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Berlin marks 25 years since the fall of the Wall

Tobias Schwarz, AFP | Shadows of people and the light installation Lichtgrenze (Light border) are seen at the former Berlin wall Bernauer street memorial in Berlin on November 8

Germany on Sunday marked 25 years since the night that the Berlin Wall came down, a watershed moment in the collapse of communism that started many former Soviet countries on the path to independence.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke Sunday at the opening of a refurbished museum at the site – home to one of the few surviving sections of the Wall.

“The fall of the Berlin Wall showed us that dreams can come true – and that nothing has to stay the way it is, no matter how high the hurdles might seem to be,” said Merkel, 60, who has led a reunited Germany since 2005.

“It showed that we have the power to shape our destiny and make things better,” she said, noting that people in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere around the world should feel emboldened by the Wall’s sudden demise.

“It was a victory of freedom over bondage and it’s a message of faith for today’s, and future, generations that can tear down the walls – the walls of dictators, of violence and ideologies,” she said.

A 15-kilometre (9-mile) row of 8,000 lighted balloons had been erected along the former divide between East and West Germany in what organisers called the "Border of Lights".

The balloons were released into the air one by one on Sunday evening to mark the moment on November 9, 1989, that a senior communist official told a televised news conference that the border would no longer be enforced – a statement that set off a chain of events that brought down one of the Cold War’s most potent symbols.

In his remarks to the televised conference, the ruling Politburo’s spokesman, Guenter Schabowski, said the border restrictions would be lifted and that East Germans would be allowed to travel to West Germany and West Berlin. Pressed on when the new policy would take effect, Schabowski seemed uncertain, but said: “To my knowledge, this is immediately, without delay.”

Soon, Western media were reporting that East Germany had opened the border and East Berliners were flooding the first crossing on their way West.

Border guards had received no orders to let anyone cross, but they soon gave up trying to hold back the crowds. By midnight, all the border crossings in the city were open.

East Germany’s then-leader, Egon Krenz, later said that the plan had been to allow free travel starting the next morning so citizens could line up properly to get exit visas. But with the leadership’s control over the border already well and truly lost, Germany was soon on the road to reunification, which happened less than a year later on October 3, 1990.

The collapse of the Wall, which had divided the city for 28 years, was “a point of no return ... from there, things headed toward a whole new world order”, said Axel Klausmeier, the director of the city’s main Berlin Wall memorial.

An open-air exhibition entitled "100 Wall Stories" will consist of 100 informational exhibits along the lighted installation and will look at the construction of the Wall in 1961, escape attempts, deaths at the Wall, everyday life in the divided city and the peaceful revolution of 1989.

Final frontier

The opening of East Germany’s heavily fortified frontier was the climax of months of fomenting rebellion across the Soviet bloc that had ushered in Poland’s first post-communist prime minister and saw Hungary cut open its own border fence. The hardline leadership in East Berlin was facing mounting pressure from protests and an exodus of citizens via other communist countries.

Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, was a physicist at the time and later entered politics as communism crumbled. In remarks last week she recalled the feeling of being irrevocably stuck behind East Germany’s border.

“Even today when I walk through the Brandenburg Gate, there’s a residual feeling that this wasn’t possible for many years of my life, and that I had to wait 35 years to have this feeling of freedom,” Merkel said. “That changed my life.”

The future chancellor was among the thousands who poured westward as the Wall was crumbling.

Since then, some €1.5 to €2 trillion ($1.9 to $2.5 trillion) has gone into rebuilding the once-dilapidated east. Much has changed beyond recognition, though some inequalities persist. Wages and pensions remain lower, and unemployment higher, in Germany's east than in the west. Many eastern areas saw their populations drop as people headed west for jobs, something that is only now showing signs of turning around.

There are cultural differences too: a higher proportion of children are in daycare in the east, a legacy of communist times, and support for the opposition Left Party – partly descended from East Germany’s communist rulers – remains strongest in the east.

But the progress toward true unity is seen in Germany’s top leadership. Not only is Merkel from the east, but so is the nation’s president, Joachim Gauck, a former Protestant pastor and pro-democracy activist.

Germans today can be grateful to have lives and opportunities, Gauck has said, “that endless numbers of people in the world can only desire and dream of”.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)

Berlin's 'Border of Lights'

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