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

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.

Maik Henning, a carpenter who grew up in East Berlin and now lives near the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, was incensed by a press conference that had been held the previous week in Berlin that had George H.W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, Germany’s former chancellor, together on stage to reminisce about the anniversary.

“For 20 years, we’ve been hearing about Kohl! But, what does he have to do with 1989?” Henning asked indignantly. “1989 was a revolution that happened in the East. But, the only easterner the media knows is Angela Merkel. And she also had nothing to do with the revolution!”

Whereas Merkel was an apolitical physicist in East Berlin who later rose quickly through the ranks of West Germany’s Christian Democrat party, the actual revolutionaries of East Germany — the founders of groups like New Forum and Democracy Now, and the clergy at churches like Leipzig’s Nikolai Church and Berlin’s Zion Church — have largely been forgotten in today’s Germany. The activists, organizers and progressive churchgoers who organized the protests that brought tens of thousands onto the streets and, ultimately, forced the communist government to flinch, succeeded in producing the most successful democratic movement in German history. But their names have not entered the common history books with equal prominence to notable West Germans.

Partly, that’s because the movement quickly started pursuing goals that the original organizers hadn’t had in mind. Where New Forum and Democracy Now had envisioned an independent East German state that would slowly move toward unification with the West, as soon as East Germans were given a chance to vote, they elected for the fastest possible union with the West. The leading activists were pushed to the background in favor of professional politicians sponsored by the West who promised quick economic fixes.

For their part, western Germans have always had a tenuous relationship to the events of 1989. The events leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall were things that they observed, but weren’t able to participate in. “Of course, I am happy and I was happy,” said Jens Reich, a political consultant who was raised in western Germany. “But, it is a more abstract feeling. I had never been to East Germany, and I didn’t have family there.”

On the whole, the popular consciousness of today’s Germany is focused less on the successes of 1989 and more on the dislocations of 1990. That was the year of the expedited unification that allowed East Germany to be subsumed by the West; the decisions made by western German politicians and businesses many believe led to the collapse of the eastern German economy; the first discussions of how to prosecute former communists and keep them out of public life, and whether East Germans, on the whole, were really ready for democracy and diversity. Though the wounds from 1990 have been healing slowly over time, they still distract from the more fond memories of 1989.

If Merkel had been less focused on indulging her foreign visitors' feelings of triumph, she might have considered forgoing Monday’s visits to the out-of-the-way Bornholmer Strasse and the obligatory Brandenburg Gate monument, and bringing the visitors instead to Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, the center of the former East Berlin. That’s where an impressive multi-media outdoor exhibition has been examining in detail the events of 1989 in the former East Germany. This past weekend, dozens of Germans were braving the cold to learn more about the revolution that the whole world is so interested in.

“These were very brave people,” said Ute Gehlker, a tourist from Munich, after having read about one of the mass protests in Berlin in 1989 at the exhibition. “It’s a scandal that we don’t know more about them.”

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the name of the Russian president.