We are gearing up to celebrate German Unity Day on October 3. This national holiday celebrates the anniversary of German reunification in 1990 – the day that East Germany and West Germany came together as one country. German Unity Day is to Germans what Fourth of July is to Americans – except for the fact that it is a much more recent holiday.
Germany’s national holiday has changed several times in history. Before 1871, Germany consisted of various kingdoms and principalities. Once these regions united into an empire, there was still no national holiday – but there was a celebration of the victory in the Franco-Prussion War, the so-called Sedantag. The date was changed and debated on several times, but eventually the Sedantag celebration was moved to January 18.
From 1947 through the end of 1948 my family lived in Berlin, where my father was assigned to the U.S. Office of Military Government. I was only two years old at that time, so I have no personal recollection of our life in Berlin or of the Airlift in particular. In later years, however, I have read a number of books on the subject of the Berlin Airlift; it is based on my reading that I offer my response to the Deutschland-Nachrichten editorial regarding the Berlin Airlift.
I think it is important, when considering the impressive amounts of food and fuel delivered during the Berlin Airlift, to remember that the Allies did not do this alone. The Allies were in one instance influenced by, and in other instances assisted by, German people.
Let me start with the German children who inspired pilot Gail Halvorsen. As has been recounted, Halvorsen had spent some off-duty time at Tempelhof Airport on July 17, 1948. While recording movies with his hand-held camera, he began to interact with German children who were there to watch the airplanes land. In later years Halvorsen wrote that he saw in the eyes of these children knowledge they should not have had at their young ages – knowledge of the difficulties and cruelties brought on by war. Halvorsen impulsively took out two sticks of chewing gum that he had in his pocket. He handed them to two nearby children and watched as the children carefully divided the gum into as many pieces as possible so that other children could share this unexpected treat. There was no disagreement or fighting among the children. It was this behavior and attitude shown by the children that prompted Halvorsen to tell them that he would return during his next flight and drop candy and gum for them. Halvorsen’s drops to the children eventually came to the attention of General Tunner, who gave his approval and named these candy drops by Halvorsen and other pilots “Operation Little Vittels”.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949, which is widely considered a turning point in the German-American relationship.
After the end of the Second World War, Germany was divided into the American, British, French and Soviet occupation zones. Although Berlin lay within the Soviet occupation zone, the city itself was also divided into four sectors. In 1948, the Allied nations created a single new currency – the Deutsche Mark – for their occupation zones. The Soviets were displeased with this move, fearing that this new currency would devalue the Reichsmark they were using in the East. As a result, they began a blockade of West Berlin, hoping to starve the western powers out of the city. Without the intervention of the Allies, there would have been a humanitarian disaster and many people would have starved to death.
“Ostalgie” is a special kind of nostalgia. In the US, some people collect old soda and gas station signs or old cars. All over the world there are also people who collect old relics from the former East Germany. Trabis, GDR signs, East German food, TV shows – all are examples of Ostalgie.
The “Trabi” may not be the fastest car, or the prettiest car, or even a good car for that matter, but for anyone who has a touch of “Ostalgie,” it is the perfect cure. People in East German would literally register their children at birth for Trabants, in the hopes that by the time he or she turned 18, a car would be available. Trabi enthusiasts can still be found all around the world. In the US, there is an annual Trabi Parade in DC to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Rotkäppchen is one of the few East German brands that survived reunification, and is still widely enjoyed in both the East and West.
The film company DEFA produced a huge chunk of East German television programming. Its fairy tale series was particularly beloved by children. Most of the full length films are still available on YouTube.
4. Berlin Wall pieces
While not strictly a piece of “Ostalgie” the Berlin Wall is nevertheless one of the most symbolic parts of East Germany. Today, pieces of the Berlin wall are attached to key chains, magnets, or used as paper weights. For some, the wall is still a symbol of forty years under a surveillance state. Others, though, see it as a symbol of hard-fought freedom.
5.Pittiplatsch and Friends
Pittiplatsch the kobold and his companions were a staple in East German children’s television. Pittiplatsch dolls are still around to buy, and the older episodes are available online.
The annual Steuben Parade is getting ready to kick off! On September 15, we will be participating in the parade along New York City’s Fifth Avenue. And it’s one we definitely can’t miss: the Steuben Parade is one of the largest gatherings of German- Americans in the world!
Thousands of participants and spectators attend the annual parade, and we can’t wait to be among them! Let’s take a look at who this large event is named after:
Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730-1794) has long been a symbol of German-American friendship. The Prussian-born military officer fought in two major wars, but is best known for his contributions on American soil. His experience gained during the Seven Years’ War equipped him with a wealth of military knowledge that helped the young man rise in the ranks. When he was in his thirties, he found himself in debt, and hoped to find employment in a foreign army to gather funds. In 1777, the young baron was introduced to General George Washington by means of a letter. Soon thereafter, he was on his way to the United States, where he offered to volunteer his services without pay. Arrangements were made so that Steuben would be paid for his services after the war, based on his contributions.
And he did not fail to impress: Von Steuben became inspector general and major general of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and he is often credited as being one of the founders of the Continental Army. In the final years of the war, the Prussian-born military officer even served as General Washington’s chief of staff. Finally, in 1784, he became an American citizen.
Today, there are celebrations throughout the US that are named after Von Steuben, including the German-American Steuben Parades in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. There is also a Steuben Society, an educational and fraternal organization that was founded in 1919 to help organize the German-American community. We even have a statue of Von Steuben at the German Embassy in Washington!
As we celebrate German-American friendship, culture and heritage, Von Steuben is a name that we will always remember.