The joy of freedom: 20 years on

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

It was the same sort of miserable November weather, grey and drizzling; the mass of humanity was large, chaotic and giddy as then; and there in the midst of it, three figures as solidly "eastern" as any of those who teemed across the Berlin Wall 20 years ago.

Lech Walesa, still every inch the Polish shop steward in his unionist's cap, Mikhail Gorbachev, still recognisably the Russian Communist he was then, and Angela Merkel, who when the Wall fell was a humble scientist in East Berlin.

Together they linked arms and walked over the grey steel Bornholmer bridge across which tens of thousands of East Germans, Ms Merkel among them, first flooded into West Berlin on the night of 9 November 1989. Carrying a small white rose and a large umbrella, the German Chancellor – whose life was changed beyond recognition by the Wall's collapse – paid tribute to her companions. "What happened in Poland was incredibly important for us all," she said. And, turning to the former Soviet leader, she said: "We always knew that something had to happen there so that more could change here. You courageously let this happen, and that was much more than we could expect."

The return to the Wall yesterday was low key, but nonetheless emotional. Ms Merkel told the crowd: "This is not just a day of celebration for Germany but for the whole of Europe."

Earlier, during a service at Berlin's Gethsemane church, she acknowledged that, despite the 20 years that have elapsed since the fall of the Wall, Germany still bears the scars of division, with the rate of unemployment in the East double that of the West. "German unity is still incomplete – we must tackle this problem if we want to achieve quality of life on an equal basis," she said.

What happened on the night of 9 November at the Bornholmer bridge crossing point was arguably the single most critical moment in the events of 1989. East German border guards faced a 20,000-strong crowd of East Berliners chanting "Open the gate!" After trying to contact his superior and getting no response, the officer in charge of the crossing point ordered the barriers to be opened. A human tide of East Berliners flooded into West Berlin, and within the hour all of Berlin's seven crossing points were thrown open, heralding the collapse of Communism.

Katrin Hattenhauer, who is now in her early 40s, joined the throng of East Germans who headed for West Berlin across the Bornholmer that night. A dissident who had been jailed in Leipzig, she had only just been released from prison and was officially banned from travelling to Berlin. "I decided to go all the same. It is my birthday on 9 November and I met up with some friends in East Berlin. Suddenly we heard the borders were open," she recalled. "The feeling was overwhelming. I went to the Bornholmer bridge and then on into West Berlin. They were dancing on the Wall. It was the best birthday present I could have had," she recalled.

Ms Hattenhauer was one of hundreds of thousands of Berliners and visitors from across Germany and overseas who joined celebrations in the capital last night. Ms Merkel described the events as "a celebration of the happiest day in post-war German history".

Last night it was still raining as all 27 EU leaders plus Hillary Clinton and President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia gathered under the Brandenburg Gate. Also attending was the former Hungarian prime minister Miklos Nemeth, whose decision to open his country's borders with the West in the summer of 1989 was a key step towards Communism's collapse.

In a special address broadcast to the crowds on video, US President Barack Obama said of the fall of the Wall: "There could be no clearer rebuke of tyranny. There could be no stronger affirmation of freedom."

Ms Merkel led a procession of leaders through the Brandenburg Gate – an abiding symbol once of Germany's division and today of its unity. "Freedom is the most precious element in our political and social system," she declared in an address. "Without freedom there is no democracy. President Sarkozy spoke of "the wall of shame", while President Medvedev said: "The Iron Curtain was annihilated. We hope the era of confrontation is past." Gordon Brown told Berlin: "The whole world is proud of you – you tore down the Wall and you changed the world. Because of your courage, two Berlins are one, two Germanys are one and now two Europes are one." Hillary Clinton said, "History broke through concrete and barbed wire and signalled a new dawn."

But it took Gorbachev to remind the crowd of the single most extraordinary thing about the event they were commemorating – the fact that it was such a stunning surprise. He and the then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl knew the Wall would fall, he told the crowd, but they were ambushed by the speed at which it happened. "We were not very good clairvoyants. Every day we talked about how the German question could be solved – and then it went and happened on 9 November."

At the climax of the celebrations, Lech Walesa gave a gentle prod to a giant painted domino made of foam at the Brandenburg Gate, and, one by one, another 999 dominoes lined up from the Gate to the Potsdamer Platz in the centre of Berlin collapsed. A huge firework display followed, and the "festival of freedom" was rounded off with a concert in front of the Brandenburg Gate conducted by Daniel Barenboim, another who witnessed the events of 1989 at first hand.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Senior SAP MM Consultant, £50,000 - £60,000, Birmingham

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP MM C...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried