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.
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.
The abandonment of the Wall came after a spokesman for the East German Politburo, in a moment of confusion, announced at a late-night news conference that the communist government would lift restrictions on travel to West Germany.
Elke Schantz, 64, told of how she and her husband, Manfred, 66, had watched the news conference on television that night from their home in Kleinmachnow, a suburb of East Berlin.
"We heard it, but we didn't understand or believe it," she said. "We slept through the whole first night and didn't even realize what had happened until later the next day."
Twenty years later, the retired couple did not want to miss the festivities, so they braved the cold rain to join a crowd next to the Reichstag, the seat of the German Parliament.
The evening ceremony was capped by the toppling of a mile-long row of giant foam dominoes positioned along the Wall's former footprint, from Potsdamer Platz to the Reichstag. The dominoes were decorated by artists and schoolchildren with graffiti-like motifs, recalling the years when West Berliners plastered their side of the despised barrier with political slogans and irreverent messages.
The East German government began building the Wall, without warning, on Aug. 13, 1961, in an attempt to end the heavy migration of citizens to West Berlin, an island of freedom behind the Iron Curtain.
The Wall eventually encircled West Berlin, stretching for almost 100 miles. At least 136 people died trying to cross during its 28-year existence. Today, thanks to the determination of Berliners to tear down the Wall, only a few segments remain standing.
For some Germans, the euphoria of the Wall's collapse eventually led to disappointment. Helmut Kohl, then the chancellor of West Germany, had pledged to transform economically scarred East German towns and villages into "blossoming landscapes" by unifying the two countries. German taxpayers have spent more than $1.5 trillion to develop the east since then, but living standards remain unequal.
Given their painful shared past, with much of the 20th century marked by war, genocide, fascism and communism, Germans have a hard time celebrating historical events. In her speech, Merkel noted that on that same date, in 1938, the Nazi government ordered the devastating pogrom against Jews that became known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.
Still, in the days leading up to Monday's ceremonies, German leaders offered reassurances that it was all right to celebrate the end of the Berlin Wall, without reservation.
"We don't have many reasons in our history to be proud," Kohl said at a memorial event on Oct. 31 with Gorbachev and former president George H.W. Bush. "I have nothing better, nothing to be more proud of, than German reunification."