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Berlin, world leaders celebrate the anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall

Thousands gathered for a lengthy, yet powerful, evening in honor of the fall of the wall.

Crowds gather at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate Nov. 9, 2009 before celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

UPDATE: Twenty years after the fall of its infamous wall, Berlin hosted a nighttime celebration that exploited the full symbolic weight of that historic event. The two-hour gala used the opening of the Berlin Wall as a starting point to consider the collapse of communism, the unification of Europe and barriers to global peace that persist to this day.

The crowd of tens of thousands that endured cold and rain was rewarded with musical performances, a theatrical re-enactment of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a fireworks show, as well as speeches from Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a recorded greeting from Barack Obama.

The politicians’ speeches followed a similar template, with each of the statesmen thanking the city of Berlin for showing courage and endurance in peacefully overcoming its division.

But, it was also clear that the representatives from the various countries were intent on placing their own accent on the common history. Clinton emphasized America’s leading role in fortifying West Berlin and providing a bulwark for freedom. Medvedev stressed that the events from 20 years ago taught the need for a “multipolar” world order, rather than one dominated by superpowers. Brown suggested that the successful end of the Cold War should serve as a precedent for current efforts to combat climate change. Wowereit made a point of remembering those East Germans who never succeeded at finding a fulfilling life in unified Germany.

Merkel reminded the audience that her country would never forget that the date of Nov. 9 was not only of a day of triumph, but also of tragedy. It was on Nov. 9, 1938, that the Nazi regime staged its “Kristallnacht” pogrom against German Jews that signaled the coming horrors of the second World War and the Shoah.

Despite the poor weather, the crowd was generally in good cheer. Only a relatively small percentage of attendees could gather directly in front of the Brandenburg Gate, where the main stage had been set up, so most of the crowd spilled in the direction of the Reichstag parliament building or Potsdamer Platz, areas that are now in the center of Germany’s bustling capital city, but 20 years earlier had been mired in disrepair up against the borders of the wall.

There was a smattering of international visitors in the audience. One group had traveled from Scotland to Berlin expressly for the anniversary. Another group from Poland loudly cheered on behalf of the Polish workers’ movement Solidarity for the duration of the two-hour celebration.

But, though the crowd was predominantly German, there was little sense that this was a national event: Only a few German flags waved in the air. A group of attendees was watching the event from the rooftop of the nearby American embassy. Others tried to get a better vantage point by climbing the concrete columns that comprise the newly constructed Holocaust memorial that is situated between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz.

The collapse of the Wall was restaged by way of several hundred meters of giant dominoes that were set up on the route between the Reichstag and Potsdamer Platz. They were pushed down on one end by Lech Walesa, the former head of Solidarity and former president of Poland, and on the other by Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union. The final few segments directly in front of the Brandenburg Gate were pushed over after Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunus encouraged the world to address global poverty.

Earlier in the day, Merkel, together with Walesa and Gorbachev, had crossed the bridge at Bornholmer Strasse, where the first breach in the Wall had been made 20 years earlier. Many Berliners in attendance were moved by that symbolic re-enactment of the first crossing from East to West Berlin. And even if some of the locals found the evening event a bit long-winded, most were held in awe by the beautiful bursts of fireworks that spread out over Berlin’s cold sky at the conclusion of the night.

Berlin Wall anniversary

BERLIN, Germany, Nov. 8 — The official proceedings of Monday’s day of remembrance for the fall of the Berlin Wall will begin when Angela Merkel, international dignitaries and heads of state in tow, comes to the bridge at Bornholmer Strasse. This quiet, far-off corner of Germany’s capital offers little indication of having once been at the crossroads of history.

Only a small plaque, marred by graffiti, and a gray stretch of the city’s eponymous wall together make quiet claim that this is where East and West Germany first met on the fateful night of Nov. 9, 1989. Tourists don't visit Bornholmer Strasse and the locals who use the bridge don’t pay the place much mind, so no one much notices that the unlit plaque is impossible to read after dusk. It may not be an idyllic or ideal backdrop, but it will have to do for Monday’s events.

Merkel no doubt found herself in a dilemma familiar to many Berliners who receive guests from other countries. Foreigners usually come to Berlin seeking reminders of the Western triumph in the Cold War. But they’re confronted by a city that is so diffident toward its own Cold War history that it removed nearly the entirety of its infamous wall as soon as it could.

The weighty symbolic resonances of the events from 20 years ago — the end of communism, the victory of freedom over tyranny — don’t quite carry over to Germany, where the fall of the wall is a reality with a mundane and difficult legacy that the country is still living with. The guests this week may be higher-profile than usual — they include Hillary Clinton, Nicolas Sarkozy, U2, Mikhail Gorbachev and Jay-Z — but the problem remains.

Indeed, many Germans feel that the pomp and circumstance of the anniversary celebration — from U2’s rock concert in front of the Brandenburg Gate last Wednesday, to the symbolically restaged fall of the wall that will conclude Monday’s events — have been for the sake of people living elsewhere.