Partying like it’s 1989

In the latest dispatch of Portnoy’s Stammtisch, The Local’s column about life in Germany, Portnoy considers the meaning of the German Unity Day holiday on Friday.

Partying like it's 1989
Where were you when the Wall fell? Photo: DPA

When I moved to Europe a decade ago, I was shocked to learn about the bank holidays in Britain. “What are you celebrating?” I asked my colleagues in the London office as they headed into their three-day weekend.

“Nothing,” they said. “It’s a bank holiday.”

“Come on, why’d they pick today as a holiday? What’s the day based on?” I would press.

“Nothing, mate. It’s a bank holiday.”

Nothing? To my Protestant American mind, this seemed improbable if not impossible. Memorial Day was about the soldiers, Labor Day about the workers (because capitalist American didn’t want to celebrate May Day with the commies) and Christmas about mass consumption. An entire country, it seemed to me, didn’t just call a holiday for no other reason than to take a day off. To someone with an American work ethic it almost seemed criminal.

Germany Unity Day – “celebrated” every October 3 – goes one step further than bank holidays, though it requires the type of conceptual hijinks only a Teutonic brain can conjure.

Rather than a two-dimensional national day of rest and pride, they’ve crafted an intellectual construct that makes it a one-dimensional reason not to head to the office. The thinking goes like this: you can’t celebrate the end of something you caused yourself.

Had Adolf and his gang not tried to take over the world (or – depending on which German happens to be in the room and how far back they trace the causality – Kaiser Wilhelm II not kicked off World War I), Germany would never have been divided. For many Germans, a divided country was just desserts to a nation gone awry.

Nationalism here admittedly hasn’t had a great track record, but now it means patriotism of any form is often pooh-poohed. So, since many Germans feel the inspiration for Unity Day is false, they don’t celebrate it. In fact, they don’t even think about it. They just don’t go to work. Maybe it’s the anti-holiday. A day off without any spiritual pressure. Heck, even throughout Britain people raise a pint to the current head of the Bank of England to thank him for the day off.

“On Unity Day, you sleep in and maybe go to brunch,” a friend of mine said last weekend. You’d think she’d have at least a little reason to celebrate – had the Wall never fallen she might never have made it out of Frankfurt an der Oder and certainly would never have met the Mosel valley winemaker who’s now her partner and the father of her child.

The Berlin Wall fell after a peaceful revolution by the East German people – that might be something to commemorate, as well as an opportunity for the Wessis to at least once admit the Ossis did something right. Sure, economic pressures precipitated the protests, but the weekly demonstrations across East Germany were undoubtedly a sign of true civil courage.

It’s a bit of a shame, really.

In the United States, we celebrate our independence with barbecues, canned beer and fireworks. The French cling to Cold War traditions on Bastille Day and pilot tanks down the Champs-Élysées. The Brits? Well, they have Guy Fawkes and the Queen’s birthday, don’t they?

My German friend suggested a celebration with the true face of modern Germany: the collection of peacenik young men (from both sides of the previous border) who refuse to do their compulsory military service. Instead, they spend nine months playing ping pong and lounging about in whatever social institution will have them: hostels, youth centres, nursing homes and daycare facilities.

They could march down Berlin’s main boulevard through the Tiergarten towards the Brandenburg Gate in their ill-fitting jeans and fauxhawks waving their ping pong paddles to commemorate a nation that has gone post-patriotic. Its supreme unpretension would rival the grand pomp of the French Bastille Day parade!

Or maybe not.

Of course, I’ve always liked the German Unity Day holiday simply because I’m a fan of paid days off. This year I’m going to London. “Yeah,” I told my friend as I announced my visit, “It’s a bank holiday.”

Since a good German Stammtisch is a place where pub regulars come to talk over the issues of the day, Portnoy welcomes a lively conversation in our Discuss section.

For members


When will tourism in Germany open up again?

Some German states, including Bavaria, have announced that hotels will reopen after months of a Covid -shutdown. We looked at what the next weeks have in store.

When will tourism in Germany open up again?
People on the beach in Sylt on April 23rd. Photo:picture alliance/dpa | Axel Heimken

For around six months, overnight accommodation in Germany has only been allowed to open for business or essential travellers.

