Monday, June 17, 2013

17. Juni

I sat down this morning at 6:30 AM for my first phone conference of the day, in which a colleague in India was going to demonstrate something he has been developing. As per my standard practice, I took out my notebook and wrote down the topic, the participants (he and I) and the date: June 17. Why did that date look familiar? Ah, yes, June 17, 17. Juni, also known as Tag der deutschen Einheit, or German Unity Day, an extinct holiday commemorating the brief popular uprising against the ruling party of the "German Democratic Republic", GDR (or DDR, for Deutsche Demokratische Republik), known to you and me more commonly as "East Germany" until they went out of business in 1990. Today is the 60th anniversary of the event.

To briefly reprise your tenth grade (or whatever) world history class, the one you mostly slept through: after Germany surrendered in 1945, big chunks of its eastern pre-war territory were ceded to Poland and the USSR, and the rest was divided into American, British, French and Soviet occupation zones. The Soviet zone became East Germany, the rest became West Germany. Berlin, the capital, was also divided into four zones, and the Soviet chunk became the capital of East Germany. The other three zones became West Berlin, a sort of peculiar western capitalist enclave in the middle of East Germany, around which the East Germans (in 1961) eventually decided to build their "anti-fascist protective wall" to keep their population from slowly leaking out to the West.

In 1953, the West German Wirtschaftswunder, or "economic miracle" was well underway and the standard of living was improving enormously every year. East Germany, on the other hand, having made a successful transition from Nazi dictatorship to Stalinist dictatorship, demonstrated the benefits of Soviet-style economic planning by remaining an economic basket case in which essentially any form of expression not officially sanctioned by the ruling SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands—German Socialist Unity Party) was strictly forbidden. On June 16, simmering frustration boiled over into a general strike that started as a small strike by East Berlin construction workers angry at an announcement that their pay would be cut if they did not meet new work quotas. By June 17, tens of thousands of people were in the streets of Berlin and other East German cities demanding political and economic reforms and clashing with East German police and Soviet troops, who responded by opening fire on the crowds, killing dozens of people.

Rehearsing for Budapest (or Prague… or Tienanmen… or Tahrir…)

From 1954 onward, June 17 was commemorated as a national holiday in West Germany. I first went to live in Germany in the mid 1980's, some 30 years after the events of 1953, and found the day to be one of the most peculiar national holidays I have ever experienced. Our Independence Day, for example, is a huge affair, with American flags and red, white and blue decorations of every kind hanging everywhere, and the obligatory fireworks at night. I've been in France and Norway on their respective national holidays, and the scene was similar (oddly enough, the national colors of both of those countries are red, white and blue as well).

This June 17 holiday, on the other hand, was the most low-key national holiday I have ever experienced. Everyone got the day off of work, and it was a nice day for grilling sausages and drinking beer, being in in the  late spring. But I can't remember much in the way of decorations or other direct references to the day itself. The only thing I can remember along those lines is a lone wreath laid at a monument in the city of Mainz, where I lived for many years. The monument itself, a kind of stylized representation of West Germany, East Germany and the lost eastern provinces, was tucked away in an unobtrusive spot on the banks of the Rhine, not prominently displayed in the middle of the town square or anything like that. It was typical of the massive discomfort that the post-war generation felt with anything even vaguely resembling a display of national pride.


…is indivisible (mostly)

Nor was reunification itself something that anybody I knew particularly longed for. By the time I moved there, I think most West Germans were pretty comfortable with the fact that there was an East Germany and a West Germany, in the same way that there was (and is) a country of millions of culturally German people called Austria that nobody (at least since 1945) thought needed to be unified with their cousins in either Germany. My Favorite Wife always said that growing up in West Germany, she felt closer to anyone from France or England than she did to anyone from East Germany because of the shared foundation of an open, free-market, democratic system. I might add that after reunification, that feeling was more confirmed than refuted; when the first East Germans started turning up in the West following the opening of the borders, sometimes you really had the feeling that you were dealing with an inscrutable alien culture. But that's a story for another time.

The only group I can remember consistently making any sort of noise that resembled flag-waving of any kind is a group called the Bund der Vertriebenen ("Federation of Exiles"), a pressure group formed to demand reparations and generally represent the interests of those people who were forcibly expelled from those formerly German territories I mentioned earlier. To be sure, a lot of those people suffered grave hardships as refugees as a result of having been born on the wrong side of the border. But their inflammatory slogans  ("Silesia remains ours!") in the midst of West German government attempts to normalize relations with Eastern European countries, and the assumption that many of their functionaries were ex-Nazis (or maybe not so "ex"), something that has been confirmed in recent years, made them a sort of national embarrassment that did little to make most Germans feel any sort of comfort with waving their flag.

With reunification in 1990, the holiday was officially moved to October 3, the day that reunification of East and West Germany officially took effect. The 17th of June is now just another day on the calendar. My kids, who spent the first part of their lives in Germany, probably have no idea of this ex-holiday, but I'm sure the date also means next to nothing to their cousins of similar age who still live there, other than maybe one more obscure thing to remember for a history quiz. Where do holidays go to retire? I don't really know, but if I were June 17, I think I'd prefer to retire to September, because the weather is much nicer than in October.