Germany to mark 60th birthday in style

22nd May 2009, Comments 0 comments

For decades deep psychological scars from the war kept such patriotic displays at bay, summed up by West Germany's then-president Gustav Heinemann famously declaring in 1969 that he loved his wife, not his country.

Berlin -- A new brand of German patriotism will be on show on Saturday in celebrations marking 60 years of democracy, culminating in the election of its president, a largely ceremonial post.

"We Germans all have a reason to be happy about the German Federal Republic turning 60 and to celebrate together its birthday on May 23," Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a podcast last week.

Specifically, the events celebrate the 1949 creation of a democratic nation that still bore the shame of the Nazis' horrors and was struggling to rebuild after total defeat and destruction in World War II.

The constitution that was drawn up for this country -- West Germany -- has been used a model for other young democracies, primarily in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Other events to mark this milestone are planned across Germany this year, which also sees the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall before the unification of West and East Germany in 1990, and is an election year.

Saturday's "Buergerfest" ("citizens' party"), centred around the historic Brandenburg Gate in central Berlin, is a day full of festivities celebrating everything German.

Being patriotic is something of a new phenomenon here, however.

For decades deep psychological scars from the war kept such feelings at bay, summed up by West Germany's then-president Gustav Heinemann famously declaring in 1969 that he loved his wife, not his country.

But in recent years, Germans have become more comfortable with national pride, as made clear when football fans painted their faces in the national colours of red, black and gold when Germany hosted the World Cup in 2006.

A study published by the Identity Foundation in Duesseldorf in April found 60 percent of those polled "proud to be German" and 73 percent wanting their compatriots to be more confident about where they come from.

With Germany facing one of the deepest recessions of advanced economies, Merkel will be hoping some of the feel-good mood will translate into more optimism about where Europe's biggest economy is headed.

Another poll, out this week, had 55.2 percent seeing Germany's cherished social market economy as being under threat because of the global financial crisis, with those older than the republic even more pessimistic.

This model of an open economy combined with a strong social welfare system is credited with ensuring that the last 60 years have been marked not only by a relatively broad-based increase in prosperity but also of social harmony.

The recession, with the accompanying rise in unemployment and huge increase in national debt, is also expected to figure highly in campaigning for general elections on September 27.

Convincing voters that she and her conservative bloc can get Germany on the road to recovery is a tall order -- as it is for the other parties -- and the election of a new president is a banana skin that Merkel could slip on.

Horst Koehler, a dependable former head of the International Monetary Fund, has Merkel's backing for a second term despite ruffling feathers with occasional broadsides against the political class.

The 66-year-old is favourite to win but there is ample room for an upset that would reflect badly on Merkel.

There are three other candidates, with the most dangerous to Koehler the centre-left Social Democrat (SPD) academic Gesine Schwan.

Opinion polls show strong popular support for Koehler but the new head of state is elected on Saturday by 1,224 MPs and public figures, and by secret ballot.

"Koehler has a small advantage but it is not yet sewn up," political scientist Juergen Falter at the Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz told AFP.

"It would be an enormous signal if Gesine Schwan were to win. It would boost the SPD and the end-goal here is the general election."


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