From Revolutions to Reconciliation, Celebrating German Unity Day

The line demarcating the Berlin Wall just west of the iconic Brandenburg Gate in Berlin,
photo by author

I’ve never had the privilege to experience another country’s national holiday, but after years of studying the revolutionary origins of the Fourth of July and Bastille Day, I was very curious about the reconciliatory nature of another holiday: German Unity Day. Germans celebrate their cultural and political identity as one Germany on this day, a beautiful sentiment in a nation with a long history of political division, diverse regional differences, and a uniquely complicated relationship with nationalism and patriotism. Germany has long been known as a latecomer to nationhood with the creation of Imperial Germany in 1871 through Otto von Bismarck’s Realpolitik. Many might consider this odd given Germany’s geographic and political significance in European history, but the sheer volume of German-speaking cultures in central Europe are fraught with deep-rooted political divisions and differing economies. The combination of these diverse realities, along with interference from its neighbors, has given Germany a unique geo-political history.

Tag der Deutschen Einheit or German Unity Day commemorates the dissolution of East and West Germany and the reemergence of one, unified German state. Following months of deliberations regarding the process of political unification, restructuring the German constitution, and integrating two fundamentally disparate economies, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) officially reunited with the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) on October 3, 1990. Initially, many debated the date to celebrate German unification, as Mauerfall (the actual fall of the Berlin Wall) and political unification are separated by nearly a year. November 9th is associated not only with the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), but also the November Revolution that erupted at the end of the First World War (1918), which culminated in the establishment of the Weimar Republic in 1919. This date also commemorates the failure of Hitler’s first attempt to seize power, the Beer Hall Putsch (1923). While many people recognize the significance of the aforementioned events, November 9th also marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht. The Night of Broken Glass, as it is known in English, was the first large-scale Jewish pogrom under Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1938. Given the legacy of National Socialism and the Holocaust, Germans decided that November 9th would be an inappropriate date for joyous celebrations and made October 3rd the official holiday. 

Regional capitals and historic cities take turns hosting this national celebration, and the capital city of Schleswig-Holstein, Kiel, was the host for this year’s festivities. However, Berlin always stands out for the massive street fair along 17 Juni Straße in Tiergarten to the iconic Brandenburg Gate. For three days there are carnival rides and games, food trucks, miniature beer gardens, and three stages with a variety of performances and exhibitions. The rest of the city is quiet and subdued—a stark contrast from its usual ambience. People can enjoy regional foods—curry wurst, pickled herring, langos (Bohemian fry bread)—and of course, a full array of beer and glühwein (mulled wine, which is perfect on a chilly day). David Hasselhoff even makes an appearance, cementing his position in the legacy of German Unity. ‘The Hoff,’ who was already popular in Germany for his roles in Baywatch and Nightrider, performed a rendition of the West German hit, “Looking for Freedom” at the Berlin Wall on New Year’s Eve 1989. Since that fateful performance, Hasselhoff has been intertwined in the legacy of German unification, even if his concert had little impact on the actual politics behind the fall of the Berlin Wall.

After spending six weeks navigating German archives, I was especially eager to enjoy a day off. For a culture renowned for its industriousness, I was curious to see how Germans enjoy holidays and time away from their usual responsibilities. I can now say after witnessing a full weekend of celebrations that Germans take their time away from work just as seriously as their usual work schedules. As I took in this exhilarating atmosphere, what stood out to me most were parents telling their children about this relatively recent moment in German history. Parents take their small children aside and show them the demarcating line that runs through Berlin, commemorating where the Berlin Wall once divided not just their city but their nation. And like all innocent, carefree kids, these children take the opportunity to jump on the line—because that’s all it is to them, a line in the road to be hopped on and over, incorporated into their imaginative games. Even though I’m a member of the generation born after unification, as a historian, I’m awestruck by kids in bright galoshes and raincoats playing hopscotch along the length of the Berlin Wall. There’s something inherently indescribable about the stark contrast between everything the wall represented, both literally and figuratively, and the innocence of children playing on a day off from school.

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of German unification. Having spoken with people from older generations, they remarked that it seemed as though there would never be a unified Germany. The geo-political and ideological divisions perpetuated throughout the Cold War seemed too entrenched to ever be erased, not to mention the enormity of reintegrating two fundamentally different economies. However, this year also marks the centenary of the Weimar Republic. The Weimar Republic was the sensational, albeit tragic, democracy that rose from the ashes of Imperial Germany following the end of the First World War. It collapsed fourteen years later when Hitler and the National Socialists came to power. As a historian of the Weimar Republic, I’m ecstatic to be in Berlin for such a momentous year. 

“German unity is not a state of affairs that is wrapped up and completed just once, but rather a continual process — a constant mission that affects all Germans.”

German Chancellor, Angela Merkel

Reflecting on the significance of unity and division in modern German history has made me realize how an ideology can establish differences between people only when people are willing to enforce those differences. If a leader says, “those people are not like us; they are a threat to our way of life, and should be treated as such,” their words only have power when people take action to enforce them. The same can be said, however, of unity. If an ideology proclaims we are all one group, that our differences are an indicator of individualism and diversity and not a sign of irreconcilable disparities, it nevertheless only holds true when people choose to enforce that message of unity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated in her speech on October 3rd, that “German unity is not a state of affairs that is wrapped up and completed just once, but rather a continual process — a constant mission that affects all Germans.” She went on to say that, “individual freedom cannot be had without individual responsibility.” Merkel’s speech serves as a reminder in this political climate increasingly dominated by nationalism and xenophobia that we are part of a diverse whole, and in order to protect the individual liberties we have to continuously hold each other accountable and fight for a future that is better than our past.

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