Throughout my childhood, June 17th signaled a summer holiday – when families would pack a picnic and go for a bicycle outing. Only gradually did I realize that the holiday reflected the fact that we lived in a divided country - and that in the “other Germany” June 17th was not a holiday at all.
Officially, this was the “Day of German Unity” and it was observed in West Germany to commemorate the uprising in East Germany on June seventeenth, 1953 – an uprising brutally suppressed by Soviet forces.
The unrest began on the morning of June sixteenth, 1953, when workers at a factory in East Berlin demanded the lowering of production goals. A few days earlier, the East German government had raised those goals – effectively cutting the workers’ pay. Office workers, tram drivers, farmers, students, professors - people from all sectors of society - joined the worker’s protest, frustrated by the abysmal economic conditions. Soon they also demanded free elections and other democratic rights.
After nearly a day of confusion on the part of the East German government and Khrushchev’s representatives from Moscow, Soviet tanks rolled in just before noon on June 17. My father, who was fifteen at the time, remembers news coverage showing masses of people trying to block the tanks. To no avail - guns and steel won out over human bodies and aspirations. At least 55 people died. After that, many East Germans retreated into their private lives in resignation. Others tried to get to the West, risking prison, torture – even death.
And so the two Germanys coexisted, uncomfortably, for four decades, with the divided Berlin at the epicenter of the Cold War.
Throughout that time, on June 17th West Germany observed the “Day of German Unity” but no one believed that the two German states would ever reunite. Then, in the fall of 1989, East German cities were again filled with protesters from all walks of life. This time, the voices of the people prevailed – and fortunately, the government was too paralyzed to call in the tanks. Chanting “We are the people,” and finally, “We are one people!” the protesters took down the Berlin Wall. The rest, as they say, is history: The next fall, the two Germanys were reunited. The “Day of German Unity” is still a holiday, but now it’s observed on October 3, the day of official reunification.
One could certainly argue that reunification brought the greatest benefits to East Germans. But even for me as a Westerner, it’s been a great and unexpected gift. Without it, I would likely never have visited the cities where Bach, Handel, Goethe, Luther, and other musical and cultural giants spent much of their lives. Nor would I have met some of my favorite contemporary Germans.
And today, to be able to contemplate these developments from Vermont, with its state motto of Freedom and Unity, seems especially auspicious.