Last year, there was a theory afloat in German intellectual circles stating that the number nine has a specific role in German history. The idea was that most of the major events of the German twentieth century happened in years terminating in nine: 1919 was the Treaty of Versailles, which almost directly gave birth to the declaration of the Second World War in 1939. After that, 1949 saw the division of Germany made official and, forty years later in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall reunified the country.
Now, that’s all very well and good, but it kind of makes 2010 a bit of comedown. In 2009, we were able to celebrate the establishment and the extension of the success story that is the Federal Republic of Germany; but what is there now left for those of us looking for another round of historical excuses to go and drink yet another delicious German beer?
Well, never being one to curb my consumption of the Teutonic nectar without due cause, I thought I’d look into years ending in zero as keys to German history in the hope of turning up a couple of plausible occasions for a toast: and in the process, I discovered that the Zeros, or “nuller Jahre” as the Germans call them, have been gravely underestimated.
How could this have happened?
Part of the problem would seem to be that the headline-grabbing stuff happens in the 9s, with the actual effects kicking in the 0s; but of course the headline is already old-news by then and so no-one remembers the events that follow in due course, however crucial they might be.
Let’s look at 1919-1920, for example. The Versailles Treaty may well have been signed in 1919, but it was 1920 that actually saw it take effect on 10th January – almost 90 years ago to the day. This meant a continuous loss of territory for Germany throughout the year and led to the Nazi party being formed in Munich within a few months. So in a way, it was 1920 that would define the decades that followed – at least in the same measure as the 1919 that everyone seems so fond of.
In fact, once I’d got into looking at these zero-years, I became less and less a fan of the superficially charming nine-theory. 1939, in fact, is my least favourite: what a cheeky little year, claiming the start of the Second World War and putting the far more exciting 1940 in the shade. After all, apart from the invasion of Poland (and that is, admittedly, a big “apart”), 1939 bore little else except awkward shuffling and vague threats between Germany, France and Britain. 1940, however, sees Nazi-Germany triumph momentarily and, in so doing, sow the seeds of its own defeat.
It is on 10th May 1940, for example, that British Prime Minister Chamberlain resigns and ends all the then current speculation about peace between Germany and Britain. He is succeeded by Churchill on 13th May, who on 4th June makes the famous “beaches” speech and steels Britain for the next five years of war. Furthermore, 1940 is also the year in which Germany signs the Axis Treaty with Italy and Japan. This is crucial because it will lead Germany to declare war on the USA on 11th December 1941, thus giving Roosevelt the excuse he was looking for to fight Germany. This makes 1940 a sorely underestimated year in Germany’s journey towards democracy.
I’m less scathing of 1949, however, which was after all the year in which Germany’s exceptionally enlightened Grundgesetz or “basic law” was written and the Federal Republic we know and love today founded. Nonetheless, I feel it worth pointing out that it was in 1950 that the currently largest party in Germany, the CDU, was formed nationally; it was also the year in which Germany recognised the Oder-Neisse line as its border with Poland, thereby laying the groundwork for reconciliation. On the subject of Poland, 1970 is notable for the being the year of Willy Brandt’s heart-rending fall to his knees in front of the memorial of the Warsaw Ghetto.
1990, however, has got to top even 1940 in terms of having a cheeky predecessor stealing all the glory. The big celebrations last November were about the anniversary of the Berlin Wall being opened, but its actual fall followed in June 1990. Similarly, the first free elections in the GDR took place in April of that year, and the re-unification as such then occurred on 3rd October 1990. That’s surely, in terms of beer, the best discovery of the lot, since 20 years since reunification is undeniably worth celebrating and the 3rd is a national holiday in Germany, allowing for a nice, long day of lazing around and feeling good.
Then again, perhaps the very best of all the anniversaries in 2010 on which it would be legitimate to crack open a bottle of Deutschland’s best brew is one that we English would generally rather forget: the victory of the German football team in the World Cup of 1990. Now, although I’m not really a big football person, there’s no denying the fact that it has a consistently good record in encouraging beer-consumption, so I’m all for it really. Especially if Germany win again in South Africa this year.
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