World leaders past and present will join German crowds today (9 November) to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – a stark symbol of the Cold War that divided a city and a continent.
Recollections of November 9, 1989 dominated German newspaper headlines at the weekend, and television stations ran program after program of documentary footage, eyewitness accounts and discussion panels about the event that changed the face of Europe.
"There has scarcely been an historical watershed so radical and so immediately visible as November 9, 1989," the Koelnische Rundschau daily wrote in an editorial.
"Anyone standing shortly before eight at the Brandenburg Gate would have thought it an absurd dream that there would be a crowd of people on top of the Wall four hours later."
Pivotal figures from the era that ushered in the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, such as ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa, who led anti-communist protests in Poland at the head of the Solidarity trade union, will take part in commemorative events around the once-divided capital on Monday.
Joining them will be the leaders of the nations which occupied postwar Germany, apart from the United States, which will be represented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are all due to attend the celebrations hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, amid a series of bilateral meetings.
Thousands of tourists have poured into the capital to mark the event which hastened the reunification of Germany, the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Soviet Union.
Merkel, who was working as a scientific researcher in East Berlin at the time, said this weekend the fall of the Wall was "the happiest day in recent Germany history."
Celebrations are planned all over the city, including the toppling of 1,000 giant brightly colored dominoes along a 1.5 km (0.9 mile) stretch of the Wall's original path.
Shaken by mass flight of its citizens into capitalist West Berlin, Communist East Germany began erecting its "anti-fascist protection barrier" in the early hours of August 13, 1961.
According to a study published this year, at least 136 people were killed at the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989 while trying to escape.
Thousands, however, managed to evade the minefields, dogs and guards in watchtowers, using ingenious schemes including tunnels, aerial wires and hidden compartments in cars in order to make it to the West.
With some Germans, the 1990 reunification of the country remains a sore point. Several hundred leftist demonstrators on Saturday protested against the planned celebrations in Berlin.
A new poll of over 1,000 Germans carried out for the Leipziger Volkszeitung daily showed one in eight wanted the Wall rebuilt -- with the numbers nearly equal in East and West.
Survivors from the Cold War have been reflecting on the day when East Germany opened its border to the west after thousands of its citizens began slipping out from behind the Iron Curtain via Hungary's frontier with Austria in the summer of 1989.
Helmut Schmidt, the 90-year-old former Chancellor who led West Germany from 1974 to 1982, told public broadcaster NDR he was "deeply moved" when the Wall fell.
"I always knew we'd have the chance in Europe some day to reunite the two postwar German states, but I didn't think I'd live to see it," he said. "It almost overwhelmed me."
(EurActiv with Reuters)
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and reunification the following year transformed Germany’s relations with Russia, bringing “a feeling of trust and gratitude,” Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said.
“It’s one of the foundation stones in our relations,” Putin said in an interview with Russia’s NTV television channel “There is an understanding that we need each other,” Putin said.
At the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in the Belgrade Sava Center, Serbian President Boris Tadic said that on October 5 2000, Serbia brought down its own ''Berlin walls'' raised by a destructive policy of undemocratic regime during the 1990s, the website Emportal wrote He added that the unification of Europe will be complete only when all West Balkan countries become EU members.
He reiterated that the EU membership is Serbia's central strategic objective, and that the modern, united Germany has a special role in achieving this goal. Unlike the Germans, who 20 years ago chose to reinstate sovereign democratic rights, the peoples of former Yugoslavia headed in the opposite historical direction: from unification to divisions, from the rule of law to lawlessness, from peace to war, establishing a decade-long isolation, said the Serbian president.
Tadic assessed that today, the peoples of the West Balkans are again on the road of unification under the European roof and this is why the demolition of the Berlin Wall will have the full meaning only when all countries in the region become members of the EU.
Lothar Bisky, President of the GUE/NGL in the European Parliament said: "The opening of the Wall on 9/11/1989 brought significant opportunities for the peaceful development of Europe and for the end of the cold war. Many of these opportunities were taken (freedom of movement, freedom of the press, democracy, the Eastern enlargement of the EU and many others), but some were not. Thus military conflicts in the Balkans and in the Caucasus emerged. In the last two decades the peoples in Europe have developed their relations and mutual understanding. European integration has made considerable progress."
"The opening of the Wall also brought about the opportunity for the Left to deal consistently with the past and to draw conclusions from the deformations of state socialism," he added. "The idea of democratic socialism, suppressed by force in Prague in 1968, was taken up again and was developed further. There is no socialism without democracy and liberty."
"Like Chancellor Angela Merkel, I believe that the 9th of November is the happiest day in the recent history of Germany," said Joseph Daul, chairman of the EPP group in the European Parliament. "And may I add that it is also the happiest day for Europe as a whole because with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of the whole continent was realised," he continued.
"The fall of the wall indicates the end of a Communist dictatorship which oppressed millions of men and women in central and eastern Europe for decades. It is also the symbol of newly-found freedom and it is a major political milestone in the history of Europe ", added the Chairman of the Centre-Right Parliamentary Group.
European Commission President Barroso said: "The fall of the Berlin Wall represents not only the collapse of totalitarism in Central and Eastern Europe, but is also an impressive symbol of the reunification of Germany and the whole of Europe. The 9 November 1989 was a moment in which everything seemed possible, marked by happiness, a desire of freedom and the idea of a peaceful revolution. A truly historic day that reminded me in many regards of the Portuguese revolution of 1974 that I experienced as an 18-year old student."
"1989 was a year that transformed Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of the most striking symbolic images of our times", said Margot Wallström, Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of Inter-institutional Relations and Communication Strategy.
"The European Union emerged fifty years ago on the basis of a historic reconciliation built by Adenauer and De Gaulle between France and Germany," said Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament. "The reconciliation of those two countries was in essence the reconciliation of all democratic Europe of that time. Without this understanding, the great project of integrating Western democracies would not have been possible. Its pinnacle was Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand's hand shake in Verdun, a place symbolic for both nations," he added.
"It was then, in 1989 that we began a very important process: the building of a new European identity. This time for the benefit of us all, and not against any one, linking East and West. It was then that the founding myth of a new Europe was born! The Treaty of Lisbon which has now been ratified by all member states is another step on this road," he continued.