The 3rd October marks one of the newer public holidays on the European calendar. It is the date of modern Germany’s national holiday and marks the day on which the former countries of East and West Germany were officially reunited in 1990.
From 1949 Germany had been divided. On the one hand there was West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany), which followed a Western capitalist model with a democratic system, a market economy and membership of bodies such as NATO and the European Community. Aided initially by international reconstruction aid and subsequently by its strength in manufacturing and engineering, it became arguably one of the world’s most successful and prosperous modern economies and societies. In contrast was East Germany (the German Democratic Republic), which was dominated by the Soviet Union politically and economically. The communist GDR had state ownership of resources and infrastructure, a centrally planned economy, a massive military and security regime, heavy censorship and the constant threat of harassment or arrest by the Stasi, the state’s notorious secret police. In many ways, the divided Germany and especially its most famous symbol – the Berlin Wall – was a microcosm of the Cold War between Western and Soviet ideologies. As was happening in many Eastern bloc nations by the end of the 1980s, the economic and political systems in East Germany ultimately proved unsustainable and, backed by increasing popular calls for greater freedom and democracy, the regime began to crumble during 1989. This culminated in one of the most iconic events of the era – the opening of the Berlin Wall on 9th November of that year.
While these developments were largely welcomed by people and politicians in West Germany, it brought a huge challenge. It was obvious that any re-unification of Germany would essentially involve the former GDR being integrated into the prosperous West German state, and that it would be West German taxpayers who would be footing the bill. Meanwhile, those in the East feared the unknown, economic hardship and to some extent loss of identity. Nevertheless, a sense of national pride and duty won the day and the German parliament voted in favour of a process that would see the state of East Germany cease to exist and its territory become five new states of the Federal Republic.
After a currency union during the summer of 1990, which saw the Deutschmark become the official currency of the entire territory, the 3rd October was the day on which Germany was reunited after 41 years of separation. The subsequent years have brought many difficulties – including the cost of economic modernisation, reconstruction and social security programmes in the East, establishing common political institutions, education, health and social care facilities across the country, and the massive undertaking of moving the seat of government from Bonn to the nation’s traditional capital of Berlin.
So how is the date marked in Germany these days? Because it is such a modern invention, there are no longstanding traditions that are followed. It is also true that modern Germans do not really go in for huge public shows of patriotism. A recent survey showed that almost half of all German people do not do anything special to mark the occasion, merely enjoying the public holiday as relaxing day off work. Imagine half of Irish people not celebrating St Patrick’s Day! However, there are official and community celebrations that do take place on 3rd October each year.
The most important official celebration is held in different locations each year, usually rotating between the capitals of the German states. This year will actually mark the second occasion when that “tradition” will be changed, as the festivities will be held in a city that is not a state capital, Frankfurt am Main – Germany’s major financial centre and one of its largest cities. The first non-state capital to play host was the former West German capital Bonn. The celebration always includes public events such as concerts, along with firework displays. At the same time as these celebrations are being held, there are similar events in Berlin every year and smaller festivals in numerous cities and towns. In Munich, the world-famous Oktoberfest is extended until the national holiday if its traditional end date (first Sunday in October) falls before 3rd of the month. Since 1999, there have also been celebrations in the four towns that mark the extreme Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western points of Germany, marking the borders of the modern country.
Aside from these official public events, for most German people the day is about spending time with friends and family and (hopefully) enjoying some pleasant early-Autumn weather to be outdoors for a picnic or drinks in the garden or a park. Indeed, this was how Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor of Germany at the time of the reunification, actually suggested that the date should be marked.
While celebrations for 3rd October are relatively low-key, there are expectations that the date will become more significant and more elaborately marked in the future. As the holiday becomes a more longstanding fixture on the calendar, and a new generation of people grow up who were born into the modern German nation and do not feel burdened by the country’s troubled history, it is likely that it will be less about post-war politics and the Cold War than about celebrating the traditions and culture of the country. Perhaps then the Tag der Deutschen Einheit will start to take its place among the more famous national days that we might be more familiar with around the world.
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