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Thursday, June 18, 2009

17 June: "Day of German Unity"

The original Day of German Unity (Tag der deutschen Einheit) commemorates the disturbances of 17 June 1953, when workers in East Germany (German Democratic Republic) rebelled, first, nominally against increased labor requirements, and eventually or more generally, against the Stalinist system. The Volkspolizei and Soviet forces put down the demonstrations with force, and further repressions, ranging from jail terms to executions, followed.

The holiday, created in West Germany (the Federal Republic), served as a Cold War propaganda device and reminder that the West German constitution (Grundgesetz; Basic Law) was officially treated as a provisional document and provided for eventual reunification with Eastern German territories whenever circumstances allowed.

Today, the original holiday has receded from memory. Following the reunification of the German states in the wake of the collapse of communism, on 3 October 1990, that date replaced the earlier one as the day of commemoration--turned celebration.

Although the former soon came to serve mainly as a convenient holiday (in the sense of a day off from work) rather than a real occasion of historical significance in the popular mind, it is far from clear that the new date will fare much better. For most Germans and foreigners alike, the date of the "Fall of the Wall" on 9 November, which moreover coincides with a series of fateful anniversaries in German history--the November Revolution that overthrew the Kaiser in 1918, Hitler's failed coup attempt of 1923, and the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938--remains a much more memorable occasion than 3 October. Governments can proclaim historical holidays, but the people themselves create them.

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