Beneath an autumn sky not so much grey as bleached of colour, in temperatures close to freezing, thousands of people, from the elderly and the ill to babies in strollers, gathered on Sunday at the Brandenburg Gate — the structure that stands at the border of what used to be east and west Berlin.
This site, resonant with history and memory, will host from 7 p.m. on Monday (11.30 p.m. IST) the piece de resistance of the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Wall — an event that on November 9, 1989, changed forever not just Germany, but Europe and the world.
A million people are expected for Monday’s event, and on the afternoon before, there’s barely standing space around the Gate. Berlin is treating the celebrations — the Festival of Freedom — as its own mega carnival. And everyone is invited.
“I grew up in the west and my wife in the east,” said Christian Stolte (38), a government employee who came with wife Dana (36) and their children. “'I want to try and explain to the kids what it was like before. They should know.”
Children and youth are being pushed to the forefront of this event which is as much a commemmoration as a celebration.
In a country where the average age is 43 and birth rate the second-lowest in Europe, it is being seen to be imperative to let the youth understand how the past shaped their present, and how it is likely to mould their future.
All along a 2-km stretch from the seat of Germany’s government to the Gate stand styrofoam dominoes, erected and painted by schoolchildren from all over the country. Written over with slogans like 'I was there with a hammer', these dominoes will be toppled on Monday in a symbolic re-enactment of the fall of the Wall.
That will be part of a public ceremony which Chancellor Angela Merkel will preside over, and which world leaders like British PM Gordon Brown, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will attend.
The tourists are flowing in. Spearheading a tourism promotion titled ‘Berlin — The place to be’, the city’s governing mayor, Klaus Wowereit, said: “After the fall of the Wall, the east and west grew closer, they also began to grow together. During this oftentimes painful process, something new was born. Today, Berlin once again stands at the centre of this process of development.”
Merkel, who in an official video podcast on Saturday called Novemeber 9, 1989 “the happiest day in recent German history”, said she was delighted to be celebrating the 20th anniversary.
It is a proud moment for the city. “Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner),” John F. Kennedy had said in a 1963 speech, underlining US support for West Germany. Now, that quote painted over a domino acquires a different meaning. It becomes the perfect advertisement for what the Berliner feels a day ahead of the 20th anniversary of a world-historical event.