Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Importance of some dates

Here's something I wrote a couple of days ago, before it got mangled by Blogger in the publishing process (OK, a lot of it is rewritten). However, I was just thinking how many of the comments expressed would also be valid for Remembrance Sunday.

It's amazing how important some days can become. Yesterday was the fifteenth anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall - but it was a highly significant day throughout German history. (Visit "A fistful of euros" for a link to more information).

Of course, November 9th is not the German national day. Instead, October 3rd, the day in 1990 when politicians from both sides signed the re-unification agreement. Why? Because yesterday was also the sixty-sixth anniversary of Kristallnacht, and the German government were understandably reluctant to honour a day with such dubious connotations. However, the consequence has been that the "Day of National Unity" does not really inspire any national celebration at all, as it does not hold a popular significance.

The concept of celebrating any sort of day for its "historical significance", on the other hand, is highly questionable in itself. America may have officially declared independence on July 4th, but the Congress passed the motion two days earlier, and the actions of the preceding years had led to a position where independence was as close to inevitable as anything can be in history. Tomorrow we celebrate Armistice Day; changes in the war and in the domestic situation in Germany made this a determinable outcome much earlier. And arguably the opening of the Austria-Hungary border was a far more significant event in the ultimate collapse of the Berlin Wall than the actual tearing down of the Wall itself.

Yet the physical removal of the barrier is the event that has its hold on popular memory. I see it myself; my parents made me watch the event taking place, and it is one of the memories that sticks in my head from my childhood clearer than most others. Of course the Monday demonstrations were important; of course foreign changes were important; of course the proximity of a successful capitalist culture next to a struggling economy had the effect of discrediting the totalitarian government. But at the same time, the removal of a physical barrier which set them apart (much like the high rise roads guaranteeing a safe passage from West Berlin to West Germany) was far more important. The impact of these single moments that are more the markers than the determinants of an event should not be underestimated.

Any historian hoping to understand the problems of a reunified Germany, when he comes to look back on the period sixty years hence, therefore, will have to assess the cultural impact of these seemingly comparatively inconsequential moments, and their effect on the popular mindset. For in many ways they are far more significant than their political antecedents, for the simple reason that it is these moments which shape the community identity that pushes the rest of history forwards.