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Happy Independence Day

Independence Day

Independence Day is the national holiday of the United States. On July 4th, 1776, the Continental Congress declared the independence of the thirteen American colonies from Britain and this laid the foundation of a new nation state—the United States of America. During the Revolutionary War, German Americans served both the British and the Americans. Well known is the Prussian born general Baron von Steuben (1730–1794), who fought on the American side and became famous by introducing successful new military drills, tactics, and disciplines. Other German Americans followed the example of Frederick Baron de Weissenfels, who initially joined the British, but soon changed sides. In this respect German Americans took their share in achieving the independence that Americans celebrate with their national holiday every year since 1777.

National holidays often shed light on the history of states and their peculiarities. This becomes very clear when comparing the U.S. and Germany: The very long tradition of the 4th of July holiday, which was named “Independence Day” in 1791, illustrates how firm, sustainable, and robust the political system of the U.S. has been. The fact that Germans, on the other hand, lack any comparable tradition of a national holiday, reflects Germany’s unsteady and fractured modern history.

After a long process of nation building, the first state that united many German-speaking territories was founded on January 18th 1871 under Prussian leadership. The inception ceremony, however, took place not in the new capital Berlin, but in Versailles, where the defeated French neighbor had to sign a harsh peace treaty and where the German dukes crowned the Prussian king as the German Emperor. Very soon after the Kaiserreich was established, demands for a national holiday, similar to France or other existing nations arose. Amongs the suggested dates was January 18th. Emperor Wilhelm I however rejected this date because it coincided with the crowning of the first Prussian King in 1701. Another suggested day was September 2nd, commemorating the defeat and surrender of the French troops in Sedan in 1870. Although never officially declared as a federal holiday, it was celebrated widely until the day when Germany lost a war and had to sign a bitter peace treaty—this one also in Versailles.

After the resignation of the German Emperor, the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) was established and with it a first official federal holiday: The date chosen was August 11, the day when the German president Friedrich Ebert had signed the Weimar Constitution in 1919. Since the Weimar Republic faced major challenges and didn’t live very long, this holiday did not become very popular beyond a small circle of politicians, intellectuals and idealists.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933 they immediately abandoned the holiday celebrating the birth of democracy in Germany. At the same time they felt the need to strengthen patriotism and national pride by establishing a new national holiday. It was, however not really “new”: The Nazis took possession of May Day attempting to use the symbolism of the International Workers’ Day to win over common workers, while brutally oppressing Social Democrats and Communists.

After Nazi Germany was defeated and occupied by the Allies, two German states were established: The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the West and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East. While the socialist GDR chose it’s founding day October 7th 1949 as their new national holiday (Tag der Republik), the FRG (founded in May 1949) deliberately abstained from establishing a national holiday. The reason was that the FRG and its constitution did not give up the idea of a “whole” undivided Germany. After major protests against the socialist government of the GDR and their brutal oppression on June 17th, 1953, the FRG’s government declared this date the “Day of the German Unity“ (Tag der deutschen Einheit). Although the attempt to make an event in the GDR a crucial marker of West German’s identity was only partly successful, this decision illustrates how each German State during the Cold War defined itself in the face of the respective other.

For Germany the Cold War ended with the unification of its two states and so the search for a national holiday started once again: The Berlin Wall came down on November 9, 1989 and this would have been the perfect choice—if it would not have coincided with the anniversary of the Night of the Broken Glass (Pogromnacht), where in 1938, the Nazis had orchestrated violent attacks on Jewish synagogues and businesses. For this reason, October 3, the day when the democratically elected East German government declared it’s accession to the FRG and it’s constitution, was picked.

Germany’s national holiday is thus the “Day of German Unity”. As such this holiday finally points to at least one similarity between the U.S. and Germany: The German Unification in 1990 also marked the ultimate end of the post-war order that had given the four main allied powers certain rights in Germany and had limited the sovereignty of the two German states until 1990/1991. Against this background one might understand the Day of German Unity in a similar way than 4th of July—as a day of independence.

Written by: Alexa Lässig