German Unity Day: Everything you need to know about Germany’s national holiday

German Unity Day: Everything you need to know about Germany’s national holiday

by Leona Quigley

Updated November 7, 2022

German Unity Day (Tag der Deutschen Einheit) has been celebrated as the national holiday of Germany for over thirty years. It’s a day to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the establishment of a unified Germany on 3rd October 1990, which brought an end to the long division of Germany due to the Cold War. Although Germany doesn’t have an Independence Day, American readers may think of it as the German ‘Fourth of July’. That being said, most Germans are not nearly as comfortable with overt displays of nationalism as other nations and tend to keep their celebrations modest. 

So, how did German Unity Day come about and how is it celebrated today? Here is a quick guide to the German national holiday!

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The history behind German Unity Day

October 3rd is celebrated in commemoration of the Reunification of Germany in 1990 after 41 years of separation. After World War II, Germany was partitioned into four occupation zones to be administered by the victorious Allies. In 1949, as Cold War tensions surged, two German states were established. In the West, the French, British and American Allied occupation zones became the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland), and in the East the Soviet Zone became the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik). 

The German Democratic Republic was a Soviet satellite, a Socialist state, democratic in name only. The Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) led a communist dictatorship, in line with dictates from Moscow. Even though other parties were allowed, there were no free or fair elections so that the SED ruled for over 40 years.

On the night of August 12th, 1961, the SED erected a wall around West Berlin, an island of capitalism deep within East Germany. The SED called the Berlin Wall the ”anti-fascist protection wall”. It was true that many Berliners liked to avail of the cheap rents and subsidized food in socialist East Berlin but they also wanted to work and earn ‘hard currency’, the Deutsche Mark, in West Berlin, thereby having the best of both worlds, so to speak. But ultimately people wanted freedom of movement, freedom of opinion and a free press, and the prosperity that the West promised. East Germans were leaving in their droves. The inner-German border had been closed since 1952 and the fences had been made more secure during the preceding years, but the overnight erection of the Wall plugged the final hole in the border between the two Germanys. 

During the following 28 years, in excess of 100,000 citizens of the GDR tried to escape across the inner-German border or the Berlin Wall. More than 600 of them died as a result of a failed escape attempt, about 80 of them at the Berlin Wall. Both the inner-German border and the Berlin Wall were guarded by soldiers in sentry towers and on the march, so it was a risky enterprise to attempt to escape.

While West Germany prospered in the post-war years, rising like a phoenix out of the rubble of war to become one of the leading economies of Europe, East Germany’s economic growth paled in comparison. West Germany benefited greatly from the Marshall Plan proposed by President Trumann of the USA for the restoration of the economic infrastructure of postwar Europe. The Red Army ordered the transportation of entire factories among other “trophies of war” from the GDR as war reparations, thus weakening the ability of the GDR to restart its economy. 

During the late 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a series of reforms known as Glasnost (restructuring) and Perestroika (openness, thawing). These reforms opened the floodgates of anti-Communist protest and enabled the success of the Revolutions of 1989 which brought down Communism in Eastern Europe. During this time a series of largely bloodless uprisings spread across various cities in the GDR. It became known as Die Wende (the turning point). 

Germany’s Peaceful Revolution culminated on November 9, 1989 when the border at the Berlin Wall was opened, apparently after a misunderstanding.  When asked when the decree allowing free travel would come into effect, Günter Schabowski, a high-ranking official, replied “ab sofort, unverzüglich” (from now, immediately). Thousands of East Berliners flocked to border crossing points within the city and the overwhelmed border guards had little choice but to let them through. On the other side they were awaited by West Germans with flowers and champagne in hand, ready to celebrate. 

There was much jubilation in East and West after the fall of the wall and 2.5 million East Germans visited the west within six weeks.  When the euphoria subsided and after a year of intense negotiation and planning, including the reform of the currency in July 1990, the way was paved for the country to be reunited on October 3, 1990. At midnight, the five states (Bundesländer) of the GDR were incorporated into the Federal Republic, bringing an end to partition. 

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Celebrating German unity today

The 3rd of October was not the only choice for Germany’s national day. The obvious choice was the day the Wall fell, November 9th, which was fondly remembered as a moment of jubilation and optimism about Germany’s future. However, this day was ruled out as it coincides with the anniversary of Reichskristallnacht, the “night of broken glass”, when the Nazis organized a violent pogrom against Germany’s Jews on 9th November 1938, an obviously unacceptable date for Germany’s national holiday. October 3, the date two countries were officially made one, was the natural next choice.

German Unity Day is the only federally mandated, a nationwide holiday celebrated in Germany

whilst other bank holidays are determined by each of the 16 individual federal states. While the main German Unity Day festivities had traditionally taken place in Berlin around the Brandenburg Gate and Platz der Republik, now the celebration is organized by a different state each year. 

For most Germans the day of national unity is a pleasant but casual affair. According to surveys, most Germans make no special plans whatsoever, instead treating it as a day to sleep in and perhaps have a picnic. Indeed, you are unlikely to encounter much in the way of nationalistic celebration unless the German team is playing in the World Cup. For private individuals flying the German flag is considered somewhat crass, though the national flag will fly in front of many state buildings for the day. Nor will you find fireworks displays or parties on the scale of Fourth of July celebrations, and of course no military parades (Germans are often ill at ease with the country’s military history).

While some in the East look back on the days of socialist rule with nostalgia (Ostalgie), for not all the promises of reunification have been fulfilled. The eastern states still, over three decades later, lag behind the west in terms of wealth and access to opportunities, and some of the cultural differences between the “Ossies” and “Wessies” still linger. Nevertheless, German Unity Day is a time to celebrate overcoming the trials of the past; the recovery of the country from the ruins of war and bearing through the tensions at the forefront of the Cold War, to appreciate the strength of German democracy and dream of an ever happier, more prosperous union in the future.

Deutschland feiert (Germany celebrates)

If you happen to be in Germany on the 3rd October be sure to find out what events, concerts or parties are going on in your area, or just take the day to enjoy some free time with friends, family and loved ones!  And make sure to include your German friends from east and west.

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Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.

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