October 3 marks the “Day of German Unity” ever since the GDR and West Germany reunited in 1990. Since then, the day is celebrated as a public holiday – but the festivities are less excessive than one might think.
After decades of being separated, October 3 marks the “Day of German Unity,” a public holiday that celebrates Germany’s reunification. After the end of World War II, Germany was split into the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – also referred to as East Germany – and The Federal Republic of Germany – also known as West Germany.
In 1961, this split was manifested by the Berlin Wall, which didn’t just stretch through Berlin, as the name might suggest, but through the entire country, separating entire families for decades.
A peaceful revolution in the GDR led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the following year, free elections were held, which resulted in the GDR being dissolved and Germany officially reuniting on October 3.
Ever since, the reunification day is celebrated as a public holiday in Germany. But the celebrations here aren’t as elaborate as one might think.
In other countries, national days are marked with big, colorful presentations including fireworks and military parades. Not so in Germany.
“October 3 in Germany is not marked by a lot of pomp,” says Tuya Roth, director of a current exhibition at the “House of the History of the German Republic” in Bonn, which is dedicated to commemorating important days throughout Germany’s eventful history.
“It should be an occasion for joy and celebration, not for a state to put itself on display. It is linked to a moment in German history.”
Roth’s notion is reflected by a recent poll conducted by the German opinion and market research center “Allensbach Institute,” which shows that while 63 percent of Germans find it important to recall historical events, only few actively celebrate the “Day of German Unity.”
Almost half of the populace make no special plans for the day. 29 percent say that they like to use the time to sleep in, even though many festivities and events take place throughout the country.
“October 3 is a feast and a picnic,” says Roth, “[Former German Chancellor] Helmut Kohl always emphasized that it is a day in fall with nice weather that can be used by the people as a feast and picnic day.”
However, Roth believes the national holiday will have a stronger meaning in the future.
“It is a very young national day, and it needs time to develop. I believe that the day will be increasingly accepted because it develops more of an identity with each passing year. With this development people will begin to embrace this latest date.”
German national holidays before 1990
In fact, October 3 isn’t the first national holiday Germany has seen.
On January 18, 1871, when the German Empire was proclaimed in Versailles, the German national state was born, ending the French-German war. Soon afterwards, citizens demanded that January 18 be proclaimed a national holiday.
But emperor Wilhelm I didn’t approve. Why? Exactly 170 years before, on January 18, 1701, the first Prussian king had been crowned. Wilhelm, a Prussian himself, preferred the day to point to that important event in Prussian history.
During the Weimar Republic, August 11 was a national holiday. It was on that day in 1919 that President Friedrich Ebert (the first president to follow the monarchy) signed the new constitution.
Under the Nazi regime, May 1 became the “national holiday of the German people.”
While Germany was divided, there were two national holidays. In East Germany, it was October 7, the day marking the official establishment of the GDR in 1949. West Germany remembered June 17. On that day in 1953, the people of the GDR had revolted against the Stalinist regime.
When the Berlin Wall came down on November 9, 1989, the date for a national celebration day seemed obvious. It was, however, also the anniversary of the “Night of the Broken Glass,” a public attack on Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues that took place on the night of on November 9, 1938.
That’s why the October 3, the day the German reunification documents were signed, was chosen as the current national holiday.