Today, Germany celebrates the 20th anniversary of the reunification of East and West Germany on 3 October 1990. The history buffs among you will know that the Berlin Wall fell almost a year earlier, on 9 November 1989. So why did Germany choose 3 October as the new national holiday after 1990? 3 October 1990 was the day of official reunification, as the East German parliament had voted on 23 August 1990 for accession of its five states to the Federal Republic of Germany (this was the quickest way because it did not require the founding of a new country with the implementation of a new constitution, as the West German constitution conveniently had always included a provision to allow new states to join the Federal Republic of Germany) to happen on 3 October 1990. This date was chosen because the two German states had agreed on holding the first federal elections of reunified Germany on 2 December 1990. (West) German election law demanded that voters be registered 8 weeks before the election, which made 7 October 1990 the cut-off date for voter registration. The reunification therefore had to happen before this day. If you think that all of this sounds a bit hasty, it certainly was.
You can see from reading this first paragraph that these political and legal proceedings are far less catchy and memorable than the fall of the Berlin Wall. So the question remains: Why did Germany not choose 9 November as the new national holiday? Surely Germans would prefer to celebrate the opening of the Iron Curtain, the symbol of citizens overcoming oppressive governments, the end of Communism instead of a date in a parliamentary protocol?
The problem was however that 9 November had not only brought the fall of the Berlin Wall, but had proven to be a surprisingly significant date in German history on many previous occasions:
- 9 November 1923: Adolf Hitler attempts to overthrow the young German democracy with a military coup. The coup attempt in Munich fails after a few hours, but leaves 16 people dead. Unfortunately, Hitler didn’t give up and came to power (through elections) 10 years later. During the Nazi dictatorship, 9 November was a national holiday.
- 9 November 1938: In organised pogroms against Jews in Germany and Austria, more than 1400 synagogues were destroyed, many of them burnt down completely with the fire departments idly watching, thousands of Jewish homes and about 7500 businesses were destroyed, around 400 Jews were murdered and 30,000 Jews taken to concentration camps in the following days alone. This marked the beginning of open and systematic destruction of Jewish life in Germany (although social, political and economic discrimination had begun in 1933 already), ultimately to result in the Holocaust.
- 9 November 1989: Throughout the summer of 1989, East Germans had fled the country via other Eastern European countries which had opened their borders to the West, especially Hungary that had opened its border to Austria. Facing a mass exodus of its people, the East German government tried to regain control over the events and planned to announce an easing of travel restrictions, to come into effect on 17 November 1989. At a press conference on 9 November 1989, a spokesperson who had not been fully briefed announced these plans. When he was asked by a journalist when this would enter into effect, the spokesperson babbled “as far as I know effective immediately”. The news spread within minutes and thousands of East-Berliners stormed towards the Wall where the border guards were overwhelmed because they had not been given any instructions. The guards were vastly outnumbered and nobody in the East German government gave orders to use the shoot-to-kill policy (which had been applied before against East Germans attempting to flee the country), leaving the East German border police no other chance than to open the gates. A peaceful revolution had been successful, there was no turning back any more.
9 November is therefore undoubtedly an important day in German history, but while some events are worthy of celebration, others are worthy only of shame. Most people in Germany found it a bit too tricky to have a national holiday that combines festivities and celebrations with sombre commemoration. I tend to agree with this assessment. And who knows what else will happen in or to Germany on 9 November in coming years…
And by the way, for German reunification day it is customary to send a present to your German friends ;-)