But things are looking up – finally. Some states are taking the first steps towards reopening the tourism sector, allowing people to think about travel.

READ ALSO: When will Germany ease international restrictions on travel?

Germany has two national public holidays coming up – Ascension Day, which is also Father’s Day in Germany, on Thursday May 13th. Then there’s Whitsun holiday on Monday May 24th. Corpus Christi on June 3rd results in a day off for six states, including Bavaria.

What are German states saying at the moment?


On Tuesday, the southern state of Bavaria – a major holiday destination for Germans – announced holidays should be possible in areas with low coronavirus infection rates from Friday May 21st. That’s just in time for Whitsun.

In districts and cities with a stable 7-day incidence of less than 100 Covid infections per 100,000 residents, hotels, holiday apartments and campsites would be allowed to reopen to all guests under the plans.

Outdoor dining, theatres, and cinemas are also to open in the state soon.

Bavaria is especially popular for its picturesque Alpine locations such as Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Berchtesgaden.

READ MORE: Bavaria plans to open for tourists on May 21st


Tourism is already starting up again in parts of Schleswig-Holstein, which has the lowest Covid rates in Germany. So-called ‘model’ projects are testing out how tourism can open up step by step.

READ ALSO: Dozens of German districts and cities see major drop in Covid-19 cases

Holidaymakers returned to Sylt – the largest German North Sea island – on Saturday May 1st, as part of the North Frisian tourist model initiative.

Tourism there is ramped up again under strict conditions – and all with the proviso that infections do not increase significantly.

Holidaymakers need a negative coronavirus test upon arrival and have to be re-tested every 48 hours. During the project, restaurants are also allowed to open on Sylt and certain leisure activities, such as hikes and city tours, are also possible.

Enjoying beach life on Sylt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Axel Heimken

North Friesland is one of four model tourist regions in Schleswig-Holstein. The projects are to initially last a month with the option of extension. The pilot is already underway in the Schleiregion and Eckernförde, Büsum and the Bay of Lübeck with the popular Timmendorfer Strand on the Baltic Sea to follow.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about the latest rules on travel to and from Germany

Lower Saxony

In Lower Saxony, too, the first steps in bringing tourism back to life slowly is on the cards. The retail and hospitality sector will begin to open from next week in districts with incidence rates ​​below 100.

All shops will be allowed to open under strict conditions from Monday.

The hospitality sector and hotels will then be able to start gradually opening under strict precautionary rules.

Hotels will be able to open at 60 percent capacity, provided that guests present a negative Covid test on arrival and take new tests every day.

Hotels are initially only allowed to accommodate guests from Lower Saxony. According to the state government in Hanover, two thirds of all districts in Lower Saxony currently have an incidence rate of less than 100. These include many districts from tourist regions along the North Sea coast.

What are the rules right now on travel – and what’s the overall picture?

Across Germany there is no ban on travel. However, as has been the case since November last year, non-essential travel is strongly discouraged.

Germany also recently tightened measures across the country to battle a third wave of Covid-19. In areas where there are more than 100 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people, restrictions including curfews and tighter contact rules are in place.

But coronavirus infection rates are falling in Germany, and vaccinations are ramping up. This is all good news – and experts hope that the country is on the way to beating the third wave.

READ ALSO: ‘Summer will be good’: Has Germany broken the third wave?

All states will start to open public life further when the infection numbers fall below 100 Covid cases per 100,000 residents in seven days. The hope is that they will continue to drop even more so that other facilities can open.

The federal government’s Tourism Commissioner Thomas Bareiß, of the CDU, said he is “very confident” that widespread travel within Germany will be possible again from June.

“I am very confident that holiday trips with us will be possible in more and more regions from June onwards,” said Bareiß.

He had a bit less hope for travelling over the Whitsun holidays around May 24th. “This will unfortunately fall through again in many holiday regions,” he said.

He told German daily Bild that hotels and restaurants have safety plans in place for when they reopen.

The German government is pushing through new measures which will see fully vaccinated people – and those who’ve recovered from Covid – face fewer restrictions, such as the need to provide a negative Covid test to go shopping or to the hairdresser.

However, there are no plans to open facilities like restaurants and hotels only for these groups.

READ ALSO: ‘Closer to normality’: Germany takes step to ease Covid curbs for vaccinated people