Twenty years after the Berlin Wall tumbled in a peaceful revolution, world leaders will on Monday meet in a transformed Germany to mark the key anniversary.
The celebrations will culminate in a gathering of luminaries past and present with an estimated 100,000 revellers at the Brandenburg Gate, a potent symbol of unity that was long on the faultline between East and West.
United Germany is basking in the global spotlight on this 20th anniversary, with events large and small recalling the heady night when East Germany’s communist authorities stunned the world by suddenly opening the border.
After 28 years as prisoners of their own country, euphoric East Germans streamed to checkpoints and rushed past bewildered border guards, many falling tearfully into the arms of West Germans welcoming them on the other side.
The fall of the Wall sent shockwaves around the world that night, abruptly ending the Cold War and paving the way for the unification of Germany, which had been divided since the end of World War II.
“The destruction of the Iron Curtain on November 9, 1989 is still the most remarkable political event of most people’s lifetimes: it set free millions of individuals and it brought to an end a global conflict that threatened nuclear annihilation,” British weekly The Economist said this week.
In the run-up to the festivities, Angela Merkel on Tuesday became the first German chancellor to address a joint session of the US Congress.
With a speech steeped in Wall imagery, she thanked Washington for its firm support of German unification and called for bolstered transatlantic cooperation on crucial issues such as climate change.
“I’m convinced, just as we found the strength in the 20th century to bring about the fall of a wall made of concrete and barbed wire, we shall now show that necessary strength to overcome the walls of the 21st century,” said Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany.
The leaders of Britain, France, Russia are due in Berlin, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will represent the United States while President Barack Obama tours Asia.
They will be joined by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, ex-Polish president Lech Walesa and German civil rights activists who will meet at Bornholmer Strasse, one of the places where the Wall was first breached.
Gala concert at Brandenburg Gate
Israeli-Argentinian conductor Daniel Barenboim will then lead the State Opera orchestra and choir in a concert at the Gate before Gorbachev topples the first of thousands of giant styrofoam dominoes along two kilometres of the Wall’s former course.
US rockers Bon Jovi and German DJ Paul van Dyk will entertain the crowd into the night.
Bilateral meetings are planned on the sidelines of the ceremonies on urgent issues including Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Afghanistan and the choice of the first permanent European Union president.
Germany, the globe’s number four economic power, has grown in confidence and influence on the world stage in the last two decades, and Berlin has come into its own as one of Europe’s most cutting-edge capitals.
But the country still bears the scars of its division, with unemployment in the east still about twice as high as that in the west and lingering mistrust between “arrogant” Westerners and “ungrateful” Easterners.
Lingering East-West differences
Meanwhile, former communists who built the Wall have joined forces with disaffected Social Democrats to create a new political party, Die Linke, which captured more than 10 per cent of the vote in September’s general election.
Political scientist Jochen Staadt, who researches communist East Germany at Berlin’s Free University, said there were strong lingering differences between Germans from east and west.
“Polls show that when asked which is more important to them, equality or freedom, westerners overwhelmingly say freedom while the easterners say equality, by which they mean economic equality,” he said.
Staadt said Germany had done a better job than many of their fellow eastern bloc nations in facing up to the legacy of their repressive states.
“The federal republic was certainly faster and more thorough in coming to terms with the secret police’s crimes than Poland and even West Germany after World War II,” he said.