Stopping well short of triumphalism and choosing to introspect instead on how to build on the lessons of the past, Berlin led the world in celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. The two-and-a-half-hour spectacle was suffused as much with a sense of history as with hope for the future.
It was an historic commemoration of an event from 1989, one that led to the end of the Cold War and wiped out communism from Europe. If only it hadn’t rained on this remarkable parade.
The rain was unremitting and the temperature close to freezing point, but the world was in attendance — be it leaders from Europe, the US and Russia or the hundreds of thousands who packed the square in front of the towering, wreathed-in-light Brandenburg Gate, once the most potent symbol of German division, and now the best-known monument to its 20-year-old unification.
“Together we brought down the Iron Curtain and I am convinced that this can give us strength for the 21st century,” said German chancellor Angela Merkel, who, having grown up in Communist East Germany, crossed the Wall into the west on the night of November 9, 1989. “Our good fortune obliges us to take on the challenges of our time.”
All the leaders praised the spirit of the people of Germany, and nearly all of them added a cautionary sub-tale about what still needs to be done — and could be done if everyone works together.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called people to “fight against the walls that still exist in our world and which still divide cities, regions and nations”.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — who ended her speech with a videotaped message from US president Barrack Obama — echoed Sarkozy when she said: “A wall, a physical wall, may have come down but there are other walls that exist that we
have to overcome and we will be working together to accomplish that.”
Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown drew huge cheers with a rousing, moving speech. “The wall that had imprisoned half a city, half a country, half a world for nearly a third of a century was swept away by the greatest force of all: the unbreakable spirit of men and women who dared to dream in the darkness, who knew that while force has the temporary power to dictate, it can never decide.”
The man the crowds most adored was former Soviet president Mikhail Glasnost Gorbachev, one of the fathers of the new order that emerged from the rubble of the Wall, and the man of whom Merkel said: “You made it possible.”
Styrofoam dominoes, erected and decorated by students, tumbled one by one as the young as much as the old and erupted into spontaneous, fist-pumping, sport-stadium-like cheering.
The falling of the dominoes, set up along a 1.5 km stretch of the former Wall, from the seat of German government to the gate, was a symbolic reenactment of the fall of the concrete wall that ran for 150 km and divided Berlin between 1961 and 1989.
Lech Walesa, former head of the Polish Solidarity movement, toppled the first domino, his face leathery beneath a black cap.
The pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim — who was in Berlin the day the Wall collapsed — was the first star turn of the evening, as he led the Staatskapella Berlin orchestra in performing pieces from Wagner, Schoenberg and Beethoven.
Rock star Jon Bon Jovi and his band provided a touch of much-applauded pop opera when he performed his current single, We weren’t born to follow.
Paul van Dyk, an electronic dance music DJ who escaped from the former east shortly before the Wall came down, played a hymn titled We Are One.
The strains of the song segued into a display of firworks that lanced across the sky in streaks of silver and orange. The tens of thousands in front of the gate swayed to the music and sang along, a heaving blanket of umbrellas tipped up to see better the fireworks.
The official event ended at 9.40pm local time (2.10am Tuesday IST), but that was merely the end of the beginning of the celebrations on Berlin’s streets.