10 things you never knew about German reunification

German Unity Day falls on October 3rd. Did you know these facts about reunification and German Unity Day?

10 things you never knew about German reunification
Chello player Daniel Müller-Schott plays at the closing concert of Berlin's 2018 Bürgerfest under the title "#1HEIT" on stage in front of the Brandenburg Gate.. Photo: DPA

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 is 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

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 Deutsch.

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


he 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.

The 2021 Bürgerfest is part of a wider exhibition on unity, with a variety of events taking place across the city of Halle in Saxony-Anhalt, in east-central Germany.

By Alexander Johnstone

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


‘Like part of a war’: East German athlete recalls Munich Olympics massacre

Klaus Langhoff experienced World War II as a child, and found memories of the war flooding back when he went to Munich in 1972 as a handballer captaining East Germany at the Olympics.

'Like part of a war': East German athlete recalls Munich Olympics massacre

Langhoff and his teammates were staying just across from the apartment block that Palestinian gunmen stormed into on September 5th, 1972, taking the Israeli team hostage.

As the day wore on, he witnessed helplessly the terrifying scenes unfolding from his balcony — from terrorists dropping the lifeless body of an Israeli coach on the street to the tense negotiations carried out between the hostage-takers and the West German police.

“It was like part of a war,” said Langhoff, who had seen corpses of German soldiers lying in hastily dug graves as a six-year-old.

“These memories of the war came back” when he saw the gunmen carrying out the body of Israeli wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and leaving it on the street, he told AFP.

The shock had been doubly hard to bear as the Games had started off so well, said Langhoff, who still cuts an imposing figure at the age of 82.

Langhoff had counted among the few East German citizens who were permitted to head abroad for the first time and had arrived in Munich “with great expectations”.

The first week at the Olympics was “so excellent, so joyful,” Langhoff recounted.

But that ended abruptly when the team’s secretary general woke him up at 5:30am.

“He came to me in the room and said ‘Klaus, inform all the other players. Over there at the Israelis’ lodgings, there’s been a shooting and a terror attack’,” said Langhoff.

READ ALSO: Germany and Israel to mark 50 years since Munich Olympics massacre

‘Only medals counted’

The East Germans were initially told to stay well away from the windows and to remain inside.

But it soon became clear that they were not the target, so Langhoff began looking out and going on the balcony where he took photographs of the terror.

Pointing to one of the photographs, Langhoff said he saw a member of the Palestinian militant group Black September patrolling the roof “with a Kalashnikov ready  to fire”.

Below, guarding the front door “was always someone, probably the head of this terrorist group, who always had a hand grenade in his hand.”

During a scuffle, coach Weinberg was shot and killed.

His body lay on the street “for a long time until they took him away,” said Langhoff.

“It was awful. Whenever we looked out of the window or on the balcony, we saw this dead athlete there.”

Weightlifter Yossef Romano was also shot dead, while another nine Israelis were taken hostage.

But West German police’s bungled rescue operation ended with all nine hostages killed, along with five of the eight hostage-takers and a police officer.

‘Games must go on’

With the Games suspended for the first time in Olympic history, the team prepared for a complete cancellation.

However, they were halted for only 34 hours, with then-IOC President Avery Brundage declaring “the Games must go on”.

Langhoff said it was “doubly difficult” for his side to focus on their sporting objectives after the attacks.

The team lost against the Soviet Union and ultimately finished fourth.

Despite the harrowing experience, the team found little understanding from the East German public upon returning home.

Klaus Langhoff

Former handball player from Eastern Germany Klaus Langhoff, who witnessed the 1972 Munich Olympics hoastage-taking, gives an AFP interview in Rostock. Photo: Tobias Schwarz / AFP

“Only medals counted,” he recalled. “For us in the GDR (East Germany), finishing fourth was a shock to the system. I mean, there wasn’t a prison camp, but only places one to three were financially rewarded.”

The East German government, allied with the PLO and hostile to Israel, officially called the hostage-taking a “tragedy”, while there was hardly any mention of the atrocity in the media.

The Communist authorities “completely ignored this attack and didn’t include us in any evaluations or anything else… (they) were only concerned with being successful in the competition,” Langhoff said.


But the West German government was also criticised for failing to acknowledge responsibility for the disaster.

In 2012, Israel released 45 official documents on the killings, including specially declassified material, which lambasted the performance of the German security services.

Included in the reports is an official account from the former Israeli intelligence head Zvi Zamir who said the German police “didn’t make even a minimal effort to save human lives”.

Munich Olympic massacre

Policemen barricade the entrance of the Olympic village, on September 05th, 1972 in Munich after Palestinian terrorists of the “Black September” group stormed the Israeli athletes quarters. Photo: EPU / AFP

Relatives of victims have over the years battled to obtain an official apology from Germany, access to official documents and appropriate compensation beyond the €4.5 million ($4.5 million) provided in 2002.

Only on Wednesday, 50 years after the atrocity, did Germany reach a compensation deal of €28 million with relatives.

“In retrospect, there were great omissions in the process of reckoning with the terror,” Langhoff said. “I don’t even want to get started with the financial aspect. But even morally there are many things that are just incomprehensible.”

By Daniel Wighton