„East or West?“ – this dreaded question followed Germans around the globe whenever they were traveling until 1989, when the political status as “front state of the Cold War” finally seized. For West Germans the question always felt a bit weird, given that they were the only ones allowed to travel freely to most parts of the world. When the Wall came down in Berlin, it was indeed the beginning of a new era for Germany, and for the whole world. The end of the Cold War brought hope for lasting peace and prosperity. Reason enough to celebrate October 3rd.
Here is an interesting thing about Germany: After looking back on a great military tradition and soaring nationalism in the 18th and 19th century, followed by the disaster of two world wars, a failing republic and two authoritarian dictatorships afterwards, the modern country has abandoned loud displays of patriotism or military strength. Unlike in England, uniforms, military parades, flag waving and singing of the national anthem are not very common and sometimes even frowned upon. No matter how you feel about patriotism, its importance and the need to be proud of your heritage, this general trait has led to very humble and civil celebrations of the national day.
Unlike St George’s Day, October 3rd is a bank holiday, so nobody goes to work. The actual memorial of the day is left to the officials, though. Which is a bit sad, looking back on the events of 1989/1990 and what they actually meant for the nation.
When I look back on the events of 1989, there is one big regret: Some of my friends made off to Berlin when it looked as if the wall could come down, but I didn’t quite believe that could happen, and I had other commitments. So I stayed at home while Günther Schabowski, the spokesman of the East German government, made a historical mistake: He declared the border to be open, prematurely, leading to chaos on the border and the most intriguing celebration imaginable. I watched it on the TV, my friends were on the wall.
In hindsight it’s hard to believe nothing bad happened in these unprecedented moments. Germans from East and West of the border met in the streets, and the feared East German border troops did nothing but watch, overtaken by history and outdated from one moment to the other. This situation repeated itself again and again, while the German Democratic Republic dissolved in the following months, leading to the reunification of October 3rd, 1990.
These feverish times were not a victory for everyone, and in the following years a lot of East Germans came to regret giving up on their own nation – which had been governed authoritarian and in relative poverty, but it also had a lot of social values that got under the wheels in the take over of East Germany by the Federal Republic of Germany. For many, the reunification didn’t feel quite as unified, and this sentiment was soon shared by West Germans who found out they had to pay for the recovery of the five new East German states.
If you want to have an example for what was lost in these days: Whoever has heard praise of the school system of Finland, seen as one of the best in the world, might be surprised to hear the quote of a Finnish headteacher I had a chat with once. “Funny”, he said. “We have all these German officials visiting us to learn from us. The Finnish school system is a copy of the East German one that you disbanded so easily after 1990.”
Nevertheless: Germany’s newly found unity was the biggest step to end the Cold War with its horrors and threats. The world looked forward to a better age of less warfare, more peace and unity and especially more international cooperation. A promise that today seems under threat again, looking at a global crisis and a surge of the forces of division – those that we hoped to have banned.
October 3rd 1990, when Germany was in the middle of the positive beginning of a better world, is a rather small issue for most Germans, and hardly mentioned outside the country. But its is an important date, and we hope its lessons won’t be forgotten.