• Germany's news in English
The Local List
10 things you never knew about German reunification
Reunification celebrations in Hanover in 2014. Photo: DPA

10 things you never knew about German reunification

The Local · 30 Sep 2016, 11:21

Published: 30 Sep 2016 11:14 GMT+02:00
Updated: 30 Sep 2016 11:21 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Germany was divided for almost half a century after the Second World War, with the eastern part becoming a socialist ally of the USSR, while the west was a democratic ally of the USA.

On October 3rd 1990 that finally came to an end when east and west were officially reunified.

1. The fall of the Berlin Wall was an accident

Despite increased pressure on East German authorities to increase freedom of movement between East and West, no one woke up on November 9th 1989 expecting to see people tearing down the wall that evening. In fact, on that day the government had decided to placate protesters by announcing new, laxer travel regulations.

But thanks to Günter Schabowski, the newly appointed government spokesman, history took a different turn.

Schabowski had been put in charge of the press conference, but hadn't been properly briefed on what to say.

Asked by a reporter when the regulations were to come into effect - officially on the following day, and the process would include a long visa-application process - he hesitated, before responding: “Ab sofort” – “Right away.”

Within hours, tens of thousands had gathered at the wall, and the rest was history.

2. A former chancellor tried to rob Germans of their day off

Gerhard Schröder and Horst Köhler. Photo: DPA

In 2004, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder tried to remove German Unity Day as a national holiday.

In a letter defending the plan, Schröder wrote: “the holiday should not be abolished, but moved to the first Sunday of October every year.”

Citing economic reasons, he explained he was committed to reducing the number of national holidays. Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t a very popular suggestion, and it remained on October 3rd!

3. Bonn remained the seat of government after reunification 

View of Bonn. Photo: DPA

Although Berlin had become the federal capital of the new Germany, the government didn’t decide to move the Bundestag (parliament) from Bonn until the following year, and they only just voted in favour of the motion.

On June 20th 1991, the decision to move to Berlin was approved by 338 votes 320. The Parliament and Chancellery only moved to Berlin in 1999, but some departments and many government officials still operate out of the former West German capital.

4. Reunification almost killed the East German ‘Ampelmännchen’

Traffic psychologist Karl Peglau with his two iconic designs. Photo: DPA

Starting in 1990, there were attempts by the authorities to replace the East German pedestrian crossing lights with standardised ones.

The distinctive man - known as the Amplemännchen and modelled on a photograph of former GDR leader Erich Honecker in a straw hat - became a cult symbol. After a series of protests, the decision was made to keep the 'Ampelmännchen'. It is now also a very successful tourist merchandise range.

5. Unity day was first supposed to be a month later 

Germans climbing onto the wall on 9th November 1989. Photo: DPA

November 9th, the day the Berlin Wall came down was originally proposed as the day of unity.

Despite November 9th being a momentous historical landmark in 1989, it is clear why October 3rd was finally picked instead.

Sometimes referred to as ‘Schicksalstag’ (Fateful Day), November 9th has an eerie connection with major events in German history - not all of them good.

On November 9th 1918, government minister Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the creation of the Republic from a balcony in the Berlin Stadtschloss, a crucial act in Germany's transition away from monarchy.

In 1923, November 9th marked the day that Hitler and the NSDAP attempted to take control of Munich, often called the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. And, on the same day in 1938, the Nazi pogrom known as ‘Kristallnacht’ (The Night of Broken Glass) saw Jewish shops and synagogues attacked, and the death of hundreds of Jews.

6. Merkel was working for the socialist government at the time

Former East German Prime Minister Lothar de Maizière and Angela Merkel. Photo: Bundesarchiv / Settnik, Bernd / wikimedia commons

Until 3rd October 1990, Angela Merkel actually worked for the last East German government.

Having joined the political movement ‘Democratic Awakening’ in early 1990, the future Chancellor was later that year appointed deputy spokesperson to Lothar de Maizière, the last leader of East Germany.

7. The West swallowed the East

Grundgesetz - The German Basic Law. Photo: DPA

The reunification of Germany was not legally a merger, but an absorption of the East German states into West Germany.

