German Unity Day

The German National Holiday
The Reichstag building in Berlin

Germans celebrate on October 3 in front of the historic Reichstag building in Berlin. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

German Unity Day, on October 3rd, is the German national holiday, a sort of German Fourth of July. Both the observance date and the holiday are recent. The third day of October has only been a national holiday since 1990. Why this date?

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German unification in 1990 (known in German as die Wende, the “turning point”), few West Germans even knew the date of their nation’s founding (23 May 1949). It was never celebrated as an official holiday.

East Germany’s national day was October 7 (Tag der Republik), commemorating the founding of the socialist German Democratic Republic in 1949. In West Germany after 1954, the date of June 17 was observed as a national holiday (see below), but it was never anything like July 4th in the US. Since the Nazi era, nationalism and overt patriotism were frowned on by most Germans. Flag-waving was only seen at soccer matches and neo-Nazi gatherings.

The selection of the date for united Germany’s new national day was subject to concerns about events related to Hitler’s rule and Nazi crimes against humanity. Even the day on which the Wall opened in 1989 (November 9) coincided with the date of the infamous Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass”) anti-Jewish pogrom in 1938. Were it not for this unfortunate historical coincidence, November 9 probably would have become the German national holiday.

It would have been a much more appropriate date than the day the German reunification treaty took effect, which is what happened. (By the way, the American Declaration of Independence was approved on July 2, 1776, not on July 4th. The fourth was simply the date at the top of the document, and the date it was sent to the printer. The Declaration was not actually signed until August 2.)

Einigungsvertrag (German Unity Treaty)
The 1990 treaty that officially unified East and West Germany and made Berlin a new Bundesland (state) and the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany was signed on August 31 and went into effect on September 29, 1990. The treaty designated October 3 as the day on which the German Democratic Republic officially would become part of the Federal Republic of Germany and subject to that nation’s constitution (Grundgesetz), and that is why the third day of October is now the German national holiday.

Only One National Holiday

German Unity Day is the only federal, national holiday in Germany! All other bank holidays in Germany are determined by the states (Bundesländer), even if some of them are observed nationwide.

German postage stamp

This German postage stamp commemorated the 20th anniversary of German reunification in 2010.

Observances
Although you will see German flags flying at the Reichstag building in Berlin and in other public locations, private flags and public fireworks are not a big part of the October 3 celebration. Most people enjoy the day off and spend time with friends and family. Politicians make speeches and there are special TV broadcasts about German history. In Berlin there are usually open-air concerts or other festivities near the Brandenburg Gate.

A unique feature of German Unity Day is an observance in the capital city of one of Germany’s 16 states. Each year the state that is presiding over the Bundesrat (upper house) hosts the celebration, which includes a Bürgerfest (citizens festival). In 2011 an exception was made for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Instead of the capital (Düsseldorf), the Unity Day festivities took place in Bonn, the former West German capital.

Key Dates in German History

Also see: History of Germany

  • 1871 | Following the establishment of the German Empire (Deutsches Reich) there was no official national holiday, but Sedantag (commemorating a significant victory at the French town of Sedan during the Franco-Prussian War on 2 September 1870) was traditionally observed as the Prussian national day.
  • 9 November 1918 | Proclamation of the Weimar Republic following WWI; the constitution was approved on 31 July 1919. The national day was 11 August, the date when President Friedrich Edert signed the Weimar constitution in 1919.
  • 9 November 1938 | Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass”), a nationwide anti-Jewish pogrom conducted by the Nazis in 1938.
  • 17 June 1953 | East German workers’ revolt; the uprising was crushed by the Soviets. In 1954, the date became a West German holiday known as “Tag der deutschen Einheit” (with a small d). In 1990 there were two “German Unity” days: 17 June and 3 October.
  • 31 August 1990 | The German Unity Treaty (Einigungsvertrag) is approved. It makes October 3rd the official date of German reunification and the new German national day.
  • 3 November 2004 | To help stimulate the economy, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder proposes moving the German Unity Day observance to the first Sunday in October. His proposal is roundly rejected.

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