BERLIN (Reuters) - World leaders past and present will join German crowds on Monday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — a stark symbol of the Cold War that divided a city and a continent.
Recollections of November 9, 1989 dominated German newspaper headlines at the weekend, and television stations ran program after program of documentary footage, eyewitness accounts and discussion panels about the event that changed the face of Europe.
“There has scarcely been an historical watershed so radical and so immediately visible as November 9, 1989,” the Koelnische Rundschau daily wrote in an editorial.
“Anyone standing shortly before eight at the Brandenburg Gate would have thought it an absurd dream that there would be a crowd of people on top of the Wall four hours later.”
Pivotal figures from the era that ushered in the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, such as ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa, who led anti-communist protests in Poland at the head of the Solidarity trade union, will take part in commemorative events around the once-divided capital on Monday.
Joining them will be the leaders of the nations which occupied postwar Germany, apart from the United States, which will be represented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are all due to attend the celebrations hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, amid a series of bilateral meetings.
Thousands of tourists have poured into the capital to mark the event which hastened the reunification of Germany, the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Soviet Union.
Merkel, who was working as a scientific researcher in East Berlin at the time, said this weekend the fall of the Wall was “the happiest day in recent Germany history.”
Celebrations are planned all over the city, including the toppling of 1,000 giant brightly colored dominoes along a 1.5 km (0.9 mile) stretch of the Wall’s original path.
Shaken by mass flight of its citizens into capitalist West Berlin, Communist East Germany began erecting its “anti-fascist protection barrier” in the early hours of August 13, 1961.
According to a study published this year, at least 136 people were killed at the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989 while trying to escape.
Thousands, however, managed to evade the minefields, dogs and guards in watchtowers, using ingenious schemes including tunnels, aerial wires and hidden compartments in cars in order to make it to the West.
With some Germans, the 1990 reunification of the country remains a sore point. Several hundred leftist demonstrators on Saturday protested against the planned celebrations in Berlin.
A new poll of over 1,000 Germans carried out for the Leipziger Volkszeitung daily showed one in eight wanted the Wall rebuilt — with the numbers nearly equal in East and West.
Survivors from the Cold War have been reflecting on the day when East Germany opened its border to the west after thousands of its citizens began slipping out from behind the Iron Curtain via Hungary’s frontier with Austria in the summer of 1989.
Helmut Schmidt, the 90-year-old former Chancellor who led West Germany from 1974 to 1982, told public broadcaster NDR he was “deeply moved” when the Wall fell.
“I always knew we’d have the chance in Europe some day to reunite the two postwar German states, but I didn’t think I’d live to see it,” he said. “It almost overwhelmed me.”
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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