October 3rd saw the dissolution of the GDR (East Germany), and in accordance with Article 23 of the German Basic Law, each of the five eastern Bundesländer had to vote to join the Federal Republic of Germany. This was chosen in preference over the other option of an official union of the two states, because a speedy unification was seen as vital during this economically unstable time.

8. Britain and France weren't happy

Story continues below…

Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl. Photo: DPA

Most of West Germany's allies had officially supported German reunification for decades, but as the GDR's collapse began to look more plausible, many states began to express opposition to the idea, at least in private. Many of western Europe's leaders still feared the resurgence of a powerful unified Germany.

The UK's prime minister at the time was one of the leaders to voice this concern more publicly. In a discussion with Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher stated: “We don’t want a united Germany […] such a development would undermine the stability of the whole international situation”

The personal advisor to French President Francois Mitterand also shared this opinion: “France by no means wants German reunification.”

9. Putin was a KGB agent in Germany at the time

Putin looks over the River Elbe in Dresden on a return trip. Photo: DPA

From 1985 to 1990, Vladimir Putin served in the local Soviet intelligence office in Dresden. The night the wall fell had a very sudden effect on him, as he recalled to biographers: “I realised that the Soviet Union was ill. It was a fatal illness called paralysis. A paralysis of power.”

Putin still speaks fluent German, even once addressing the Bundestag (German parliament) auf Deustch.

10. The official celebrations take place in a different city each year

The Semperoper, Dresden. Photo: DPA

Although Berlin always puts on a big show, a different city officially hosts the ‘Bürgerfest’ each year, which often lasts for several days and celebrates the local region. Although it is traditionally a state capital, Frankfurt was chosen in 2015 to represent Hesse, because it was felt to be more suited for the event than Wiesbaden.

The official celebrations for 2016 will take place in Dresden with the tagline “Brücken bauen” (bridge building).

By Alexander Johnstone

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Creepy clown scare spreads to Germany
Two of the clowns were apparently equipped with chainsaws. Photo: Pedro Pardo / AFP file picture

Police said Friday five incidents involving so-called scary clowns had occurred in two north German town, including one assailant who hit a man with a baseball bat, amid fears that Halloween could spark a rash of similar attacks.

Student fined for spying on women via their webcams
Photo: DPA

Student from Munich fined €1,000 for spying on 32 different computers, using their webcams to take photographs, or record their keyboard history.

This is how much startup geeks earn in Germany
Photo: DPA

A comprehensive new survey of 143 startup founders shows how much you are likely to be earning at a German startup, from entry level all the way up to sitting on the board.

Man dies after beating for peeing near Freiburg church
The Johannes Church in Freiburg. Photo Jörgens Mi/Wikipedia

A middle-aged man from southern Germany has died after being attacked by a group of men who took umbrage with the fact he was urinating in the vicinity of a church.

The Local List
Seven German celebrities with uncanny doppelgängers
Former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit and actor Alec Baldwin. Photo: DPA; Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Check out these seven look-a-likes of well known German figures - we admit that some are more tenuous than others...

Israel seeks to buy three new German submarines: report
A Dolphin class submarine. Photo: DPA

Israel is seeking to buy three more advanced submarines from Germany at a combined price of €1.2 billion, an Israeli newspaper reported Friday.

Here’s where people live the longest in Germany
Photo: DPA

Germans down south seem to know the secret to a long life.

More Germans identify as LGBT than in rest of Europe
Photo: DPA

The percentage of the German population which identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is higher than anywhere else in Europe, according to a new study.

'Reichsbürger' pair attack police in Saxony-Anhalt
File photo: DPA.

A "Reichsbürger" and his wife attacked police officers on Thursday, just a day after another Reichsbürger fatally shot an officer in Bavaria.

Five things not to miss at the Frankfurt Book Fair
Photo: DPA

From consulting a book doctor to immersing yourself in an author's world with the help of virtual reality, here are five things not to miss at this week's Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest publishing event.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd