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The German year

Marc Young · 21 May 2009, 15:37

Published: 21 May 2009 15:37 GMT+02:00

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A slew of big anniversaries have conspired to make 2009 a truly German year.

Though the fall of Berlin Wall two decades ago is sure to grab the most headlines, two other historic events are at least as equally important to anyone hoping to grasp what it means to be German these days.

This Saturday, the country will celebrate the creation of West Germany’s constitution 60 years ago. More than anything, the signing of the Grundgesetz, or Basic Law as the document is known, symbolised the country’s democratic rebirth from the ashes of World War II.

However, half of the country spent the next 40 years under the yoke of a communist dictatorship, which is why Chancellor Angela Merkel – herself raised in East Germany – is hoping to twin the anniversary of the founding of the democratic Federal Republic of Germany with the collapse of the Iron Curtain 20 years ago on November 9.

“Only the peaceful revolution of 1989 paved the way for reunification of our nation in peace and freedom,” Merkel said this week.

But the government is still hoping to turn the Basic Law celebrations this weekend into a big outdoor party of the kind that the Germans do so well. A Bürgerfest, or Citizens Festival, near Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate will bring together a heady Teutonic mix of food, music and praise for all that is good about modern Germany.

Though it might be hard to get people excited about a document written by old men long since dead, the Basic Law set the foundation for the essence of present day Germanness. Eschewing a strong centralised state after the horrifying experience of Nazi dictatorship, the federal republic bolstered the country’s already strong regional nature.

According to Paul Kohtes, chairman of the Düsseldorf-based Identity Foundation, Germans are now much more at ease with who they are, but they still probably think of themselves as Bavarians, Rhinelanders and Berliners first and Germans second.

A survey released by his organisation last month showed 60 percent of Germans were proud of their country – a figure unthinkable only a few years ago.

As I wrote back in 2006, hosting the World Cup became a watershed event as Germans openly begin to feel good about being German again.

But just because many people no longer shy away from healthy black, red and gold patriotism these days doesn’t mean people fail to put their regional loyalties first.

“The German mentality is still more federal than national,” Kohtes told public broadcaster RBB on Thursday.

Of course, such a complicated form of twinned national-local patriotism didn’t simply sprout from the fertile federalism of the Basic Law in 1949. No, a third important anniversary being remembered in 2009 highlights just how far back the roots of the modern German identity stretch.

None other than “Hermann the German” – also known by the more elegant Latin moniker Arminius – is being honoured this year for defeating three Roman legions in what is now North Rhine-Westphalia 2,000 years ago.

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Were it not for his epic victory in the Teutoburg Forest against Publius Quinctilius Varus in 9 AD, Rome might have extended its control over Germania and the fractious peoples living there.

Although he provided 19th-century proponents of a unified German nation with a hero for their cause, Hermann himself never managed to overcome the regional differences still common to the country today.

And somehow that seems rather fitting in this year chock-full of particularly important Teutonic anniversaries.

“In many ways we’re still a collection of different Germanic tribes from the woods,” said the Identity Foundation’s Kohtes.

Marc Young (marc.young@thelocal.de)

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