The area around Brandenburg Gate, once home to the 'no mans land' between the two layers of the Berlin Wall, is tonight being decked out for a massive celebration. Tomorrow, 3 October, is the annual celebration of 'German Unity Day'. This year's holiday is no ordinary one. It is marking 25 years since German reunification.
But don't make the mistake of calling it 'Reunification Day'. I called it by this name with a German friend today. I was swiftly deutsched, and told that despite the fact that it is held on the anniversary of the day the East German government was merged into the West, the proper name is 'unity day'.
I was only repeating the term I have read in English-speaking media, as there have been several reports this week about the 25th anniversary. But there are two important reasons why this is not called Reunification Day: it corresponds to an older holiday name, and because pre-war Germany has not been entirely reunited.
Germany actually had no national holiday before World War II. In 1954, West Germany decided to establish German Unity Day following a failed uprising in East Germany a year earlier. It was celebrated every year on 17 June, and was meant to show solidarity with Germans from the East.
After East Germany was reclaimed by the German government in 1990, a decision had to be made about what to do with the national holiday. The first plan was to celebrate a national holiday on 9 November, the day the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. This coincidentally was the same day as the proclamation of the first German Republic in 1918. But unfortunately it was also the same day as the kristallnacht in 1938, the first large-scale pogrom against Jews under the Nazis. So it was decided that this date would be inappropriate.
The decision was taken instead to mark the day that East and West were officially united, and East Germany ceased to exist. But initial plans to call it 'Reunification Day' were rejected because of the controversial issue of Polish-occupied Germany. Germany, many argued, had only been partially reunited.
In the West, we are taught that there were four occupation zones of Germany - the American, British, French and Soviet sectors. But in fact there was a fifth - the Polish sector. For reasons that continue to be debated by historians (skilful negotiating by the Polish government, an allied concept of collective guilt for all ethnic Germans) Poland was given about one-quarter of German territory. The territory of East Prussia was split between Poland and Russia, and the Northern part, rebranded as Kaliningrad, is still part of Russia today.
Communist propaganda in Poland called these lands the "recovered territories", teaching people that they had been part of the Kingdom of Poland. In fact, these territories had never been part of the Kingdom of Poland for any significant period of time, and the occupants had been almost entirely German for hundreds of years. The German occupants, who were over 90% of the population, were expelled to West Germany and Austria.
Together with the ethnic Germans expelled from the Sudetenland in the Czech Republic (who had never even been German citizens), the 12 million Germans who left their homes during this period represent the largest forced migration in human history. According to official German government statistics, two million of them died during the march West. The lands were resettled by Poles, moved by the Communists from lands to the east which had been part of Poland but were taken by the Soviet Union.
West Germany did not accept the so-called 'Oder-Neisse line' as the German-Polish border, regarding the Polish occupation of Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia as being equally illegitimate as the Soviet occupation of East Germany. In fact, in German, the term 'East Germany' (OstDeutschland) was used to refer to both Soviet-occupied and Polish-occupied Germany. Non-recognition of Poland's modern border was even written into the West German constitution.
The extent to which Germany had been torn in two was perhaps even more visible at towns along the Oder river than it was at the 'internal German border' between East and West Germany. The town of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, for instance, was divided in two. The inhabitants east of the river were expelled to the west side, and Poles moved in. Although East Germany and Poland were both Communist countries, they would not allow their citizens to pass freely between them. The expellees in West Frankfurt would have been able to gaze across the river (it's not very wide) and see their old homes, but forbidden to cross the river to visit East Frankfurt (which the Poles renamed Slubice). The river only became freely crossable after Poland joined the Schengen area in 2008, and a large fireworks display was held on the bridge between the two towns. I've visited this bridge and it's very moving.
The plight of the Ostdeutschland refugees, who had been expelled from their homes and for years lived in refugee camps in West Germany, was a hot political issue in Bonn for decades. The CDU, the party of current chancellor Angela Merkel, for years campaigned on a platform that they would eventually reunited all the German lands, including those east of the Oder.
Of course, to govern is to populate. By 1990, the West German government had to accept that there were no more Germans living in Pomerania, Silesia and Prussia - they had all been expelled. And the expellees in West Germany were by 1990 already dying out. More importantly, the issue had lost its saliency over the decades as the expellees, who had been sent to West Germany and Austria, realized they were probably much better off than if they had been living in an enlarged East Germany or in Poland under Communism.
On 12 September 1990, one month before reunification, West Germany signed the 'Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany', in which it reluctantly accept the "situation on the ground" and gave up any claim to the historical German lands east of the Oder in exchange for being allowed to unite with East Germany. By 1990 it had become only a theoretical issue. There was no practical or rational way for Germany to reclaim any of the lost territory by that point, Poles and Russians had been living in these lands for 45 years.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl's decision to accept the treaty was controversial in Germany particularly with the Federation of Expellees, which had been a powerful political force (although by 1990 was less so because a lot of the expellees were dead). Still, it would have been rubbing salt in the wound if, one month later, Kohl had declared a new 'Reunification Day'. Germany may have accepted the loss of its territory, but it would be a lie to say Germany had been truly 'reunited'. Instead they would take the name of the existing holiday, "the day of German unity", a moniker which made no claim to fully reuniting the German lands.
The issue is not a salient one today in Germany, except with the most extreme far-right groups. The country has moved on and accepted its Eastern border. But the controversy still resonates in the tension over the name of Germany's national holiday. Before long, most people will forget that the lands east of the Oder were ever German at all (that's certainly already the case in the United States). Borders shift, geopolitical realities change. And it shows the maturity of the German state that they can accept this.
Just don't call their national holiday 'reunification day'.