German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Saturday paid tribute to the courage of protesters who led the peaceful revolution that paved the way for the reunification of East and West Germany 30 years ago.
Commemorations to mark German Unity Day are underway in the city of Potsdam, about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southwest of Berlin. Such a momentous anniversary would usually be met with fervor, but this year’s festivities have been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We look back with gratitude at the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new era,” Steinmeier said in a keynote speech at the official ceremony. “Today we live in the best Germany that has ever existed.”
The main proceedings were taking place with far less fanfare than usual in order to keep the number of attendees down while maintaining social distance measures. A morning ecumenical service at Potsdam’s Church of St. Peter and Paul was also scaled down, along with similar religious and musical events all over the country, many of which were livestreamed.
“We all wanted to celebrate the 30th anniversary of German unity a different way. With packed halls with big open-air festivities here in Potsdam, with thousands of people from all over Germany and from our European neighbor states,” Steinmeier told the audience, which included Chancellor Angela Merkel and other dignitaries.
“But even if we can’t hold big official celebrations, the significance of this day remains. German Unity Day is an important moment to think back with joy and courage.”
The president said Germany could feel pride about developing into a “reunited, free and democratic country in the middle of Europe” — adding that no pandemic could take that away.
But Steinmeier acknowledged that there had also been difficult periods in the last three decades, stressing that the unification process required a critical look as well as an open discussion about “mistakes and injustices.”
He referred to the economic and other differences that still persist between the former West and the less-prosperous former East.
“There is no question that the upheaval hit the people in the east of our country much harder than those in the west,” Steinmeier said. “And it still leaves its mark today, despite all the great progress made.”
He also warned that when people feel permanently disadvantaged, “cohesion crumbles, mistrust in politics increases, and the breeding ground for populism and extremist parties grows.” He urged Germans from all over the country to “address our grievances” and “listen to each other.”