Two decades on: Berlin celebrates reunification

Berliners celebrate reun

Merkel Gorbachev Walesa berlin 248 88 (photo credit:)
Merkel Gorbachev Walesa berlin 248 88
(photo credit: )
Even though it's been 20 years, East Berliners Kai and Dorlene still vividly recall the night the wall that divided their city fell and they were finally free to visit its western part. "We were watching TV and they made the announcement [that we could travel to the West,] but we could not believe it, we could not believe it was true," the 60-something Kai told The Jerusalem Post on Monday, hours before Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev kicked off the official celebration of the day the Berlin Wall fell. Kai, who asked that his family name not be used, said that East Berliners had been hearing rumors for a while that the wall was to come down and those living in the Communist-ruled German Democratic Republic would finally be able to reunite with friends and relatives in the western Federal German Republic and be free at last to travel wherever they pleased. "All we longed for was to be able to travel and to no longer be confined to East Berlin," said Kai. "It was less about the material benefits of the West, because we had survived without them for so long already, but it was to live and be free." Meters from the famed Alexanderplatz, the scene of many noisy demonstrations calling for reunification of Germany and access to the West in November 1989, 20-year-old Yana told the Post that she planned to join Monday's celebrations, which included an open-air concert led by Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim at the Brandenburg Gate and a symbolic toppling of thousands of two-meter-high dominos along the former route of the wall. "We are celebrating," said Jana, adding that even though she was not yet born when the wall came down, young Germans are acutely aware of the importance of a united Germany, and specifically Berlin. "We are remembering the fact that Germans in the east of our country have freedom today, too," she said. Johannes Geiger, 34, from West Berlin, said this anniversary was also important to mark the progress Germany has made as a unified nation over the last 20 years. "Despite all the problems that have occurred since the wall came down, I think most Germans would say that we have been successful in reunification," he said. Wages are lower in in eastern Germany, and unemployment ranges from around 6 percent in former West Germany to some 12% in former East Germany, where in in some places it's more than 15%. The German people's attitude today's situation "is very individual," Kai said. "In some places people are unhappy that they don't have jobs and remember [the old regime] as a time when they all had jobs and security from the state." Even with this mixed view, the jubilant mood on Monday was reflected during Merkel's words when, as part of the celebrations, she walked over the Bornholmer Bridge, one of the former crossings for the Berlin Wall. "The events of 1989 were the fulfillment of a dream," she declared. Merkel and Gorbachev crossed the former fortified border to cheers of "Gorby! Gorby!" as a throng of grateful Germans recalled the night 20 years ago that the Berlin Wall gave way. Within moments of a confused announcement on November 9, 1989, that East Germany was lifting travel restrictions, hundreds of people streamed into the enclave that was West Berlin, marking a pivotal moment in the collapse of communism in Europe. Merkel, who grew up in East Germany and was one of thousands to cross that night, recalled that "before the joy of freedom came, many people suffered." She lauded Gorbachev, with whom she shared an umbrella amid a crush of hundreds, eager for a glimpse of the man many consider a hero for his role in pushing reform in the Soviet Union. "We always knew that something had to happen there so that more could change here," she said. "You made this possible - you courageously let things happen, and that was much more than we could expect," she told Gorbachev in front of several hundred people gathered in light drizzle on the bridge over railway lines. Merkel also welcomed Poland's 1980s pro-democracy leader, Lech Walesa, to the former crossing, saying that his Solidarity movement provided "incredible encouragement" to East Germans. The leaders were joined by prominent former East Germans such as Joachim Gauck, an ex-pastor who later oversaw the archives of East Germany's secret police, the Stasi. "Those in government thought they were opening a valve, but once it was open much more happened," Gauck said of the border opening. "A collapse followed." Music from Bon Jovi and Beethoven was there on Monday to recall the joy of the border's opening, which led to German reunification less than a year later and the swift demolition of most of the wall - which snaked for 155 km. around West Berlin, a capitalist enclave deep inside East Germany. Memorials also were planned to the 136 people killed trying to cross the border. Candles were lit and 1,000 towering plastic foam dominoes were placed along the wall's route to be tipped over later in the day. Also expected in Berlin for the ceremonies were the leaders of all 27 European Union countries and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. "This is not just a day of celebration for Germans," Merkel said. "This is a day of celebration for the whole of Europe; this is a day of celebration for all those people who have more freedom." AP contributed to this report.