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Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article, including in the print edition of Tuesday's Washington Post, incorrectly stated the year in which President Ronald Reagan gave a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, urging Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." Reagan spoke on June 12, 1987.

In Germany, an ode to joy

This November marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Washington Post Editor Marc Fisher, who served as The Post's Berlin correspondent in 1989, remembers the jubilation on the streets and reflects on the lasting legacy of the fall of the wall.

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

BERLIN -- For once, Germans celebrated a moment from their tumultuous past without a pang of guilt.

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World leaders, aging Cold War luminaries and tens of thousands of spectators packed the center of Berlin on Monday to commemorate a singularly joyful chapter in Germany's national history, the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

On a rainy night, spotlights bathed the Brandenburg Gate in a spectrum of color to mark the anniversary of the night -- Nov. 9, 1989 -- when Berliners spontaneously reunited their divided city and sealed the end of the Cold War.

"Almost everyone can remember what he or she did on that evening," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A young East German physicist at the time, Merkel had just finished her regular Thursday night trip to the sauna when a crowd swept her past a border crossing into West Berlin. "For me, it was one of the happiest moments of my life," she said.

In a symbolic procession, Merkel led a delegation of leaders from the United States, Britain, France and Russia -- the powers that divided and controlled Berlin after World War II -- through the restored Brandenburg Gate, from east to west. Joining her were French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Together, they stood a few feet from the spot where President Ronald Reagan, in 1987, urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in a confrontational speech to "tear down this wall." It was a demand that many Germans dismissed immediately afterward as needlessly provocative and naive.

On Monday, Gorbachev revisited Berlin and received a hero's welcome. Merkel and other German leaders credited him with making the decision not to respond with force to the pro-democracy movement in East Germany and in other members of the Warsaw Pact.

"Gorby! Gorby! Gorby!" onlookers chanted as Gorbachev, Merkel and Lech Walesa, the founder of Poland's freedom-seeking Solidarity movement, shuffled across the Bornholmer Street bridge Monday afternoon. It was the first checkpoint along the Wall whose gates were thrown open 20 years earlier.

"You made this possible," Merkel told the former Soviet leader. "You courageously let things happen, and that was much more than we could expect."

Throughout the day, Berliners who had lived on either side of the hated Wall recalled with amazement how East German police kept their pistols holstered and Soviet troops stayed in their barracks as thousands of residents suddenly poured across the border that night.

"Those in government thought they were opening a valve, but once it was open, much more happened," said Joachim Gauck, a Lutheran pastor and former East German dissident leader.

Gauck recited the words repeatedly chanted by East German demonstrators -- "Wir sind das Volk," or "We are the people" -- in the tumultuous days and weeks that preceded the collapse of the Wall. "The theme of 'We are the people' matters not just for Germany, but rather for all those who seek freedom and democracy," he said.


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