Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2009/30 posted by hidden europe on

It is a holiday here in Berlin today - and indeed throughout Germany. It is the Day of German Unity, a public holiday on 3 October each year that recalls the unification of the two German States in October 1990. It is unsurprisingly a day that promotes reflection on both sides of the erstwhile border, with many Germans from the west of the country quite unable to understand why some of their eastern neighbours look back with obvious affection on aspects of life in the east.

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Greetings Comrades

It is a holiday here in Berlin today - and indeed throughout Germany. It is the Day of German Unity, a public holiday on 3 October each year that recalls the unification of the two German States in October 1990. It is unsurprisingly a day that promotes reflection on both sides of the erstwhile border, with many Germans from the west of the country quite unable to understand why some of their eastern neighbours look back with obvious affection on aspects of life in the east.

Our friend Brigitte lives in a small town just outside Berlin. She explains succinctly: "The German Democratic Republic was not all bad. And we, the East German people, were very resourceful in the way we coped with the everyday difficulties that life and the government threw at us. Then in 1989 we developed our own quiet revolution, gently pushing the case for change."

The last weeks of 1989 and the first weeks of 1990 were uneasy ones in East Germany. Hope and uncertainty went hand in hand. Brigitte is quick to point out that East Germany twenty years ago was a melting-pot of artistic innovation, environmental activism and political experimentation. It was twenty years ago this week that the East-SPD was founded in a small village just outside Berlin. The party had links with its namesake, West Germany's Social Democratic Party.

Within days of the fall of the Berlin Wall, conservative politicians in Bonn were talking about 'taking over' East Germany. The SPD, both in East Germany and West Germany, opposed Helmut Kohl's plan for German unification. "We had our autumn of discontent here in the East." says Brigitte. "It was a time when everything seemed possible. There were peace gatherings and protests, fevered discussions about a new political order. And then, all too quickly, it faded to nothing. Our country was annexed by West Germany. True, East Germans voted for that too. But East Germany disappeared so quickly that we did not even have time to mourn its passing."

Recalling the subbotnik

A public holiday really still means a day off for most people in Germany. So today, as folk mark the moment when the two German States merged, the shops are closed and the streets are quiet. As on every Sunday and public holiday, trucks are banned from the roads.

One of the eastern traditions that disappeared with German unification was the subbotnik. The name derives from the Russian word subbota meaning Saturday, and is not to be confused with a Russian religious sect called the subbotniki. The subbotnik is a social tradition with an illustrious history in central and eastern Europe. Workers would occasionally come together on a Saturday and give their labour for free to a special project.

Lenin famously took part in an early subbotnik in 1920 - the task then was to clear up the grounds of the Kremlin. Even today, Russians armed with rakes will descend on a local park on a Saturday, giving the place a spring clean to the benefit of all in the local community. Belarus has often had a nationwide subbotnik in April each year, an annual opportunity to tidy up public spaces.

Voluntary unpaid collective work was no doubt good for the socialist soul. But it also kept parks and public spaces clean. We often wander the decaying streets of small towns in eastern Germany today. Many of these are dismal communities, places that lost out in German unification, as the younger population moved away in search of jobs. These small towns desperately need love, care and attention. A subbotnik might be a good way to start.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.