omnium Fidelium Defunctorum (“commemoration of all the faithful departed”).

Two Catrina figures

Two Catrina figures. The Mexican Calavera Catrina (“dapper skeleton” or “elegant skull”) began as social satire in 1910. Today the Catrina figure is associated with the Day of the Dead observance. PHOTO © Tomas Castelazo, (Wikimedia Commons)

Although Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), a national holiday, is perhaps better known and a bit more colorful, if you visit some German cemeteries on the same dates, you’re likey to see a similar observance, complete with candles. The main difference is that in Germany there is no all-night vigil in which family members gather near the grave(s) of their “faithful departed,” as in many parts of Mexico. Germans also tend not to celebrate in quite as colorful a manner as in Mexico. You may not see Catrina skeletons, sugar skulls, or decorative masks in Germany, but you will see lighted candles. (See photo below.)

As history (and two world wars) would have it, November in the western world has become a month for commemorating the dead — whether fallen in war or otherwise. Since the 14th century, the Roman Catholic church has dedicated the month of November to the dead, and in the United States, November 11 is Veterans Day, a time to remember and honor those who fought and died, originally in the Great War ended by the armistice that took effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, on November 11, 1918. (In fact, the date was known as Armistice Day prior to World War II.) This day, known as Remembrance Day or Poppy Day in some other Allied nations, is also a holiday in France and Belgium.

But the 11/11 date has very different associations in the German-speaking countries. The 11th of November there is the official start of the Carnival season, and in some regions is also Martinstag (St. Martin’s Day), when children carry paper lanterns in a procession that resembles some aspects of Halloween. The German Volkstrauertag (People’s Day of Mourning, similar to Memorial Day in the US) is also observed in November, but on the Sunday two weeks prior to the first Sunday of Advent (19 Nov. 2017), and has been a national holiday since 1952 (in then West Germany). German Protestants (Lutherans) observe Totensonntag or Ewigkeitssonntag (“Eternity Sunday”) on the last Sunday before the first Advent Sunday (26 Nov. 2017). It is a memorial day for those who have died during the past year. Unlike Volkstrauertag, these are not official holidays, but they are religious observances generally protected by German law as “quiet days” or “quiet holidays” (stille Feiertage).


Two Newweling candles. PHOTO: Judith Pense (Wikimedia Commons)

While researching Allerseelen, I learned about the traditional coiled candles known as Newweling. These colorful cone-shaped candles are unique to Mainz, where they are placed on the graves of the departed. Ranging from 8 to 15 centimeters (3-6 inches) in height, the Mainz candles are known only in that area. Little is known about them, including their origin and meaning, why they are found only in Mainz, or why they are colored red, white, blue, yellow, and green. The first known written reference to Newweling goes back to 1347. The name may come from a dialect word for “child of the fog” (Kind des Nebels in standard German), derived from the often misty weather of Germany in November. Today there is only one source of the Newweling, a small waxwares factory owned by the Tusar family in Mainz. According to Franz Hubertus Tusar, it is only the Allerseelen candle tradition in Mainz that keeps his family producing the unique wax products, since there is not really a big market for Newweling. We can only hope that the Mainz Newweling do not become yet another interesting German tradition that fades into the past.

A cemetery in Austria

A cemetery in Linz, Austria with memorial candles on All Souls Day.
PHOTO: Juergen Moestl (Wikimedia Commons)

November 9th in German History

In most parts of the world the 9th of November is just another day, pretty much like any other. But if you’re German, the date has a lot of historical significance — some positive, some negative — and is sometimes called Germany’s “fateful date” (Schicksalstag).

In 2006 the opening ceremonies for Munich’s new Jewish Center and Ohel Jakob synagogue fell on November 9. The date was not chosen by chance. As any student of world history knows, that date marks a dark event in German history. In 1938 the so-called “Night of Broken Glass” (Kristallnacht or Reichspogromnacht in German) raged on through the night of November 9 into the early morning hours of November 10. The Nazis looted and burned hundreds of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses all across Germany. The new Munich synagogue stands near the site of the one that was destroyed in 1938.

A happier historical event also took place on November 9 in 1989. That evening Germans and people all over the world were elated to see East Germans streaming into West Berlin through crossing points in the Berlin Wall. At first that date seemed like a good one to commemorate German reunification and become the new national day for the merged Federal Republic of Germany — until it was pointed out that the date was not only shared with the Nazi’s Kristallnacht, but also Hitler’s unsuccessful Munich Beer Hall Putsch (coup d’état) in 1923.

Of course, many other things — good and bad — happened on November 9 over the centuries and decades, in Germany and elsewhere. Here are just a few items concentrating on Germany and Austria (key persons in bold):

A November 9 Chronology (Austria and Germany)

  • 1802: German scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt observes the transit of Mercury from Peru.
  • 1848: Robert Blum (b. 1810), a German revolutionary, is executed in Vienna.
  • 1885: Birth of Hermann Weyl, noted German mathematician (d. 1955).
  • 1905: Birth of Erika Mann, German writer (d. 1969), daughter of Thomas Mann.
  • 1913: Birth of Hedy Lamarr, Austrian film actress and inventor (d. 2000).
  • 1918: Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany abdicates after World War I, and Germany is proclaimed a republic in the “November Revolution.”
  • 1921: Albert Einstein is awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work with the photoelectric effect.
  • 1923: In Munich, police and government troops put down the Nazi Beer Hall (Hitler-Ludendorff) Putsch.
  • 1925: Adolf Hitler orders the formation of the Schutzstaffel, better known as the SS.
  • 1938: Anti-Jewish Kristallnacht pogrom begins.
  • 1944: Otto Hahn awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry.*
  • 1967: During the installation of the new rector at Hamburg’s university, students unfurl a banner with the slogan: “Unter den Talaren – Muff von 1000 Jahren” (“Under the professors’ gowns the mold of 1,000 years”) which becomes iconic for Germany’s 1968 student rebellion.
  • 1989: The Berlin Wall opens. After decades behind the Wall, East Berliners are allowed to cross through checkpoints into West Berlin. Soon the GDR will collapse and be unified with the Federal Republic of Germany.
  • 2006: Opening ceremonies for Munich’s new Jewish Center and synagogue.

*Hahn should have shared the Nobel Prize with his collaborator, the Austrian Jew Lise Meitner, but failed to do so.

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